“You’re going to Detroit? Why? Isn’t in dangerous there?”
It’s a question I received again and again leading up to my long weekend in Detroit, Michigan, to spend time with friends from Milan, Italy (random, I know). Not only was I looking forward to catching up with them, but also to exploring an American city I had never visited for the first time.
And then, the inevitable follow-up question in the conversation would come: “Isn’t that where the movie 8 Mile was filmed?”
It seems that most Americans’ (and foreigners’) ideas of Detroit come from the movie 8 Mile, based in large part on rapper Eminem’s upbringing and struggles growing up in the rough neighborhoods around the road ‘8 Mile’ in Detroit, a de facto dividing line between black and white, and poor and rich communities still.
Given that the Detroit reference point for most people was a road counting out 8 miles from the center of town – and that there are lots of other “mile” roads counting out from the city before and after it – I expected the central point, or zero mile marker, to be obvious.
But let’s back up a little bit.
Kilometer Zeros Around the World
As most of the world is on the metric system, it is far more typical to see a ‘kilometer zero’ than a ‘zero mile’ marker, but there are plenty of both to be found all over (thanks, British Empire).
For anyone who’s visited the famous Cathedral Notre-Dame in Paris, France, you may have come across this marker perched in the cobblestones out front like I did:
It was a bit of a ritual for me to seek out the point from which all roads in France are measured, especially in such a lovely locale in Paris’s center.
Although I haven’t been to Madrid, Spain yet (I know, I know), there is also a quite prominent zero kilometer marker there as well:
While most of the ‘kilometer zero’ markers are still used and prominent today within the specific city or country where they’re located, few I expected to be as iconic and visible as the ‘zero mile’ in a city known for roads like Six Mile, Seven Mile, Eight Mile, Nine Mile, and so on.
Surely, I thought that finding the ‘zero mile’ marker of Detroit to be a quick stop on my first day in town. I was mistaken.
I don’t know how this is possible, but no one knew where it was!
Not my friend who was born and raised in Detroit.
Not my friend who moved there recently and lives right downtown.
Not the guard at the nearby courthouse in the Penobscot Building.
Not even park patrol at Campus Martius, the supposed site itself, while standing with a dozen steps of the actual spot.
I finally located the ‘Zero Mile’ in Detroit on my third try, my final day in town, only realizing then that I had actually been standing right next to it my first day exploring.
Detroit’s Zero Mile Marker
So how long had that thing been around anyway, that nobody seems to know about it?
It took quite a bit of searching on the internet across my multiple searches to even find enough information to locate the spot in the end. And was hard to find even when I knew what to look for. Although Detroit has numbered mile roads that led me to seek a ‘Zero Mile,’ the central spot where counting began is actually known primarily as the ‘Point of Origin.’
Historically, Detroit’s current road system was laid out after an 1805 fire that decimated the city despite causing no fatalities. A local judge created a wheel-and-spoke system modeled after Washington DC’s street layout, designating where the mile count would start.
A 6-foot tall square granite pillar was erected to literally mark the spot where the surveying began, although over time it became buried and hidden, only visible at ground level by the accompanying marker, the ‘Point of Origin.’ The Detroit ‘Point of Origin’ marker used to be easier to find, looking like this:
The Campus Martius park had an overhaul as part of downtown renovations and revitalization, with the park being rededicated in 2004, and according to my research was the location of Detroit’s ‘Point of Origin,’
Despite having seen a picture online of what I now know to be the old ‘Zero Mile’ marker, and knowing the narrow park area contained it, I saw nothing even approaching this photo in my strolling.
So what does it look like today?
As you can see, the marker is quite unobtrusive, with the year after the fire only vaguely visible. You’re only likely to find it if you’re specifically seeking it out!
To get there, go to Campus Martius, a prominent oval-shaped park in central Detroit. Go to the side of the fountain facing the restaurant, and there it is, in the ground, right by the entrance:
I’m not sure why Detroit hasn’t kept the old lettering that boldly announced the presence of the ‘zero mile’ marker, Detroit’s ‘Point of Origin.’ But if you’d like, you too can visit the spot where it all began!
Have you visited any ‘zero mile’ or ‘kilometer zero’ markers either in your hometown or in your travels? Or managed to find Detroit’s ‘Point of Origin’ like I did? Tell me all about it in the Comments, I’d love to visit more!
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