Sitting on top of the Walter P. Reuther Freeway, Interstate 696, is a unique set of parks, pedestrian walkways and trails.
The section of I-696 running through and along parts of Ferndale, Hazel Park, Huntington Woods, Madison Heights, Oak Park, Pleasant Ridge, Royal Oak, Southfield and connected to I-75 was the last section completed of the original plans for the United States’ Interstate Highway System. Metro-Detroit suburbanites’ various issues – crime, racism, property values, environmental concerns and even religious obligations – ensured that the freeway didn’t open until 1989, 38 years after construction started.
Religious obligation is the reason there are a series of three parks on top of 696 and miles of walkway next to 696.
A large portion of the Jewish community of Metropolitan Detroit was well-established in Oak Park and they objected to the freeway completion, as did many of the other non-Jewish communities for many reasons.
There are numerous Jewish congregations in Oak Park next to the freeway, particularly near 10 Mile Road. The Jewish community wanted the planned freeway moved around their community, so that they could continue to walk to temple for Sabbath and religious holidays as per their religious duties.
Secular sensibilities and eminent domain met an issue of religious freedoms with the unique solution of building parks, plazas and walkways over and around the planned sunken freeway, quite unique among the entire Interstate Highway System.
Measured from a point closest to Woodward and about a mile from Woodward running west, the walkway extends in its most direct route two-and-a-half miles through Huntington Woods, Oak Park and part of Southfield.
There are three distinct park or plaza sections, setting directly on top of I-696, each with its own park name:
- Victoria Park, in Oak Park
- Rothstein Park, in Oak Park
- Lincoln Woods Park, in Southfield
The sidewalks leading into and out of this park system extend about a mile beyond either end of this east-west-oriented park system. Going west, it starts in Huntington Woods and at its western end terminates in a Southfield neighborhood near Pierce and 11 Mile Roads.
The Jewish community still uses these walkways. Twenty-four years after these trails were built, they use it every Sabbath and many holy days.
But a lot more than a singular religious community uses these paths.
This park and path system is used by the larger and diverse community in which it is located.
There’s playground equipment in each of these parks, used by children and families.
Victoria Park in Oak Park has a baseball field and a small but steep hill suitable for winter sledding.
Bikers and joggers can be found using these trails every day.
Even dogs are welcome in these parks and paths, as long as they are leashed and under control. The City of Southfield courteously supplies bags for dog-owners’ use for their pets in Lincoln Woods Park.
In a metropolitan region so full of gray urban landscape, the trail on top of 696 enriches Detroit suburbanites’ lives with its greenery.