For years, I’ve enjoyed walking up this heap of earth, about two storeys high, near the downtown Riverwalk. It stands where the paved pedestrian and biking path veers from the river’s edge for several blocks to make way for William G. Milliken State Park and Harbor and The Aretha Franklin Amphitheatre.
I recently discovered I’m not alone – the mound has a fanbase of others who plan their walks, runs, activities and even wedding photos to include a quick climb. Some even gave the anonymous heap the cheesy name of “Ze Mound,” an homage to the city’s French past.
The mound is a raw gem. Everything around it is changing into a thoroughly-planned landscape, with parking lots, pricey apartments and public space. Until recently, the mound remained an uneven hill with splotches of grass and an abundance of weeds. I loved it even when the dirt path leading to the lopsided top was muddy. It somehow made the view of the Detroit River, the Windsor skyline and the riverfront neighborhood more satisfying.
To me, the mound reflects Detroiters’ DIY creativity. We make our own magic in this city.
The mound was created in 2003 by the State of Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) out of happenstance, according to Ron Olson, the DNR’s chief of parks and recreation division. It’s made from dirt that was removed during upgrades to the harbor in Milliken Park, a state park, which used to be called Tri-Centennial Park. The mound is part of the park but decidedly less manicured. Back then, the State considered removing the dirt pile from the riverfront but Olson convinced officials to let it stay, he said.
“I thought people would like to go up there and get a better view. It’s the only topography of any height in the area,” Olson said. “We had no plan or idea that it would become so popular.”
The hill is 25 feet high at its peak, 220 feet wide and 300 feet long, according to the DNR. In early 2021, when the pandemic had shut down virtually everything for months with no end in sight, the mound was fenced off and closed to the public. Then the mound’s peak was lopped off by work crews and the entire thing became even more brown and ugly than usual.
I feared the worst. Too many places in this city – buildings, neighborhoods and spaces – have been destroyed in the name of so-called progress. Had another cherished spot been ruined?
Only after the mound was shuttered did I realize Detroit is weirdly flat. When crews began to raze the Joe Louis Arena in 2019, we lost the two-story stairs on the riverfront side of the venue. Getting rid of the steps meant eliminating another rare chance to spice up my routine with a climb.
Walking and biking help keep me sane. I still find solace in the Riverwalk, the Dequindre Cut and Belle Isle. The routes are scenic and soothing, but there are not many steep climbs. Shutting down the mound made me kind of blue. The elevation and fabulous view always lifted my spirit. I still get slightly bummed when I walk by the fenced-off mound.
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Many joggers also cherish the site. Longtime runner Ken Coleman calls it “heartbreak hill.” Before the mound closed, the Detroiter ran up the hill up to four times a week. He has fond memories of hot humid days and running the Dequindre Cut, starting from the Gratiot Avenue entrance. From there it’s a smooth path all the way to the riverfront hill.
“That hill is my jam,” Coleman said, who is a journalist, author of four books on Black life in Detroit and former Detour collaborator. “When I would get to the top, I would sometimes roll around in the dirt, or, maybe take a selfie.” Coleman’s run multiple marathons and half-marathons. He grew up in northwest Detroit, where he often ran in Palmer Park, a beautiful but mainly level space. “For a runner, there’s few options for hills in the city limits. That mound is a key part of my training,’” he said. The hill helps him conquer the steep ascent of the Ambassador Bridge, which is part of the route of the Free Press Marathon and Half Marathon, Coleman said. He has not found a comparable climb in the city limits.
Jogger and landscape architect Erin Kelly took her fondness to another level. Kelly grew up in Austin, Texas and moved to Detroit in 2010. She was immediately drawn to the mound.
“My people are from places that have lots of topography next to water,” she said. “I found a lot of comfort in it. I would invite people to join me there and we would just sit and watch. I would sometimes conduct business there on my phone.”
Years ago, she created a Facebook page called “Ze Mound” dedicated to the site. (The page has since become inactive). In 2011, she started a “Bastille Day” celebration, the annual French national holiday held on July 14, on Ze Mound. The first event drew about 20 people. The next year, the Detroit Party Marching Band showed up along with dozens of others. The event was becoming increasingly popular before the pandemic. A few years ago, Kelly applied for a grant to build a pool submerged in the river near the mound. She was a finalist but the project was not approved.
“Part of it is that I aspire for Detroit to be a more swimmable city,” Kelly said. “If we set goals of creating swimming access, a secondary outcome would be the river would be cleaner.
“I just want people to celebrate the mound. It’s a joyful place,” she added.
The mound is not dead. It has been closed because the DNR has been working on a $850,000 upgrade. Two staircases have been installed; so has a 12-foot-wide paved path to the top. There will be manicured grass. It is expected to reopen this summer, officials said.
I hope its DIY charm survives the change. Vive Ze Mound.
Louis Aguilar is an award-winning reporter and author. It’s family lore that his grandfather is one of the central figures depicted in Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry murals. He can be reached at email@example.com.