History Matters: why West Bloomfield Township developed without a town center

DeConick's RestaurantMain Street, Cool Cities, Walkable Neighborhoods, Livable Communities. These are buzzwords for the current trends in urban planning and the types of communities that are attracting people today, especially our youth. The phrases refer to a return in city planning that emphasizes thriving town centers. The Charter Township of West Bloomfield has been debating the issue of a development plan that will encourage the creation of a town center beginning at the intersection of Orchard Lake and Maple roads. It is interesting to understand how the township developed without a town center in the first place and the significance of the Orchard Lake and Maple road intersection.

Charles Martinez, author of Song of the Heron: Reflections on the History of West Bloomfield (ISBN: 0-9753764-0-3), identifies five reasons why the township developed without a town center. The first reason was the lack of a major American Indian trail. Although early surveyors identified paths through the township, these were just connectors to larger trails like the Saginaw or Grand River. Secondly, although 20% of the township’s area was covered with water, this resource was never harnessed in such a way as to generate power for a thriving mill operation. The third reason is that the few local sawmills and gristmills that could have been the impetus for a town center quickly failed. At the same time, the mills in Franklin, Pontiac, Farmington, and Commerce had already developed and West Bloomfield farmers were already making use of their goods and services. Finally, the early leaders of West Bloomfield Township were farmers and not merchants or individuals of great political prestige.

We must consider two additional and more contemporary developments that affected the Township’s commercial development. First, the geographic definition of West Bloomfield Township includes the cities of Orchard Lake, Keego Harbor, and Sylvan Lake as well as the Charter Township of West Bloomfield. In this context, Keego Harbor could arguably be considered the closest semblance to a town center within the boundaries of the township. However, beginning with Orchard Lake in 1928, the residents of the northeast corner of the township split to create their own city governments including separate police and fire departments.

The second contemporary change was the unfortunate demise of the Interurban rail line running along Orchard lake Road. The web of public transportation that is so prevalent in thriving cities today could have been carried out by this small trolley connecting the Township to larger rail lines in Pontiac. Eleanor Pekkala, writing her memoirs for the Township’s Michigan Sesquicentennial committee, mentioned the impact of the Interurban and the development of the Maple Road stop, "The area called 'St. John's Crossing' by the interurban people is now becoming the commercial center of the township. St. John's Crossing was the Maple Road stop which was so named because six farms adjoining this area were all owned by Johns: John Watt, John Case, John Beattie, John Voorheis, and John DeConick."

When making decisions for moving forward it matters to have an understanding of the past. Our planning for town centers must consider the roles that location and transportation played in the development of existing pockets of commercial development. These existing pockets must be fertilized with the elements of growth that the general public is expecting to find in its choice for residency.

Song of the Heron and Eleanor Pekkala's Early Development of West Bloomfield - An Overview, are available through the Greater West Bloomfield Historical Society (GWBHS). The Society is a non-profit, tax-exempt organization. It serves the Michigan communities of Keego Harbor, Orchard Lake, Sylvan Lake and West Bloomfield. The Society's goal is to provide a vital museum to familiarize residents with our area's history.
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