The intersection of Stephens and Van Dyke Avenues in Macomb County is a borderline.
It only takes a few steps along a crosswalk to travel from the city of Warren into the town of Center Line. And it only takes about a mile-and-a-half further to exit Center Line and head back into Warren. Such is the case when one city is completely engulfed by another, far larger municipality.
Yet from the sign at the city limits telling visitors they have reached “The Heart of Metro Detroit” to framed artifacts on city government walls, Center Line makes it abundantly clear it is independent of Warren.
It even throws a party each year to celebrate that fact. And to celebrate that Center Line remains a small, intimate town.
Click on the player above to hear the story behind Center Line’s independence.
The Small Town Lifestyle
There’s a framed copy of Center Line’s de facto Declaration of Independence hanging on the office wall of City Manager Dennis Champine.
It’s a ballot from the mid-1920’s, the kind voters used to establish Center Line as a village set apart from what was then called Warren Township.
“They had opportunities to take over more land of what is now the city of Warren,” Champine said. “But they chose not to. We’re still this small town where everybody knows everybody. Everybody pulls together as a community.”
Champine says Center Line initially became a village because officials wanted the ability to levy taxes, so they could buy a fire truck.
But he says even a few decades ago, when he drove in from his childhood home in south Warren, it was obvious Center Line resisted becoming a big city.
“You knew that you were in a different place simply because people were out and about,” Champine said. “A lot of mom and pop shops along Van Dyke. Officers were visible. You had twice as many police officers per square mile in Center Line than you did in southern Warren. Center Line was always known to provide more bang for their buck.”
Crossing the Lines
101.9 WDET’s Crossing the Lines series explores what unites the Metro Detroit region and what divides it.
The Rockets’ Red Glare
But it’s another bang that Champine says really stands out from his childhood. That’s the sound of the huge fireworks celebration that annually marks Center Line’s independence from Warren.
“I would climb up on my parent’s roof and I would watch the fireworks display from about a mile away. So [Center Line] built off of that with the Independence festival. We made it a place where you could go and have some beer and wine and good food and live bands. Sort of a small town music festival of sorts.”
“It’s a time when a lot of people come back to Center Line that have moved, and bring their families with them. Kind of just unites everybody again.” – Center Line Festival Foundation organizer Karen Pietrzyk
It’s an event that draws people from Warren to celebrate Center Line.
That includes tow truck driver Hank Reintgas.
Sitting at a counter in Center Line’s Joe’s Coney Island, Reintgas wears a coat that smells like gasoline. He says his memories are filled with the smell of food on a grill at the town’s Independence festival.
“It’s nice, they got a barbeque there. I play horseshoes there too. I’m pretty good. I lose, but I don’t lose that much.”
The festival has been so well received that Center Line officials decided to add another event to it, this one based on Detroit’s car culture.
Start Your Classic Engines
And advertisements for “Cruisin’ 53, ” as in the state’s designation for Van Dyke, M-53, touted more than just classic cars and food trucks.
They billed the event as a joint venture between “the neighboring cities of Warren and Center Line,” leading up to the annual Independence festival.
The advertisements even featured drawings of classic cars with license plates reading “Warren-Center Line.”
Officials with the festival organizing committee estimate Cruisin’ 53 brought thousands of people to Center Line last year.
And festival organizer Karen Pietrzyk says visitors seemed to stay for the fireworks.
She says for many people, the event is a homecoming.
“It’s a time when a lot of people come back to Center Line that have moved. People that went to Center Line [schools] or St. Clement [church,] they all come back and bring their families with them. Kind of just unites everybody again.”
The Dance of Development
Officials at Center Line’s City Hall say it is all possible because of Warren.
City Manager Dennis Champine notes that he used to work for the mayor of Warren.
He says back in the 1980’s and early 1990’s Warren officials considered Center Line’s government hard to work with.
That, Champine says, has changed.
“Creating places for people to go is so important to successful redevelopment of a land-locked community like Center Line. We really have no place to go, right? We can’t expand on this.” – Center Line City Manager Dennis Champine
“In a lot of ways we are co-dependent. I mean, let’s be real. When Warren has a major fire in their community sometimes they will call out to our fire department. There’s no bill sent from Center Line to Warren or vice versa.”
Champine adds that, “Warren can bring forth a lot of resources that we may not otherwise have. If we didn’t collaborate with Warren on Cruisin’ 53 it just wouldn’t be the same. It would be a good event for [only] a mile-and-a-half of Van Dyke.”
But he says working with Warren does not mean copying it.
Champine glances out his office window towards the landscape of a Center Line where he says people want to buy homes and stay.
He says that’s in part because the city has strictly enforced property maintenance codes.
It’s a far cry, Champine says, from where he was raised in south Warren.
It’s an area he says has fallen on rough times.
“Seeing what has happened to the neighborhood that I grew up in has been hard to watch. When I took this position here in Center Line I promised that I would ensure that that did not happen here. And we’ve been very successful. We really have changed the older sections of our city directly adjacent to the southern part of Warren.“
But Champine says Center Line’s health depends on much more than just code enforcement.
It’s “the festival and those types of events. Creating places for people to go is so important to successful redevelopment of a land-locked community like Center Line. We really have no place to go, right? We can’t expand on this. So what we have to do is look at what we have and what we can do to make that better.”
That means small town Center Line must remain eternally locked in a dance with big city Warren, simultaneously independent and co-dependent.
And that seems to suit Center Line just fine.