By Mike McGee
Originally Written August 2002
This is the first run-through of the “city planning bible” for Frontier’s shared-world imprint. I haven’t done any editing. You’ll notice a lack of things like: “Monkey City: A place where monkeys RULE!!” I want it to come across as much like a real city as possible. As I see it, there aren’t any superheroic/supernatural/science fiction elements in this world until we introduce them in the actual series.
It’s about the size of Chicago. Like Chicago, it’s unofficially divided into halves – here, it’s a matter of the West and East sides. The Union City Bridge – a bridge not unlike the Golden Gate (albeit smaller) – connects them: The West end spills you out into a seedy little neighborhood called with apparent irony Greater Denbrook, and the East leads you to downtown.
Don’t ask me why a city called Denbrook has a bridge called Union City. It makes sense if you think about it, but only then…like a lot of things in Denbrook.
Anyway. Before we get into that. The Union City Bridge stretches over Hopkins River…it’s a sheer hundred-foot drop into some very cold waters. Hopkins feeds into Lake Erie, accessible from Denbrook’s north shore. Cross the lake, you’re into Canada, which is useful info if you’re the kinda guy who does things like flee from the police. Business types use the lake for fishing, off-shore coal mining, things like that…there are some pretty big boats out on the water, though fewer yachts and the like. Denbrook isn’t the kind of city that attracts folks with disposable income, and that water is too frigid and choppy even in summer to be all that much fun. Still, there are sparsely populated beaches here and there – the lake is fine to swim in, though no one trusts the river. That current’s a bitch and toxic dumping made it poison for decades. It’s clean now, but…
Okay, remember the bridge? Cross it headed east, but instead of going downtown, take a left and head back the way you came…this time headed down a downward-slanted street called Hopkins Drive. This’ll lead you into the Barrens. There used to be a lot of industry here in Denbrook, and this is where most of it was located – on the banks of Hopkins River. The burned-out shells of factories, ancient rusting hulks of iron mining machinery…it’s all still here, and picturesque in an urban decay sort of way. But this isn’t why you’re here.
See, you have to drive a mile or two before you come up on the old industrial sites. Between you and them, you have what citizens think of when they think of The Barrens – which is to say, bars, night clubs, strip joints, the whole nine yards. The river runs alongside all of it. People come here to party. During the week, it’s kinda nice; Friday through Sunday, The Barrens are flooded with weekend warriors, a lot of them kids from the suburbs. Every now and then, someone gets drunk, hits their head, and falls into the Hopkins. Sometimes they get pushed.
Motor back up Hopkins Drive and you find yourself on Superior, a great big street that takes you straight through downtown Denbrook. I’ll point out some stuff along the way…
First, to our left, a street branches off Superior at a right angle to The Barrens, Matheson Avenue. Matheson is the gateway to the Warehouse District, which is –you guessed it- composed of warehouses. Most of those have been converted into apartment buildings. This is a fairly high-income area, but the give breaks to young professionals and the like. You find a lot of yuppies, a few bohemians and a scattering of senior citizens who are not pleased by the weekend activity in the slightest.
Head up Superior another three blocks and on your right you’ll spot Denbrook Tower. You can’t miss it. It’s the city’s second tallest building. Built in 1902, it was home to several department stories in its heyday. That heyday was back in the ‘50’s when the subway got put in…see, the Tower was conceived as Denbrook’s hub, and the crisscrossing subway trains that traverse West and East Denbrook are all accessible from a train station in the basement. But more and more folks tended to (a) drive and (b) stick to the suburbs, so the Tower went to seed.
But in the late ’80’s, some billionaire industrialist or other bought the place, gutted it, and more or less turned it into a seven-story shopping mall. Thirty stories of offices above that mall are still mostly unoccupied, but the shopping center thrives. The train station and the two floors above it are both underground, which means the stuff on the fourth floor is actually at street-level. Anyway, you’ll find a lot of chain retail/restaurants on the lower floors, and swankier stuff the higher up you go.
Drive up Superior another block, and you’ll see the main branch of the Denbrook Public Library. I know, you’re like, what the hell? But check it out: We’re talking one gorgeous, ornate building constructed in 1905, connected to a 1999-era glass-and-steel monster by means of an underground passageway. Kinda really fucking huge for a library, don’tcha think? The ’99 leviathan was built out of necessity: Denbrook’s collection is among the largest in the country, probably on the planet. If you can’t find what you’re looking for here…friends, it don’t exist. The newer stuff you’ll find the new building. The old stuff…some of it quite old indeed…you’ll find in a variety of collections scattered throughout the other one. You want a library card.
Six blocks up, we come to Cathedral Street, on our left. The Cathedral of Saint Paul the Apostle, built in 1855, jumps out and says hi. Look past it a block or so, and you’ll see a glass-and-street enclosure that looks a bit like a hothouse: This is City Center. Every bit as appropriate as calling a slum Greater Denbrook. Basically, City Center is yet another big shopping mall, built in 1987. But when the Tower re-opened a month later, that was effectively the end of City Center as a profit-making entity. City Center does a brisk lunch trade, but that’s about it. Its four stories contain about eight businesses, and all of them struggle. City Center cost about fifty mil to erect. This is what’s known as a white elephant.
So who goes there for lunch? Folks who don’t wanna walk all the way down to the Tower. .. i.e., folks who work here, in the business district. The side streets from E. 10th to E. 22nd are all banks, office buildings, corporate headquarters, etc., etc., ad infinitum. Scattered in there you’ll find a few pizza shops, a bar or two, but for the most part…Corporate America.
From E. 23rd to E. 26th, we’re in the Theatre District. Like the Tower, the Theatre District is yet another tale of resurrection: Denbrook’s grand old movie palaces were the rage for decades, but fell into disrepair in the ’60’s and ’70’s. The last of them – a third-run movie house by then – closed its doors in 1983, as a result of roughly 875 firecode violations. But in the late ’80’s, all of the old places were bought up, renovated to a state approaching their original magnificence, and were re-opened as playhouses (and one opera house) in the early ’90’s.
On E. 28th, you find Howard Phillips University. Huge. A college with a host of controversies, it’s really the only game in town for those who’d like to obtain a four-year degree. The campus occupies four blocks and has a student-operated radio station – WHPC, at 88.3 FM. Its student paper is the Vanguard.
Hop on the shoreway and let’s buzz through the East Side real quick …
Coming off E. 55th, you’ll notice a ghetto that looks a little more like Beirut. If we were gonna slow down a minute, you’d notice that no one seems to be on the street. That’s because this whole area of town was bought out by corporate interests. Eminent domain, though I can’t imagine the residents were really all that sad to go.
You run out of East Denbrook at E. 185th. Out past here, you’ve got Denbrook Heights, a suburban community that gets richer and more lily-white the farther you get from the city. If you’d left East Denbrook and gone northeast instead, you’d have found yourself in Ruckerville, a pretty dilapidated community that’s high-crime, low-income. Neither Ruckerville nor Denbrook Heights are part of the city proper, but a lot of Denbrook’s workers commute from these areas.
Cross through downtown Denbrook, back over the Union City Bridge, and now here we are, back in Greater Denbrook. Denbrook’s west side is more blue-collar, homier, and (as far as its East Siders are concerned) totally devoid of culture. Greater Denbrook’s homes date back, most of them, to the early 1900’s, and this whole section of town has the Historical Preservation Society all over it like white on rice. Brave yuppies have moved here for the architecture and because Greater Denbrook is cheaper than the Warehouse District, and the neighborhood is a sometimes uneasy mix of races and incomes, of newcomers and those raised here. The wealthy tend to head to the suburbs when they have kids…but not all of them. This can be a rough place to live, but it’s more welcoming.
But let’s back up for a minute. If you leave the Union City Bridge headed west and keep driving straight down Superior, you’ll take in Greater Denbrook in its entire splendor; but instead, let’s turn left and head down W.25th. This is a long block of pawn shops, secondhand stores and mom-and-pop retail. It terminates at the W. 25th Market, a lovely old brown brick building erected in 1911. On the street, there’s an open-air fruit and vegetable market. Head inside, and you’ll find various meat-market stands. The yuppies get a real kick out of how quaint it all is; the longtime residents have shopped here for generations.
Head past the Market, make another left, and trundle downhill over a few small, rundown bridges with no names. The main street is Violin Road; somehow that became the name of the whole place. This little community – just a few miles around, and still a part of the city – was once populated by folks who made their trades in the factories and mines. Now there’s nothing left but the bars … at least four on every block. The current population is a mix of old-timers who barely get by and young bohemian types who’ve come in from other communities. Wild dogs roam the overgrown park at night, and homeless people and runaways live under those bridges.
Turn around and head west. The neighborhoods between W. 25th and W. 117th are mostly unremarkable: Largely poor, all pretty much the same. At W. 117th, we enter Blackwood – not quite another town, not exactly an official part of Denbrook proper. Middle-class, mostly white but increasingly integrated, Blackwood does curiously have its own police force…a police force that is notoriously unfriendly to “outsiders.” But in fairness, Blackwood is a safe place to raise families, and quiet; a slightly more urban alternative to a truly suburban community. And it doesn’t completely lack for excitement.
Downtown Blackwood is a haven for Blackwood’s youth culture scene, mostly an odd combination of kids into hip-hop and the kind of kids who look like the ones who shot up Columbine. Both types congregate at Ground Zero, a large coffee shop. There’s also a smallish venue for (mostly local) music: The Arcade. The Arcade’s second floor is a concert hall; its ground floor (accessible through a back door) is a goth dance club called the Mausoleum. A ton of smaller clubs and bars dot the landscape, as well as an occult bookstore or two.
Head further west. The paved streets will lead you out of Blackwood, but take a right at Hiassen Road. This isn’t a shortcut – this is the scenic route. Hiassen runs downhill into the Valley: Several miles of forest. Officially, the Valley is a public park, but there’s no real question about it – you’re in the woods. By day, there are hikers and picnickers and bicyclists; by night, you can be arrested if you’re seen wandering around outside of a moving vehicle. But even in Blackwood, that’s not much of a concern … you aren’t too likely to encounter a cop down here. Your headlights are reflected back at you from animal eyes in the trees: There’s a gigantic deer population, despite the seasonal efforts to hunt them down to a more manageable level, and an unusually high number of owls make the Valley their home.
It takes about ten minutes to get from one end of the Valley to the other. The road leads uphill to Bankcreek Lane, and now you’re 1n Westfall. Like Blackwood, Westfall is a semi-urban area, but this is definitely a suburb. This part of Westfall is also youth-oriented, and not much different from the place we left previous to our journey through the woods, albeit a bit more … dirty.
Beyond Westfall, the cushier suburbs – but you don’t want to live there. Not really. Not when you’ve got the city…