John C. Nagel – Park 72

Hey – We’re gonna talk about the Nagels and the Nagles.. John and Fred.  Similar pronunciation, same civic mindedness, totally different guys.  Here’s the first installment. Thanks for reading. ag

NEIGHBORHOOD BLACKSMITH..

A young John Nagel. The Detroiter Vol. 191X
A serious John C. Nagel sporting the mustache of the day. Photo: The Detroiter Vol. 7, 1916

In his obituary, John Conrad Nagel [1866 – 1935] was described as one of the most colorful members of Detroit politics. Born in September 1866 in Cleveland, Ohio.  Travels in his younger days were along the Mississippi River for six years laboring as a cabin boy on tugs and ships. Nagel weathered storms and waited hand and foot on ship’s captains. He landed in Pensacola, Florida, became a blacksmith and migrated north to Detroit in 1892.

By 1900, his blacksmith shop – John C. Nagel and Son – on 14th street was a known neighborhood stopping ground for stoking the fires for carriage repairs and Detroit politics.  As his civic career progressed, his forging business remained open; work on automobile bodies began in 1910.

..BUT TAXATION WAS HIS OBSESSION

John Nagel excelled in all conversations regarding taxation; the appointment as the City of Detroit Assessor in 1908 came with raised eyebrows. A blacksmith can become the Assessor? He proved himself.

In 1916, he convinced the State of Michigan Equalization Board in Lansing that they had overvalued the cash value of Wayne County property by using the wrong method of valuation. His eloquent argument resulted in a reduction of the county assessment by $350,328,229. Yep.

Detroit Edison hired Nagel as a special real estate appraiser and tax consultant.  His resignation as Assessor came when elected Alderman in 1918 which led to a seat on the Detroit City Council, a position he held until retirement in 1931.

Nagel’s vision for the city of Detroit flowed freely – good ideas and bad. During his tenure he passed a 1919  unrealized resolution for a trenched subway running on John R, Gratiot Avenue and Michigan Avenue with the old City Library used as the main depot.  [Great idea for mass transit and a city property reuse.]

Detroit's first public library sitting on Centre Park. It reverted back to the city from the library board around 1920. Photo: Public domain. Source: Library of Congress Prints & Photograph Div ; Author: Detroit Publishing Company, 1906. Wikipedia.
Detroit’s first public library sitting on Centre Park. It reverted back to the city from the Library board around 1920. Photo: Public domain. Source: Library of Congress Prints & Photograph Div ; Author: Detroit Publishing Company, 1906. Wikipedia.

He understood how to raise funds for city improvements such as repaving and widening of roads. [Our statewide unresolved hot topic].  He created a sinking fund by levying a $1.00 tax on each $1000 in assessable property. Nagel raised $3 million annually [1920’s dollars there].

THE RIVER ROUGE PARK CONNECTION

Notably, Nagel was instrumental in the purchase / development of 1100+ acre River Rouge Park in the mid-1920’s which he considered his most important achievement of his civic career. His crusade for a zoo within River Rouge Park was deemed a plain ol’ bad idea coupled with a helping of self-serving ‘trickery’ to bypass the accepted Woodward and 10 Mile location.  Even in 1922 folks were talking about 8 Mile in the newspapers. 

plaque embedded in a boulder
At the time of his death in 1935, Detroit Common Council placed a plaque commemorating his civic service at the entrance of Rouge Park. It now graces the entrance to the renovated Brennan Pool near Plymouth Road. A great surprise to find it intact. The fanciest plaque that I have run across.

A little closer in.. it was really sunny that day..

text on plaque
The plaque reads: Farmer – Statesman – Patriot – Citizen Next to life he loved his city best. For twenty-five years he served it faithfully and well. His aid in establishing this beautiful park was the crowning achievement of his civic career. We hold him in grateful memory.

Later, as City Council president, Nagel represented the city at the Detroit – Windsor Tunnel bulkhead removal ceremony celebrating completion and connection of the two cities/countries in July 1930.

He was notified by letter on May 1, 1925 that the Department of Recreation named a playground after him for his “sincere efforts and support of recreation in Detroit”.  The original namesake parkland at Wabash, Pine and Vermont Streets was sold to the State of Michigan for construction of the Fisher Freeway in 1966.

Plat map courtesy of Detroit Parks and Rec.
The old park site. Progress always wins. Plat map courtesy of Detroit Parks and Rec.

The city fathers quickly re-established a new 4+ acre site a ½ mile north at Wabash, Rosa Parks and MLK Boulevard.

 

 

 

Nagel Playfield at Wabash, MLK Blvd and Rosa Parks.
Nagel Playfield behind Detroit’s Burton International Academy.
map of ew and old park locations
New and old park locations; the green square to the far left is Harry Downey Playground Story #53

 

Thanks for reading.Copyright 2016,Andrea Gallucci.