Rambling report

February 27, 2015

The most recent ramble began at Public Pool in Hamtramck, January’s weekend destination of picnic fun curated by Picnic Club Detroit in conjunction with their exhibition “Picnics in the Polar Vortex”. A mix of ramblers, picnic-clubbers, and random gallery-goers down for whatever chatted, looked at the art, and bravely set out into the 35-degree sunshine.


We strode east on Caniff amid conversations of the neighborhood’s history (allegedly having been called Ducktown when it was populated in the 1920s — nobody knew why). Scenes of tranquil domesticity abounded — the house with its shoe rack kept on the porch; another with a lush, moss-like carpet over the walkway; a sidewalk painted with wild patterns in celebration of the residents’ wedding day.


At Mt. Elliott, these gave way to a more barren industrial feel that would characterize the heart of this ramble. We boarded the long hidden pedestrian ramp that would take us to the bridge spanning the rail yards, encountering a woolly but passive beast along the way.



After the noise and grime and scenic views afforded by the bridge, we made the best of the dull stretch of Mt. Elliott before travelling east again into our destination, the I-94 Industrial Renaissance Zone (more info). The character of the ramble shifted to that of a nature walk as we followed a little path cutting between hills full of brush and burrs.




Yet all around this outpost of wilderness, the land had been bulldozed clean to make room for decades of promised industrial park, now alleged once again to come to fruition, or at least pavement. The large pink diamond that Picnic Clubbers had found so photogenic was covered in snow. We explored the zone independently for a while, investigating its quirks and borders, lighting smoke bombs in tribute to past picnics, and drinking tea. Our time in the zone felt short despite the wind and overcast sun.

Searching for the pink diamond.

Searching for the pink diamond.




Visiting with an old Picnic Club friend.

Visiting with an old Picnic Club friend.

Leaving the zone, we checked out some small abandoned churches and stopped to right a toppled street sign in front of one. Crossing Mt. Elliott, a mile south of where we’d initially veered onto it at Caniff, the neighborhood again changed drastically. Miller and the surrounding blocks felt much like Hamtramck, with its dense population of neighbors going about their business and some variety of hustle and bustle happening by a school prominently situated at what feels like a town square. We popped into an unpretentious bakery tucked into the corner of a strip mall for some cheap tasty snacks.




Checking out the remote location of What’s Fowling and admiring a deluge of ice under the train bridge, we hiked north on Conant, tacking randomly across Belmont to return to Gallagher, and to more warm beverages and cookies, art and books, waiting at Public Pool.

Thanks to everyone who came on this special ramble! Much thanks too to the picnic clubbers who sat the gallery and made sure there was enough picnic magic to go around. Please join Picnic Club Detroit on their next adventure — you can keep in touch via their blog, mailing list, or, God forbid you join the twenty-first century without me, Facebook page.

Speaking of the twenty-first century, although Facebook owns everything, Detroit Area Rambling Network is now on Instagram @detroitrambling. Bonus #darnrambles photo documentation and Detroit #walksnaps every day! It’s beautiful. Check it out.


Rambling alert! Saturday, January 31

January 26, 2015


Saturday, January 31
Gallery hours 1-6; ramble leaves at 2
Public Pool,
3309 Caniff Hamtramck 48212

In collaboration with Picnic Club Detroit’s Picnics in the Polar Vortex show underway at Public Pool in Hamtramck, we will be taking a hike at 2:00 this Saturday, January 31. (Please note the day! This ramble will take place during gallery hours on Saturday, not on Sunday as most rambles do). Our destination is the I-94 Industrial Renaissance Zone, where Picnic Club held its very first picnic in April of last year. We’ll be returning to see what’s changed on this urban prairie as the seasons have passed. Where we once rustled through brush participating in the “Birdwatching Within the Barricades” picnic, we’ll find a scene rendered unrecognizable by more than a mere layer of snow.


The zone has recently received considerable attention from people other than birdwatchers and urban explorers. As the city aims to develop the area into the industrial park it was intended to be in the first place, cleanup efforts seem to have overtaken some of its charms. Lear and Penske, Crain’s reported last month, are eyeing the spot with its attractive financial incentives in mind.


Out of ten picnics in ten months, two picnic locations have been lost to development. Since only three picnic spots have been places with no official designation or concordant protections, like other places we’ve visted — Rouge Park, the Belle Isle aquarium, the course of the Peoplemover, two Picnic Club members’ residences — the extinction rate of these places is much higher than the numbers seem to say. The other development casualty is the amply forested site we enjoyed during “A Human Geology” picnic. The trees and grasses and ecosystems that intervened after the former Piquette plant burned in 2005 have been bulldozed.

Cataloging and chronicling these changes is an essential reflection that establishes history and informs our future use of land and other resources. We document these spaces in our photos, artifacts, memories, so that when they vanish they leave some trace. Moving between, through, and around these spaces, we document them in the tactile muscle memory of our bodies. This is the importance of our picnicking and rambling, examining and experiencing these places before they shift into their next stage of being.

The forecast is chilly, so please come prepared for weather! Your thermos should be full of some kind of hot beverage, and your hands should be full of mittens, or whatever keeps the frostbite at bay. Expect a 5-6 mile ramble — we’ll be returning to the gallery before it closes at 6:00. As always, walking is free and open to the public. Hope to see you this weekend.




See also:
Picnic Club Detroit’s synopsis of “Birdwatching within the Barricades”
Scott Hocking’s decade of photo documentation
Crain’s “Lear, Penske eye move to city industrial park”

Detroit Toolkit

January 23, 2015

The observant pedestrian may notice that there aren’t many street sweepers in this city. To some, this lack of city service is a benefit. The streets are full of things, and the things are full of stories. These stories get spilled out of dumpsters, filtered through holes in pockets, run over by cars, kicked to the curb — ultimately left for dead. As much as garbage can resemble treasure, these things might, to the right roving thing-finder. I’d halfheartedly taken up and discarded collections of them in the past, always ultimately throwing out the knife blades and the eyelash curlers gleaned from downtown alleys, the sockets and wrenches rusting in outlying streets. Instead, for one month, I humored my thing-finderly tendencies and let the items accumulate.


The result is the December 2014 Detroit Toolkit. The toolkit is currently at Public Pool in Hamtramck, honored to be part of Picnic Club Detroit‘s retrospective of its inaugural year of picnics. The toolkit represents the resourcefulness of Detroiters, the mindset of always doing the best that can be done with what can be had. More than I realized, this was a study in the extent to which the objects sought influence the objects found. While the toolkit came into being because of all the stray items I regularly see, December yielded an unusual number of knife sightings. (Pro tip: the shrubbery outside Comerica Park is a hotspot for crappy pocket tools of all stripes, probably discarded by forgetful attendees who didn’t want to make the trek back to their distant surface lot to leave the item in their car. Did they mean to retrieve them after the game? Who knows. Dogs will sniff out their own conclusions.)





Not all tools were ideal candidates for the collection. The obsolete cellphone, broken jingle bell, ugly silverware — I carried them into the gallery in a cardboard box, looked at them, and carried them back out to the dumpster. The toolkit is as complete as time and place permit. My only regret is that I rarely saw syringes when I was out alone, and no walking companion would let me pick up one of them when we were together — Detroit’s needle to go with the thread.




Visiting hours for the Picnics in the Polar Vortex exhibition are 1-6 PM every Saturday, with varied dreamy picnic programming going on each week. This Saturday is about “Ideas for Creative Leisure,” a workshop for generating “both inspired and mundane ideas for recreation.” If I’m not out rambling the daylight away as usual, this is where you’ll find me. It’s also a great chance to browse the Picnic Club library and spend some time with the photos and artifacts in the gallery. If gallery hours aren’t enough, the toolkit is for “sale”! Have you always wanted a bunch of miscellaneous hand-selected garbage and to take me on five walks of your choice? Yes? Let’s talk.


Rambling report

October 24, 2014

The new $24 million segment of the Dequindre Cut, from Gratiot to Mack, is about as short as you’d expect if you’ve ever wandered Eastern Market end-to-end without even noticing. This 0.45 mile stretch is due to open next spring after some delays, following the initial 1.35-mile trail conversion which was completed in 2009. The railroad itself was constructed in the 1830s by the Detroit Pontiac Railroad Company, predecessor of Canadian National and Grand Trunk. Trains ran along the tracks from 1838 until the mid-1980s; passenger rail service to the riverfront terminated in 1982. A subsidiary of the MGM Casino purchased the parcels between 1998 and 2000 and handed them off to the city shortly after.


Aside from just wandering and having fun, our intent was to examine the benefits and losses of greenway rails-trails conversion projects, particularly the impact on wild plants commonly referred to with the generic term “weeds.” Focusing on the greenery when the Dequindre Cut has been so well-known for its colorful graffiti was a shift that felt natural at the time, and almost certainly foretells the theme of many future walks there. Wildflowers were everywhere bland new embankment walls weren’t. How the pale blocks had been kept free of graffiti for their weeks in place baffles the imagination. Especially as the grade changes to join street level closer to Mack, the balance tips in a pastoral direction. Birds were chirping and flocking around grassy clumps unjostled by the heavy machinery lining the Cut. Behind the Detroit Edison Public School Academy, a birdhouse perched atop a tall pole.




At Mack we waited a while for the roar of Lions’ game traffic to quiet before setting foot on the rails. This stretch of the Cut splices two different worlds — the vastness of bleak industry to the west where the Pepsi bottling plant sits, and a line of trees and some grassy lands to the east. It’s a dynamic that feels very Detroit. “These would be lovely to keep as parks,” I said. “They already are,” a rambler replied. The disused tracks themselves were littered with surprises — we examined pottery, the railways’ signature shards of metal, bones, shoes, trash, and treasure in the form of a fully intact shovel sitting in a bush.


The tracks are fenced off with shiny chainlink at Farnsworth where they keep the trains. At this point we turned east, doubling back on St. Aubin for a glimpse of what life might have been like before the railroad. Cobblestone streets still push determinedly westward before petering out into high grasses next to dead-ending sidewalks. Rust inexplicably coats sections of pavement. At Forest, a naked flagpole sits lonesome in the grassy lot that was the Dabrowski Playground, in memory of the reverend who once founded a Polish Seminary there. There aren’t many houses these days. Outside of Eastern Market again, we stopped to check on the little cinderblock wonder at 2126 Pierce St., then followed the alley south to Wilkins. An eastbound detour gave us better viewing of the sculpture garden outside C.A.N. Art Handworks.





The ramble paused on Gratiot to share generous rambler-made brownies with a belated contingent of tired tweed riders. After this ramblers disbanded to their vehicles and I trekked south alone. At Antietam a red-tailed hawk dove to scoop up a squirrel, dangling it from the power lines. I followed the Lafayette Parks to the river, broad green spaces paralleling the Cut. After the Greening of Detroit Park, I crossed Jefferson and ventured down Riopelle, looking at the Ren Cen looming past the wreckage of a torched building. It felt out of place. In Milliken State Park, the recent sidewalk led me over the hill, next to the canal, and back into the Dequindre Cut.

This is the familiar Dequindre Cut, where in an otherwordly composition graffiti is backdrop for the occasional sly storybook red fox straight out of Le Petit Prince. It’s also a greenway beloved by Detroiters who wouldn’t or couldn’t explore the wilder sections we’d seen earlier in the day. As I strode north, a family passed, pushing their stroller and talking about how safe it was there. Their hip-height young daughter smiled a few paces behind them. It was getting dark but a group of people still had a tripod set up in the pedestrian lane, filming skateboard tricks. This is something you might not try a few miles north along the rails.

If something is lost in this conversion from rails to trails, it isn’t the greater good. As one who lived for the spaciousness and unruliness of parts of this city, I can’t wholly mind that it isn’t here, right here, anymore. But will there always be somewhere else to go? As perambulists in other cities thoughtfully elegize their vanishing wildernesses, I wish they could ramble with us and see the before and the after simultaneously, two sides of a story, two ends of the same trail.


Rambling alert! Sunday, October 19

October 13, 2014

Plans to extend the Dequindre Cut from its present terminus at Gratiot north to Mack have been in progress for a year. The trail was expected to be open at the end of November, but completion will be delayed until late next spring. Rails-to-trails paths are a popular option among planners — across the country, old railways are being repurposed as green jogging, bicycling, and walking havens.


We will ramble the Dequindre Cut, observing what is lost and what is gained as humans force various phases of development on the land. What was there before the railroad? What will be there after? What is the future of greenspace in cities?


Walking is free and open to the public. We will meet at 4:00 at the current northernmost point of the Cut. Ramblers are encouraged to bring beverages, snacks, sweaters, senses, questions, and answers. Ramblers should take care to outfit themselves with good shoes or else. In case of severe rain, we’ll ramble the following Sunday.

Highly recommended reading on the effects of rails-to-trails greenway projects in other cities:
Two poignant articles on rails-to-trails greenway projects in other cities:

Also, London is apparently the world’s largest urban forest. Should the entire city become a national park? The Independent reports.

Other fun happenings:
Tweed Ride Detroit, an “annual celebration of fall, tweed, bicycling, & Detroit!” will also take place Sunday, October 19, starting at 1:00 at the corner of Warren and Trumbull. This whimsical event will be marking its fifth anniversary. Ramblers, you have lots of leg muscles — why not make them all sore?

Overriding pedestrian sense

October 13, 2014

While Detroiters are keeping close eyes on what is happening with Woodward and the Peoplemover 2.0, another privately-funded construction project is taking place less than a mile away.

Remember when we were talking about turning I-375 into a walkable, bikeable surface street? Even as recently as this summer, this was the plan, with a study examining the benefits of each of six proposals to reconfigure the road due in September.


Unfortunately, this utopian scheme seemed to be forgotten when in September no study results were revealed and instead Dan Gilbert shared his vision for building a wider exit ramp at Lafayette. This basically makes a big funnel from the burbs into Rock Ventures’ Greektown Casino parking garage and other downtown destinations.

Scheduled to be finished in December, the project enlarges the single-lane exit ramp at Lafayette into a three-lane — as wide as the highway itself. As a spokesperson for Rock Ventures told Crain’s, “There are more and more people coming downtown. If we can make it easier and a more pleasant experience to access points of interest, it’s a win-win.”


It might have been the day after, or it might have even been the day before I heard about the ramp-widening that I saw crews tearing into the embankment. Apparently, this immediacy is one of the wonders of privately-funded road projects. (Just being glad that some zillionaire didn’t appear with funds for the ruinous proposed I-94 expansion out of their own pocket). With a new $1.25 million investment in the highway, removing much of it is doubtful to happen anytime soon. As catering to pedestrians and cyclists is probably not central to the economic success of the casino and surrounding businesses, it’s not difficult to imagine how this highway amendment took priority over previous plans. At least there is the promise of landscaping to look forward to next spring.


Facilitating swifter beelines to “points of interest” is not a strategy that serves the people who are already downtown or in neighboring areas, aside from mollifying admittedly knotty traffic flows. Detroit isn’t just a handful of “destinations” in a barren wasteland, as the New York Times staff has infamously reported every time they drive around and see something that isn’t Slow’s.

Treating the city like every mile matters — the destinations and the spaces in between — will benefit both pedestrians and the highway-travelling commuters and destination-goers alike. The broader ramp at Lafayette may make short-term sense, but taking a broader perspective seems an obvious choice, especially for someone who is banking their future on Detroit’s future.

Jane Jacobs’ unbirthday walk

October 4, 2014

Each May, pedestrians around the world gather to walk in honor of Jane Jacobs, the legendary urbanist and writer whose book The Death and Life of Great American Cities waged significant influence on twentieth-century urban planning. The commingling of Jane Jacobs’ belovedness, the city’s rapid development, and the Detroit Design Festival furnished the opportunity for a second Jane Jacobs-inspired walk this year. Put on by the Detroit Creative Corridor Center, the tour met last Saturday afternoon at the Model D headquarters at Second and Prentis. Twenty-five or so people were out on the sidewalk, enjoying summer weather that was by no means the crisp day forecasted by the handout we received.


Without much introduction, we set off to check out the “pedestrian overpass crossing America’s first freeway,” which would be a long walk, since it is actually in California. From Forest, we looked out over the Lodge at the cars and the Canfield and Selden bridges. Jane Jacobs spent much of her career fighting the imposition of highways, making this site an interesting choice. We looped over the Canfield bridge back into Midtown, our guide Ellie breezing through the stops, pausing long enough for everyone to quietly absorb and reflect before moving on.


The walk was beautifully done — its strong concept reinforced by elegantly executed signage at each stop. A red frame drew attention to a chosen scene, accompanied by a quote from Jane Jacobs’ foreword in the re-released Death and Life of Great American Cities adhered to the sidewalk. A black-and-white photo above the quote showed the area as it used to be. Standing over the Lodge, we read: “Some people prefer to do their workday errands on foot, or feel they would prefer to if they lived in a place where they could. Other people prefer hopping into the car to do errands, or would like to if they had a car… In shorthand, we can speak of foot people and car people.”


Whether foot or car people, the tour had initially left behind about two-thirds of them, who we found standing in the Green Alley. The tour redivided, and our guide Ellie, who had designed the tour, went with the other group. Even with the new guides, it was truly a Jane Jacobs-inspired event — a little messy; a chatty, neighborly, organic, do-it-yourself affair that very successfully brought together all manner of smart, curious people. There was minimal standing around straining to hear the guide’s authoritative perspective as happens on so many other tours. Participants were left to consider and surmise for themselves, to see what their own “eyes on the street” could tell them.



This democratic approach had its downsides. At some point we picked up a very vocal and relentlessly pro-development yahoo, a pal of the founders of the Green Garage. We stood on Second looking through the red frame at the Green Garage across the street while this loudmouth dickwad ranting colorfully about the “abominable shithole” of the laundromat behind us. It’s not the most gorgeous dumpy single-story building in town, but the “strip mall” parking lot in front he was so vehemently decrying is useful to people unloading heavy linens. Safe to assume he is not coming “down to Detroit,” as he put it, to do his laundry. This guy even wrangled the role of guide at one point, suggesting that we detour to check out the El Moore renovations, also courtesy of the Green Garagers. The tour, which was supposed to be two miles and last an hour, had been steadily losing participants, and quite a few more vanished as we followed his lead.


On Cass just north of Alexandrine, we stared intently at the shiny exterior of La Feria and Thrift on the Avenue as our guide, excitedly filling us in on last year’s commercial development news, told us that “before then, nobody walked south of Willis.” A woman and her young daughter scurried past us, southbound and muttering apologies, ducking to keep out of the way of our cameras. Incredulous, I asked, “How did people get to the Old Miami?” “I mean, like, regular people didn’t walk past there,” he clarified. So who is it that goes to the Old Miami, irregular people?

Ultimately, the circuitous route we followed gave the impression that the whole city may be made of Cass-and-Canfields, or should be. While it’s undoubtedly nice to have places to go and things to see other than abandoned buildings, this walk offered as much trite development cheerleading as one might expect. “I saw who was putting it on — I wouldn’t go,” a friend told me afterward, referring to its starting point at Model D. At least half of the ten stops related directly to the Green Garage, Model D, or Midtown, Inc. Did the out-of-town visitors get to experience Midtown beyond this narrow scope? And what of the Cass Corridor? As the walk’s handout read, “For as much activity as there is happening today, the neighborhood is perhaps even more interesting for the history that exists there.” The walk’s celebration of history was a quiet party attended by few.

It’s unfortunate that Tom Boy Market’s closure and future reuse as high-end retail came a week too late. It would have been an fine additional example of gentrification in progress. As Jane Jacobs said, “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody,” especially luxury loft-dwellers and rooftop-cabin hostel-goers who visit Detroit in search of more high-end retail shopping opportunities. I was unable to stay for the post-walk chat at Great Lakes, but I hope the expensive pourovers fueled a more nuanced conversation.


Where the pedestrians aren’t

October 1, 2014

Curbed Detroit has an image gallery up today ostensibly providing a photo tour of the future arenaland. The gallery is less the expected catalog of what is there and more an investigation of where the pedestrians aren’t. This could be easily turned into a children’s book about failed urban planning.

“You’ll notice there are not many pedestrians,” Curbed writes. “Not here,” it continues calmly under the following image, flipping what should be the next heavy page of a teething-resistant board book, “or here.” With its soothing repetition (except for the dozen or so photos where the author seemingly tire of typing that caption — come on, Curbed, copy and paste) and eventual surprise discovery, it has all the charms of a minimalist Where’s Waldo after Waldo moves to the burbs.

Photo by Michelle and Chris Gerard for Curbed Detroit.

Photo by Michelle and Chris Gerard for Curbed Detroit.

And good job, Curbed, for not counting the guy riding a bicycle the wrong way on Park at Henry as a pedestrian. Way to teach those kids what a vehicle is!

While the set of images seems intentionally skewed to tell the story that pedestrians don’t travel here, this is a great ‘before’ to 2017’s hopefully walkable ‘after.’ I usually see a number of people out when walking in this area. Perhaps they have been deterred by the rude truck drivers and other construction personnel with less fearsome vehicles who have nearly run me over in car, on bike, and on foot in their ill-mannered haste to carry out Ilitch’s bidding. The M1 employees have not been kind, either.

Photo by Michelle and Chris Gerard for Curbed Detroit.

Photo by Michelle and Chris Gerard for Curbed Detroit.

Today there was much activity in the area as movie crews took over the streets, erecting barricades. This meant another tough day for pedestrians scolded for trying to follow their usual routes and told to take sometimes lengthy detours. As I looked at the crews milling around, a security officer approached me, asking me to leave. “But I’m outside the barrier,” I replied. “They don’t care, they just want you to leave,” he told me. Last week, Motor City Muckraker reported that “[p]olice and security forced fans off a public street and sidewalk because they “were too close” to the groundbreaking” taking place at the future arena. While pedestrian traffic was low before, there may be good reasons it will remain that way for a while.

Keep out of the "Tiger Clubhouse"!

Keep out of the “Tiger Clubhouse”!


September 28, 2014

Even a half-asleep pedestrian in Detroit would not fail to notice the new public art that materialized this week. Perched on streetlight bases and utility boxes, decorating windowsills and ledges, sunbathing on grassy patches, 3,000 small white signs stencilled with a simple black tie infiltrated the landscape seemingly overnight.


Something special must be up, I concluded on seeing a seventh one in the short stretch of Woodward I was walking. But what? I asked some friends, asked some bystanders, asked the people working parking for the game downtown. Stationed directly across from a pair of the stencils propped up against stop sign posts, the guy flicked his neon flag, shrugged, and told me he had no idea.


The black ties are the symbol of the positivity-fueled “Detroit Stay Classy” campaign, which seeks to redefine class, vaguely asserting that “class encompasses a lot of things but most importantly is defined by your character and personality.” Their sparse manifesto puts a momentary blind eye to history, and maybe reality, with its awkward truisms reminding Detroiters that “every person is born with what is needed to take that first step towards their success.” “You and your ideas are special and have to be pursued,” the site cheerleads. The idea that you have to be pursued is one all too familiar to Detroiters behind on their utility bills.



Lacking either the curiosity or the entitlement, it never occurred to me to take any of the ties for myself, which was apparently the intent of the project. The back of each has scrawled on it “for you — from me. p.s. stay classy”, the website, and the tie’s production number. Some of the ties are now displayed proudly in store windows, some have gone home to the burbs, and a lot are decorating downtown offices, reminding their keepers to keep it classy at work, judging by elated comments.


What percentage of Detroiters will never have any idea of the meaning behind these white boards? If they don’t know, then what is the point? It’s only more mysterious stuff placed in their environment by some well-meaning “other” for some other well-meaning “other.” Missing the transparency of other positive-thinking public art efforts, like Cheer Up! Detroit, where the message is accessible to any literate person wandering by, the ties bristle with exclusivity. In not addressing the people it was intended to encourage — people who are not middle or upper class, internet-literate, and nestling this cute tchotchke into their art collection — how can the project really be meaningful, something aside from more fluffy lighthearted Detroit Future boosterism?

In the depths of conversation with a very positive woman, flagging cars of Tigers fans into a small lot near the stadium, she told me about her 45 minute commutes on foot to work — a 2.5 hour job — “and that’s taking all the shortcuts,” she said, “through the fields and through people’s apartment complexes, everything.” Instead of relating happy messages about black ties painted on boards, she told me about being robbed last year on her solitary route home, the reason she will no longer work night games. “I wish I had a bike,” she sighed, looking at my rusty Peugeot.


The ties are whimsical; I can seldom argue against whimsy. Inspiring something like a city-wide scavenger hunt — thankfully, the project succeeded in not limiting classiness to the 7.2 — is the kind of fun every metropolis needs. Yet it’s not really the most clever irony by which a project all about personality and character takes an article of clothing as its symbol — an article none other than the alienating tie that encircles white collars. Perhaps these boards and their surrogate neckwear are an apt talisman in a city known for its hard-working working class, but the undertone of exclusivity persists.

Detroit’s black tie makeover is part of a broader clash between understanding and respecting a space and its people, history, and culture, and understanding and respecting one’s personal needs and ambitions, and figuring where to interpolate oneself into that history and culture. This is a struggle every time I go out on a walk, thinking always of the millions of people before me who have walked the same route — the same sidewalk, the same street, the same path, the prairie and forest before the city. Where can the black tie fit into that?


Timely reading:
“Is There Room for Black People in the New Detroit?” by Suzette Hackney, who asks, “Still a question looms: Is there room for low income residents to benefit from the dazzling reinvention of their city?” As one resident she interviews put it, Detroit’s new development “is for the white folks and tourists. It ain’t for us.”

Relative value of fields

September 22, 2014

This time of year means many changes afoot. Shifts in the landscape presently invisible will soon become material. This is not just seasonal stuff — the mounting of abscission cells in tree leaves or the rampantness of squirrels or the odd autumnal deficit of acorns — unless you consider the tax-foreclosed property auction a season. And why not? With all its expense and obsessive fervor, it’s about as festive.

Bidding on the first batch of properties in the September Wayne County auction ended last Wednesday. Having it out of the way may be a relief to some new and returning landowners, but the suspense is still on. Sales for the last of this month’s properties will climax on September 24, making way for the shitshow that is the October round. In past years, waiting for the October auction has been a popular option, when bidding starts at only $500, rather than the full amount of back taxes owed on the property. Not so this time. There is a new urgency to snap up properties in some areas that can’t wait a day, let alone a month.

What kind of shifts can we expect in the coming months as all this land changes hands? Amid such uncertainties, fewer of Detroit’s infamous fields is a given. Here’s a preliminary glance at the relative value of some of Detroit’s real estate.


This former field along Woodward is part of the Pizza Empire’s new playground, served on a rent-free silver spoon by the Downtown Development Authority to the Ilitches for the new arena. (Hey guys — I hear gold spoons taste better. Try harder next time). While they Ilitches do not technically own this particular piece of land, they effectively control it in perpetuity, since the lease may be extend up to 95 years, at which point they’ll all be deceased. The city council controversially voted to sell the land, including this parcel and 38 others, for a mere $1 to the DDA earlier this year.

In its former life as game-day overflow parking, the lot had a couple trees facing Woodward but little else to offer; walking this void between Midtown and downtown was bland, windy, and unpleasant. Now, the area is increasingly disorienting to traverse on foot and is anticipated to become more so, until there is a new arena in the middle of it and it is yet another field — and streets — that can no longer be walked. How will the new arena area compare?


The placement of 52 shipping containers is underway as this week’s groundbreaking event draws nearer; it basically looks like some people have been playing with large red Legos for the past week. A couple of the containers are being outfitted with murals by VIP painting crews allowed past the perimeter fencing.


Compare that field to this on Trumbull, home to a scrubby Japanese maple and a sign reading “No City Cut,” which just sold for $11,000. Who owns this now? A neighbor living in one of the houses next door? More faceless Vinyl Village development entities? The suspense continues as the treasurer’s office slowly mails out deeds and new owners appear.

For perspective on that $11,000 field, also in this round of the auction was a parking space at the Park Shelton, which sold for $35,300. As hilariously noted in (and later removed from) the property description on the tax auction site, the winning bidder was ultimately foiled when the condo association told him the condo and its parking space could not be owned separately. City employees faced with this complaint just moved on, awarding the parking space to the next highest bidder.

As the air chills and more land gets grabbed, we’ll be looking at — and walking through — other vanishing fields, to see what is lost and what is gained in the rapid transformation of the cityscape, dictated by the handful of powers with its future wrapped around their finger.

Arenaland: if we keeps it 300%, we keeps it out of reach behind a fence, now.

Arenaland: if we keeps it 300%, we keeps it out of reach behind a fence, now.

Recommended reading for post-post-apocalyptic times:
Utterly poignant and timely Detroit artists’ conversation on creativity in the present and future city, from its residents to newcomers “taking the plunge,” and the history of it all.