Monthly Archives: November 2013

Vehicular prosthetics and ghost limbs

November 27, 2013

Paul Salopek, previously mentioned in January at the beginning of his seven-year trek around the world, recently wrote an essay for the New York Times. He’s tracing humanity’s footsteps as they migrated ages ago from Africa to the southernmost tip of Chile. He’s currently crossing the Middle East, just 1,700 miles into the 21,000-mile trip, eleven months into the walk, and he’s getting a little lonely.

“Why did you leave the road?” one Saudi friend asked me, puzzled, when I improvised an obvious shortcut across a mountain range. “The highway is always straighter.”

To him, the earth’s surface beyond the pavement was simply a moving tableau — a gauzy, unreal backdrop for his high-speed travel. He was spatially crippled. The writer Rebecca Solnit nails this mind-set perfectly in her book “Wanderlust: A History of Walking”: “In a sense the car has become a prosthetic, and though prosthetics are usually for injured or missing limbs, the auto-prosthetic is for a conceptually impaired body or a body impaired by the creation of a world that is no longer human in scale.”

I just call it Car Brain.

What his term lacks in subtlety, it makes up in truth. Navigating through territories overrun with this mentality, Salopek is made to feel like an outsider, caught up in a strange fringe activity. In 700 miles, he says, only one person was curious enough to be inconvenienced by walking along for a few paces. Reassuring others (and perhaps himself) that what he is doing is not extreme, he notes, “Sitting down is what’s radical.” The people he meets ask if he is sick or crazy. He continues, with his little crew — at this point in the trek, he’s travelling with camel herders, a guide, and a translator.

Image by Paul Salopek from the Out of Eden Instagram.

Image by Paul Salopek

His invisibility to the Car Brain and the culture that promotes it is something very familiar to us, to pedestrians everywhere, as we take our chances on the streets. “Sometimes, out walking, I feel like a ghost,” he writes. Perhaps ironically, this seems to be exactly on point with his original aims in the project — to recreate the pathways wandered by ancient humans in their dispersion across the globe. By walking their walk, he’s become one of them, has merged with another society at odds with his own. It’s challenging to be part of two worlds when the overlap is sloppy. Here, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announces cheerfully that at some point “everyone is a pedestrian,” but it’s a truth easily forgotten in the ruts of the Car Brain.

Image by Paul Salopek

Image by Paul Salopek: “First anthropocene border. Ethiopia-Djibouti”

Salopek will be featured in National Geographic magazine’s December issue, commemorating his first year on the road. He’s at about 8% of his goal, a humble portion of the total mileage, despite days clocking as many as twenty-five miles on poor rations. One wonders whether the trip will stretch longer than he expects, considering that no small number of those miles slipped past in a few days as he took a camel boat across the Red Sea before arriving in the Middle East. In a blog post for National Geographic, he writes,

Walking is like language. It is like most ideology, theology, and cosmology: a locally conceived idea. Countless inflections, dialects, and variations of walking will appear and disappear along my route. How many such taxonomies must I navigate across the world? And will my own walk survive?

His piece in the New York Times is brief but beautiful, as Salopek puts forth one word after another attempting to account for the wonders he sees. Referring to the three-mile-per-hour speed at which the human body evolved to travel, he says, “There is something mesmerizing about this pace that I still can’t adequately describe.” Fortunately, he keeps at it. He has a book about the adventure due out in 2016, so despite never being far from civilization and its roads and airports, quitting is unlikely. And, as he writes, fatigued from another day’s sun, sand, and wind, he’s happy — the kind of happiness that rarely rides in the passenger seat.

Keep track of what Salopek is doing through the Out of Eden website, National Geographic’s page, updated weekly with fascinating cultural observations, and the walk’s Instagram, populated with photos depicting the “slow pleasures” the Car Brain misses.

Cumulus of change

November 24, 2013

Everywhere you go around here, there are pennies on the ground. Doesn’t anybody stop to pick them up anymore? All reports indicate the answer is no, not usually.

The summer before last, a guy walked around taking inventory of some 13,000 trees on city property, providing data to the U.S. Forest Service about the species and their health. On foot, he noticed many small features that others miss. As he told the Environment Report, “I’ve actually been collecting pennies on the sides of the roads for, like four months. I cashed in 2,200 pennies yesterday. People just don’t pick them up anymore apparently.” This is really a small wonder when, for those without a bank account, many financial institutions refuse to cash them in, a population at a certain intersection with those who might be out collecting change in the first place.

What to do with these thousands of pennies?

The Heidelberg Project’s “Penny House” burned down a few mornings ago. Incredibly, ridiculously, it is the third Heidelberg house to be destroyed by arson this year, first the “Obstruction of Justice” house, followed by the “House of Soul” last week. Of course, this isn’t the first time the houses have been threatened, recalling the mayorally-sanctioned demolitions that have occurred twice in its history.

"Dotty-wotty House" and penny car.

“Dotty-wotty House” and penny car.

When Tyree Guyton was planning the “House that Makes Sense,” he aimed to collect 384,000 pennies, some sent in by kids all over the country, some collected by Guyton himself. Today, he was walking around the block in a jacket with an orange dot on the back, holding the most perfectly ordinary hammer in his hands. “You heard it here,” he said, “We will not not stop. We will rebuild this bigger and better. The hard work is ahead.” I asked if he was still collecting pennies. Yes, he replied, although he has no idea how many the Heidelberg Project possesses now. Fortunately, he said, with staff to handle the numbers, he is able to focus on creating. “I still pick them up, too, though,” he said. “And we’re about to put up some more pennies on the ‘Penny House’ right now.”

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As accustomed as we are to its presence, as much as we might scoff at its attractiveness to the 275,000 visitors who come to see it every year, garnering a revenue $3.4 million for Detroit, it’s a serious, meaningful piece of art that all who live in the city are lucky to have. If it’s a tourist trap, it’s the best around. The day after the arson, WDET producer Laura Weber Davis was talking with Bankole Thompson on the Craig Fahle show when she compared the cultural capital of the Heidelberg project to that of the DIA, asking, “Should people be more outraged?”

They should, he agreed. But as Guyton himself said today, “We’re over it. We’re moving on.” To help secure the project and continue construction of one of the most unique public art projects in the world, you can donate here. When you’re out walking, you can start picking up all the pennies you see dotting the ground.

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“Tyree took stake in his community, and as a result, not a single serious crime was reported within a two block radius of the project for over 26 years.” Who can object to such artful living? This is why we’re here, this network, to watch out for each other, to make our communities better by being present.

Don't let these candles burn out.

Don’t let these candles burn out.

Donate to the Heidelberg Project’s fundraising campaign here.

Ghosts

November 19, 2013

You wouldn’t know it, but earlier this month, a pedestrian died crossing Grand River at Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.

Posting in a private facebook group for the neighborhood, a Woodbridge resident said:

“My wife witnessed a pedestrian/vehicle accident at MLK and Grand River tonight (outside of the liquor store on GR). Person was wearing all black and bending over in the middle of GR to pick something up, and got creamed. Not a hit-and-run; the person stayed. Cops came and threw a tarp over the guy so he probably didn’t make it. Please be careful out there.”
November 6 at 8:42pm

Responses were instantaneous and sympathetic, many expressing wishes that the post author’s wife was okay after the the trauma of unexpectedly witnessing the incident. Some focussed on the accident, deeming it “messed up” and “tragic, but not surprising at all.” One person said, “Hopefully there will be lights someday.”

What is disturbing is how anonymously this person vanished — no news report, no memorial, unknown to all except those who were passing by and the select community of people in this facebook group. A person “creamed” and covered by a tarp — this is how it ends?

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Pedestrian fatalities have attracted sporadic media attention, usually used to highlight some more universally lamented city flaw. The hit-and-run crash at Gratiot and Russell this summer resulting in the deaths of the “Eat ’em up, Tigers” guy and his friend Dreadlock Mike, both local celebrities of a sort, were depressingly construed as an opportunity to talk about the shabby state of Detroit’s streetlights. While undeniably streetlights in the city are a problem impacting pedestrian safety, it’s a hot enough topic on its own to attract scorn from the New Yorker without going so far as to invoke the emotional appeal associated with these deaths.

In some ways, the disparity in coverage is unsurprising — most deaths go quietly, unnoticed by the larger public, so why should the passings of pedestrians be any different? The news has an obituaries section for a reason, and certainly there are more dramatic ways to perish than being smushed by a car. The difference may be in that these deaths are in some way public — they occur outdoors, on streets we all use daily. Shouldn’t we know if people are dying by preventable external factors that effect us as well?

Commenting on the original post about the crash, another neighbor said, “Ever since the ghost bike appeared at Temple/Grand River I’ve been extra cautious biking on Grand River.” Ghost bikes have been around for the past decade, perhaps taking inspiration from a San Francisco artist’s work, painting white and chronicling abandoned bikes he saw as ‘skeletal remains.’ Ghost bikes now function as a memorial to a deceased cyclist and as a reminder to drivers to watch out for other road users.

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Since pedestrians don’t have bikes or other implements, what is an appropriate memorial that will similarly serve to caution drivers? Teddy bears and other plush objects clinging to a tree or pole risk perception as public art, an escaped Heidelberg project installation taking up residence. Roadside flowers, candles, crosses, and memorabilia are often seen at the sites of car accidents or shooting deaths. A plastic sign disappears too quickly, cardboard disintegrates.

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As for Grand River and MLK, the last time a pedestrian died there was on a Saturday in May 2012, when an intoxicated elderly man hit a woman with his Mercury Mountaineer on Grand River just north of Ash. It was past midnight. She died. The accident report contains no mention of a tarp. This intersection is hardly the densest location for vehicles crashing into pedestrians, but it is more deadly than the surrounding areas, where crashes resulted in either no or “nonincapacitating” injuries. MLK and Woodward was also the site of two crashes, and Cass and Michigan, a seemingly less complicated intersection, had three nonfatal crashes last year.

One placemarker per accident. Colors represent accident type: orange designates a 'single motor vehicle' crash; green 'other / unknown' out of options such as 'head-on,' 'rear-end,' 'sideswipe,' and other predicaments less relevant to pedestrians.

One placemarker per accident. Colors represent accident type: orange designates a ‘single motor vehicle’ crash; green ‘other / unknown’ out of options such as ‘head-on,’ ‘rear-end,’ ‘sideswipe,’ and other predicaments less relevant to pedestrians.

Detroit saw a total 435 crashes involving pedestrians in 2012, according to data from Michigan Office of Highway Safety Planning’s Michigan Traffic Crash Facts, which amazingly has full accident reports for each incident. Thirty-one of these crashes were fatal, and 12 of those, about 38%, were hit-and-run. This is about 62 crashes per 100,000 citizens in Detroit, compared with 18,558 total car crashes of all types, or 2645 crashes per 100,000. A little more likely than being struck by lightning, which victimizes 0.14 of 100,000 people.

As much as we hate to admit it, Detroit is a dangerous city for walking by these metrics, but the good news is that it’s nowhere near as bad as it was. The average pedestrian fatality rate for 2012 in Detroit is 4.42 per 100,000 people, compared to the national average of 2.33. As of 2010, Detroit’s fatality rate was reported to be 10.31, almost twice that of Chicago, as the Transport Michigan blog pointed out, immortalized in a labyrinthine infographic from GOOD magazine. Still, Detroit has almost twice the national average, making it one of 22 focus cities eligible for grant money “to try out new education and enforcement initiatives.”

Constructive thinking and potential solutions are not hard to come by. One of the five entries into Let’s Save Michigan’s Highways for Habitats contest is a redesign of the Grand River-Trumbull-MLK intersection by Jimmy McBloom, who says he travels through it daily and doesn’t “know a single person who doesn’t think it’s completely ridiculous.” Results of the contest will be announced later this week, although it’s unclear how winning will effect change other than providing the winner with a new bicycle to ride through the same hazardous intersections.

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Check back soon for more on this subject. Meanwhile, on your way over to Norm’s Liquor Express to pick up something to celebrate Detroit’s commendable decrease in pedestrian fatalities, make sure to look both ways before crossing the street(s) of this uncompromising intersection.

A railroad is like a lie

November 13, 2013

The intersection of walking and art is never far away. Few can get there faster than Steve Panton, artist, engineer, and proprietor of the gallery 2739 Edwin in Hamtramck. Panton has been exploring the city on impressive, intimidatingly long walks for years, accumulating insight on his surroundings, at one point cataloging 120 former bank buildings. His excellent essay on walking appeared in Model D. In testament to his enthusiasm for the subject, he curated a show of eight local artists’ work in Walking Distance (pdf) in 2009.

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Panton’s most recent exhibition is part of the show working title, on view at Alley Culture in Woodbridge Farm from November 1-23. This Sunday evening Alley Culture will host a special presentation of Panton providing background for his piece, historian Martin Hershock discussing the transformation of landscape and culture during the expansion of the railroads, and a screening of the film “Who is Bozo Texino?”

The piece, titled A railroad is like a lie, consists of steel forms carefully selected on railroad track walks and notecards typewritten with a historic timeline, photos, maps, figures, and quotes, giving context to the rusty artifacts. The fragments are arranged with the smallest at the beginning of the timeline to the left, and the larger ones occupying a second tier below. The arrangement unintentionally lends the pieces a kind of momentum, not unlike a train picking up speed.

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Panton has been collecting the shards for several years, taking just one during each walk he makes along the tracks between Joseph Campau and the area between Third and Rosa Parks, depending on his destination. Because his rules advise against putting a piece back if a more appealing one appears, some walks yield none. He doesn’t keep track of the chronology of his selections; there are too many, the ones on view at Alley Culture only a part of the whole collection.

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During a recent Saturday afternoon’s open hours, Panton himself was sitting the gallery, outfitted in cycling apparel. He bikes a lot in the summer, he says, but can’t wait for winter walks, his favorite season on foot. An open book was lying facedown on a stool next to the woodstove. Panton was chatting with a friend, explaining the end of common-ground cattle grazing on the farms that the train tracks cut through. He picked up notecards as reference, pinpointing locations on several small maps.

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The deceptively simple metal pieces seemed to attract tactile investigation. A visitor touched a particularly wild form of metal spiraling on itself, one of the few that extended beyond the second dimension. He interjected, “Did you see any cattle skulls lying around?” Panton, smiling, said, “No, not between here and Hamtramck.”

When asked about the research phase of his work, Panton laughed, recounting how it had all been carried out in a three-week period prior to the opening of the show. The walks came first; all else followed. While his command of history and willingness to engage in any aspect of the topic were admirable, what’s striking is how much of the actual human experience vanishes into academic context, the way photographs displace memories and become what’s “real.” Perhaps this is Panton leaving the introspective quiet of his walks in the personal realm, or mirroring the way that locomotive machines overtook the land.

Does knowledge of the historical context of his walks cause him to perceive them with greater awareness? “I definitely do see it differently, now. It’s less of a convenient and fun way to get from one point to another but a part of history,” he said. “You can see how Detroit grew up around the railroads, how Hamtramck especially exists because of the railroads.”

Don’t miss the rest of the story during “A night out on the rails” this Sunday, November 17 from 7-8:30 at Alley Culture Detroit. Alley Culture is located in the red building off of the alley between Trumbull and Lincoln, just south of Willis.

Rambling report

November 11, 2013

We’re back from another successful ramble this weekend, just in time for the first snow. Thanks very much to the intrepid souls and soles who made yesterday’s walk possible. Nobody even got a flat tire. It was a satisfying jaunt covering about 6.5 miles and three places where vehicles are unlikely to be found — pedestrian bridges, a car-free street, and train tracks.

We started in the Woodbridge Pub Community Garden, moving northeast against wind and traffic din across three pedestrian bridges spanning M-10 and I-94, the endangered status of which warrants frequent checks on their perseverance. In between, we admired a stand of Detroit’s ubiquitous milkweed and speculated on its warmth as a jacket filler.

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After stopping for beverages to warm our hands at Stella Good Coffee in the Fisher building, we tried to explore underground tunnels advertised on the green Michigan historical site plaque in the lobby. The tunnels were appealing but mostly inaccessible, protected by glass sliding doors that slide aside for authorized personnel only. Reemerging to find the wind had died down, we resumed our northeasterly path.

Our destination was the charming carless block of Pallister, where houses face a brick-paved street ending in a nice park (surveillance cameras in use, a sign warned). While in the neighborhood, we visited Virginia Park, another oddly curved street that truncates at a small green space and low brick wall at Woodward.

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Leaves crunched underfoot. None of the usual fauna were present on this walk — no dogs on leashes, no strays on the tracks, barely any pigeons. Instead there were the graffiti iguana guarding the pedestrian overpasses, a skeleton at the side of the train tracks, and on Virginia Park, one rambler yelled about seeing whole turkeys. Another gullible rambler scrutinized the shrubbery before realizing that the birds were advertised at an eatery across the street.

We went south on Third, cut back to Second, and boarded the train tracks at the easy-access ramp so generous it looks like it was designed with ADA compliance in mind.

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The subject of urban exploration came up, and we discussed the meaning of the phrase in the days before Instagram and vanilla ruin porn, back when the infamous zine Infiltration was a most admired source of information on sneaking and entering with finesse. “It used to mean something a lot more like this, I think,” rambler Timothy Boscarino commented. “A certain way of interacting with the built environment. Wandering around seeing what there is to see.”

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Trains came and went, passing us like large, sedately lumbering beasts, and we watched the sun descend before exiting the tracks and winding back through the north end of Woodbridge as evening set in.

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Rambling alert: this Sunday, 11.10.13!

November 7, 2013

This Sunday, November 10, the Detroit Area Rambling Network suggests you take a darn hike! We will be meeting at the Woodbridge Pub Community Garden at 2:00 and venturing out on a walk, returning at sunset or thereabouts. Warming up with beverages and Sunday evening Pie-Sci at the Woodbridge Pub is a potential bonus for successful completion of the ramble.

We hope you can be part of making this happen! Walking is free and open to the public. Let’s have some fun together.

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SAFEWALK your way around campus

November 6, 2013

Addressing Wayne State after the death last week of a law student whose body was found near the Packard Plant after being transported there from campus, university president M. Roy Wilson said:

Most people feel very safe walking around our campus. However, even if you do not feel threatened, you should still exercise caution, and consider taking advantage of our Safe Walk program, particularly if you are alone after dark. Call 313-577-2222, and officers will either monitor you on camera until you reach your car or your campus destination, or escort you personally.

Who knew? As it turns out, this useful and undoubtedly well-intended program has existed for eight years, the “most underutilized service” offered by the Wayne State police, according to Lieutenant Scott, who monitors crime statistics and sends out the monthly CAMPUSWATCH email.

The program is simple: call the Wayne State police, let them know where you are and where you’re going. Depending on location and availibility, either a cadet will come to escort you on foot, or, if no cadets are available, a uniformed officer in a marked car will come drive very slowly behind you until you arrive safely at your destination. “Official policy is, we’re supposed to watch you walk,” Lieutenant Scott explained, and usually they do. “Unofficial policy is, hop in the car and we’ll take you where you need to go.” With some places on campus “it can take some time, you know, to watch you walk.” That’s why, he said, driving is easier. “It frees us up faster, but it’s basically whatever you want.”

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If nobody knows about the program, who uses it? Since the reminder after the law student’s death last week, pedestrians have requested about seventy SAFEWALKs. To how this compares to averages for the program, Scott responded that they don’t really keep track of numbers for it, or a breakdown of student versus faculty use. “People need us, we’re there for them. That’s what we really care about,” he said candidly. Being there for people is more challenging than it sounds. One of the most frustrating reasons for low awareness is that the police just can’t get the word out. “We used to talk to each incoming freshman class during orientation, but in the past few years they won’t let us. Some upper-level administrator decided that students didn’t have time.” The priorities set for students are questionable if time can’t be made for a quick presentation on campus safety at a university like Wayne State.

Retracing our steps to the means of monitoring pedestrians, the omnipresent cameras mentioned in Wilson’s statement may not be as creepy as they sound. The use of cameras isn’t actually very common, and depends on where you are and where you’re going — and in how much of a hurry you are to get there, another officer added wryly. “In some cases, we can follow with PTZ — pan-tilt-zoom — cameras, but we don’t say we can watch you walk on camera if we can’t see you all the way there, if there is any kind of obstruction.” Due to incomplete visual coverage of campus, most service is rendered in person.

If officers can watch students and faculty walk around campus, can they not also watch those who might be preying on them? Sometimes, but not always, Scott said, sidestepping the matter of the camera feed’s helpfulness in preventing crime or identifying criminals. Whatever their use, the department is vying for more cameras, and perhaps more usefully, more awareness in the university community.

It would be nice to see this program publicized, even just with some information posted on the Wayne State police department site. It would be better yet to have it expanded to something a little less onerous, less stigmatized, less wholly motivated by grim fear. Calling to get a walking buddy on campus is a fine idea, but less so if the buddy pads along behind you on four wheels, weighing a few tons and taking up the entire sidewalk. A volunteer-based campus walking network could help students meet and relate to one another, all while taking a fresh air study break. That, or give criminals an easier way to nab five iPhones at once.

“The Scourge”

November 3, 2013

Writing in the Guardian, Oliver Burkeman, whose eponymous blog routinely addresses subjects like lost airline baggage, the debt ceiling, and how you’re more racist and sexist than you think, wonders what would happen if more of us stopped ducking out of the way for wayward pedestrians absorbed in their phones. The solution he proposes is a “politeness enforcement tactic” — let the collision be inevitable, until people start looking where they’re going again. An eye for an eye, of course, being the optimal way to deal with such situations.

In Burkeman’s view, and as discussed here before, “distracted walking” has become a major concern:

[H]ere in New York, in the last few months, it feels as though we’ve crossed a threshold. Smartphones have been ubiquitous for years, of course – but much more recently, there seems to have been a shift in social norms. For many people, the unwritten rules of sidewalk choreography now include this: if what I’m reading or watching on my phone is sufficiently interesting to me, it’s entirely up to you to get out of my way, just as if I were very frail, or three years old, or blind. Or a lamppost.

It’s interesting how all of this distracted  phone use gets chalked up to texting when texting likely has little to do with what is going on in these ambulant devices. How much of this cellular oblivion is reasonable? While wandering at night through an unknown neighborhood, I checked the phone to see where I was, the bright maps app cutting through the darkness, mangling my night vision. At least, I figured, the rare oncoming car might have a better chance of avoiding a collision with me as I edged down the road with my face swathed in eerie light. Distracted by email, I shifted away from the map momentarily, returning later to reassure myself I was still on course. So what if I was? Blinded, my senses attuned to the rustlings of plants and animals, the clumsy crunching of grit and leaves underfoot. Shameful, to be inspecting the vague greyish map of the territory as though it were an appropriate substitute for the real landscape.

Specifics aside, the phenomenon that Burkeman is witnessing seems to lack validity in Detroit. While people are often on their phones, social norms here dictate that eye contact should be made while out on the street, and most likely a greeting should be issued, if not a protracted volley of pleasantries. Another missing piece is in the numbers. Detroit just doesn’t have enough people to ensure frequent sidewalk collisions with the few rude souls who refuse to engage with their non-virtual environment. While stumbling along one chilly day, probably reading about a “redesigned moufle” to keep phones within operating range in frigid temperatures, and the fingers that use them nimble, I crossed paths with another “oblivious” phone user. We looked up and smiled at each other. The moment was very nice, and, I guess, very Detroit.

Tahka, "redesigned moufle" to keep phones cozy. Heart-warming.

Tahka, “redesigned moufle.” Heart-warming.

Will this unfortunate tendency arrive in our city anytime soon? An increase in population most likely means more people are on the sidewalks, and these newcomers are often of the smartphone-using set (which includes, oh, just about everybody now). If we reframe the real “scourge” as valuing one’s own moral comfort over everybody else’s, we should be able to keep out of harm’s way.