Monthly Archives: December 2013

Rambling alert! Sunday, January 5

December 30, 2013

This Sunday, January 5, the Detroit Area Rambling Network invites you to take a darn hike! We’ll be meeting at the Guardian Building at 3:00 to make some intriguing loops through downtown during off hours.

Walking is free and open to the public. In case of unsavory weather, the outing will be postponed until the following week, so check back for updates.

If you miss this adventure you can keep pace online with the rambling report, or catch up with us February 16 on Belle Isle, where we’ll take a long walk on the beach for Valentine’s weekend. Have a look at our 2014 schedule and mark your calendar accordingly.

bethere

In distantly related awesomeness, voting for National Geographic Adventurer of the Year is going on until the end of January. One candidate is Sarah Marquis, a solo female explorer who’s walked thousands of miles across several continents. “For me, walking is more than walking. I’m like a little bridge between humans and nature,” she explains. Certainly her career highlights make for more inspiring reading than the average LinkedIn profile.

While no one is going to win this prestigious title on our ramble, we also won’t have to contend with -22 degree temperatures, six months on the Gobi desert staying alive by collecting drops of condensation in a plastic bag, unruly Mongolian horsemen, or surviving a bout of dengue fever. That said, you should definitely come ramble with us!

Curb cuts

December 28, 2013

Looking back at 2013’s top news, Motor City Muckraker reminds us of their survey two years after the city’s installation of curb cuts allowing pedestrians with disabilities access to some of the infamous “sidewalks to nowhere” that truncate abruptly in weeds, unkempt trees, garbage, and rubble.

This is especially interesting in retrospect given the ongoing struggle over curb cuts, which included a wheelchair protest last month on the west side, where crucial intersections are lacking any kind of ramp for sidewalk access.

Photo by Steve Neavling for Motor City Muckraker

Photo by Steve Neavling for Motor City Muckraker

The curb cuts in question are the result of a 2005 lawsuit against the city by an Ann Arbor lawyer on behalf of Michigan Paralyzed Veterans of America and the Center for Community Access, the settlement of which stipulated that Detroit revamp its ramps. Detroit installed many curb cuts in the 1980s, before new Americans with Disabilities Act requirements were established in 1991. Specifically, the nubbly “detectable warning” surfaces on modern ramps are made of reddish rubber, while old ones sport concrete nubs or smooth surfaces making wheelchair traction a challenge. Never mind that the rubber ones tend to shear off and can sometimes be found decorating the gutters like cheerful Heidelberg dots.

In his article, Steve Neavling makes no mention of where the tax dollars came from, intimating that Detroiters should take umbrage at this, as if it were exclusively city money that financed these measures of questionable necessity. The headline alone, “Detroit spent $45 million on sidewalk ramps to nowhere while sinking into debt,” implies that Detroit had the option of spending the ADA sidewalk compliance funds on other city services, like streetlights, firefighters, or police, when this was not the case. While revenue from Detroit’s gas tax funded some of the ramps, the federal dollars that covered the rest of the bill were specifically earmarked for this purpose. Whatever the source, noncompliance with the court order is likely to have a higher price tag, both financially and socially.

“The law is clear as a bell that curb ramps have to be installed at every intersection,” attorney Mark Finnegan told the Free Press. This includes the mostly abandoned areas to which Neavling takes exception, failing to note that it’s often these places where higher concentrations of elderly people and people with disabilities live, those who are less upwardly mobile and unlikely find themselves using the ADA-approved ramps downtown. As one commenter put it, “They’re not going to write in the law… ‘Every city must comply, except Detroit, which is a lost cause.'”

The problem with Detroit’s ADA compliance is less that it is doing it citywide, but that it is doing it with no discernible order. Areas that receive a lot of traffic and might be prioritized, like Eastern Market, are still missing appropriate curb cuts in unexpected places. It seems that merely keeping track of which curbs have already been addressed would be a bigger job than it’s worth. The oversight feels spiteful. In explanation, Detroit Department of Public Works director Al Jordan told the Free Press in 2010 that installing curb cuts on main roads where pedestrian crossings are absent might communicate that it’s safe to cross the street at any point where there are ramps, assigning the blame to larger infrastructure issues.

easternmarket

Neavling, responding to a comment, said that “[s]ome dense neighborhoods received [no curb cuts] while many desolate areas, some with no houses on a block, received installations.” No area is immune to this illogic, however. In some of Detroit’s higher-density, more walkable neighborhoods, curb cuts have been replaced as nonsensically as anywhere else. Creating ramps where there are no sidewalks in populous areas is as wasteful there as it is where sidewalks terminate in wilderness a few paces from the intersection, but hardly makes for a sensational headline.

curbcut

A block away from this corner, curb cuts have not been replaced despite being on a reasonably well-trafficked sidewalk running along a main road.

For once, Detroit isn’t alone in its dysfunctionality with regards to this issue. It’s happened everywhere there are attorneys trying to pay back their law school debt and everywhere stimulus plan dollars can stretch, like a small town in Oklahoma, where residents bemoaned a $90,000 sidewalk leading to a ditch that was replaced three times in a five-year period before finally arriving at ADA compliance. At least these curb cuts have only been replaced once that we know of.

And who’s to say that these curb cuts in largely vacant spaces such as the Packard Plant lead to nowhere — maybe the arrival of new neighbors will lead to development in these unlikely areas. This sidewalk will be perfect for Fernando Palazuelo’s morning stroll.

Photo by Steve Neavling for Motor City Muckraker

Photo by Steve Neavling for Motor City Muckraker

For a project already of such boggling duration, it seems a darn shame that such muckraking is still needed, and that we will likely be hearing lots more about Detroit’s sidewalk woes in 2014.

Happy holidays!

December 24, 2013

ornament4

Recent walks have been full of sightings of things decorated for Christmas, people out decorating for Christmas (inflating a large pink and white Hello Kitty may take the cake as most festive), and birds eyeing decorations for housing opportunities.

ornament1

img20131214_171523

ornament7

These decorations were right up our alley, although the footwear seemed a bit ambitious given the weather.

ornament6

As the holidays begin, #25daysofchristmaslights is drawing to a close. Here’s a last-minute one that’s by no means the most ostentatious, but charming nonetheless.

xmaslights

Which holiday displays have been brightening up your walks?

Solstice

December 21, 2013

It’s the shortest day of the year; the longest, darkest night. The winter solstice is traditionally a time of turning inward to reflect on the cycles of nature. It’s an auspicious opportunity to take old familiar paths, pondering changes in the self and its environment. There have been many such changes.

redmondbirds3

Last year, the warmth of good intent cut through the cold. Someone was tending a fire in a barrel in Redmond Plaza, a welcoming flame inviting anyone who walked through to linger and warm themselves. Today the park is empty, but not on account of the cold or precipitation. It was fenced off months ago, the shiny metal barrier enforcing its vacancy for no discernible reason. The park’s visibility and the absence of any construction make its inaccessibility infuriating. On a few rare occasions the gates have been unlocked and people will amble beyond them, but it’s unclear why they open these times and not others.

The concrete seal, an empty chair.

Snowy day with the concrete seal and an empty chair.

The weekend community barbeques that have been happening here for years are still scheduled to occur. A few folks gather around the perimeter, maybe in anticipation of this, sitting on the two chairs at the corner and perching on the concrete ledge. One of the only people I see often at the park these days is the guy who dances wildly in the crosswalk on Second, wearing headphones. He’s often preoccupied, but sometimes he notices me and militantly barks a greeting.

This is his corner.

This is his corner.

The lot belongs to the city recreation department, but it’s slated for redevelopment by Midtown, Inc. in the coming year. Next door we’ll get a new restaurant, but what good will come for the people who previously spent time in the park? I doubt I’ll be getting catcalled much anymore while travelling through that intersection, but who will be there to wish me a good morning with such exuberance? Neither is the domain of the hipster or young professional, the kind of “Detroit by Detroiters” for whom this development is taking place.

redmondbirds4

It’s also one of my favorite corners for pigeons in the city, probably as many as at Rosa Parks Transit Center, but with fewer comings and goings, disruptions. They’re used to the presence of humans, seem to have a symbiosis with the people who hang out here. They’re not afraid of anything. If I stand there for a moment, sometimes they’ll all flutter down at once, landing close and inspecting my boots, maybe mistaking them for one of their own kind.

When, like Third last year, Second gets its makeover into a two-way street with fancy bike lanes, where will the pigeons go? Nobody really cares about pigeons (though you can usually find a good spread of birdseed nearby at Third and Alexandrine), but a place too busy for birds impacts foot traffic, too. Will we have to contend with cars coming fast from both directions? For all its increased bikeability, the revisions to Third fail when considering the lack of safe crosswalks for pedestrians.

Change afoot.

Change is afoot.

What will this intersection look like in a year? In ten? What will it look like then in our memories?

UPDATE:

img20131228_131907

A week later, volunteers are setting up for the community barbeque, positioned in a line along the sidewalk. As others dither over whether to put the fruit next to the desserts, one man tending some coals tells me that they tried to get permission to continue using the park, but were turned down. “I don’t know why they don’t want us in there,” he says sadly. “We’re just out here having some fun, feeding people, doing God’s work.”

Snowy day

December 15, 2013
from The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats

from ‘The Snowy Day’ by Ezra Jack Keats

Saturday’s commute isn’t quite as fantastic as Ezra Jack Keats’ famous treatise on the merits of snow days, but it’s close.

Snow is hitting me in the face. People come bundled in pairs, shuffling along. It’s hard not to think of duos boarding the biblical ark before the flood. In questionable logic, pedestrians take to the streets as cars grapple for traction.

w

A pair of pedestrians walking down Woodward.

A pair of medics are out in front of an apartment building, waiting agitatedly. As I hike closer to them, one yells, “Hey, are you the patient?”
“The patient? No,” I holler back, laughing. How, in this moment, hale and red-cheeked, might I look as though I require medical assistance? Maybe these perambulations are an outsider’s preoccupation.
They shrug, frustrated, and climb back in the ambulance. When I catch up with them a minute later, they roll down the window. “How far are you going? Do you need a ride?”
“No, I’m fine,” I say, all instinct, “Just to the library,” abbreviate my course for their benefit. The streets aren’t empty; the buzz is that the library is closing early. Hastening is absurd. There’s still time. The snow slows everybody’s footsteps, covers their tracks.

1214birdfeet300px

Darkness takes longer than usual to show up this evening. When it does, the snows reflects light, giving the sky has that comforting wintery pallor. It brings about memories of being small and warm, someone making hot chocolate with marshmallows, the lofty roof of a blanket fort overhead. Brushing off my coat and hat, I take the long route home, searching for snowmen other than myself. There aren’t any yet. No snow angels either, but residents are out with shovels and brooms in a seemingly futile effort to keep the still-falling snow. Someone walks with a dog up past its elbows in fluff.

Snowfall gauge.

Snowfall gauge?

All in all, it was hardly a snowpocalypse. The National Weather Service claims just six inches of snow in Detroit, but as the blustery flakes fell into windswept dune-like formations, it seemed like more. Of course, winter is yet to come.

Ghosts: remembering

December 9, 2013

Note: This is the second installment in a series about public awareness of pedestrian fatalities in Detroit, once one of the most dangerous cities for walking. Read part one of “Ghosts”. Seriously, we’ll come across something heartwarming soon, even with lower attendance at a very chilly Noel Night, its signature whimsical handheld neon letters clamoring on the DIA steps spelling out “not for sale,” and it won’t be another Heidelberg house catching fire.

The dearth of memorials in Detroit for pedestrians killed by vehicles warrants a look at what other cities are doing with this conundrum. Death in this manner is tragic, and an added offense is the idea that a person will recede from their formerly vibrant life without a public trace. When something of profound collective gravity happens in a certain location, it should not pass unnoticed. As other cities show, history’s natural erasure can be easily shifted.

Although ghost bikes originated in San Francisco, and Los Angeles infamously suffers ill repute as a treacherous and unlikely place for walkers, it’s the half of the country with less clement weather that’s more active in memorializing the dead. The ghost bike appeared in St. Louis, Missouri as a symbolic tribute a year after the San Francisco art project began. New York has a number of activist groups for pedestrian and cyclist safety putting their mark on the territory. Advocacy groups Right of Way, TIME’S UP!, and Citystreets have been doing stencil markers at pedestrian fatality sites since 1996. A more recent development is the Streets Memorials project, which aims to honor each pedestrian with an often personalized plaque.

Right of Way traces the beginning of the stencil project to December 1996 and has memorialized over 270 lives to date, in addition to their analysis of traffic statistics and active organization of demonstrations to keep local roads safer. Citystreets and Right of Way were allegedly once the same entity, but split due to cyclists’ objection to the stencil project as focusing too much on pedestrian issues. Citystreets founder Harris Silver credits his group with the first of such pedestrian stencils after the death of Alice Wang in 1997, months after Right of Way began stencilling. Silver doesn’t describe how he heard of Wang’s death, but says that it touched him — it could have been him, or a friend, anybody. He says he then worked with an advertising art director at a prestigious firm to create the simple outline stencil darkly dubbed “Flatso” now used, it seems, by all three groups. TIME’S UP! shares the same medium with a more vocal and inflammatory stance, declaring that “Cars and trucks not only destroy our environment, but they can destroy each of us instantly!” Each group’s status seems to have fluctuated between periods of dormancy interspersed with their usual activity. The apparent lack of communication means that one group or another is working to establish memorials, but how they avoid overlap is unclear.

The stencils are abstractly human-shaped, and look as though they are dancing in place on the asphalt. According to Right of Way, which offers a fairly comprehensive FAQ on stencilling, they last several months, unless placed in parks, where they vanish overnight. They’re colorful and surprisingly cheerful, the dotted line reminiscent of children’s toys or craft projects, maybe even sprinkles on a cake. While death needn’t be somber (and one suspects many of these cyclists and pedestrians would have chosen against something drab), the memorials lack a sense of finality. Doesn’t it look like she might just be stretching after a nap?

A more recent development in pedestrian memorials in New York are the Street Memorials plaques installed on fences and posts near the scene of a pedestrian’s death. This group, founded about seven years ago by members of TIME’S UP!, Transportation Alternatives, and the anonymous art collective Visual Resistance, seems to benefit from better funding than previous efforts, and credits the ghost bike movement as their inspiration. A member of Visual Resistance said that while installing ghost bikes around the city, they had a “large response from people saying that they wish we could do for pedestrians what we do for cyclists who are killed.” Echoing a sentiment expressed by many others involved in the memorials, she said, “It’s oftentimes the same issues, where pedestrians are killed by cars and the drivers are usually not held responsible,” a polite phrasing of the belief guiding the instructive headline “How to get away with murder” on TIME’S UP!’s site.

This project has significant advantages over the stencils — a more concise deployment, perhaps within greater legal favor than what is tantamount to graffiti. It also looks more dignified, a seemingly undeniable tribute to the pedestrians who died. It’s something enduring that will not be run over thousands of times a day, with the possible irony of being hit again and again by the very car that killed the person.

Photo from Mode Shift

Photo from Mode Shift

Detroit certainly isn’t without memorials. As pictured in a recent article connecting Detroit’s streetlight woes, by now a national joke, to the summer’s high-profile pedestrian deaths on Gratiot, Dreadlock Mike has a memorial wheelchair. The collections of flowers and stuffed animals, crosses and hearts, that spring up worldwide in reaction to personal tragedies from shootings to car crashes are visible here, too. These memorials are potent, curated by family and friends, those who best knew the wishes of the deceased person.

They don’t, however, draw attention to the fact that a person died at a particular place while walking, the most simple, basic human activity that unites just about all of us. They don’t tell the full story. As long as something persists unknown, there is little chance of improvement. As another Visual Resistance member said, “I’d like to see the need for this really dwindle to nothing, but that’s not going to happen until there are changes on the streets.”

Watch for the third post in this series in the coming weeks as we consider these changes and measures we can take in the meantime.