Monthly Archives: March 2014

Rambling alert! Sunday, April 6

March 30, 2014

It’s almost April, and time for our spring ramble. Let’s hope it feels like it. Meet in North End at Bennett Playground at 3:30 sharp on Sunday, April 6. The ramble will conclude by sundown at the same location.

As usual, please don’t forget items necessary to support your wellbeing during these hours, such as good shoes, personal snacks, and hydrating beverages. (It would be nice to stop for refreshment at Nandi’s Knowledge Cafe, but they keep a sane schedule and are closed on Sundays). Our next ramble is scheduled for June 15, right next to Bloomsday.

Speaking of ambulatory holidays, April is full of them, with two national walking days and Take Back the Night happening in the next couple weeks. Check the calendar and celebrate them with us, or visit the blog for frequent updates on these and more walks in Detroit.

Coincidentally, the inaugural meeting of the very promising young Picnic Club Detroit is scheduled for the same day. They’ll be birdwatching from 12-3 in the I-94 Industrial Renaissance Zone, just east of Hamtramck. Ramblers are encouraged to venture out early and see what this is all about.

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Visiting the water lilies

March 28, 2014

When not covering new territory in the city or on a trail each day, what purpose does a daily walk serve? There are the obvious answers — commuting, physical health, stress relief, dementia prevention, community watchfulness, meeting the neighbors, practicing for when you get a dog. At the end of this line of thought one is left tracing the same tenuous path as the previous day, or coming up with variations in a familiar pattern.

When I was younger, I’d take a similar walk every day after school, in the evening. The moon would often be coming up. Flowers would appear and disappear on plants, leaves on trees would spring forth and die back. The air would become humid, then crisp. The light did all sorts of crazy things depending on the season, the weather, the day.

These sorts of walks invariably make me think of Monet. When he moved to Giverny in 1883, a ways outside Paris, he sat out in all seasons enjoying the garden. He acquired land across the road from his house a decade later and expanded the gardens, digging a pond and building the water garden with its famous Japanese-inspired bridge.

For all the emphasis on novelty and adventure, there is some great virtue in doing the same thing again. Viewers find Monet’s Nymphéas relaxing, serene blurs of plants melding into sky into mist, shadow, reflection. Like many pursuits of beauty or happiness, this one was tempered by an ambition that may have uprooted what looks like self-evident tranquility. (Actually, to me, a number of them look rather maniacal. That’s nature for you).

Monet's Nymphéas in 1919, via wikipedia.

Monet’s Nymphéas in 1919, via wikipedia.

“These landscapes of water and reflections have become an obsession,” Monet wrote in 1908. “It’s a continual torture to me!” Squinting at his lilies, rummaging through half-finished paintings to find the one precisely matching the conditions of the day, obsessively devoting canvas after canvas to the same damn thing — was Monet really happy? He put more and more of his energies into the garden — enlarging the pond, exchanging rare plant varieties with his friends, commissioning the bridge. He hired a gardener to boat around the pond in the morning, cleaning soot from passing trains off of the lily petals. He financed paving the road to eliminate dust that would leave an unsightly patina on his plants. He trimmed the lilypads themselves. “All my money goes into my garden,” he complained. Yet, “I am in raptures,” he is quoted as saying on the official website for the estate.

Nymphéas in 1915, via wikipedia.

Nymphéas in 1915, via wikipedia.

In the moment of doing, it’s hard to tell which work is important to be done. I have jobs, guys, and poor time-management skills, and none of those jobs could be described as neo-Impressionist painter. What does Monet have to do with walking, if all he did was sit there in the garden? Many other artists and writers have had equally solid, and highly perambulatory, preoccupations with the outdoors. But I think of Monet at these times because of his exquisite attention to the passing day, his willingness to sit and document the scene before him, and more importantly, record the less palpable things it evokes. For Monet, as one art historian said, “Memory, rethinking, double-backing and moving through space all become part of the act of seeing.”

For Monet, his obsession with the garden and the painting of it paid off, at least by external measures if not in his own joy. Of this, how much reality, how much shimmering myth?, I wonder as I walk around town, waiting for gardens to enliven. To actually see the water lilies, of course, you’d be better off making the 88 hour walk to Chicago, where you can squint at haystacks and poppy fields and a few of the famous floating plants as the master himself did.

Nymphéas in 1917, via wikipedia.

Nymphéas in 1917, via wikipedia.

Channelling Monet, I embark on my little segments of the thousand miles I’m determined to walk this year. As writer Craig Mod discovered when he experimented with tracking technology, finding himself scuttling through the night to bound up and down staircases in pursuit of his goals, we do funny things when someone’s watching, even if the someone is none other than ourselves.

It would have been great to do this experiment like science — spend a year recording without any particular resolution, establishing a control to see what a normal number of miles is for me in this city — not an average abstract number, but something personally relevant.

Walking with a generous friend into the frigid twilight earlier this month, watching the sky go blue as the snot in our noses stung and froze, he asked me about the nature of these walks. “We could be sitting inside,” he pointed out. Why were we walking? Was it for exercise? They make gyms for a reason, went the thought unsaid.
“I didn’t really think so much about it being a physical thing,” I told him. “I don’t think anything will happen to my body if I walk three miles a day. I picked the number because it seemed reasonable.” Walking a few miles a day hardly seems like a marker of any level of fitness, when the rest of the non-sedentary world wakes early in the morning to run 5 or 10 miles.
“Yeah, what’s that, 45 minutes?”
“About an hour. You see things, get distracted, take pictures, run into neighbors, friends… And that’s the point. It’s lovely. So it ends up taking a lot longer, when you factor all that in.”

Still, on grey days that alternate between drizzle and hail that bends the eyelids in half, I wonder if I’m just, so to speak, gilding the lily.

Spring cleaning

March 25, 2014

Nothing particularly exciting happened to mark the flip of seasons last week. The equinox came and quietly went with a little fuss of wind. Days are 2 minutes and 53 seconds longer. Today it’s been snowing. People groan and make small talk, wishing the weather would break. A breath of fresh air, a cool glass of water.

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It seems that someone has decided it’s time for spring cleaning anyway. For the past two weeks, toothbrushes have been materializing everywhere, in all conditions, minty fresh to old and scrubby. Is there a new dentist in town, handing out freebies? A clean-teeth evangelist making rounds?

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An odd flush of toothbrushes isn’t the only anomaly to puzzle sidewalk users — repeated instances of a particular item will appear in the tight space of a week or two, then vanish. If not all over the city, this is at least the case in the small wedge I most often explore. At the end of February, citrus peels suddenly decorated the snowbanks. Why did pedestrians go so nuts about fruit in that moment? Warm enough for picnics already? Citrus on sale? (Citrus sale happens in January, too). A viral listicle enumerating the health benefits of oranges? What can account for this peculiarity? As mysteriously as they began, the appearances of bright mandarin rinds, half-eaten grapefruits, and smushed clementines ceased abruptly about two weeks later. I can’t wait to see what the world comes up with for April Fool’s next week.

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In another type of spring cleaning, Detroiters shooed out the dweeby Nain Rouge again this weekend, hooting and hollering over the 0.9 mile trek through the Cass Corridor to banish the legendary demon. After standing around getting wasted outside Traffic Jam for an hour, the parade slowly threaded south, past new parking lots and imminently shuttering businesses. This obliviousness to history and environment seems to be part of the new tradition of the march. Allegedly a revival of the French colonists’ annual rite to bring peace to their city by chasing the evil red man out, this story is really, as one of the parade organizers admitted to radio producer and journalist Mike Blank in 2011, a complete fabrication. It seems instead to be, if anything historic, an appropriation of Ottawa myth.

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There was sun but it was chilly, and the march seemed much smaller than past years, though certainly no more shabby. Most people were in costume, except the uniformed cops benevolently corking sidestreets. Amid drag queens and hotdogs and people with grotesque masks there was a funeral procession for Capitol Park, some kind of perambulating coffin setup attended by a cluster of people in black clutching umbrellas. The whole effect was comic; despite the spangles, it was slightly reminiscent of goths in high school. Their presence is appreciated, but these are probably not the same kids who would offer to help the evictees move out of their apartments this week in the hideously rebranded Albert building.

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While there were important messages to be conveyed, few seemed to be in the mood to send or receive them. It was a Sunday, and these people are called ‘revelers’ taking part in a ‘parade’ for a reason. Inebriation and spirits were high, and questioning the debatable history or political correctness of the march was out of the question. One person told me that he cared a lot about our neighborhood but really just wanted to drink tequila with his soccer team. Whatever, I say, as long as it gets people walking. After a dull speech by the Nain, revelers quickly dispersed north toward the starting point or descended into the bowels of the Masonic Temple for the afterparty.

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Unlike previous years, nobody even touched Cass Park, which isn’t all bad — less spring cleanup. One resident muttered that having people in the park might not be the best idea anyway, given the creaky trees and downed branches. Did I want some firewood?, he asked. Mike Ilitch doesn’t seem to out there making good on the pledge to make or keep the park a functional greenspace. With the ominous shifting of land and narrative, the march just wasn’t as fun this time as previous years. Whether the march is what they say it is or not, Detroit needs fun, and it’s hard to argue against such earnest attempts at it. But must fun come with a certain amnesia?

Today the ground and bushes on Canfield and on Cass are brightened by dyed feathers and snippets of ribbon. I imagine a lot of the unfamiliar faces I saw on Sunday back in their elsewhere, recollecting a boozy memory of the weekend gone by. The wind scrubs clean the shrubs bit by bit, Detroiters lose their toothbrushes, and flowers come up soft and unsoiled.

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Field guides without fields

March 22, 2014

Announcement: Marche du Nain Rouge is tomorrow! As if you needed a reminder. The walk starts at 1 at Traffic Jam in “everyone’s Midtown Detroit” and goes to Cass Park, Mike Ilitch’s Midtown Detroit.
For those who don’t believe the hype, this means that the Anti-Funeral Procession for the Cass Corridor is happening from 2-6.
Also, please stop calling it the ‘Marche de le Nain Rouge.’ That’s just not right.

Browsing the library shelves, I came across an enticing new acquisition, A Field Guide to American Houses: The Definitive Guide to Identifying and Understanding America’s Domestic Architecture. Originally published in 1984 by Virginia Savage McAlester, the second edition, released last December, offers considerable updates, such as how to “read” a neighborhood, and information on homes built after 1940, which constitute an entire 80% of American dwellings.

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The immense hardcover volume, the size of an obnoxious biology textbook, weighs quite a bit more than could be easily packed to take into the muddy field or hefted open to consult while perched on a slippery snowbank — a better title might be An Encyclopedia of American Houses. As intended, it’s a trusty desk reference companion. The preface suggests three ways of using the book: flip through it to find similar photos, use the sprightly pictorial key to identify main features, or read about the historical precedents to the main American house styles. Taking this information out into the field, “style identification can become almost automatic,” and the book waits at home to aid in sorting out subtypes.

Whichever way you approach it, at least a little of the information seeps in almost instantly, broadening perspective of the built environment in a way that a tree guide, for example, can seldom do for the natural environment. To an untrained eye, the differences in siding on houses are easier to discern than the subtleties of bark patterns. It’s been a great game to wander through neighborhoods, peering at porches and chimneys and cataloging types of dormers or “other roof elaborations,” piecing together more of Detroit’s abundant history.

From Native American tepees and wigwams to the McMansion (McAlester favors the kinder term ‘millennium mansion’), the coverage is inexhaustible. When you think you’ve come to the end of the book, a short appendix dealing with green and alternative construction appears, accompanied by photos of geodesic domes. This astute comprehensiveness was a long time coming. As the New York Times relates, McAlester had originally assembled “some 100,000 house photos, many from the Library of Congress, and pinned them on a giant corkboard. Picture the tormented detective in a thriller, rearranging mug shots, with bits of red string.”

The extensive visual references are hard to choose from, but this Spanish Revival has the best landscaping.

The extensive visual references are hard to choose from, but this Spanish Revival has the best landscaping.

Many of the houses I’ve recently wandered past are Queen Anne or Stick, some Shingle, Second Empire, Italianate, Richardsonian Romanesque — in short, lots of Victorian homes, the entire chapter gorgeously represented in a few mile radius. What’s fascinating is how old some of these stylistic impulses are. In an age of new construction techniques like balloon framing and the beginnings of the design industry, Victorian homes were still being modelled, albeit loosely, on Medieval prototypes — the same thatch-roofed stuff people had been building from the 6th through 15th centuries. Even as MIT established the first American architecture program in 1865, the dominant styles recalled Medieval times, with or without various Classical elements appended to them. McAlester coordinates the solidly useful information in the field guide with well-placed tidbits of architectural history. Until 1840, she notes, before the boom of competing architectural styles and schools producing architects to advance them, there was only one formally-trained architect in the United States.

The many features of a Stick style house.

The many features of a Stick style house.

The Queen Anne wall itself as a decorative element -- graphic titled "Devices to avoid flat wall surfaces".

The Queen Anne wall itself as a decorative element — graphic titled “Devices to avoid flat wall surfaces”.

Detroit is as diverse as you’d expect for such a large city, and exploring neighborhoods with both newer and older wonders of residential architecture is something to look forward to as the weather warms and forgotten sidewalks are unearthed. Where are all the Tudors, the boring Neoclassicals and Colonial Revivals, where are my secret favorites, the smartly-tiled Spanish Revivals?

Geographic distribution of Greek Revival subtypes.

Geographic distribution of Greek Revival subtypes.

It did make me curious about what is arguably the oldest house in Detroit, the Charles Trowbridge house on Jefferson. The house is easy to miss, so easy I’ve walked past it dozens of times without noticing. This has probably happened to millions of people since it was built in 1826. Coming north off the river, I walked past it again, and kept going. There is no green historical marker in front of the unassuming Greek Revival brick structure, painted white with a mishmosh of Victorian elements tacked on at some point. It’s not very interesting to look at, outdone by the showier adjacent residences-turned-offices, one of which has been attached to it by an enclosed walkway.

Apparently this is it. The oldest house in Detroit, built 21 years after the 1805 fire.

Apparently this is it. The oldest house in Detroit, built 21 years after the 1805 fire.

This inviting bench has a nice view of the adjacent carriage house, totally mismatched in style from the house it sits behind.

This inviting bench has a nice view of the adjacent carriage house, totally mismatched in style from the house it sits behind.

If I get around to reading the field guide cover-to-cover, it will take some time, but it’s wonderful to savor in small portions, and a sensible purchase for that privilege. It’s also done the favor of keeping me occupied during the obligatory daily segments of the thousand miles. If gold were as helpful in understanding what goes on with our building habits, this book would definitely be worth its weight in it.

The fact motivating the creation of this field guide, that old homes hold a certain value in our culture and their ownership conveys some level of prestige, is by no means universal. In other countries, such as Japan, no such field guide would be written. As Freakonomics reports, the average lifespan of a house before its value dwindles to nothing is just 30 years. Some studies even pin this number as low as 15 years. Half of all houses are demolished within 38 years of construction. This, from a country that lent the rest of the world aesthetics like wabi-sabi, encouraging us to celebrate the small imperfections of our homes, inside and out. Here, older homes don’t tend to depreciate like used cars, and a hundred years will pass before the average home is demolished. One can begin to understand this, in a location that sees 20% of the world’s high-magnitude earthquakes and has a recent history of homes obliterated by bombings, leading to crummily-constructed houses popping up to quickly accommodate the million people left homeless, but the obvious, like McAlester illustrates in her field guide, is never the whole story.

It’s hard to say which is curiouser, our paradoxical penchant for filling our old homes with sleek, cheap Ikea furniture, or the Japanese drive to knock everything down and design exactly the house that is desired by the occupant. In a culture of ancient temples, recycling, and traditional values like mottainai, or avoiding wastefulness, the Japanese approach to housing comes as kind of a shock. To simultaneously value newness as “spiritually clean and pure,” except perhaps in the case of a fresh pair of vending machine underpants, is bizarre.

Maybe the more profound way to accept transience is to demolish everything that isn’t a mossy Buddhist shrine — but I hope, stuck as we are on hanging onto the past, it doesn’t come to this in America. The ability to see the proverbial hand of time moving across a landscape is not a pleasure I’ll easily give up, a reluctance likewise felt, no doubt, when I have to walk this field guide back to the library.

Flourishing

March 17, 2014

The first flower I saw this spring was probably the brightest I’ll see for a while. Leaving the 15th annual Alley Culture seed exchange, spring was on the radar, and a flourishing of pink projected up from the scrubby grass of the sidewalk margin. It was a fake flower was stuck in the ground. (Alley Culture’s always highly-anticipated spring newsletter is out, with a generous blurb about rambling to remind you of our next walk on April 6).

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Today’s walk was 25 degrees and sunny, wind stinging cheeks and ears. Plants have been on their way up for some time now, the spiky fronds of daffodils poking out of the ground like pineapple tops, welcoming and waving, like “Aloha — warm weather.” It’s reassuring to see something green emerge from the subsiding snowbanks, unlike the dismaying quantities of dog poop mounded on grassy stretches and sidewalks alike. (Prentis and Third dog owners, for shame! Get your shit together. Literally.) It was, of course, just a matter of time before something bloomed.

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The first real flowers I’ve seen this season, a scant three days before the equinox, are Galanthus nivalis, commonly called snowdrops or snowbells and less often referred to as “February fairmaids” or “dingle-dangle.” They were coming up against the south-facing shelter of a big stone church amid some twiggy bushes that I mostly ignored and whose name I don’t yet know.

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The name ‘snowdrop’ can be traced back to 1633, when the revised edition of London botanist and herbalist John Gerard’s enormous tome Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes appeared. Although it makes enough sense visually (the tenacious plants pushing up through snow; the white flower hanging droplike from its stem), no one seems to be sure exactly where it came from. In the initial 1597 run of his book, Gerard was referring to it as the “Timely flowring Bulbus violet.” Some say the change may have been of German influence, the word Schneetropfen being a type of earring popular around that time. Whatever their name, they’re a most pleasant zeitgeber.

Incidentally — or not; it’s not as though there are plentiful floral options available this time of year — snowbells or snowdrops are practically the official flower of Dragobete, the ancient Romanian Valentine’s holiday celebrated nearly a month ago now. Tradition instructs girls and boys to pick snowdrops or other early-flowering things as a gift for the person they’re sweet on.

Despite the photographic evidence otherwise, I do actually walk places; I don’t just crawl around on the sidewalks, rummaging through bushes. On the subject of weird walks and a sudden flourishing, the West Coast’s crazy toast person, the one single-handedly responsible for the rise of the humble slice of Maillard-reactioned bread to artisanal fetish object, makes an appearance on This American Life this week. In her walks around San Francisco, she doesn’t literally crawl through any brambly bushes either, but the metaphor might not be a bad fit.

Giulietta Carrelli, zesty proprietor of The Trouble Coffee and Coconut Club, has schizoaffective disorder, which sometimes leaves her wandering the city for twelve hours at a time, hallucinating and lost, unable to recognize even herself. John Gravois, 35-year-old non-hipster and father of two, was the unlikely investigator into the origins of the toast trend. In a version gently dumbed down for radio, Gravois narrates, “She remembers this one episode, a long delusional walk though San Francisco, during which she called police to let them know a tree had fallen on top of her, which it hadn’t. And finally Guilietta found herself at China Beach, in the northwest part of town. On the sundeck was an elderly man, sitting on a towel, wearing a speedo, sunbathing on a cloudy day that suggested anything but.” Guilietta chimes in, “His socks always matched his sweater — no matter what. I was always amazed by that. But he was mostly in a Speedo, tanning.”

Gravois says, “This would be the beginning of the beginning for Giulietta and Trouble Coffee.” He describes her in her uniform of crop tops and headscarves, covered in tattoos, even her permanently-freckled cheeks, “like a biker Pippi Longstocking.” Like Pippi, you never know what you’ll find out on a walk. Flowers, a decent This American Life podcast in your headphones, Holocaust survivors relaxing in Speedos, who knows.

UPDATE 03.18.14:
What you’ll find out on a walk today is … more flowers. While these buttery yellow crocuses caught my attention, my attention caught a dog’s attention, and my camera’s attention wandered off into some other depth of field. The dog did not stop to smell the flowers, but it did smell me.

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6,000 miles, and counting

March 11, 2014

What’s the best use of nine pairs of shoes? To avoid the expected and uninspired answers about donations to needy children, you may want to ask William Helmreich, professor of sociology at City College and the City University of New York, and, most recently, author of The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City. While donating footwear is a worthy move, so is Helmreich’s eighteen-shoe effort, what the New York Times called an “unstuffy love letter to the delights of street-smart walking” in a charming interview with the much-pursued perambulist.

Helmreich is very adept at the thing-finding and game-playing that make walking the celebrated pastime and mode of transit that it is, having continued well into adulthood (he’s 68) the practice many abandon as small children. “My philosophy is, everything’s interesting,” he says, in the city he calls “the greatest museum in the world.” As he tells the Atlantic Cities, “Every block can be interesting. It’s not just about covering ground, it’s about how you cover ground.”

Between 2008 and 2012, Helmreich covered a lot of ground — 6,048 miles of New York’s streets, which is 1,512 miles per year, or a little over 4 miles each day. That doesn’t sound like much until you think about torrential rain, illness, vacations, other obligations. Missing a four-mile day means 8 miles the next day, 12.4 by the third, and so on. At a pace one can only imagine was leisurely, ducking into shops and courtyards and conversations, this could take the better part of a morning, an afternoon, or both.

Of course this venture was rewarded with lots of curiosity and good press. Since there’s still no copy available at the library that I can amble over and pick up, my perhaps outdated default for acquiring new reading material, I haven’t yet gotten my hands on the book. It was delightful to find Helmreich condensing some of his experiences into an essay for the always-lovely Aeon Magazine just past the new year. He wrote,

“The question, for a professional sociologist such as me, is: was this the best way to study a city?

Approached correctly, walking forces you to slow down and really look at what you’re seeing. Like the flâneurs of times past, one needs to stroll leisurely and engage people in conversations about how they feel about where they live, what they do, and how they perceive the place is changing. Had I driven through the city, along its highways and thoroughfares, I would have missed 90 per cent of what I found: the teeming life of the city’s backstreets, its parks and playgrounds, its outdoor and indoor eateries — all this would have remained invisible to me. Besides, driving (and for that matter, cycling) tend to mark you as an outsider, even if you live there. When you cover ground quickly, people assume you’re just passing through. But when you walk through a neighbourhood, people assume you’ve got reason to be there.”

What would this feel like in Detroit? According to Helmreich, New York has 120,000 more or less easily enumerable blocks. The chaos of Detroit’s wheel system intersecting with mile roads and all the smaller side streets in various repaved or crumbling repair pave an extra layer of challenge. It’s certainly possible, one step at a time, as individuals like Chris Kort have found, who walked the streets in 2012, inspecting every tree for the U.S. Forest Service’s records.

The city maintains 660 miles of main roads, plus 1880 miles of residential side streets, with an additional 210 looked after by MDOT or the Wayne County Road Commission; together, at least 2750 miles of roads over the city’s 139 square mile area. (Just under half of New York’s size, at 303 square miles, both cities have roughly equivalent street coverage per square mile).

One would probably see a lot of what the workers and volunteers on the Detroit Blight Removal Task Force saw over the past couple of months as they inched through the snowy city, cataloging each parcel of land and possibly setting to rest the last-house-on-the-block question. Projected to take place over just nine weeks, teams surveying the 385,000 – 400,000 of Detroit’s properties set out with tablets or phones, documenting each. (The number varies depending on whether you’re reading Crain’s or Model D — either way, it’s a lot. The phone number provided by the Detroit Blight Removal Task Force for resident questions about the survey instantly forwards to a generic voicemail). Recommendations for demolition of blighted structures will be furnished to the mayor’s office later this month, and the resulting Motor City Mapping project will eventually go public with its informational trove.

Aside from the obvious increase in people needed to complete it within a similar time frame, how might the survey have differed if done on foot? By all accounts, surveyors stayed snug in their cars, snapping pictures out the window before motoring along to the next site, “blexting” — LOVELAND‘s gimmicky portmanteau of ‘blight’ and ‘texting’ — their cursory data back to the headquarters. There was a lot of snow and no engagement with the community or the environment. This knowledge of the city hardly seems intimate. One wonders how surveyors could even adequately assess a snow-covered building’s status from that remove.

Although for many reasons I decided against walking a different section of Detroit every day in 2014, eventually covering it all, Helmreich’s project nonetheless inspired some movement. Deliberately undershooting numbers or patterns that seemed in any way grandiose, I set a goal of 1,000 miles this year. This is a modest three miles a day, mostly in Detroit, and an aim with which I’ve been shocked to find only mixed success. Three miles is barely anything, I thought — well below the 10,000 steps recommended by medical professionals, a mere hour of strolling at Google Maps speed. It’s not even quite a 5k.

I would love to undertake a Helmreich-style survey of the city, but a large share of my reluctance comes from a factor that often goes unaddressed in the context of this blogging — safety, a point Helmreich eloquently, if only briefly, addresses in his essay for Aeon. (He tells the New York Times that he avoids wearing blue or red shirts for their association with gangs). It would be great if Detroit really were a safe place to ramble, but numbers and instinct say otherwise. To counter the fear-mongering of many news outlets, the subject is rather deliberately avoided here, perhaps irresponsibly. The aim of the rambling network is to encourage people to walk, to feel safe walking — the more people who walk and feel safe walking, the more conducive to safe walking the city becomes. It’s just not quite there yet. At all. So, like everything else in Detroit, we rely on community. We band together and walk.

Maybe between all these walks, alone and collectively, we’re channelling a bit of Helmreich in the Midwest. Have you undertaken this kind of committed programmatic exploration? Would you? As Helmreich says, everything’s interesting. Especially here, in a city where time so palpably passes, the landscape is almost too literally a great (if haphazardly archived) museum. Let me know if you want to go for a walk in it.

Smile!

March 8, 2014

“Cheer up, honey, you’d look so pretty if you smiled,” they’d say. “Why so serious? Put on a smile, baby!”

I started hearing these kinds of comments a few years ago, often from older men I see out around town. It was baffling. Had I suddenly lost it, been replaced overnight by a grouchy, snaggle-faced crone? I was smiling, I thought. Their comments felt preemptive. Should I try harder? I started scowling instead. I’d long considered it something of a job, to go around proudly walking and smiling and making days brighter, humming along the sidewalk like some audacious ambassador of happiness. Eventually it became apparent that other women were dealing with this peculiar phenomenon too, and were, unsurprisingly, weary of it.

Brooklyn oil painter, thinker, and muralist extraordinaire Tatyana Fazlalizadeh is one of those individuals. She got so sick of the “tyranny of the smile” and related harassment that she’s talking back to not just one gentleman here or there, but to everybody, through a series of snappy street art pieces. Stop Telling Women to Smile is a potent antidote to these grating reproaches.

Photo from STWTS blog.

Photo from STWTS blog.

Fazlalizadeh has done a meticulous job of interviewing women about their experiences getting hollered at, drawing their portraits, and formulating a concise message beneath each portrait. She pastes these on blank walls and other surfaces of public domain as a way for women to speak back against harassment, without encountering further, potentially endangering, harassment.

Photo from STWTS blog.

Photo from STWTS blog.

Most of my initial experiences with harassment here were on a bike. Detroiters have built an increasingly lovely, inclusive biking culture in which I’m lucky to participate. But harassment often takes a different shape on foot than it does on a bike. It’s obviously no breeze when cycling — come on guys, I barely heard you as I whizzed by. Isn’t it obvious I’m way too fast to ride you like that? On foot, the interaction is prolonged. The comments stick around, get uncomfortable under the skin. When I ignore catcallers, they raise their voices and repeat, or snicker to their friends about what a haughty bitch I must be.

It’s scarier as a pedestrian, too. When an interaction goes awry, sometimes there’s a large angry man screaming at my back, lobbing damning, obscene phrases for the next block. Talking back forthrightly has shown little benefit — when asked, “Hey baby, how you doin’?,” the vexed response of “DO I LOOK LIKE AN INFANT TO YOU?!” rarely goes over well. It’s more infuriating when it’s young men trying to catch my attention — shouldn’t they know better? If we’re from the same generation, don’t they know what’s offensive? Older men shouldn’t be excused, but outrage is tempered by the belief that back in some day, these were actually compliments that indeed garnered a woman’s smile. And chivalry is charming, right?

Photo from STWTS blog.

Photo from STWTS blog.

After a while countering harassment with art in her native Brooklyn, Fazlalizadeh took the project to other cities through a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign. Next week she’ll be in LA, as per the STWTS tumblr, doing more portraits and wheatpasting events. Despite Detroit being on the original itinerary, a visit here seems to have fallen by the wayside, and my email inquiry went unanswered.

Detroit seems an ideal location to bring a project like this — a city full of art spaces, fierce frontier women, spare time, an unhealthy dose of crime, lots of abandoned walls — but not a whole lot of pedestrians. Maybe it’s the case that Detroiters are so “dynamically creative,” as reported a recent video harping on the irksome “strong woman” stereotype, that they don’t need some New Yorker’s art project. “I feel like everyone that I know that’s a woman in Detroit, they do more than one thing creatively. Like, you can’t be a woman who just paints. She has to paint, dance, teach yoga and, you know, she makes everything that she wears,” one interviewee infuriatingly uptalked, as though running through a mandatory checklist for being female in Detroit. Surely these are the preoccupations of your other stereotypical Detroiter, struggling to balance time between job-searching and raising a family in a neighborhood where “nobody” lives anymore, an applicability far beyond the brave new women in the video moving “down to Detroit” to get a “harder edge,” because it’s cool and because they can.

Photo from STWTS blog.

Photo from STWTS blog.

I asked a thoughtful female friend, someone who more or less approximates this “strong woman” stereotype what she thought about starting up a wheatpasting contingent here. Prints of STWTS’ images are kindly furnished to groups of five or more committed wheatpasters. Perhaps an organization like the Feminist Collective of Detroit would be interested, I suggested. “Maybe,” she said unenthusiastically. “But I like smiling. I don’t want to not smile. Isn’t that message a little… extreme?”

And it is. Maybe the discord is simply semantic, or maybe we are more tenuously attached to the feminist cause than we thought. Stop Telling Women to Smile is a catchy phrase, but others are more apt. “What about ‘women are not outside for your entertainment’?” I asked. “Isn’t that brilliant?” “Sure,” she replied uneasily. Is the forcefulness of the project’s name necessary? Fazlalizadeh seems to think so, as do legions of women now padding around college campuses sporting t-shirts instructing their fellow students not to tell them to smile. Perhaps after interviewing women here, Fazlalizadeh’s posters for this city would be different than the ones we’ve seen before. Detroit likes smiling; Detroiters are friendly folk.

This unsmiling emphasis on friendliness intertwines curiously with a few other public art projects visible on Detroit’s streets, walls, and outdoor objects. The long-dormant project Cheer Up! Detroit encourages viewers to up their optimism with slogans like “Today will be the best day ever,” “Keep those bad thoughts out of your head” and, succinctly, “Boom shaka laka.”

Photo from Cheer Up! Detroit.

Photo from Cheer Up! Detroit.

Some of these are undeniably oriented toward the physical level, but turn a blind eye to gendered expectations, such as the one that reads, “Your moustache looks really lovely today,” in looping, multicolored script overlooked by a bushy blonde moustache (Let’s wonder for a moment, though — how many Detroiters actually have blonde moustaches?).

Photo from Cheer Up! Detroit.

Photo from Cheer Up! Detroit.

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A more recent appearance of happiness propaganda is the “Smile More” sticker. The associated website, itmakesyouhappier.com educates visitors about the perils of stress, and recommends smiling as a countermeasure. Stress, it says, causes angry outbursts, overeating, social withdrawal, headaches, and heart attacks — smiling lowers blood pressure, heart rate, and promotes healthy breathing. Also found to be beneficial in combatting stress are reading, creating, exercise, hugs, prayer, and being helpful.

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While their simplistic estimation of how even phony smiles make the brain a better place may miss some of the subtleties that work like Fazlalizadeh’s aims to address, it’s hard to argue that more people smiling is a harmful thing. So, if no one is to ask or tell anyone else to smile with impunity, how are we to compose our faces? Are we supposed to stop stopping smiling, or stop smiling? Although it’s a funny injustice to pick at, it’s yet another insidious double standard to say that men must be polite-faced to women, who are entitled to sail by with Bitchy Resting Faces unperturbed.

Yes, a face is a personal thing, but you’re in public. Do we want Detroit to be another cold city where no one will make eye contact or ask how your day is, whether or not they fancy getting in your pants? As the city expands, intermixing new perspectives and habits into the existing culture, do we have to forfeit the high level of friendliness and courtesy that has made our community feel as tight-knit as a small town? Smile, humans of Detroit. What do you have to lose?

Incidentally, today is International Women’s Day. Happy that! Here is one more cause for a smile. It’s embarrassing to chime in with what may seem to be mixed praises of women and their doubtless achievements, but affirming above all our shared humanity is to me in keeping with the UN’s theme for this year’s celebration, “Equality for women is progress for all.”

Walking — it’s for the birds!

March 4, 2014

When the tide of conventional holidays slogging by fails to inspire, or when they’ve passed unacknowledged, it’s reassuring to have something else going on, something better. Late on Valentine’s? Don’t care for dead roses and gobs of cheap chocolate? Be all the more romantic celebrating Dragobete, while perhaps affecting a bright spot of good in the world.

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Dragobete, a Romanian Valentine’s holiday taking place since ancient times antedating Romania itself, is celebrated on February 24, marking the beginning of spring. It’s “the day the birds are betrothed,” when they begin to seek mates and construct their nests. Humans are more or less expected to do the same.

As Wikipedia has it, “If the weather allows, girls and boys pick snowdrops or other early spring plants for the person they are courting. Maidens used to collect the snow that lay on the ground in many villages and then melt it, using the water in magic potions throughout the rest of the year. Those who take part in Dragobete customs are supposed to be protected from illness, especially fevers, for the rest of the year.” There’s also a bit about singing together after gathering the vernal flowers, but as much as singing relates to the well-being of birds, the karaoke can wait for another occasion.

It’s well before the vernal equinox, and hardly a thing springlike outside, but all the more reason to collectively attempt to banish the midwinter and its blues. (It seems that ancient Romanians didn’t expect spring to show up after Dragobete, either — another spring-bringing holiday associated with fertility, Mărțișor, is scheduled just a week later on March 1). On the Sunday we finally got around to belatedly showing the birds what our best wishes were made of, it was rainy and 46 degrees in Bucharest, Romania — certainly a higher proportion of spring to winter than the bitter 11 degrees we endured here.

We sensibly started with some warming tea. Kukicha, or twig tea, nested in one pot, and the green lushness of stinging nettles steeped fragrantly in another. Perched on the table next to bowls of trail mix fixings was birdseed toast accompanied by homemade mulberry preserves, mulberries being an apparent favorite of birds around here. Brownies made with buckwheat and sour cherry, the fruit harvested on walks around town, would have probably been enjoyed by birds as well. Mulberries seem like a greater hit with birds than the cherries, but the bias may come from the telltale seasonal splotches of bird poop inked dark by berries.

Leftovers, food bloggers, leftovers.

Leftovers, food bloggers, leftovers.

Tea is just ceremony; the most important part of the Dragobete celebration is offering the birds some avian housewarmers to ease early nesting dilemmas. We rounded up our bags of hair clippings from the winter’s haircuts, or the morning’s hairbrushing, in the case of one superb brushwad encased in a small paper bag, and some of us bravely snipped offerings on the spot, including one person who literally went under the knife to harvest a lock. We set off at dusk in the general direction of “more fields,” which are less numerous nearby given recent fruitless destruction of bird habitats.

Plastic bag full of hair, wandering up Grand River. Wonder how many of those there are.

Plastic bag full of hair, wandering up Grand River. Wonder how many of those there are.


Once, there was a streetlight. This teacup of hair was briefly illuminated.

Once, there was a streetlight. This teacup of hair was briefly illuminated.

We trudged through the snow for a couple miles, eventually finding some nice fields skirting stands of promising scrubby little trees. The snow was etched with bird tracks unidentifiable to me, hopefully birds that enjoy nesting in our silky split ends. The wind funnelled the hair hither and thither. It was very quiet. We wondered where the birds were sleeping.

This is primarily a picture of wind.

This is primarily a picture of wind.


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Of course we could have just thrown the hair out the window and been done with it, but over the years the holiday has evolved to incorporate a longer and longer walk — and what holiday, especially those celebrating the rhythms of nature, isn’t better for that?

Much thanks to everyone who took part in making spring a more probably reality for our avian neighbors. Next year, bird house construction party? Field guide reading group?

Little lost

March 1, 2014

Sorry, Detroit, but New York’s walking culture is always on its toes. Perhaps that’s what happens, among other things, when you cram 8 million people into a space just a bit over half of Detroit’s footprint. One of these eight million is Yoonjin Lee, or Zoonzin, a student at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. Recently Zoonzin became what the Atlantic Cities referred to as the “unofficial curator of lost stuff” when she started a project addressing the sad plight of our most useful quotidian paraphernalia, such as the ubiquitous lost glove. Lighters, lip balm, candy, metro cards, hair ties, and even a sunny yellow paperclip are among her other subjects.

Photos by Yoonjin Lee.

Photos by Yoonjin Lee.

After locating a forlorn item hanging out alone in a public space, she creates a small note and affixes it to the object, leaving the tiny thing suddenly noticeable to passersby. Her messages are sometimes poignant, others, petulant, and the whole project is tremendously candid — how admirable it is that she’s not deterred by having kind of gnarly handwriting and only rough scraps of cardboard at her disposal. One can only cringe imagining how sad the lost stuff is as snow starts to fall and their weepy black magic marker voice spirals toward the dank oblivion of storm drains.

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As Zoonzin said in an email interview with the Atlantic Cities, “I wanted to humanize everyday objects that we do not think much of and leave them on the streets. When people lose their favorite lip balm, it really annoys them but it does not ruin their life. If you change the perspective, falling out of someone’s pocket and being left useless on the street is life-changing.”

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Zoonzin’s kind of empathy, curiosity, and whimsy should be among the essentials we pack with us on any outing, among other more tangible trappings. It’s a wonderful world in which someone else cares enough about the possibilities, the varied life stories of these mundane little objects, to document them in such a small and transient way. It’s like craigslist missed connections, but without all the blundering “m4f hot waitress at Applebee’s” and dismal misspellings. (She does have the caps lock on pretty hard, though).

Where would these things be now, if they hadn’t fatefully plummeted to the sidewalk? We’ll never know, but Zoonzin isn’t hesitating to make it up. See more of her humorous assertions on the Little Lost Project website, facebook, or tumblr.