Monthly Archives: June 2014

Smells of the Midtown Loop

June 29, 2014

Aside from wandering around, one of my favorite things to do is pore over maps, which is why I’m so fond of the diligently-updated DETROITography blog. When I awoke Friday morning to a post relating a psychogeographic approach to the Midtown Loop by Alex Hill, I was inspired to do some more deliberate psychogeography myself and replicate Hill’s walk.

Hill’s impression of the Midtown Loop in early June was heavy on the exhaust and diesel fumes, and he concluded by suggesting that reducing car use be a priority on a route that is supposed to be one of Detroit’s walkability showpieces. For the most part the Midtown Loop resembles your average street and sidewalk pairing, except with fancy pavement designs and noticeably upgraded landscaping near the Science Center. Hypothesizing that results of my walk would differ between night and day, I decided to travel the loop twice.

Day

Day

It was a more yogic walking experience than I’m used to, forced into awareness of my breath as I tried to detect some scents. On both walks I took, one on Friday around noon and another on Saturday around midnight, lovely winds rushed at me, especially on the long north-south stretches of Cass and John R. Many of these gentle gusts brought clean riverfront air, concealing native scents.

Night

Night

Daytime is much smellier for the Midtown Loop than night, with thirty-two scent events compared to eighteen after hours. While I wasn’t struck by its unpleasantness while walking, exhaust fumes were abundant on my daytime loop, accounting for eight scent events where traffic lined up at stoplights. The nighttime walk was dominated by five great woodsy whiffs of fresh mulch. More mysterious scents floated through the night air — chlorine, gasoline, and a funny plastic reek, none of which had an origin visually evident.

The lunchtime smells of fried food at La Palma, tempura outside of Wasabi, the meat and fried things at Warren and Cass, and a generic restaurant smell outside of the Whitney gave way in the night to a lone greasy odor at Woodward and Canfield. Predictably, the loop smelled of other pedestrians much more during the day than at night — smoking, cologne, deodorant, and laundry smells were as much a part of the experience as the landscape itself.

It was interesting how poorly scent mapped onto place, how dissociated an aroma might be from its origin. Without the usual visuals, I had no idea where I was. For all I could tell, the nasty barren lawn of the hospital complex may as well have been a forest trail, and the daylilies blooming along Canfield were invisible to the nose. One might conclude that the Midtown Loop was designed to be experienced less with the nose than the eyes.

Although it’s no joking matter, this may be the one way Detroit is safer for walking at night. The daytime air pollution from traffic that was so unappealing for Alex Hill during his walk dissipated at night. The relatively clear air after dark is a significant benefit for pedestrians uninterested in basking in noxious fumes and harmful particulates as they stroll along a greenway.

On the record

June 28, 2014

This week’s New Yorker has a funny little piece from David Sedaris on walking the English countryside near his home in the company of his Fitbit pedometer. Describing his obsessive tendencies and ever-increasing daily step count, he writes,

I look back at that time and laugh—fifteen thousand steps—Ha! That’s only about seven miles! Not bad if you’re on a business trip or you’re just getting used to a new prosthetic leg. In Sussex, though, it’s nothing. Our house is situated on the edge of a rolling downland, a perfect position if you like what the English call “rambling.” I’ll follow a trail every now and then, but as a rule I prefer roads, partly because it’s harder to get lost on a road, but mainly because I’m afraid of snakes.”

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To facilitate such a high daily total of paces as he ultimately accumulated, having a purpose is advisable, and Sedaris embraced trash collection. This practice reminds me of the bumly litter-picker who used to rove Wayne State’s campus, obsessively tidying the grounds. I never really got to talk with this guy — he was always very intent on his task — but I miss him making his rounds, figuratively darning the environment like an old sock. Sedaris recently began carrying a trash-collecting claw on a metal pole, which sounds like a big improvement over his former habits.

With it I can walk, fear snakes a little less, and satisfy my insane need for order all at the same time. I’ve been cleaning the roads in my area of Sussex for three years now, but before the Fitbit I did it primarily on my bike, and with my bare hands. That was fairly effective, but I wound up missing a lot. On foot, nothing escapes my attention: a potato-chip bag stuffed into the hollow of a tree, an elderly mitten caught in the embrace of a blackberry bush, a mud-coated matchbook at the bottom of a ditch.

Strawberry shrubbish.

Strawberry shrubbish.

In his most recent collection, Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, for which I walked to the public library last year only to find I actually had to rent the book, he covers much of the same territory (trash removal being an ongoing thing and all). As one blogger said glowingly, inspired to reconsider his retirement plans, “I’m not sure why, but when David Sedaris talked about how he picked up trash alongside the highways and byways of Britain it seemed really cool. Maybe this is a mark of a good writer. They can talk about picking up trash and make it sound totally awesome.” Who knows how Sedaris even has time to write, with hauling around bags of refuse nine hours a day, but evidently it’s worth it. Perhaps this is just how literary greats roll.

Since getting my Fitbit, I’ve seen all kinds of things I wouldn’t normally have come across. Once, it was a toffee-colored cow with two feet sticking out of her. I was rambling that afternoon, with my friend Maja, and as she ran to inform the farmer I marched in place, envious of the extra steps she was getting in.

What noble thing-finderly spirit! Just wait until he mentions all the dead animals he comes across.

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Sedaris’ sentiment at the death of his Fitbit is similar to that of many others — freedom! Of course, since it’s David Sedaris, there must be a twist. If a touch macabre is your kind of humor, don’t miss these droll musings on the true history of peppercorn sales and the relationship between fried chicken and sex. Read “Stepping Out” in The New Yorker.

Rambling report

June 23, 2014

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We started the ramble on the narrow brick paths of the Zen Center garden, winding toward the gate. In accordance with the beautiful day promised by meteorologists, iced beverages were first on the agenda, so we stopped into Delite on Caniff before turning north again. We peered into Popp’s Packing, revisiting the origin of one rambler’s dissipating hangover. Looking at fields striped with rows of red clover, one rambler shared with us the secret to extracting nectar from the blossoms.

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We crossed the freeway at Carpenter, Hamtramck’s northern border, where the Colonel Hamtramck Homes are situated west of Dequindre. The first federally-funded public housing in Michigan outside of Detroit, the tight community of old buildings has an otherworldly feel. It’s also the only place where I’ve noticed street signs posted directly on buildings.

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We passed by the long blocks of the scantily-forested Grand Haven-Dyer revitalization project, a strip of Hamtramck that feels decidedly Detroit, with the vacant lots dotted with uncomfortably new brick and vinyl infill homes. We crossed the freeway again.

We marvelled at the phenomenon of multiple homes housed on single lots and smaller residences set back from their larger neighbors, lending an uncanny sense of suburban privacy. North of Caniff the streets are lined with the monotonous two-story flats I associate with the city, but venture south and everything changes.

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Here we found the old Hamtramck, as resident historian Greg Kowalski put it, of “tidy homes on tiny lots.” Ramblers were very relieved to not be “in the middle of nowhere” touring block after block of tedious “nothingness” like last time — not sure how well this bodes for future walks in Detroit. Hamtramck offered plenty to keep us distracted — quirky signage, milk crates sprouting from trees in makeshift basketball hoops, flowerpots filled with onions, a lonely sand-colored military vehicle, ice cream trucks, and huts carved out of garages to cozily house garbage cans, reminding me of shelters at the end of long driveways in rural areas for kids awaiting the school bus.

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After emerging from the alley paralleling Joseph Campau, we walked along Florian, selected for its high probability of being the most tree-lined street in the city. Mass was in session at the enormous church, and we lurked in the garden for a moment listening to trills of organ spill from the cathedral’s open windows.

Making our way to the southwest corner of Hamtramck, we stopped to rest next to Hamtown Farms, not exactly an oasis with its picnic tables and benches out in full sun. Further down Lumpkin, stopping to use a conveniently located portapotty at the site of some new construction, we watched a field of soccer players in the foreground of an odd clear view of the Fisher building. Now that the American Axle plant no longer fully spans between Denton and Holbrook, the sight was a reminder of how close seemingly isolated landmarks are in the city, despite perceived long distances.

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Where there had been gritty, dusty lots in the past, scars of recent change, nature had reclaimed the south end of town and was coexisting nicely with residents. Instead of seeming blighted, the accumulated verdure was well-kept and reassuring. The neighborhood had a certain healthy lushness I didn’t remember before. An exception was Holbrook Garden, a tribute to master gardener and activist Gerald Hairston, where the lovely pergola was overrun with brush and the wayward memorial sign had sprouted many tags, ironically enough many of them pledging, “I love”.

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We passed the funny red Holbrook School, whose tiny playground I used to cut through, admiring its economy. I was surprised to find out later that the school, built in 1896, is perhaps the oldest continuously operating school in Michigan. Fortunately voters passed a millage to protect the buildings a few months ago. We saw most of Hamtramck’s schools between these two walks, at one rambler’s request passing by the lovely historic Hamtramck High School.

Ramblers rambled in for a sugar fix at Detroit Donut, then went east to Gallagher and north toward the Zen Center garden. As the light began to fade, popular vote took us in the direction of Aladdin, overshooting our starting point. On the fragmented walk back to the Zen Center garden later, the twilight air was redolent with night-blooming jasmine. I hope other ramblers got to smell the flowers, too.

Thanks for rambling! We hope to see you all next time. Sign up for our email list to get the latest rambling reminders.

Rambling report and a little ramb

June 21, 2014

Announcement! We’re at it again. Join us on a little ramb at 5:00 this Sunday, June 22. Read on for details.

This past weekend, ramblers convened beneath scorching sun to participate in nothing more than an ordinary June day. We met in Veterans’ Park on the south end of town to set off in celebration of Bloomsday and Dalloway Day, midsummer literary holidays inspired by real and fictional walks on ordinary days in June.

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Ramblers took the ‘holiday’ aspect of this ramble more seriously than its origins might demand. The fictional walks in both books start out with the intent of accomplishing an errand. Most ramblers had no errands to do on a weekend afternoon, except one who adopted the classic Mrs. Dalloway task of picking flowers. Without a purpose, the ramble slumped shapelessly northward, strung along by the loose intention to arrive at another park before tacking west and weaving through the center of town.

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Ramblers taking a desire path.

Ramblers taking a desire path.

It didn’t take long before ramblers were bemoaning the deficit of street trees, seeking shade at any opportunity. On subsequent unofficial rambles during the week, one rambler who was unable to come on Sunday offered that, in some parts of town, trees went missing in the tornado that touched down in the ’90s. Either way, areas we rambled could benefit from some greening.

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The alleys on this side of town — some of it actually Detroit — had a character all their own. The tidy paved alleys of other blocks, overrun with skipping children and neatly lined with trash bins, were not to be found here. These were often pastoral, though some had strange amenities like carpet. Saying hello to a family hanging out in their backyard and complimenting their garden, they asked what we were doing there. “Be careful,” they warned, “you could get mugged back there.” A few more feet up the alley I came across a comic plastic squirt gun.

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We were momentarily cheered by a sprinkler set up on somebody’s lawn. After trooping through two parks, ramblers ignored an ice cream truck and suggestions to go north just another block to pass by the Power House Project’s art houses, and made a saggy beeline for Hamtramck Disneyland. As most ramblers had never been there, this was definitely a bright spot. We signed the guestbook and sampled nearby mulberries, the first ripe ones of the season.

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Next was coffee and samosas at Bengali food favorite Aladdin. Despite the heat that drove a fraction of our group to wait outside, deeming it cooler, ramblers eschewed the adorable Burk’s Igloo ice cream stand. At one rambler’s suggestion, we continued south on Conant to see the “business district,” witnessing a party and literal signs of globalization. Realizing that we might have rather been on Joseph Campau the whole time, we veered over there for a few final blocks near Holbrook, admiring odd hats in the windows and discussing dreams for operating storefronts of our own.

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As the sun blared unkindly at us, ramblers voted to call it quits. We checked out Keyworth Stadium and took a shortcut through an empty lot to look at the old Hamtramck Stadium at the rear of Veterans’ Park, a historic site one rambler pointed out is one of just twelve remaining Negro League baseball stadiums.

This ramble and follow-up walks during the week, accompanied and solo, made me wistful for the time I lived in Hamtramck years ago, first discovering what a “walkable” place might mean. Our Bloomsday ramble missed much of what makes Hamtramck Hamtramck to me. The busy streets, revealing alleys, bustling commerce, many languages, the people, families, kids, the little houses set far back from the street, the ornate churches, the converted homes that once were corner bars or stores.

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In setting out to cover a geographic distance, which is not a bad strategy in exploring Detroit where interesting parts are farther flung, we missed our whole reason for meeting in Hamtramck — the density of the tiny 2.09 square mile city, the diversity in such a small area that makes it so engaging despite covering far shorter stretches of latitudinal or longitudinal terrain.

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It’s tough to imagine a ramble being “complete,” since there is always more to explore, and more perspectives to bring to the same area. In the case of last week’s Hamtramck Bloomsday ramble, so much was left unexamined that a little re-ramb is in order.

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Join us this Sunday, June 22, for a solstice visit to Hamtramck’s more populous parts. Meet at 5:00 at the Zen Center garden on Mitchell just south of Casmere. At the height of the season, we’ll see what’s growing where, from mulberries in the alleys to the impressive variety of roses, the carefully curated cactus gardens to the trellised gardens rarely seen elsewhere. Hamtramck City Council recently passed a noxious weed ordinance banning vegetable gardens from front yards. Although the mayor pledges to fight it, code violations are reportedly being collected by the Hamtramck Community Inititive and handed over to the police. What will this mean for residents and the landscape, especially gardeners on lots that are all front yard?

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Miscellaneous goods:
Hamtramck Geography blog’s look at the alleys
ModelD article from 2009 on Hamtramck’s “barroom legacy”
Curbed’s tour of Hamtramck’s hidden bar houses — some good contentious comments on this one. (Also, Curbed Detroit has a ‘ghost bars’ section? Really?)

Rambling alert! Sunday, June 15

June 10, 2014

Let’s ramble this Sunday! Meet at Veterans Park in Hamtramck at 3:00, and plan on returning around sunset.

Inspired by the celebrated midsummer perambulations in James Joyce’s Ulysses and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, this walk is all about an ordinary day in June. Monday, June 16, marks the 110th Bloomsday, when Joyce set out on a walk in Dublin with his future wife, later translating into the experiences of protagonist Leopold Bloom. For the past sixty years, modernist literati have devoted the day to tracing these fictional footsteps, usually amid much recitation of passages from the book and a fair bit of drinking.

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For this ramble, we’ll convene in the city of Hamtramck to simulate the population density that makes these two books and their entangled urban walks compelling (sort of, since it’s been years and I still can’t manage to actually finish reading Mrs. Dalloway). Since we’re unable to set out from Virginia Woolf’s London residence or from Leopold Bloom’s since-demolished Dublin address, we’ll start in Veterans Park (for convenience, but also a nod to Woolf’s character Septimus Smith, a veteran who spends the day in the park, suffering bewildering PTSD episodes).

In keeping with the make-your-own-ordinary-June-day theme, please consider bringing an errand that you wish to do over the course of the ramble. Buying (or just picking) flowers, visiting the post office (or mailbox), getting a pork kidney (or other fixing) for tomorrow’s breakfast, picking up some soap at the pharmacy, stopping by the bar, preparing for a party, or just seeing what’s going on in the world while toting a lucky potato in your pocket. Feel free to bring a book in the event of a reading break.

Please wear more sensible footwear than Clarissa Dalloway probably would’ve been sporting, and don’t forget, as the British call it, your sun cream.

Miscellaneous goods:
Interactive map of Joyce’s Dublin
Article on Dalloway Day: “Why Doesn’t Mrs. Dalloway Get a Day of Her Own?”
Facebook event for last year’s inaugural Clarissa Dalloway Day