Monthly Archives: July 2014

Wild west

July 27, 2014

Until recently, Detroit had a reputation for being a sort of urban ‘wild west.’ There was a certain pervasive lawlessness — the ignored traffic signals; the flourishing of large colorful Heidelberg dots on collapsing homes; the knowledge that if called, no police would arrive for days. There was a small undercurrent and large stereotype of anarchy and sometimes violence, of fierce frontier people eking out the best living they could. There were vast stretches of prairie, beekeepers, urban farms, and hardly any security cameras downtown. You could go to Belle Isle anytime you pleased. So could everybody else. There was a feeling that anything could or was happening here, very distinct from the kinds of anythings about which Dan Gilbert dreams.

With its wild midwest atmosphere, it’s about time Detroit has a proper ranch, but I was still surprised to see animals out grazing on grasses and chicory in the Cass Corridor. Actually, they weren’t quite animals roaming the lawn but the anthropomorphic forms of radiators, letting off steam on a cool afternoon.

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The radiators have a bright petting-zoo color scheme and a silky finish. They seem friendly and well-adjusted — the small red one I approached didn’t bite. They’re much quieter than most radiators I’ve met, none of the usual hissing and clanking. In what is clearly their natural environment, they’re happily thriving.

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Most radiators have free range on their patch of grass, with no fencing to keep them off the sidewalk. One young orange radiator, lanky and skinny-ribbed, is isolated in the security of a chicken tractor. A stenciled sign is accompanied by a charming note from the rancher instructing passersby not to feed the radiators. A ranch is pretty self-explanatory — there are animals; they are tended — but, being a city person unfamiliar with ranch operations, I had some questions. What do radiators do in the winter? Do they try to migrate? Do they stay outside in a shelter or coop like chickens do, maybe with a heat lamp? Should I bring them a dish of water, or does dew suffice? What are their names? The rancher was unavailable for questions.

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On another fortuitous occasion, it was possible to meet the rancher, who turned out to be Aaron Timlin, of Detroit Contemporary fame. Installation of the new ranch was done with the help of a young niece, Timlin said, figuring that painting was a good project to share. The radiators have been out for a few days, but, occupied with other matters, he hasn’t been able to keep a close eye on them. He seemed relieved that neighbors were looking after them.

Timlin says ideally by winter the radiators will be nice and plump, able to endure harsher conditions. It will probably be mating season for a while, he laughed, looking at two heat exchangers that have been shamelessly going at it next to the sidewalk since they were let loose earlier this week. I hope the gestation period of radiators — one thing Wikipedia doesn’t know — is short enough that a healthy crop of radiator offspring will grow big enough by fall.

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As a fellow rambler and I stood admiringly on the sidewalk, talking with a friend we’d run into down the street and convinced to come check out the ranch, a neighbor walking by stopped to talk. “They’re cute as hell!” He had his eye on a certain blue radiator, evidently inspired by Timlin’s example and interested in becoming a rancher himself. “Do you know how long they’re going to be out here?” he asked us. “I want to take a picture, but my phone’s broken!” This neighbor had barely left when another visited. “If I stay inside, it’s boring — so I just come out for a walk,” he said apologetically, excusing his lengthy explanation of his own collection of old things, which turned out to be antique dolls.

Something exciting is happening on every street — and if it isn’t, good neighbors will make it happen. (Except maybe on mine, where, despite the best neighbors, it took a fatal shooting this week to get everybody together, assembling in something like a really macabre block party). Although Timlin mentioned concerns over potentially negative new-neighbor perceptions of his ranch, this project is just how being neighborly should be done. As more of Detroit becomes the playground, as Chris Ilitch so plainly put it this week, of wealthy “investors,” it is all the more important to defend as much as we can of our playground, our wild west, from the encroachment of bland development’s manifest destiny. Preferably, as Timlin is doing, with creativity and humor.

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Park watch: Cass and Columbia

July 24, 2014

This weekend, plans were announced for the new sports arena to be interpolated in the grey area between Midtown and downtown. While the glowing red arena with its googly purple octopus seemed unnecessarily demonic, the news was overall positive. Fears over the fate of Cass Park were allayed as the Ilitches pledged to rehabilitate the greenspace. What’s more, new parks will be moving in downtown.

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The blocks surrounding Cass Park will henceforth be known as Cass Park Village. The park itself is envisioned as an anchor for the neighborhood — probably without implications of restraint or deadweight. Chris Ilitch described the new village as “funky” and “frontiering,” in an interview with Crain’s, so maybe expect an eventual Royal Oak-like vibe as students flee increasing rents and photography studios specializing in weddings and babies move in.

Breaking ground this fall, much of the initial development is expected to be infrastructure improvements near the park to attract third-party developers. This means new streets, lighting, sidewalks, and hopefully some love for the park itself. This probably spells doom for the pink signs.

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As the official media kit puts it, the creatively-named Columbia Park area will be a “fresh, modern neighborhood anchored by a new public green space.” The rendering depicts a busy streetscape, which is apparently to be near the new park and is where lots of creepy faceless people will go to eat and buy stuff.

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“Great parks are vitally important,” Ilitch stated in conversation with Crain’s, evidently in concord with Duggan’s fair weather priorities. The new park will replace Olympia’s unsightly gravel lot M on Cass across from Bookie’s and another empty lot.

Planning parks on unused land has its upsides. There will be no illegal destruction of historic buildings; no need to send in the wrecking crews to deal with all those meddlesome swingsets and mature shade trees. It’s like somebody got their hands on the textbook for Urban Planning 101 instead of urban planning lol.

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Another noteworthy feature on the new map is the presence of lightly forested areas immediately abutting the freeway. North of I-75 between Grand River and Cass shows trees almost half a block deep, and south of the freeway trees dot the entire block between Second and Cass north of the new park. Another island of greenery pads the northern edge of Ford Field. Other plans include a vague mention of new pedestrian bridges. Although the acreage of new greenspace does not look especially high, it’s a lot of increasingly valuable land to give over to forces of nature, and will be interesting to see if the Ilitches live up to the as of yet sketchily-outlined plan.

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Until then, this is the before. Expect to be locked out of here for a while — fencing off parks is a favorite Detroit developer pastime. Can’t wait until 2017, when hopefully we can roam around and smell the flowers in the after!

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Where the sidewalk doesn’t end

July 22, 2014

Surprisingly good sidewalk news from the 7.2 and beyond:

    • No crosswalks have materialized on the recently bi-directional Second Avenue in Midtown, but crews are replacing disturbed sections of sidewalk.
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      One worker, looking zen as all get out as he smoothed the new patch with a cement-leveling tool, said, “We just fix what DTE breaks!” No response regarding the absence of crosswalks has been received following an email dated July 14 to the office of Jereen Rice, Midtown Detroit Inc.’s “Greenway & Non-Motorized Planner/Engineer.” Meanwhile, pedestrians still cannot get to the Bronx and back without undue risk.
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    • M-1 rail is breaking ground next week, which means it will be construction season on Woodward until 2016. While pedestrians know that this usually entails a wild goose chase of detours, M-1 rail planners are promising to keep sidewalks open, as Craig Fahle noted while skimming through publicity documents. “You’re going to make sure sidewalks are maintained; everything’s ADA compliant throughout the entire construction project. That’s not always the case in a project like this,” he said in an interview with chief operating officer Paul Childs.
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    • As the grand plan for the future Ilitch sports arena was announced this week, it brought some unexpected positive news for current Detroit pedestrians. Cass Park will still be a park, and a nicer one at that. As Curbed reported, “Most of the immediate construction in places like Cass Park Plaza will be in the form of new infrastructure (streets, sidewalks, etc) and landscaping to lure outside developers.” As Chris Ilitch told Crain’s, fixing streetlights and landscaping will “free the city up to spend its resources on other priorities.” How generous. Then, in a bizarre choice of words to describe a place where people actually live, Ilitch said, “This is an investor’s playground.” At least sidewalks are usually a priority near playgrounds.
    • Elsehere, sidewalks have bifurcated and grown lanes. In a “behavioral science experiment,” crews from a new National Geographic TV show have painted lanes on a Washington, D.C. sidewalk, splitting pedestrians into phone-using and non-phone-using groups.
      Photo by Cliff Owen for the Associated Press

      Photo by Cliff Owen for the Associated Press


      It went about as successfully as would be expected for a TV crew masquerading as behavioral scientists. Pedestrians either ignored it or posted pictures of it on social media. Can’t wait until this episode airs.
  • Park watch: Lipke Recreation Center

    July 21, 2014

    If you think, as I do, that park drama is bad downtown and in Midtown and other areas where development is leaving a heavy footprint, think again. If you think that protecting greenspace in areas of the city that are not near your home is fighting sometime else’s fight, think again. The water is everybody’s water, the parks are everybody’s parks, and everybody needs to do what they can this week to save Lipke Park.

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    Lipke Recreation Center and Playfield is fifteen acres of greenspace in the northeast corner of Detroit at Van Dyke and Seven Mile. The park and recreation facility opened in 1952 and was dedicated to three brothers from the neighborhood who died serving in World War II. The park has well-kept sports fields and play equipment. In the middle of this sits a very intact but defunct ten-year-old recreation center that closed in 2013 after climate control units were stolen from its roof — and, not at all coincidentally, a year after a buyer interested in the park appeared.

    On July 1, 2014, the city council ignored the community’s protests and voted to designate the park land “surplus,” transferring its ownership from Detroit’s Recreation Department to the Planning and Development Department. The Salvation Army is pushing to purchase the park to turn it into a church and outreach center, although odd promises of a waterpark have also been batted around, much to the community’s dismay. Scott Benson, District 3’s city council member, has done nothing to see that the residents have a fair say in the proposed deal, skipping meetings and blatantly lying about his interactions with residents, when he is not busy getting arrested for drunk driving.

    University of Michigan student Kali Aloisi, who is spending the summer working in the Nortown CDC office examining District 3’s 55 parks writes that,

    “This was hardly a surprise as this deal has been in the works for about a year now. The problem, however, is how underhandedly this whole process has happened. Community members surrounding Lipke have fought relentlessly to be apart of this decision and plan, and have been kept in the dark through every effort. Promises of a new water park, have turned into discoveries that the Salvation Army has no intention of keeping Lipke a green space. The politics behind this deal are ugly.”

    What’s shocking is that the Salvation Army has had no obligation to provide written plans to the city, the council, or the residents on what they plan to do with the space until the sale is complete. Can this really happen? In a more vast struggle over privatization of public services and public land, the takeover of parks for alleged community benefit has a particularly hostile edge.

    As the city struggles to maintain its 302 parks (official count from WDET’s Park Watch master list), some people contend that Detroit no longer needs so many greenspaces. With a population of 681,090, only about 37% of its peak number, some argue that the park system is as overbuilt for the current population as the rest of Detroit’s infrastructure. The city has one park for every 2,255 residents. Is that really too many?

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    Greenspace naysayers must not have been to Lipke, or to most other parks in the area, which seem to be in constant use, from kids and families playing and picnicking to residents just looking for a relaxing place to hang out. According to Russ Bellant, a block club member and president of the Detroit Library Commission who is working to prevent the sale, the neighborhoods around the park have the highest density of kids in the state.

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    The closest park with similar outdoor facilities is Kern Playground at Mt. Elliott and Seven Mile, a mere 1.2 miles away, but a 24 minute walk down Seven Mile that you probably wouldn’t want your kids taking. To get to another indoor recreation facility, it’s a 47 minute walk on Outer Drive before you arrive at Farwell Field (where there is a great tennis center, by the way). Neither of these is exactly your neighborhood park.

    The nearest park, Robinwood, is a nine minute stroll southeast. It’s maintained, except for some piles of brush lying on the grass, but lacks resources — no sports fields or large play structures. When I visited, a family looked at me curiously from where they sat on the one small aging piece of play equipment, watching their daughter run around. It’s at the dead-end of a residential street, very much a neighborhood park where outsiders are regarded with suspicion and there is nowhere for them to leave their car if not arriving on foot or bicycle. It obviously lacks the amenities or capacity to pick up for the slack that will be left if Lipke is sold. This does not seem to be an issue that the Salvation Army, Benson, and even Mayor Duggan, champion of greenspaces, is willing to consider, even with money earmarked for Lipke waiting in a DNR trust fund.

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    As one community member said, citing the many other social service programs available nearby, “We don’t need another church.” Her defense of this well-used and highly beneficial recreation space reminded me of a piece I heard performed years ago by Detroit poet Jack Brown.

    Liquor store. Church. Liquor store. Liquor store. Liquor store. Church. Dollar store. Dollar store. Dollar store. Church. Soul food. Chinese food. Church. Strip club. Church. Gun shop. Church. Beauty shop. Church. Liquor store. Liquor store. Liquor store. Church. abandonment. Abandoned house. Church. Gas station. Gas station. Gas station. Church. CVS. Church. Liquor store. Liquor store. Liquor store. Church.

    We have a choice in how the land gets developed. We can keep our parks open and not acquiesce them to the monotonous landscape Brown describes in his poem. Someday Detroit’s poem will read more like this: Park. Library. Park. Park. School. Community garden. Park. Grocery store. Library. Fruit market. Park. School. Or, more importantly, whatever the immediate community wants.

    Even former residents reminisce fondly over the early days of Lipke:

    “I remember when Lipke park was built, but can’t remember what was there before. I guess it had to be vacant property. I went to my first dance at Lipke in the gym. 1954 I believe, They had a lot of programs for young teens there.”

    “I worked at Lipke as a life guard during the summer of 75. Although I lived in the Heilmann area and worked there for a couple of summers I always thought of Lipke (7 and Van Dyke area) as a special place. Gymnasium, shallow water pool, baseball fields…what a great summer that was.”

    Let’s let Lipke Park remain a special place for years to come.
    Join the community at Lipke Park from noon to 1PM this Saturday, July 26, to protest the sale before it’s too late.

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    Miscellaneous goods:
    The Michigan Citizen: “Benson, city plan rec center giveaway”
    Moratorium NOW! Coalition’s information on the rally postponed until this Saturday, July 26
    More of Kali Aloisi’s pictures and thoughts from her work on parks in District 3

    Water

    July 18, 2014

    Sweaty weather replaces sweater weather again. Summer is back and the wandering body gravitates toward water. Making the usual pilgrimages has felt out of place this season. Visiting Detroit’s fountains and pools is still appealing, but what’s happening with water in the rest of the city is appalling, and as the rest of the country also suffers, it’s put a damper on my appreciation of some of our most luxurious civic amenities.

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    A perennial favorite is the stately arrangement of fountains in front of the Detroit Institute of Arts, cooed over by babies in strollers during the day and spouting dramatically-lit mist through the night. None were operating on earlier occasions this summer when I’ve rambled by, contributing to a pervasive feeling of dryness and austerity.

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    The DIA’s engineering manager Cedric Alexander said that the north and south fountains went on in mid-June as they do every year, but the main fountain, in need of repairs, has not yet been filled. “We know those fountains are important to our visitors. They’re part of what happens around here in the summertime.” Alexander himself was particularly dismayed by the outage. “They’re kinda my pet,” he admitted. It should be another week or week and a half before the fountain is on again, awaiting a special order of parts, but they will be back. Why are these easy reassurances of the return of water not available to everyone?

    Even the Thinker is troubled.

    Even the Thinker is troubled.

    As more fountains in prioritized parks happily burble, and more parks feature water attractions and pools, others still remain dry. With this reinvestment in uplifting but ultimately frivolous displays, it seems all the more ironic that such ample water will be provided for some while any access to this necessity is removed from others. No matter our income or our location, we’re still all about 55-60% water.

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    This afternoon, over a thousand protesters fighting against months’ worth of unjustly-handled residential water shutoffs marched from Cobo to Hart Plaza, where the arid Dodge Memorial Fountain sits. Last year had a series of fits and spurts for the immense fountain, as scrappers’ efforts left the hardware too damaged to run for most of the summer, but was repaired in August. The shutoffs, which have targeted Detroiters who may only owe a few hundred dollars but who live in areas that the city would rather see vacated in accordance with long-term plans, were condemned as a potential human rights violation by the United Nations. Let’s hope today’s uprising will persuade the water department to make real amends, chasing down the few delinquent commercial accounts that owe more than half of the city’s overdue bills, and offering humane payment alternatives to those who need them so these fountains won’t have to double as bathtubs.

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    Christmas

    July 15, 2014

    This week, grab a sweater before you head out — apparently the polar vortex doesn’t yield to pedestrians, either. A piece of this arctic wind system seems to have broken off (by whatever mechanism wind “breaks” into “pieces”) and barrelled through Canada again, just like in January. While some insist this midsummer breath of fresh air is the vortex’s fault, the National Weather Service has retracted its previous observation. Meteorologists are tweeting their discord over what kind of air event this is, from polar vortex to “polar air invasion” to a mere “trough in the jet stream.” As one meteorologist said in a nicely graphic-assisted defense of the term, “Some critics are being too literal about its definition and/or burying their heads in the sand, blinding themselves from a fascinating weather reality.” Sounds a lot like the debate over climate change, actually.

    The Free Press supports the National Weather Service’s new position that the chilly spell has less to do with polar air than with the usual jet stream breezes disrupted by a typoon — if not one sensational thing, then grapple for another. Mlive also denies heavy polar vortex involvement in this week’s weather, which, in a temperate summer overall, doesn’t even feel that weird, but advises to keep a lookout for waterspouts forming as the cold air glides over warm water. If you see any of these bumming around on the river with the freighters, let me know and I’ll ramble over extra-fast.

    Whatever your beliefs about arctic air patterns, it’s luxurious waking up to a piece of Christmas in July. To acknowledge this meteorological gift of walking around being less sticky, I present some items from my ongoing collection of red bows found around town. Why are the bows always red? Why is the grass green, the sky blue? Science, of course. Social science.

    This early holiday celebration is for longtime rambler Sara, who might love autumnal weather even more than I do and has recently been so kind as to share photos from our Hamtramck ramble in the Detroit Area Rambling Network flickr pool. Thanks!

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    And last but not least a boa of sorts.

    UPDATE: 20:36

    And a rainless rainbow emerging from the casino. Merry Christmas!

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    Going on tour

    July 12, 2014

    D:hive, a downtown welcome center assisting visitors and residents in finding what they’re looking for in Detroit, offers walking tours a couple times a week now through their new Detroit Experience Factory venture. I’d been meaning to go on one for years, so with a sunny day off and the sudden remembrance that these tours exist, off I went. Our guide this Saturday was Shawn, a funny, hyperbolic guy who noted that he was “in the zone” today as we set off, underscoring that with the claim that if he doesn’t know the answer to a question, he is happy to lie so well that you’ll never know it was a lie. It was oddly reassuring. Among other skills, it became clear that Shawn was very adept at walking backwards, seemingly necessary for pedestrian tour guides.

    We hardly spoke during the tour, save to ask an occasional question, mostly letting Shawn soak our brains in trivia. There was a group of three German tourists, a pair of guys who didn’t say much but smiled often, a man and a woman who seemed to have come by themselves, and me. The loners turned out to be really great, a PhD candidate from London doing field work on the prevalence of guided tours for her dissertation on the revitalization and rebranding of downtown and Midtown, and a cool Midtown resident who drives for Uber and is studying up to become a tour guide himself. Shawn said that size of group was normal for a Saturday tour, though sometimes as many as 25 or so will attend.

    Diversity of summery footwear.

    Diversity of summery footwear.

    We made it 353 feet down Woodward before Dan Gilbert’s name came up. Wondering how that narrative was going to play out, I was relieved when our guide mentioned that “though the long-term consequence of Dan Gilbert is debatable, in the meantime we welcome him,” offering out-of-towners a balanced view without the excessive cheerleading I’d suspect a place like d:hive of fostering. We spent a lot of time standing at pedestrian crossings, stillness being the only way to get enough earshot to convey information.

    With a sandbox so grand, Quicken security detail probably has a dedicated cat division.

    With a sandbox so grand, Quicken security detail probably has a dedicated cat division.

    In Campus Martius, we sat for a while on benches, learning about its blacktop-infused demise and reinstatement as a public park in 2001, when it received a 20 million dollar overhaul for Detroit’s 300th birthday. As workers excavated the park, they stumbled upon Detroit’s official point of origin buried under the asphalt, which today was again half-covered by a sandwich board advertising the Fountain Bistro’s menu. I couldn’t help but admire how snazzy downtown’s parks were looking. Campus Martius, with its simulated beach and lavish fountains, almost (but never really) made up for the lack of adequate parks elsewhere in the city.

    Shawn was darting effortlessly between past and present histories, gesticulating at things with a small segment of plastic straw he was carrying. I’d forgotten how much of history is shaped by military forces and felt a twinge of disappointment, though all battle lore was tempered with good humor, like poking fun Augustus Woodward’s thing for Roman culture.

    Outside the Yamasaki building at one Woodward, where we stopped to do some distance-looking in the direction of the Spirit of Detroit sculpture across the street, Shawn informed us that we were next to another Dan Gilbert property — “You can tell by the piped-in music and the eyes in the sky!” The Renaissance Center sat blinking dumbly from the comfort of its own zip code, apparently the tallest building between New York and Chicago. Nearby, “the fist,” Shawn sighed, “is misunderstood.” I’m still nonplussed by it, but doubt that ongoing misunderstanding is attributable to Shawn.

    At some point I noticed that one woman was periodically jotting things in a nice green notebook. “Good idea,” I said to her in the quiet of the Guardian building, which Shawn told us is due to noise-cancelling horsehair behind the sneaky painted canvas. Instead I took notes on my phone, which resulted in minimally coherent jibberish like “snuggles across point of origin” and “puppies in music” and “40 years of disinfectant.” Everybody else kind of looked at me like, ‘why is she constantly texting and not even looking at the pretty buildings what a waste,’ or however German idiom would shape that notion.

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    Who knew that the Guardian building, with its individually-dyed bricks and marble from a defunct mine in Africa that was specially re-opened for the project, was completed in just seven months? “There’s a McDonald’s in my neighborhood that’s taken almost a year to build,” Shawn added glibly for perspective. As we crossed Michigan, Shawn indicated with his plastic straw some brightly colored chairs on the sidewalk. “More of that placemaking stuff.”

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    By the time we got around to Capitol Park, the Germans had reverted to German and were talking about Chicago. There was a lovely diversity of pigeons that, like all signs of nature, went unmentioned. As we walked up Griswold, Shawn said, “That one’s a Dan Gilbert acquisition” about a million times, evidently the current heaviest layer of history on many of these old buildings. Just when I thought there couldn’t possibly be more and that he should probably take a break and have some water, he said, “Also coming up here on the left is another one.”

    Outside the Albert, which is really "exciting" because it was built without subsidies -- commanding a high enough rental rate to justify kicking out all those seniors.

    Outside the Albert, which is really “exciting” because it was built without subsidies — commanding a high enough rental rate to justify kicking out all those seniors.

    Stevens T. Mason may have been the youngest governor ever, but that youthful invincibility doesn't make his effigy's head impervious to a spattering of bird poop.

    Stevens T. Mason may have been the youngest governor ever, but that youthful invincibility doesn’t make his effigy’s head impervious to a spattering of bird poop.

    Crossing Woodward to veer into Grand Circus Park, almost unrecognizable with its new furniture, I was the only participant who stopped to take a picture of the smushed pigeon in the crosswalk. “Euuuu,” said the Germans, sidestepping. About an hour and a half into the tour, loitering at the corner of Witherell and Woodward, we were discovered by another sandaled participant. “I’m a travel writer,” he said, delightedly squinting at us. “Who does these tours?” He was in town for the day writing about the M-1 rail project for a New Jersey publication targeted toward transit professionals. I hope that learning that the building housing Cheli’s Chili was once a women-only goods exchange, hosting a sort of black market, can aid in his report.

    Hey, remember that time when the Broderick Tower apartments sold out in 48 hours? Shawn does.

    Hey, remember that time when the Broderick Tower apartments sold out in 48 hours? Shawn does.

    Grand Circus Park, the spitting image of Birmingham.

    Grand Circus Park, the spitting image of Birmingham.

    “The upside of forty years of disinvestment is having one of the largest collections of pre-Depression buildings in the country,” Shawn told us as we passed the Kahn-designed Detroit Athletic Club. “Where other cities bulldozed them and got their glass towers, ours got left alone and the modern stuff got built in the suburbs.” We jaywalked — not recommended by Shawn — across John R to get a better view of one of his favorite abandoned buildings, the interior of which had been deemed worthless after a lifetime of jeweller’s harsh chemicals, until just this week when its sale was announced.

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    “I hope you’ve learned something new,” Shawn concluded sweetly as we lingered over a curb cut on Woodward at the end of our little 1.6 mile loop, “and if nothing else hopefully you’ve seen that the rumors of our demise are exaggerated.” All in all, with Shawn’s help I picked up a lot of downtown trivia that, as a Detroiter who cares about anything, I probably ought to know.

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    It was a slow but entertaining tour. Its limited scope was kind of advantageous, giving visitors ideas for further explorations, like the riverfront that we talked about but, not crossing Jefferson, missed. Detroit Experience Factory holds that tour on Mondays, so why not build a little suspense?

    The low price of foot soreness from extended loafing was negligible next to the benefit of this free tour. Thanks, Shawn! In keeping with my belief in holding onto a touristic curiosity and not taking things for granted, I’d like to do the tour again in winter and see how the focus changes.

    Do you facilitate a walking tour in Detroit? Have any tour recommendations I should check out? Is there one for pre-1700 geography and geology? Please comment and let me know!

    Park watch: Canfield & the Lodge

    July 10, 2014

    It’s a whole new week, and there are still no crosswalks on Second in Midtown.

    This was actually only a minor bummer relative to the spectacle going on just west of the Canfield pedestrian bridge Tuesday afternoon. Crews of tree-trimmers were at work on the field next to the former Detroit Day School for the Deaf. The field was littered with trunks and limbs and leaves hither and thither. As I stood by, awestruck, a bicycling neighbor paused to offer some conjectures on the park’s plight. “I think they’re developing it,” he said, gesturing to the vinyl village of townhomes across the street.

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    The field is used all summer for baseball games, and the adjacent recreation area, complete with quaint chess tables, concrete turtle, and pavilion, is a frequent site of big happy neighborhood barbeques. Personally, I’ve been enjoying my morning coffee with this turtle for the past nine years. The 3.2 acre space is owned by Detroit Public Schools. “If they’re developing it, they haven’t told us about it,” said the kind DPS representative I spoke with, which doesn’t seem unlikely in the slightest. Permission? Forgiveness? Bah. Just some tree-cutting, she said, as though turning to mulch every tree on the property were a regular operation. “Maybe they have some kind of disease,” she suggested.

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    The dozens of tall black locusts populating the field seemed to have been in perfect health. The tree crews from Highland had no information on their assignment. “They just told us to clear out the trees,” one worker said. “Maybe they’re expanding the parking lot.” At least with these reductive operations, crews can’t leave their mark on Detroit turf as did the pavement-pouring outsiders who thought to imprint “SHELBY TWP” in Vinyl Village’s new sidewalks across the street. Guess we’re not in Kansas anymore.

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    I feared the worst for this essential greenspace at Canfield and the Lodge, which could so easily go in the way of other recent problem parks.

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    In a bright turn, rumors go unfounded. DPS leases the land to charter school Edmonson Elementary, which in turn leases an adjacent building to Woodbridge Community Youth. None of the three secretarial-types at desks in the Edmonson office had any idea that tree-trimming was noisily happening a few yards outside their door, but asking further, one employee knew of future work there. As we strolled outside Wednesday morning to see the ongoing devastation, he seemed excited to inform me that Woodbridge Community Youth has secured a grant for a new playground. It’s unfortunate that these healthy, mature trees need to go so that new, kid-friendly nature can be installed, but the Edmonson Academy representative said the parking lot was actually projected to get smaller.

    The new playground is in partnership with KaBOOM!, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit dedicated to addressing the nation’s “play deficit” and “play deserts” by providing a place to play within walking distance of every child in America. Finally, some good news! No hints yet on when the project is expected to be complete. For now, tree removal crews will be out there “as long as it takes” to clear the site. Maybe they can use some of the resulting mulch on the new playscape, if real woodchips are an approved play substrate for the twenty-first century.

    Oh, just calmly watching the destruction of my habitat!

    Oh, just calmly watching the destruction of my habitat!

    UPDATE: 1:11 PM

    This is not a fun game of who’s-got-the-turtle.

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    UPDATE: 07.13.14

    A neighbor posting on the Woodbridge facebook group has unearthed this rendering of a new baseball field for the Woodbridge Eagles, set to be playable in August. Two weeks! But where is the playground?

    woodbridgeeagles

    Problem parks

    July 9, 2014

    Although Detroit still has more parks than it can handle, after having leased Belle Isle to Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources and temporarily closing fifty of them last year, there is a persistent trend of Midtown parks lately coming under siege. Here are some troubled areas in the greater 7.2:

    • Redmond Plaza, fenced off and soon to be remodelled by Midtown Detroit, Inc., for benefit of new restaurant goers
    • Unofficial dogpark at Canfield and Trumbull, unfortunately developed this winter into bland rental units.
    • Current construction that has levelled the gangly tangles of art in the awkward slice of Wick Park at Martin Luther King, Jr. and Cass, handed over last October by CCNDC to Cass Plaza Apartments.
    • Imminent threat of development of the neglected city-owned Wigle Recreation Center at Selden and the Lodge, as vinyl village is rumored to soon seep across the highway. The city issued a Request for Proposals in 2011, stipulating that an experienced developer “renovate the existing recreation structure and/or construct a suitable development at the site.” Guess which one they’ll pick. Another RFP was issued last month. Competing rumors say that the park has been adopted by DTE Energy.
    • And, a close call this winter as Cass Park was nearly gifted to Mike Ilitch. Maybe, like a lot of retirees his age, he’s working toward a secret second career as a master gardener.

    wickpark

    The former Wick Park.

    The former Wick Park.

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    In return, we get a stinky greenway and a speck of Shinola-branded dog park that no pedestrians can look reasonable entering unless accompanied by a well-socialized dog. Not sure exactly what we’re supposed to do with those picnic tables within the park — obviously not for either human or canine use! Although one day I did see a woman eating an apple at one table while her dog obliviously romped.

    At least they've got the important stuff.

    At least they’ve got the important stuff.

    The cool Adopt-a-Park program launched by Mayor Mike Duggan’s office this spring is evidently not applicable when development money is at stake, with none of Midtown’s green spaces on the list for adoption, despite the persuasive factors of density, need, desire, and money for parks. Midtown may not have as many kids as other neighborhoods in the city, but adults need green spaces, too. Parks are for everyone, not just children, drunks, and crackheads. Or dogs.

    Fortunately, the park forecast overall is looking up, with Brennan Pools at Rouge Park reopening today after stagnating for two underfunded years. Imagine if Midtown’s crusty Louis Stone Pool complex were similarly revitalized!

    Looking pretty sad as of March.

    Looking pretty sad as of March.

    Not a lot better today.

    Not a lot better today.

    UPDATE 07.10.14:
    Turns out everybody else is keeping an eye on Detroit’s parks, too! WDET has launched Detroit Park Watch, a wonderful program to monitor the condition of city parks this summer after Mayor Duggan pledged to keep 250 of them open, almost ten times as many as were maintained last year.

    By visiting a park and reporting its status either online or by text, contributors can enjoy their greenspaces and help keep government accountable. It’s all the best part, but the other best part is how WDET is keeping track of anecdotes reported by park visitors. “Beyond the data, we will actively look to tell stories about these parks (like why is Twork Park called Twork Park?) and those who are taking care of them,” says WDET’s Terry Parris Jr., coordinator of the project. The site also features a great map where you can search for your nearest parks and read reports on their status by WDET or citizen park-goers.

    A second look both ways

    July 3, 2014

    A cardinal rule of walking in cities that everyone learns when they’re knee-high and first able to comprehend quantifiers such as ‘both’ is, “Look both ways.” In Detroit, it’s long been the case that one-way designations have been perceived only as an emphatic and occasionally policeable suggestion. Looking both ways is automatic, but with recent road construction in Midtown, it’s a great time, as rambler Michaela would put it, for a reminder from your local mom: Look both ways before crossing the street!

    Like the sign says, Second is going through some ups and downs.

    Like the sign says, Second is going through some ups and downs.

    This particular street is Second Avenue. Last week, road crews were out making good on an old plan to restore Second to something like its historic proportions, and as Curbed contends, “ending its reign as the neighborhood’s most illogical thoroughfare,” at least since Third underwent its conversion last year, I guess.

    The gesture, with planning provided by Midtown Detroit, Inc., was well-received, with media making a big deal about the “cushy” buffered bike lanes, but it seems that certain populations have been left out of the plan. You can mumbo-jumbo your way through all the ‘complete streets’ buzzwords you want, but without facilities for all road and sidewalk users these streets are incomplete.

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    After a week of bidirectionality and new bike lanes, things weren’t looking any better for pedestrians. No crosswalks have been installed; not a single line demarcating a street crossing has been laid. Pedestrians can cross safely at Selden and at Forest, but in the intervening “walkable” blocks no provision has been offered. Thinking that the oversight must be temporary, I waited, then asked questions. As of Tuesday, everyone who knows anything about sidewalks in the Department of Public Works or at Midtown Detroit, Inc., was on vacation.

    At least there's no parking in the crosswalk.

    At least there’s no parking in the crosswalk.

    Deviating slightly from my usual commute, I walked north on Second and asked other pedestrians as we crossed paths how they were doing and what they thought of the new paint job. (Not including people wearing earbuds, which may have skewed results). They were all fine, thanks, but the exchange got uglier as the subject turned impersonal. I’m not a fan of the change, but I was anticipating that at least someone would like it. No one did. “Let me tell you, I hate it, man. It’s a thoroughfare. It used to be a neighborhood, and now it’s a thoroughfare. And it sucks,” ranted one woman impassionedly. “I don’t like it,” said the next man who passed. “I liked it better when it was one way. Now there’s a lot more traffic. I’m used to looking both ways, but… I’m still getting used to it.” He looked down Second and concluded, “I like the bike lanes, though!”

    This pedestrian made it across safely, but will you?

    This pedestrian made it across safely, but will you?

    This is hardly about which format is better — it’s about disregard for pedestrians, no matter what the roadway itself holds. Nobody really knows whether the purported benefits of two-way streets actually pan out. Two-wayification is a traffic calming strategy intended to reducing vehicle speed, miles travelled, and pollution emitted, while hopefully increasing pedestrian safety and walkability. Studies have shown evidence for both outcomes — safer for pedestrians, not safer for pedestrians, and so forth — so like many cities following the trend, Detroit is another willing to pay a good deal of money to do an experiment on which it isn’t even collecting data.

    In my experience, none of the planner’s promises have materialized following the Third Street conversion. Crossing has been at best a nuisance. Avoiding speeding cars coming from both sides, poorly timed so as to require waiting longer to find a suitable gap, has been an issue both as a pedestrian and a cyclist. Even if the change had caused traffic speeds to drop, slower traffic often equates to more fumes and road noise — not the types of amenities Midtown aims to offer its residents and guests. After recently establishing that the dominant scent of the Midtown Loop is exhaust, creating more smelly “walkable” areas is an odd priority. Leaving Second alone and putting bike lanes on Cass, the adjacent more heavily-travelled existing two-way, could have been a consideration, though it’s a tight fit as it is.

    This transition could be done well, making life better for both pedestrians and cyclists — it just hasn’t been yet. Perhaps it wasn’t a slip of the tongue when the Free Press quoted DPW director Ron Brundidge saying, “Whenever we have an opportunity to promote more non-motorized transportation use, whether it’s bicycle paths or making it more pedestrian friendly, we definitely want to employ that as part of the principles of design” (emphasis mine). This isn’t an either-or proposition. It’s a rare opportunity where everybody can easily be safer and happier.

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    Like city employees and Midtown Inc. planners, I’m going on vacation. Perhaps when I return from walking around where there is no concrete to bicker over lining with crosswalks (North Country Trail!), the city will yield great surprises. Could it be a fleet of yield signs for crosswalks, like at Hancock and Cass (where I always resist the zealous impulse to walk though the intersection just for fun)? Maybe DTE’s gas line dig sites at Canfield will lay foundations for a pedestrian bridge or lead to a subterranean crossing, like the vestiges of one further north on Second. Just kidding; a concrete hole in the ground probably doesn’t count as a greenway.

    The Detroit Area Rambling Network is all about making the most of pedestrian opportunities in the city — we already live in some permutation of a walkable city, so let’s use it. Some lines on the ground probably aren’t going to save my life, but crosswalks at least promote awareness that hey, people actually walk around here. It’s a sad day when an area like Midtown becomes less safely walkable, even if within the context of greater progress.