Monthly Archives: October 2014

Rambling report

October 24, 2014

The new $24 million segment of the Dequindre Cut, from Gratiot to Mack, is about as short as you’d expect if you’ve ever wandered Eastern Market end-to-end without even noticing. This 0.45 mile stretch is due to open next spring after some delays, following the initial 1.35-mile trail conversion which was completed in 2009. The railroad itself was constructed in the 1830s by the Detroit Pontiac Railroad Company, predecessor of Canadian National and Grand Trunk. Trains ran along the tracks from 1838 until the mid-1980s; passenger rail service to the riverfront terminated in 1982. A subsidiary of the MGM Casino purchased the parcels between 1998 and 2000 and handed them off to the city shortly after.

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Aside from just wandering and having fun, our intent was to examine the benefits and losses of greenway rails-trails conversion projects, particularly the impact on wild plants commonly referred to with the generic term “weeds.” Focusing on the greenery when the Dequindre Cut has been so well-known for its colorful graffiti was a shift that felt natural at the time, and almost certainly foretells the theme of many future walks there. Wildflowers were everywhere bland new embankment walls weren’t. How the pale blocks had been kept free of graffiti for their weeks in place baffles the imagination. Especially as the grade changes to join street level closer to Mack, the balance tips in a pastoral direction. Birds were chirping and flocking around grassy clumps unjostled by the heavy machinery lining the Cut. Behind the Detroit Edison Public School Academy, a birdhouse perched atop a tall pole.

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At Mack we waited a while for the roar of Lions’ game traffic to quiet before setting foot on the rails. This stretch of the Cut splices two different worlds — the vastness of bleak industry to the west where the Pepsi bottling plant sits, and a line of trees and some grassy lands to the east. It’s a dynamic that feels very Detroit. “These would be lovely to keep as parks,” I said. “They already are,” a rambler replied. The disused tracks themselves were littered with surprises — we examined pottery, the railways’ signature shards of metal, bones, shoes, trash, and treasure in the form of a fully intact shovel sitting in a bush.

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The tracks are fenced off with shiny chainlink at Farnsworth where they keep the trains. At this point we turned east, doubling back on St. Aubin for a glimpse of what life might have been like before the railroad. Cobblestone streets still push determinedly westward before petering out into high grasses next to dead-ending sidewalks. Rust inexplicably coats sections of pavement. At Forest, a naked flagpole sits lonesome in the grassy lot that was the Dabrowski Playground, in memory of the reverend who once founded a Polish Seminary there. There aren’t many houses these days. Outside of Eastern Market again, we stopped to check on the little cinderblock wonder at 2126 Pierce St., then followed the alley south to Wilkins. An eastbound detour gave us better viewing of the sculpture garden outside C.A.N. Art Handworks.

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The ramble paused on Gratiot to share generous rambler-made brownies with a belated contingent of tired tweed riders. After this ramblers disbanded to their vehicles and I trekked south alone. At Antietam a red-tailed hawk dove to scoop up a squirrel, dangling it from the power lines. I followed the Lafayette Parks to the river, broad green spaces paralleling the Cut. After the Greening of Detroit Park, I crossed Jefferson and ventured down Riopelle, looking at the Ren Cen looming past the wreckage of a torched building. It felt out of place. In Milliken State Park, the recent sidewalk led me over the hill, next to the canal, and back into the Dequindre Cut.

This is the familiar Dequindre Cut, where in an otherwordly composition graffiti is backdrop for the occasional sly storybook red fox straight out of Le Petit Prince. It’s also a greenway beloved by Detroiters who wouldn’t or couldn’t explore the wilder sections we’d seen earlier in the day. As I strode north, a family passed, pushing their stroller and talking about how safe it was there. Their hip-height young daughter smiled a few paces behind them. It was getting dark but a group of people still had a tripod set up in the pedestrian lane, filming skateboard tricks. This is something you might not try a few miles north along the rails.

If something is lost in this conversion from rails to trails, it isn’t the greater good. As one who lived for the spaciousness and unruliness of parts of this city, I can’t wholly mind that it isn’t here, right here, anymore. But will there always be somewhere else to go? As perambulists in other cities thoughtfully elegize their vanishing wildernesses, I wish they could ramble with us and see the before and the after simultaneously, two sides of a story, two ends of the same trail.

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Rambling alert! Sunday, October 19

October 13, 2014

Plans to extend the Dequindre Cut from its present terminus at Gratiot north to Mack have been in progress for a year. The trail was expected to be open at the end of November, but completion will be delayed until late next spring. Rails-to-trails paths are a popular option among planners — across the country, old railways are being repurposed as green jogging, bicycling, and walking havens.

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We will ramble the Dequindre Cut, observing what is lost and what is gained as humans force various phases of development on the land. What was there before the railroad? What will be there after? What is the future of greenspace in cities?

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Walking is free and open to the public. We will meet at 4:00 at the current northernmost point of the Cut. Ramblers are encouraged to bring beverages, snacks, sweaters, senses, questions, and answers. Ramblers should take care to outfit themselves with good shoes or else. In case of severe rain, we’ll ramble the following Sunday.

Highly recommended reading on the effects of rails-to-trails greenway projects in other cities:
Two poignant articles on rails-to-trails greenway projects in other cities:

Also, London is apparently the world’s largest urban forest. Should the entire city become a national park? The Independent reports.

Other fun happenings:
Tweed Ride Detroit, an “annual celebration of fall, tweed, bicycling, & Detroit!” will also take place Sunday, October 19, starting at 1:00 at the corner of Warren and Trumbull. This whimsical event will be marking its fifth anniversary. Ramblers, you have lots of leg muscles — why not make them all sore?

Overriding pedestrian sense

October 13, 2014

While Detroiters are keeping close eyes on what is happening with Woodward and the Peoplemover 2.0, another privately-funded construction project is taking place less than a mile away.

Remember when we were talking about turning I-375 into a walkable, bikeable surface street? Even as recently as this summer, this was the plan, with a study examining the benefits of each of six proposals to reconfigure the road due in September.

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Unfortunately, this utopian scheme seemed to be forgotten when in September no study results were revealed and instead Dan Gilbert shared his vision for building a wider exit ramp at Lafayette. This basically makes a big funnel from the burbs into Rock Ventures’ Greektown Casino parking garage and other downtown destinations.

Scheduled to be finished in December, the project enlarges the single-lane exit ramp at Lafayette into a three-lane — as wide as the highway itself. As a spokesperson for Rock Ventures told Crain’s, “There are more and more people coming downtown. If we can make it easier and a more pleasant experience to access points of interest, it’s a win-win.”

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It might have been the day after, or it might have even been the day before I heard about the ramp-widening that I saw crews tearing into the embankment. Apparently, this immediacy is one of the wonders of privately-funded road projects. (Just being glad that some zillionaire didn’t appear with funds for the ruinous proposed I-94 expansion out of their own pocket). With a new $1.25 million investment in the highway, removing much of it is doubtful to happen anytime soon. As catering to pedestrians and cyclists is probably not central to the economic success of the casino and surrounding businesses, it’s not difficult to imagine how this highway amendment took priority over previous plans. At least there is the promise of landscaping to look forward to next spring.

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Facilitating swifter beelines to “points of interest” is not a strategy that serves the people who are already downtown or in neighboring areas, aside from mollifying admittedly knotty traffic flows. Detroit isn’t just a handful of “destinations” in a barren wasteland, as the New York Times staff has infamously reported every time they drive around and see something that isn’t Slow’s.

Treating the city like every mile matters — the destinations and the spaces in between — will benefit both pedestrians and the highway-travelling commuters and destination-goers alike. The broader ramp at Lafayette may make short-term sense, but taking a broader perspective seems an obvious choice, especially for someone who is banking their future on Detroit’s future.

Jane Jacobs’ unbirthday walk

October 4, 2014

Each May, pedestrians around the world gather to walk in honor of Jane Jacobs, the legendary urbanist and writer whose book The Death and Life of Great American Cities waged significant influence on twentieth-century urban planning. The commingling of Jane Jacobs’ belovedness, the city’s rapid development, and the Detroit Design Festival furnished the opportunity for a second Jane Jacobs-inspired walk this year. Put on by the Detroit Creative Corridor Center, the tour met last Saturday afternoon at the Model D headquarters at Second and Prentis. Twenty-five or so people were out on the sidewalk, enjoying summer weather that was by no means the crisp day forecasted by the handout we received.

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Without much introduction, we set off to check out the “pedestrian overpass crossing America’s first freeway,” which would be a long walk, since it is actually in California. From Forest, we looked out over the Lodge at the cars and the Canfield and Selden bridges. Jane Jacobs spent much of her career fighting the imposition of highways, making this site an interesting choice. We looped over the Canfield bridge back into Midtown, our guide Ellie breezing through the stops, pausing long enough for everyone to quietly absorb and reflect before moving on.

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The walk was beautifully done — its strong concept reinforced by elegantly executed signage at each stop. A red frame drew attention to a chosen scene, accompanied by a quote from Jane Jacobs’ foreword in the re-released Death and Life of Great American Cities adhered to the sidewalk. A black-and-white photo above the quote showed the area as it used to be. Standing over the Lodge, we read: “Some people prefer to do their workday errands on foot, or feel they would prefer to if they lived in a place where they could. Other people prefer hopping into the car to do errands, or would like to if they had a car… In shorthand, we can speak of foot people and car people.”

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Whether foot or car people, the tour had initially left behind about two-thirds of them, who we found standing in the Green Alley. The tour redivided, and our guide Ellie, who had designed the tour, went with the other group. Even with the new guides, it was truly a Jane Jacobs-inspired event — a little messy; a chatty, neighborly, organic, do-it-yourself affair that very successfully brought together all manner of smart, curious people. There was minimal standing around straining to hear the guide’s authoritative perspective as happens on so many other tours. Participants were left to consider and surmise for themselves, to see what their own “eyes on the street” could tell them.

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This democratic approach had its downsides. At some point we picked up a very vocal and relentlessly pro-development yahoo, a pal of the founders of the Green Garage. We stood on Second looking through the red frame at the Green Garage across the street while this loudmouth dickwad ranting colorfully about the “abominable shithole” of the laundromat behind us. It’s not the most gorgeous dumpy single-story building in town, but the “strip mall” parking lot in front he was so vehemently decrying is useful to people unloading heavy linens. Safe to assume he is not coming “down to Detroit,” as he put it, to do his laundry. This guy even wrangled the role of guide at one point, suggesting that we detour to check out the El Moore renovations, also courtesy of the Green Garagers. The tour, which was supposed to be two miles and last an hour, had been steadily losing participants, and quite a few more vanished as we followed his lead.

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On Cass just north of Alexandrine, we stared intently at the shiny exterior of La Feria and Thrift on the Avenue as our guide, excitedly filling us in on last year’s commercial development news, told us that “before then, nobody walked south of Willis.” A woman and her young daughter scurried past us, southbound and muttering apologies, ducking to keep out of the way of our cameras. Incredulous, I asked, “How did people get to the Old Miami?” “I mean, like, regular people didn’t walk past there,” he clarified. So who is it that goes to the Old Miami, irregular people?

Ultimately, the circuitous route we followed gave the impression that the whole city may be made of Cass-and-Canfields, or should be. While it’s undoubtedly nice to have places to go and things to see other than abandoned buildings, this walk offered as much trite development cheerleading as one might expect. “I saw who was putting it on — I wouldn’t go,” a friend told me afterward, referring to its starting point at Model D. At least half of the ten stops related directly to the Green Garage, Model D, or Midtown, Inc. Did the out-of-town visitors get to experience Midtown beyond this narrow scope? And what of the Cass Corridor? As the walk’s handout read, “For as much activity as there is happening today, the neighborhood is perhaps even more interesting for the history that exists there.” The walk’s celebration of history was a quiet party attended by few.

It’s unfortunate that Tom Boy Market’s closure and future reuse as high-end retail came a week too late. It would have been an fine additional example of gentrification in progress. As Jane Jacobs said, “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody,” especially luxury loft-dwellers and rooftop-cabin hostel-goers who visit Detroit in search of more high-end retail shopping opportunities. I was unable to stay for the post-walk chat at Great Lakes, but I hope the expensive pourovers fueled a more nuanced conversation.

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Where the pedestrians aren’t

October 1, 2014

Curbed Detroit has an image gallery up today ostensibly providing a photo tour of the future arenaland. The gallery is less the expected catalog of what is there and more an investigation of where the pedestrians aren’t. This could be easily turned into a children’s book about failed urban planning.

“You’ll notice there are not many pedestrians,” Curbed writes. “Not here,” it continues calmly under the following image, flipping what should be the next heavy page of a teething-resistant board book, “or here.” With its soothing repetition (except for the dozen or so photos where the author seemingly tire of typing that caption — come on, Curbed, copy and paste) and eventual surprise discovery, it has all the charms of a minimalist Where’s Waldo after Waldo moves to the burbs.

Photo by Michelle and Chris Gerard for Curbed Detroit.

Photo by Michelle and Chris Gerard for Curbed Detroit.

And good job, Curbed, for not counting the guy riding a bicycle the wrong way on Park at Henry as a pedestrian. Way to teach those kids what a vehicle is!

While the set of images seems intentionally skewed to tell the story that pedestrians don’t travel here, this is a great ‘before’ to 2017’s hopefully walkable ‘after.’ I usually see a number of people out when walking in this area. Perhaps they have been deterred by the rude truck drivers and other construction personnel with less fearsome vehicles who have nearly run me over in car, on bike, and on foot in their ill-mannered haste to carry out Ilitch’s bidding. The M1 employees have not been kind, either.

Photo by Michelle and Chris Gerard for Curbed Detroit.

Photo by Michelle and Chris Gerard for Curbed Detroit.

Today there was much activity in the area as movie crews took over the streets, erecting barricades. This meant another tough day for pedestrians scolded for trying to follow their usual routes and told to take sometimes lengthy detours. As I looked at the crews milling around, a security officer approached me, asking me to leave. “But I’m outside the barrier,” I replied. “They don’t care, they just want you to leave,” he told me. Last week, Motor City Muckraker reported that “[p]olice and security forced fans off a public street and sidewalk because they “were too close” to the groundbreaking” taking place at the future arena. While pedestrian traffic was low before, there may be good reasons it will remain that way for a while.

Keep out of the "Tiger Clubhouse"!

Keep out of the “Tiger Clubhouse”!