End of summer and the return of blogging

September 7, 2014

Last week, the summer’s quiet campus was once again flush with students. Detroit Public Schools resumed session. It’s been a weird one — lots of news, lots of strife — but no matter how busy, it was like any summer vacation. Its quick months were a lacuna, a dip into the odd vacuous beach-bound calm between more challenging seasons.

As students return to school, bloggers are suddenly returning to blogs, according to Jason Kottke, veteran collector of great things on his eponymous site. Since the late aughts, the popularity of the humble custom-domain, single-author personal weblog has been dwindling. More bloggers let their individual sites lapse, too overwhelmed with high mandatory daily post counts at their journalism day jobs to share any leftover deep thoughts of their own.

These outlets were superseded by easier and faster ways to express oneself — and to stay in touch with people outside a blogroll or dedicated internet community. Status updates on Facebook, microblogging on Tumblr, and twittering without end allowed users to let all the people they sort of knew in high school see what they ate for lunch. Pictures of such things that once illustrated and beautified blog posts were diverted to Instagram, filtered to look like old polaroids. The context of those images, beyond maybe a brief caption or hashtag, was forfeited with no room for reflection. Of course tweets have to link somewhere sometimes, but for the average person, blogging no longer reigns as the publishing platform of choice, despite the stupid ease of creating one. How many businesses propagate just fine with little more than a Facebook page to announce their newest wares?

Even the subject matter of personal blogs, which had been as predictably diverse as the internet itself, seemed to undergo reduction. Bloggers dove into their niches as the variability in scope of personal, journal-like blogs focused neatly down to single topics that afforded their endeavors a previously unnecessary legitimacy and cohesion. This resulted in a seeming increase in the number of blogs relating to wholesome cookery, the writing life, natural wellness, free-range parenting, and organic gardening, in blogs celebrating other slow and deliberate lifestyles. Like, for goodness’ sake, the simple act of walking.

RSS readers that aggregated all the disparate blog content died, or were euthanized. Google ended the long run of its beloved Reader last summer, perhaps, some speculated, in an effort to direct more traffic toward Google+. While others rushed in to fill the gap, the gesture left naked a general perception of the blog’s outmodedness. Personal blogs were disconnected, narcissistic, self-absorbed — kind of how people felt about the vapid Facebook statuses and tweets that emerged from initial adoption of those services. Maintaining a personal blog has increasingly seemed to be an antiquated means of self-publishing content in hopes of having one’s writing appear on professionally-edited multi-user blogs, or of cataloging these articles published elsewhere.

What link can be found between walking and blogging? It almost comes off as an updated version of the classic question on the connection between walking and writing. In a rapid culture, both blogging and walking have fallen behind the times. Walking is too slow; bicycling is rallied around, romanticized, and even fetishized in bike porn. Blogs are too cumbersome and isolated; social media sharing is the way to make friends and influence people — not to mention gain a readership that pays the bills. Blogging parallels walking as something that is more about process and journey than about product and destination. Blogs provide something other than a static portfolio of finished work, about as interactive and interesting as driving through a neighborhood with the windows up — and just as common.

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As writers return to their individual blogs, they’re doing so in an adventurous manner that has for centuries lent walking some appeal. Without the map of familiar, permissible topics, the mind can meander. Instead of the “usual writerly purview” of tech, media, and finance, Elizabeth Spiers, journalist and founding editor of Gawker, grants herself freedom to write on “Anything I Care About” in a thirty-day experiment to see whether she even likes blogging anymore. As walking lets the mind rest and ramble and redefine neural pathways, this relaxation of publishing rules presages benefits beyond the blogosphere.

Both practices make room for deeper thinking and conveying those thoughts in influential ways. Facebook and Twitter can feel like sprinting through an eternal marathon — euphoric at times, but draining. A body can only refuel on so many half-bananas before it needs a substantial break. As Lockhart Steele, founder of Curbed and Eater, wrote in his return-to-blogging post, “Can blogging — Jesus fuck, blogging! — still open unseen doors? Seems highly unlikely.” But why not?

What’s exciting about this sudden enthusiasm for the return of self-hosted writers and their communities is its implications for the internet in the age of net neutrality. These personal domains will be part of the slow internet, while social media giants will have preferred status — faster to access, faster to use, and faster to consume.

A return to blogging, and to walking, looks less to the past than to the future. If not an intentional and meaningful gesture, breaking away from big media sites is still a timely vote in how we want the internet — and the world — to be. Full of people freely walking, and people freely writing on blogs.

Back-to-school walking reading from the New Yorker:
“Heaven’s Gaits — What we do when we walk” by Adam Gopnik
“Why Walking Helps Us Think” by Ferris Jabr

The fragility of ability

August 7, 2014

“Don’t you ever get injured, ever get sick?” I ask. Anyone hale enough to field this question just looks at me, perplexed. “No,” they say, like the pizza place employee who walks every day for work, flyering, putting in far more miles than I do each week. “Never,” he told me. Or the endearing 77-year-old Florida man who has walked two miles a day, every day, for the past 13 years, 6,575 days in a row. Hurricanes and injuries give him no pause; even with a torn meniscus he went out, supporting himself with a cane.

Having spent most of this year with some part of one foot or the other injured, if not the bad knee, it’s tough to understand what it would be like to get around so easily, all the time. What kind of life conditions such a hardy constitution? Another one of those enviable bipeds is the novelist and marathoner Haruki Murakami, who outlined a few suggestions in a 2008 piece for the New Yorker. At least doesn’t take his abilities for granted.

Looking back now, I think the most fortunate thing is that I was born with a strong, healthy body. This has made it possible for me to run on a daily basis for more than a quarter century now, competing in a number of races along the way. I’ve never been injured, never been hurt, and haven’t once been sick. I’m not a great runner, but I’m a strong runner. That’s one of the very few gifts I can be proud of.

Unlike these fierce perambulists, the human condition sometimes demands that we forgo our ambitions and curiosities, that we get off our feet and rest. Walking is the simplest, most universally human activity; even still, its mild demands aren’t to be met by everyone all the time. What happens when we lose mobility? We take to chairs or beds, feeling trapped. We compound our suffering with bouts of cabin fever, perhaps sneaking excursions by car or bike. We wield canes or crutches. To be able to move around is to be free. Nature provides affirmation that not everything goes so smoothly, that justice is just a construct to hold up our ethics.

What’s more free than an animal, and what animal is more free than a bird? Our conviction is even preserved in idiom: free as a bird. Birds in general are auspicious symbols, portending liberation, fresh beginnings, opportunities, the arrival of important messages.

Throughout the spring and summer, the twittering of birds gives way to silence on some sidewalks and streets. The contrast between a living, flying bird and the unfortunate city birds downed by some bizarre turn of events is striking. Flattened by traffic, order loses dimension. Symmetry is destroyed; reinvented. A sad beauty haunts the remains of these creatures.

At this unnatural end is the loss of features that once made them unique, that gave them membership to a particular species. First there may be the identifiable — wings, beaks, feet, legs, organs, gore, guts, blood, flies, maggots. Color drains. Limb from limb they are torn. By whatever means the birds came to rest there, their hollow bones lose dimension, their feathers ruffle at odd angles until finally defeated by repetitive pummelling. Somehow the wispy forms of birds coalesce into dark spots, and the dark spots, no longer recognizable, must wear away to nothing.

Some say they’re a bad omen, but I’ve been observing the dead birds for years, transfixed by their shapes, their overwhelming numbers, the mysteries of their deaths. Grotesque and seemingly meaningless, even in death they hold onto something that fascinates wanderers, artists, children with sticks, and maybe ornithologists. Sad and comfortless as these apparitions are, the grounded flights give perspective — a final bird’s-eye view — on illness, injury, and feelings of stuckness and entrapment.

What follows is a slideshow sample of birds documented over the years.

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?

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