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Rambling report and a little ramb

June 21, 2014

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

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

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

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Ramblers taking a desire path.

Ramblers taking a desire path.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Empire strikes

January 19, 2014

There was nothing unusual afoot when the Quicken security car pulled up in front of Urban Bean Company, the eye-poppingly cheerful orange coffeeshop at the corner of Griswold and Grand River that is a favorite downtown rambling destination since its reopening last year. In addition to Dan Gilbert’s cameras, security patrols are a common sight during the workweek downtown these days. Rarely a dull moment around here, where Josh Greenwood, proprietor of Urban Bean Co. and longtime resident of Capitol Park, has seen it all, as far as I can tell. On the sunny afternoon I stopped in for coffee, a shiny black unmarked Magnum pulled up across the street, facing the wrong way on Grand River. Two plainclothes cops emerged outside a building recently acquired, Josh says, by Chinese investors. “They’re up to something big today,” Josh said, sounding kind of excited, and pulled out his phone to text with the cop. The car was soon joined by a sheriff’s SUV, followed by a Detroit Police cruiser.

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While, quaintly enough, these amicable interactions with authority seem to be the norm here, the atmosphere of friendliness sometimes clouds. On the occasion of this particular Quicken security visit, Josh said the security guard, a portly woman in uniform, came in and “bamboozled” him with questions over by the pastry display case. While she distracted him, a man smartly attired for business went over to the opposite door. Josh turned around in time to see the door closing as the guy finished peeling something off of it. Unsure at first what was missing but aware that something strange and sinister was happening, Josh ran after him, yelling to not mess with his property.

The man scrambled into the alley and Josh returned to his post in the coffeeshop, where the security guard flubbed through some story about having forgotten her wallet. She would have to come back later, she said. “She was lying! It was so weird. I knew something was up.” When she pulled a U-turn on Griswold, heading north away from the Quicken headquarters, he ran up the block and watched as the man exited the alley and dove into the marked security vehicle. She sped off, running a red light.

The sticker in question is a humble black and white thing, a gritty illustration of Dan Gilbert between text reading “FOR YOUR PROTECTION! DAN GILBERT IS WATCHING YOU”. Josh still has a couple, but they’re definitely not out on display with the menagerie of postcards and stickers and flyers arranged in front of the window. He digs through the drawer and sets one on the copper countertop.

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“I don’t know where they came from,” Josh claims. “Somebody just dropped them off. I didn’t even put that one on the door; somebody must have stuck it on in the night. I guess they didn’t like it,” he said, referring to the Quicken people. Looking at all the “approved” stickers still neatly lined up next to the door, it’s curious what flies — an Apple logo superimposed with the “SAVE DETROIT” sticker featuring actor Ryan Gosling’s face, a larger version of which is on view next door at d’Mongo’s. What do these messy hijinks convey about Empire Detroit’s agenda? At very least, it’s unclear now who is authorized to watch over or “save” Detroit.

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Josh still seems pretty indignant over the whole affair. “I saw her across the street a week later. I went up to her car and said, ‘So what was that all about?’ ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,'” she told him icily, denying what had taken place. She shrank away from her window as Josh, becoming more irate, tried to jog her memory of the incident.

Tampering with private property — or stealing, if you like — is not a good way to make friends with your neighbors, legalities aside. There’s no way of knowing from where the directive came to shape up the neighborhood image. Perhaps the sticker-peeler, who Josh doesn’t recall having seen before, was a customer somehow offended by the graphic and wanted to take some lunch break action. That a corporate getaway car was so readily available to him makes the situation undeniably sketchier.

As we celebrate the broader walkability improvements Dan Gilbert has made to downtown and bite our nails over some of its accompanying pitfalls, it’s worth noting the most liminal ways our landscape is changing as more of it falls into fewer hands. The thing with having money is, if you don’t like something, you can just buy it and morph it into what you do like. Let’s hope this is the first and last affront on the free speech and free existence of small businesses like Urban Bean Company that make Detroit the great city it is and will be.

It seems that a city with such financial troubles resulting from a single-industry livelihood would have learned some kind of lesson about having a Big Three in charge, whether of our local economy or our land. Monocultures are bad news for any ecosystem. Rambling back uptown past Cass Park, which the city appears poised to hand over to the Ilitches, the point is even clearer.

What will the “longest-enduring member of Detroit’s real estate plutocracy,” as Curbed called pizza emperor Mike Ilitch, do with our once-magnificent public greenspace? The park is reportedly to be preserved as a “park space,” which we hope won’t be later construed as a “parking lot space.” If, incredibly enough, the area is developed into something like what it once was, or like New Center Park, and the sculptures offend us, do we get to tear them down? In the case of such defacement, something hints that the only getaway ride for the public is in the back of a cop car.

Rambling report

November 11, 2013

We’re back from another successful ramble this weekend, just in time for the first snow. Thanks very much to the intrepid souls and soles who made yesterday’s walk possible. Nobody even got a flat tire. It was a satisfying jaunt covering about 6.5 miles and three places where vehicles are unlikely to be found — pedestrian bridges, a car-free street, and train tracks.

We started in the Woodbridge Pub Community Garden, moving northeast against wind and traffic din across three pedestrian bridges spanning M-10 and I-94, the endangered status of which warrants frequent checks on their perseverance. In between, we admired a stand of Detroit’s ubiquitous milkweed and speculated on its warmth as a jacket filler.

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After stopping for beverages to warm our hands at Stella Good Coffee in the Fisher building, we tried to explore underground tunnels advertised on the green Michigan historical site plaque in the lobby. The tunnels were appealing but mostly inaccessible, protected by glass sliding doors that slide aside for authorized personnel only. Reemerging to find the wind had died down, we resumed our northeasterly path.

Our destination was the charming carless block of Pallister, where houses face a brick-paved street ending in a nice park (surveillance cameras in use, a sign warned). While in the neighborhood, we visited Virginia Park, another oddly curved street that truncates at a small green space and low brick wall at Woodward.

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Leaves crunched underfoot. None of the usual fauna were present on this walk — no dogs on leashes, no strays on the tracks, barely any pigeons. Instead there were the graffiti iguana guarding the pedestrian overpasses, a skeleton at the side of the train tracks, and on Virginia Park, one rambler yelled about seeing whole turkeys. Another gullible rambler scrutinized the shrubbery before realizing that the birds were advertised at an eatery across the street.

We went south on Third, cut back to Second, and boarded the train tracks at the easy-access ramp so generous it looks like it was designed with ADA compliance in mind.

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The subject of urban exploration came up, and we discussed the meaning of the phrase in the days before Instagram and vanilla ruin porn, back when the infamous zine Infiltration was a most admired source of information on sneaking and entering with finesse. “It used to mean something a lot more like this, I think,” rambler Timothy Boscarino commented. “A certain way of interacting with the built environment. Wandering around seeing what there is to see.”

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Trains came and went, passing us like large, sedately lumbering beasts, and we watched the sun descend before exiting the tracks and winding back through the north end of Woodbridge as evening set in.

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Rambling report

November 13, 2012

Warm thanks to all who rambled with us this weekend! The weather was unexpectedly lovely. We convened in Scripps Park at 3:00 and enjoyed a modest southerly circuit. At the riverfront we sunbathed momentarily and admired the willows, the sinkholes in the concrete, the typeface of the United States Post Office sign. We then headed north, winding through Corktown, past the train station, and paused for refreshments at Astro Coffee.

The stately USPS Fort branch.

We used a pedestrian bridge, innumerable sidewalks, some roads and fields, and one forlorn playground. We only met one dog, and only one person that we know of trod through dog poop.

Some ramblers up ahead on the bridge.

We saw the usual amount of outdoor art, and one cardboard box full of salad (no dressing) that may or may not have been a part of art.

While we were out, we talked enthusiastically about future walks. For those who were unable to make it on Sunday, don’t worry — we will be rambling again soon.