Tag Archives: downtown

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.

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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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!

Battlefield

April 1, 2014

Walk around Detroit for five minutes and you’re likely to run into some ketchup. If not a packet or to-go cup of it loitering on the sidewalk, imminently making trouble, the telltale red bursts and splats have left their mark. Detroiters sure love their ketchup, or hate it, judging by how much of it is cast to the ground. Occasionally a few packets of mustard will materialize, maybe some barbeque sauce. Less frequently there is hot sauce, mayonnaise, and rarely, relish. Why all the ketchup? What are people doing or not doing with this stuff? To answer these longstanding questions, I could think of no one more apt than the Singing Hot Dog Man himself, Charley Marcuse.

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Marcuse, for those who live under a rock the shape of a baseball and lack TV reception, was for fifteen years Tiger Stadium’s most infamous hot dog vendor. His first season in the business was the last year of games in the now nonexistent “old” Tiger Stadium. During this incredible tenure, Marcuse, like any intelligent person selling a thing, sought to diversify his product and service from the masses. Aside from providing excellent customer service, he set his hot dogs apart with an operatic chant of “HHHoooOOoooootttttttt DDoooOOoooogggsss!” He is also loved and hated for his provocative views on condiment use, stating often and very loudly, “There is no ketchup in baseball!” I struggle to not render that in all caps.

A more jubilant Marcuse, after the game on Opening Day 2013, wearing a scarf handmade by a fan.

A more jubilant Marcuse, after the game on Opening Day 2013, wearing a scarf handmade by a fan.

Having periodically encountered a mute, rasping Marcuse loading honey into his tea certain unfortunate mornings or late at night after games, it’s apparent that the job involved a level of sacrifice for which few would give him credit. Selling hot dogs was truly a passion. After being fired amidst fierce supportive uproar last fall, this is the first year since 1999 that he wasn’t at work in the stadium, making fans happy, if not healthy. Negotiations may still be under way to reinstate Marcuse as Detroit’s best hot dog vendor (he’s actually won awards), but no deal was struck before Opening Day yesterday. I caught up with the Singing Hot Dog Man after the game to get to the bottom of the battle between ketchup and mustard.

As any Detroiter who braved the streets, sidewalks, and parking lots yesterday can tell you, Tigers fans are not an easy crowd. Passed-out pedestrians got cozy on sidewalks while others screamed and cried gibberishly into their phones. They abandoned garbage using most of the prepositions in the English language. One pedestrian got hit by a car in Grand Circus Park, and traffic veered sloppily around the medical treatment area. Marcuse was a valuable walking companion, having seen it all in his decade and a half of service.

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Several times during our walk, we were interrupted by the more alert fans scrambling to get a picture with the Singing Hot Dog Man. Others were not so courageous. “Look! It’s him, the Singing Hot Dog Man! I saw him on TV!” someone said as we passed. “No, that’s not him,” their friend replied. Marcuse stopped to buy a newspaper, the last one in the box. He turned to the second page. “Sorry, Charley,” read the headline. He wasn’t kidding when he said he’d had a number of interviews already this season.

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1999, Marcuse’s first year in the business, was a transition year in stadium concessions. Management had just phased out the traditional condiment cup with wooden spreading stick that Marcuse remembers from ballgames of his childhood, replacing this old-fashioned, personalized dispensing with plastic packets that allowed the purchaser to fiddle with their own condiment placement. Not all fans were pleased with this tacky, fast-food arrangement, though. “I even got a plastic cup and straws for a group of four guys,” he says, coming up with makeshift mustard spreaders for older fans looking for the authentic hot dog experience.

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“I tried the packets, but nobody wants them. About two weeks into the season, I went out and bought some squeeze bottles.” Marcuse appreciated the control afforded by the squeeze bottle, so he could put a perfect squiggle of mustard on each hot dog. If all this isn’t a labor of love, what is? “If a little kid would ask for ketchup and no mustard, I’d get them to at least try some, put a few dots on the end.”

While he’s always enjoyed mustard, Marcuse was more lenient about condiments in the early years. “I used to do a traffic light,” he says, “ketchup, mustard, and relish. They didn’t have relish, but I went out and bought some before every game. If onions came in squeeze bottles, I’d have done a Detroit traffic light in winter,” he chuckled to himself. Marcuse was the first vendor to offer relish. He says someone else tried later, wearing a pin that said, “Ask me, I’ve got relish,” but, in another oppressive move for rules and standards, management eventually took note and curtailed it.

The turning point in the Singing Hot Dog Man’s fight against the pasty tomato was in 2004, when he was barred from singing during games. After protracted contention, he was permitted to sing again, but only between innings. Working with these restrictions, he switched tactics, emphasizing mustard’s superiority and haranguing people requesting a gloppy mess of condiments on their dog. “The news likes to say that I do this for the attention, to get on TV,” he says, “but I really just want to do my job and sell hot dogs. And this sells.”

Marcuse isn’t alone in reviling ketchup, I found when wandering around Chicago last fall. Advertisements for what might have been a phone service insinuated that their competition was as ridiculous as putting ketchup on a hot dog. Even President Obama, like a true Chicagoan, has taken a stance in favor of Marcuse’s ideals, saying simply, “You shouldn’t put ketchup on your hot dog.”

In 2008 Marcuse launched Charley’s Ballpark Mustard, with the slogan, “It will make you sing!” In this household, no one has ever actually sung for mustard, but the complaints voiced after running out of a bottle of Marcuse’s signature condiment were anything but musical. Even if he doesn’t get his job back, he still plans to relaunch his mustard in the future.

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As we made our way uptown from the stadium, picking past heaps of tailgating garbage of all flavors, we saw plenty of destitute ketchup and mustard containers. Marcuse grumbled about the litter, pointing to a problem even bigger than ketchup versus mustard — that hardly anybody, residents and visitors alike, has enough respect for their environment. Looking around, claims that the suburbanites descending on the city are here to lavish money on it for a few hours seemed to me unsubstantiated. The sports-friendly bars in the area do, and definitely Mike Ilitch’s parking lots, but judging by the trash, many fans stocked up on sundries at their average suburban grocery store before making the trip “down” to Detroit. One has to wonder how many will have the nerve even to stop for gas in the city limits.

The rest of the time, Marcuse said, it’s not as if people are dropping these ketchup packets by accident. I’d always sort of imagined people sifting through their bags of take-out, utterly overwhelmed by the bulk of ketchup packets in the way of checking to see they’d been given the right sandwich. He didn’t seem to share this vision. “They get thrown away because that’s the nature of packets. You use it, and then who wants to put a sticky, residue-y, gross piece of garbage in their pocket?” This only really explains the half-consumed ones, not the full packets waiting to squelch underfoot, or why exactly there are so many to begin with. “Ketchup is traditional for the two most consumed fast food groups,” Marcuse conceded, “burgers and fries.” You can put it on lots of things, just not on hot dogs, nor on the ground.

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How did the Singing Hot Dog Man feel at the close of Opening Day? The Tigers won, but without him in the park, was this also a win for Big Ketchup? He laughed. With the nearby Leamington, Ontario Heinz factory reneging on its closure announcement from last year, it’s hard to say how ketchup will prevail. On the streets of Detroit, I can only wish we had more guys like Charley. The world around here needs fewer plastic packets of ketchup and a lot more song.

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.

Empire Detroit

January 11, 2014

Walking through Corktown on a typical route southbound to the riverfront, the road is transformed into a slushy single lane that is the real estate of honking, unsympathetic taxis. Their tires kick up clods of grey sludge as they speed back to their headquarters. The conditions aren’t ideal — outside of densely residential or commercial areas, sidewalks are nonexistent, snowed into oblivion. Pedestrians are left to fend for themselves, dodging crumbling snowbanks and the vast ponds of murky snowmelt radiating from the curbs. Sharing the streets with impatient drivers, I navigate these gingerly and keep moving.

Where Vermont bends into Porter, it’s quiet as usual outside Ponyride. On the other end of the block, at the intersection of Rosa Parks, a pair of utility trucks is out, servicing who knows what. The two contractors, chatting, look at me suspiciously. I issue a generic Detroit greeting involving such pleasantries as hellos and how-you-doings. They kind of nod in return. Distracted by an incomprehensible sticker on the b-pillar of the leading truck, I consider taking a picture, but deem it weird and pointless. Looking back at the guys looking back at me, I carry on toward the river.

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The riverfront has changed significantly in the past year. Since we last rambled there, the trees, except for a few lonely willow specimens, have been cut down, and red emergency phones have been installed in their place. All of this is behind a chainlink fence dotted with “private property no trespassing” signs. It’s progress everywhere, except for the remaining accessible narrow nub at the end of Rosa Parks where people still fish as long as the river isn’t frozen.

By the afternoon, the media’s caught wind of a new expansion in Dan Gilbert’s empire, the Detroit billionaire darling lauded with catalyzing the most profound revitalization the city has seen in decades. His focus has been building a two square mile piece of the downtown business district into a workable, liveable, and, incredibly, walkable destination. But Crain’s calls Gilbert’s new Corktown warehouse, the building I had unknowingly ambled past hours before, “about as anti-Gilbert as it gets.”

The building at Rosa Parks and Porter was purchased in November from the owner of Boulevard & Trumbull Towing. The real estate office facilitating the deal said that they supposed Gilbert’s new acquisition would be used for “warehousing for the owner’s personal belongings.” Deadline Detroit posits that “we can only assume a Gilbert-owned industrial warehouse will be used to store all the small buildings he doesn’t want anymore.”

So what will he really do with this odd purchase? If only Curbed were correct in their glib suggestion on the motivation behind Gilbert’s strange new land use. “An indoor beach, perhaps?” they wonder. “There are two cryptic clues: The seller’s lawyer told Crain’s that the warehouse would be a great place to “run something that required a lot of electricity,” while CoStar added that “some kind of communication center” will be installed.”

Screen capture from WXYZ.

Screen capture from WXYZ.

Does this mean a communication center like the infamous state-of-the-art one currently housed downtown in the Chase building? It’s unlikely that there’s any plan to relocate the center to this decentralized spot, but it’s impossible to imagine a Gilbert building without its fair share of cameras.

According to WXYZ, as of October Gilbert had installed 300 cameras in his downtown stomping grounds. Let’s just say it’s doubtful the plan has ended there. Some downtown residents claim that the cameras now number as many as 600. With these cameras “[o]perators can zoom right in on individuals. All of the images are recorded,” ostensibly helping police identify suspects.

We can hope that the subjects of surveillance will be limited to criminals, but will they? What of the homeless, the rambling, the otherwise quirky individuals who don’t fit the whims of Gilbert and his 7,600 young professionals spiking demand in the downtown housing market? The evictions of longtime residents are taking place on camera. As one Detroit writer said of Gilbert, “He also just sent a notice to one of my ex-girlfriends, explaining he has purchased the apartment building she’s lived in for the last 16 years and his future plans don’t include her.” If not welcome to live their lives within the walls of their own homes downtown, how welcome will they be to visit their old streets?

Basically, these improvements downtown just mean that Fernando Palazuelo has to deal with more bodies snatched from high-surveillance areas getting dumped at his new house on E. Grand Boulevard, further dividing a city whose edges are already sagging under the weight of heavy segregation. Crimes will continue to be pushed to outlying areas where “nobody” lives, places actually inhabited by plenty of people who are not Gilbert’s new 1%.

No one can argue against the local benefits of increased security downtown, and Gilbert’s surveillance plan has made for neighborly partnerships with General Motors, the Ilitches, and Compuware, not to mention Detroit, Wayne County, and Wayne State police, which itself has a small empire of cameras. Detroit Police Chief James Craig optimistically said, “I’m hopeful that sometime in the very near future that the Detroit Police Department can replicate and even expand beyond the technology being used in Rock’s Ventures,” adding that it was very nice to be “invited in” to use the system during special events.

It seems that what Dan Gilbert wants, Dan Gilbert will get, with city officials paying gentle lip service to his empire, dubbed Opportunity Detroit. As previous mayor Dave Bing told the New York Times last year about his relationship with Gilbert, “My job is to knock down as many barriers as possible and get out of the way,” expediting permits while longtime Detroiters are left to abide by bureaucracy’s schedule.

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Rambling downtown last weekend, the cameras’ presence was palpable even through the veil of oncoming snowstorm. As a Detroiter who, like most, does not reside downtown, it’s been luxurious having my activities go uncharted by an omniscient eye, or at least only as much I let big data peek in. No more. Welcome to Corktown, cameras! Empire Detroit surveillance is now coming to a neighborhood near you.

Rambling report

January 6, 2014

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Thank you, intrepid ramblers! Snowpocalypse be damned; this weekend we walked right into the polar vortex. We met in the deserted Guardian Building lobby and traipsed through the drifts downtown, covering something like a 4.5 mile jaunt for which most ramblers were surprised to find themselves overdressed as temperatures graciously hovered near freezing.

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We cut through a number of buildings, exploring interior and exterior spaces connecting various destinations, following an excellent route planned with historic preservationist Timothy Boscarino and Joe Krause of Backseat Detroit tours, whose knowledge of the city may be as vast as the city itself. You can also catch up with Joe on select Saturday afternoons when he guides walking tours for D:hive.

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The elevated tubes at the Millender and Renaissance Centers gave us shelter and perspective as we made our way to the riverfront, an essential stop in any downtown sojourn. The only ship in our foggy field of vision was a motionless freighter, waiting out the storm. Ramblers worried about a lone family of ducks whose runty offspring were bravely surfing the icebergs.

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We squiggled through the deeper accumulations in Hart Plaza, untouched by buses and business as usual. Finding the snow imperfect for sculpting snowmen, a halfhearted snowball fight broke out.

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Aiming to traverse as many tunnels as possible, we were foiled by locked doors at Joe Louis Arena, which was just as well, judging by the scent making its way out of the window grates. Intentionally or otherwise, we made a fairly complete survey of every set of stairs in the area.

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After some alleys and a visit to Capitol Park, the ramble ended at dusk, with 50% of ramblers in favor of looping back to Lafayette for consolation coneys and pie, the whole group disappointed by the dearth of establishments open and ready to serve them hot coffee during the ramble. We were undoubtedly the snowiest patrons there this slow evening.

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Rambling home later in the night, I happened upon success where earlier we had failed — a snowman stood in the middle of a field, wearing an uncertain expression as the wind gusted mightily.