Tag Archives: garbology

Detroit Toolkit

January 23, 2015

The observant pedestrian may notice that there aren’t many street sweepers in this city. To some, this lack of city service is a benefit. The streets are full of things, and the things are full of stories. These stories get spilled out of dumpsters, filtered through holes in pockets, run over by cars, kicked to the curb — ultimately left for dead. As much as garbage can resemble treasure, these things might, to the right roving thing-finder. I’d halfheartedly taken up and discarded collections of them in the past, always ultimately throwing out the knife blades and the eyelash curlers gleaned from downtown alleys, the sockets and wrenches rusting in outlying streets. Instead, for one month, I humored my thing-finderly tendencies and let the items accumulate.

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The result is the December 2014 Detroit Toolkit. The toolkit is currently at Public Pool in Hamtramck, honored to be part of Picnic Club Detroit‘s retrospective of its inaugural year of picnics. The toolkit represents the resourcefulness of Detroiters, the mindset of always doing the best that can be done with what can be had. More than I realized, this was a study in the extent to which the objects sought influence the objects found. While the toolkit came into being because of all the stray items I regularly see, December yielded an unusual number of knife sightings. (Pro tip: the shrubbery outside Comerica Park is a hotspot for crappy pocket tools of all stripes, probably discarded by forgetful attendees who didn’t want to make the trek back to their distant surface lot to leave the item in their car. Did they mean to retrieve them after the game? Who knows. Dogs will sniff out their own conclusions.)

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Not all tools were ideal candidates for the collection. The obsolete cellphone, broken jingle bell, ugly silverware — I carried them into the gallery in a cardboard box, looked at them, and carried them back out to the dumpster. The toolkit is as complete as time and place permit. My only regret is that I rarely saw syringes when I was out alone, and no walking companion would let me pick up one of them when we were together — Detroit’s needle to go with the thread.

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Visiting hours for the Picnics in the Polar Vortex exhibition are 1-6 PM every Saturday, with varied dreamy picnic programming going on each week. This Saturday is about “Ideas for Creative Leisure,” a workshop for generating “both inspired and mundane ideas for recreation.” If I’m not out rambling the daylight away as usual, this is where you’ll find me. It’s also a great chance to browse the Picnic Club library and spend some time with the photos and artifacts in the gallery. If gallery hours aren’t enough, the toolkit is for “sale”! Have you always wanted a bunch of miscellaneous hand-selected garbage and to take me on five walks of your choice? Yes? Let’s talk.

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Spring cleaning

March 25, 2014

Nothing particularly exciting happened to mark the flip of seasons last week. The equinox came and quietly went with a little fuss of wind. Days are 2 minutes and 53 seconds longer. Today it’s been snowing. People groan and make small talk, wishing the weather would break. A breath of fresh air, a cool glass of water.

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It seems that someone has decided it’s time for spring cleaning anyway. For the past two weeks, toothbrushes have been materializing everywhere, in all conditions, minty fresh to old and scrubby. Is there a new dentist in town, handing out freebies? A clean-teeth evangelist making rounds?

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An odd flush of toothbrushes isn’t the only anomaly to puzzle sidewalk users — repeated instances of a particular item will appear in the tight space of a week or two, then vanish. If not all over the city, this is at least the case in the small wedge I most often explore. At the end of February, citrus peels suddenly decorated the snowbanks. Why did pedestrians go so nuts about fruit in that moment? Warm enough for picnics already? Citrus on sale? (Citrus sale happens in January, too). A viral listicle enumerating the health benefits of oranges? What can account for this peculiarity? As mysteriously as they began, the appearances of bright mandarin rinds, half-eaten grapefruits, and smushed clementines ceased abruptly about two weeks later. I can’t wait to see what the world comes up with for April Fool’s next week.

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In another type of spring cleaning, Detroiters shooed out the dweeby Nain Rouge again this weekend, hooting and hollering over the 0.9 mile trek through the Cass Corridor to banish the legendary demon. After standing around getting wasted outside Traffic Jam for an hour, the parade slowly threaded south, past new parking lots and imminently shuttering businesses. This obliviousness to history and environment seems to be part of the new tradition of the march. Allegedly a revival of the French colonists’ annual rite to bring peace to their city by chasing the evil red man out, this story is really, as one of the parade organizers admitted to radio producer and journalist Mike Blank in 2011, a complete fabrication. It seems instead to be, if anything historic, an appropriation of Ottawa myth.

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There was sun but it was chilly, and the march seemed much smaller than past years, though certainly no more shabby. Most people were in costume, except the uniformed cops benevolently corking sidestreets. Amid drag queens and hotdogs and people with grotesque masks there was a funeral procession for Capitol Park, some kind of perambulating coffin setup attended by a cluster of people in black clutching umbrellas. The whole effect was comic; despite the spangles, it was slightly reminiscent of goths in high school. Their presence is appreciated, but these are probably not the same kids who would offer to help the evictees move out of their apartments this week in the hideously rebranded Albert building.

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While there were important messages to be conveyed, few seemed to be in the mood to send or receive them. It was a Sunday, and these people are called ‘revelers’ taking part in a ‘parade’ for a reason. Inebriation and spirits were high, and questioning the debatable history or political correctness of the march was out of the question. One person told me that he cared a lot about our neighborhood but really just wanted to drink tequila with his soccer team. Whatever, I say, as long as it gets people walking. After a dull speech by the Nain, revelers quickly dispersed north toward the starting point or descended into the bowels of the Masonic Temple for the afterparty.

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Unlike previous years, nobody even touched Cass Park, which isn’t all bad — less spring cleanup. One resident muttered that having people in the park might not be the best idea anyway, given the creaky trees and downed branches. Did I want some firewood?, he asked. Mike Ilitch doesn’t seem to out there making good on the pledge to make or keep the park a functional greenspace. With the ominous shifting of land and narrative, the march just wasn’t as fun this time as previous years. Whether the march is what they say it is or not, Detroit needs fun, and it’s hard to argue against such earnest attempts at it. But must fun come with a certain amnesia?

Today the ground and bushes on Canfield and on Cass are brightened by dyed feathers and snippets of ribbon. I imagine a lot of the unfamiliar faces I saw on Sunday back in their elsewhere, recollecting a boozy memory of the weekend gone by. The wind scrubs clean the shrubs bit by bit, Detroiters lose their toothbrushes, and flowers come up soft and unsoiled.

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