Tag Archives: history

Jane Jacobs’ unbirthday walk

October 4, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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?)

A railroad is like a lie

November 13, 2013

The intersection of walking and art is never far away. Few can get there faster than Steve Panton, artist, engineer, and proprietor of the gallery 2739 Edwin in Hamtramck. Panton has been exploring the city on impressive, intimidatingly long walks for years, accumulating insight on his surroundings, at one point cataloging 120 former bank buildings. His excellent essay on walking appeared in Model D. In testament to his enthusiasm for the subject, he curated a show of eight local artists’ work in Walking Distance (pdf) in 2009.

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Panton’s most recent exhibition is part of the show working title, on view at Alley Culture in Woodbridge Farm from November 1-23. This Sunday evening Alley Culture will host a special presentation of Panton providing background for his piece, historian Martin Hershock discussing the transformation of landscape and culture during the expansion of the railroads, and a screening of the film “Who is Bozo Texino?”

The piece, titled A railroad is like a lie, consists of steel forms carefully selected on railroad track walks and notecards typewritten with a historic timeline, photos, maps, figures, and quotes, giving context to the rusty artifacts. The fragments are arranged with the smallest at the beginning of the timeline to the left, and the larger ones occupying a second tier below. The arrangement unintentionally lends the pieces a kind of momentum, not unlike a train picking up speed.

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Panton has been collecting the shards for several years, taking just one during each walk he makes along the tracks between Joseph Campau and the area between Third and Rosa Parks, depending on his destination. Because his rules advise against putting a piece back if a more appealing one appears, some walks yield none. He doesn’t keep track of the chronology of his selections; there are too many, the ones on view at Alley Culture only a part of the whole collection.

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During a recent Saturday afternoon’s open hours, Panton himself was sitting the gallery, outfitted in cycling apparel. He bikes a lot in the summer, he says, but can’t wait for winter walks, his favorite season on foot. An open book was lying facedown on a stool next to the woodstove. Panton was chatting with a friend, explaining the end of common-ground cattle grazing on the farms that the train tracks cut through. He picked up notecards as reference, pinpointing locations on several small maps.

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The deceptively simple metal pieces seemed to attract tactile investigation. A visitor touched a particularly wild form of metal spiraling on itself, one of the few that extended beyond the second dimension. He interjected, “Did you see any cattle skulls lying around?” Panton, smiling, said, “No, not between here and Hamtramck.”

When asked about the research phase of his work, Panton laughed, recounting how it had all been carried out in a three-week period prior to the opening of the show. The walks came first; all else followed. While his command of history and willingness to engage in any aspect of the topic were admirable, what’s striking is how much of the actual human experience vanishes into academic context, the way photographs displace memories and become what’s “real.” Perhaps this is Panton leaving the introspective quiet of his walks in the personal realm, or mirroring the way that locomotive machines overtook the land.

Does knowledge of the historical context of his walks cause him to perceive them with greater awareness? “I definitely do see it differently, now. It’s less of a convenient and fun way to get from one point to another but a part of history,” he said. “You can see how Detroit grew up around the railroads, how Hamtramck especially exists because of the railroads.”

Don’t miss the rest of the story during “A night out on the rails” this Sunday, November 17 from 7-8:30 at Alley Culture Detroit. Alley Culture is located in the red building off of the alley between Trumbull and Lincoln, just south of Willis.