Tag Archives: midtown

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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Relative value of fields

September 22, 2014

This time of year means many changes afoot. Shifts in the landscape presently invisible will soon become material. This is not just seasonal stuff — the mounting of abscission cells in tree leaves or the rampantness of squirrels or the odd autumnal deficit of acorns — unless you consider the tax-foreclosed property auction a season. And why not? With all its expense and obsessive fervor, it’s about as festive.

Bidding on the first batch of properties in the September Wayne County auction ended last Wednesday. Having it out of the way may be a relief to some new and returning landowners, but the suspense is still on. Sales for the last of this month’s properties will climax on September 24, making way for the shitshow that is the October round. In past years, waiting for the October auction has been a popular option, when bidding starts at only $500, rather than the full amount of back taxes owed on the property. Not so this time. There is a new urgency to snap up properties in some areas that can’t wait a day, let alone a month.

What kind of shifts can we expect in the coming months as all this land changes hands? Amid such uncertainties, fewer of Detroit’s infamous fields is a given. Here’s a preliminary glance at the relative value of some of Detroit’s real estate.

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This former field along Woodward is part of the Pizza Empire’s new playground, served on a rent-free silver spoon by the Downtown Development Authority to the Ilitches for the new arena. (Hey guys — I hear gold spoons taste better. Try harder next time). While they Ilitches do not technically own this particular piece of land, they effectively control it in perpetuity, since the lease may be extend up to 95 years, at which point they’ll all be deceased. The city council controversially voted to sell the land, including this parcel and 38 others, for a mere $1 to the DDA earlier this year.

In its former life as game-day overflow parking, the lot had a couple trees facing Woodward but little else to offer; walking this void between Midtown and downtown was bland, windy, and unpleasant. Now, the area is increasingly disorienting to traverse on foot and is anticipated to become more so, until there is a new arena in the middle of it and it is yet another field — and streets — that can no longer be walked. How will the new arena area compare?

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The placement of 52 shipping containers is underway as this week’s groundbreaking event draws nearer; it basically looks like some people have been playing with large red Legos for the past week. A couple of the containers are being outfitted with murals by VIP painting crews allowed past the perimeter fencing.

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Compare that field to this on Trumbull, home to a scrubby Japanese maple and a sign reading “No City Cut,” which just sold for $11,000. Who owns this now? A neighbor living in one of the houses next door? More faceless Vinyl Village development entities? The suspense continues as the treasurer’s office slowly mails out deeds and new owners appear.

For perspective on that $11,000 field, also in this round of the auction was a parking space at the Park Shelton, which sold for $35,300. As hilariously noted in (and later removed from) the property description on the tax auction site, the winning bidder was ultimately foiled when the condo association told him the condo and its parking space could not be owned separately. City employees faced with this complaint just moved on, awarding the parking space to the next highest bidder.

As the air chills and more land gets grabbed, we’ll be looking at — and walking through — other vanishing fields, to see what is lost and what is gained in the rapid transformation of the cityscape, dictated by the handful of powers with its future wrapped around their finger.

Arenaland: if we keeps it 300%, we keeps it out of reach behind a fence, now.

Arenaland: if we keeps it 300%, we keeps it out of reach behind a fence, now.

Recommended reading for post-post-apocalyptic times:
Utterly poignant and timely Detroit artists’ conversation on creativity in the present and future city, from its residents to newcomers “taking the plunge,” and the history of it all.

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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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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Problem parks

July 9, 2014

Although Detroit still has more parks than it can handle, after having leased Belle Isle to Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources and temporarily closing fifty of them last year, there is a persistent trend of Midtown parks lately coming under siege. Here are some troubled areas in the greater 7.2:

  • Redmond Plaza, fenced off and soon to be remodelled by Midtown Detroit, Inc., for benefit of new restaurant goers
  • Unofficial dogpark at Canfield and Trumbull, unfortunately developed this winter into bland rental units.
  • Current construction that has levelled the gangly tangles of art in the awkward slice of Wick Park at Martin Luther King, Jr. and Cass, handed over last October by CCNDC to Cass Plaza Apartments.
  • Imminent threat of development of the neglected city-owned Wigle Recreation Center at Selden and the Lodge, as vinyl village is rumored to soon seep across the highway. The city issued a Request for Proposals in 2011, stipulating that an experienced developer “renovate the existing recreation structure and/or construct a suitable development at the site.” Guess which one they’ll pick. Another RFP was issued last month. Competing rumors say that the park has been adopted by DTE Energy.
  • And, a close call this winter as Cass Park was nearly gifted to Mike Ilitch. Maybe, like a lot of retirees his age, he’s working toward a secret second career as a master gardener.

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The former Wick Park.

The former Wick Park.

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In return, we get a stinky greenway and a speck of Shinola-branded dog park that no pedestrians can look reasonable entering unless accompanied by a well-socialized dog. Not sure exactly what we’re supposed to do with those picnic tables within the park — obviously not for either human or canine use! Although one day I did see a woman eating an apple at one table while her dog obliviously romped.

At least they've got the important stuff.

At least they’ve got the important stuff.

The cool Adopt-a-Park program launched by Mayor Mike Duggan’s office this spring is evidently not applicable when development money is at stake, with none of Midtown’s green spaces on the list for adoption, despite the persuasive factors of density, need, desire, and money for parks. Midtown may not have as many kids as other neighborhoods in the city, but adults need green spaces, too. Parks are for everyone, not just children, drunks, and crackheads. Or dogs.

Fortunately, the park forecast overall is looking up, with Brennan Pools at Rouge Park reopening today after stagnating for two underfunded years. Imagine if Midtown’s crusty Louis Stone Pool complex were similarly revitalized!

Looking pretty sad as of March.

Looking pretty sad as of March.

Not a lot better today.

Not a lot better today.

UPDATE 07.10.14:
Turns out everybody else is keeping an eye on Detroit’s parks, too! WDET has launched Detroit Park Watch, a wonderful program to monitor the condition of city parks this summer after Mayor Duggan pledged to keep 250 of them open, almost ten times as many as were maintained last year.

By visiting a park and reporting its status either online or by text, contributors can enjoy their greenspaces and help keep government accountable. It’s all the best part, but the other best part is how WDET is keeping track of anecdotes reported by park visitors. “Beyond the data, we will actively look to tell stories about these parks (like why is Twork Park called Twork Park?) and those who are taking care of them,” says WDET’s Terry Parris Jr., coordinator of the project. The site also features a great map where you can search for your nearest parks and read reports on their status by WDET or citizen park-goers.

A second look both ways

July 3, 2014

A cardinal rule of walking in cities that everyone learns when they’re knee-high and first able to comprehend quantifiers such as ‘both’ is, “Look both ways.” In Detroit, it’s long been the case that one-way designations have been perceived only as an emphatic and occasionally policeable suggestion. Looking both ways is automatic, but with recent road construction in Midtown, it’s a great time, as rambler Michaela would put it, for a reminder from your local mom: Look both ways before crossing the street!

Like the sign says, Second is going through some ups and downs.

Like the sign says, Second is going through some ups and downs.

This particular street is Second Avenue. Last week, road crews were out making good on an old plan to restore Second to something like its historic proportions, and as Curbed contends, “ending its reign as the neighborhood’s most illogical thoroughfare,” at least since Third underwent its conversion last year, I guess.

The gesture, with planning provided by Midtown Detroit, Inc., was well-received, with media making a big deal about the “cushy” buffered bike lanes, but it seems that certain populations have been left out of the plan. You can mumbo-jumbo your way through all the ‘complete streets’ buzzwords you want, but without facilities for all road and sidewalk users these streets are incomplete.

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After a week of bidirectionality and new bike lanes, things weren’t looking any better for pedestrians. No crosswalks have been installed; not a single line demarcating a street crossing has been laid. Pedestrians can cross safely at Selden and at Forest, but in the intervening “walkable” blocks no provision has been offered. Thinking that the oversight must be temporary, I waited, then asked questions. As of Tuesday, everyone who knows anything about sidewalks in the Department of Public Works or at Midtown Detroit, Inc., was on vacation.

At least there's no parking in the crosswalk.

At least there’s no parking in the crosswalk.

Deviating slightly from my usual commute, I walked north on Second and asked other pedestrians as we crossed paths how they were doing and what they thought of the new paint job. (Not including people wearing earbuds, which may have skewed results). They were all fine, thanks, but the exchange got uglier as the subject turned impersonal. I’m not a fan of the change, but I was anticipating that at least someone would like it. No one did. “Let me tell you, I hate it, man. It’s a thoroughfare. It used to be a neighborhood, and now it’s a thoroughfare. And it sucks,” ranted one woman impassionedly. “I don’t like it,” said the next man who passed. “I liked it better when it was one way. Now there’s a lot more traffic. I’m used to looking both ways, but… I’m still getting used to it.” He looked down Second and concluded, “I like the bike lanes, though!”

This pedestrian made it across safely, but will you?

This pedestrian made it across safely, but will you?

This is hardly about which format is better — it’s about disregard for pedestrians, no matter what the roadway itself holds. Nobody really knows whether the purported benefits of two-way streets actually pan out. Two-wayification is a traffic calming strategy intended to reducing vehicle speed, miles travelled, and pollution emitted, while hopefully increasing pedestrian safety and walkability. Studies have shown evidence for both outcomes — safer for pedestrians, not safer for pedestrians, and so forth — so like many cities following the trend, Detroit is another willing to pay a good deal of money to do an experiment on which it isn’t even collecting data.

In my experience, none of the planner’s promises have materialized following the Third Street conversion. Crossing has been at best a nuisance. Avoiding speeding cars coming from both sides, poorly timed so as to require waiting longer to find a suitable gap, has been an issue both as a pedestrian and a cyclist. Even if the change had caused traffic speeds to drop, slower traffic often equates to more fumes and road noise — not the types of amenities Midtown aims to offer its residents and guests. After recently establishing that the dominant scent of the Midtown Loop is exhaust, creating more smelly “walkable” areas is an odd priority. Leaving Second alone and putting bike lanes on Cass, the adjacent more heavily-travelled existing two-way, could have been a consideration, though it’s a tight fit as it is.

This transition could be done well, making life better for both pedestrians and cyclists — it just hasn’t been yet. Perhaps it wasn’t a slip of the tongue when the Free Press quoted DPW director Ron Brundidge saying, “Whenever we have an opportunity to promote more non-motorized transportation use, whether it’s bicycle paths or making it more pedestrian friendly, we definitely want to employ that as part of the principles of design” (emphasis mine). This isn’t an either-or proposition. It’s a rare opportunity where everybody can easily be safer and happier.

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Like city employees and Midtown Inc. planners, I’m going on vacation. Perhaps when I return from walking around where there is no concrete to bicker over lining with crosswalks (North Country Trail!), the city will yield great surprises. Could it be a fleet of yield signs for crosswalks, like at Hancock and Cass (where I always resist the zealous impulse to walk though the intersection just for fun)? Maybe DTE’s gas line dig sites at Canfield will lay foundations for a pedestrian bridge or lead to a subterranean crossing, like the vestiges of one further north on Second. Just kidding; a concrete hole in the ground probably doesn’t count as a greenway.

The Detroit Area Rambling Network is all about making the most of pedestrian opportunities in the city — we already live in some permutation of a walkable city, so let’s use it. Some lines on the ground probably aren’t going to save my life, but crosswalks at least promote awareness that hey, people actually walk around here. It’s a sad day when an area like Midtown becomes less safely walkable, even if within the context of greater progress.

Smells of the Midtown Loop

June 29, 2014

Aside from wandering around, one of my favorite things to do is pore over maps, which is why I’m so fond of the diligently-updated DETROITography blog. When I awoke Friday morning to a post relating a psychogeographic approach to the Midtown Loop by Alex Hill, I was inspired to do some more deliberate psychogeography myself and replicate Hill’s walk.

Hill’s impression of the Midtown Loop in early June was heavy on the exhaust and diesel fumes, and he concluded by suggesting that reducing car use be a priority on a route that is supposed to be one of Detroit’s walkability showpieces. For the most part the Midtown Loop resembles your average street and sidewalk pairing, except with fancy pavement designs and noticeably upgraded landscaping near the Science Center. Hypothesizing that results of my walk would differ between night and day, I decided to travel the loop twice.

Day

Day

It was a more yogic walking experience than I’m used to, forced into awareness of my breath as I tried to detect some scents. On both walks I took, one on Friday around noon and another on Saturday around midnight, lovely winds rushed at me, especially on the long north-south stretches of Cass and John R. Many of these gentle gusts brought clean riverfront air, concealing native scents.

Night

Night

Daytime is much smellier for the Midtown Loop than night, with thirty-two scent events compared to eighteen after hours. While I wasn’t struck by its unpleasantness while walking, exhaust fumes were abundant on my daytime loop, accounting for eight scent events where traffic lined up at stoplights. The nighttime walk was dominated by five great woodsy whiffs of fresh mulch. More mysterious scents floated through the night air — chlorine, gasoline, and a funny plastic reek, none of which had an origin visually evident.

The lunchtime smells of fried food at La Palma, tempura outside of Wasabi, the meat and fried things at Warren and Cass, and a generic restaurant smell outside of the Whitney gave way in the night to a lone greasy odor at Woodward and Canfield. Predictably, the loop smelled of other pedestrians much more during the day than at night — smoking, cologne, deodorant, and laundry smells were as much a part of the experience as the landscape itself.

It was interesting how poorly scent mapped onto place, how dissociated an aroma might be from its origin. Without the usual visuals, I had no idea where I was. For all I could tell, the nasty barren lawn of the hospital complex may as well have been a forest trail, and the daylilies blooming along Canfield were invisible to the nose. One might conclude that the Midtown Loop was designed to be experienced less with the nose than the eyes.

Although it’s no joking matter, this may be the one way Detroit is safer for walking at night. The daytime air pollution from traffic that was so unappealing for Alex Hill during his walk dissipated at night. The relatively clear air after dark is a significant benefit for pedestrians uninterested in basking in noxious fumes and harmful particulates as they stroll along a greenway.

Flourishing

March 17, 2014

The first flower I saw this spring was probably the brightest I’ll see for a while. Leaving the 15th annual Alley Culture seed exchange, spring was on the radar, and a flourishing of pink projected up from the scrubby grass of the sidewalk margin. It was a fake flower was stuck in the ground. (Alley Culture’s always highly-anticipated spring newsletter is out, with a generous blurb about rambling to remind you of our next walk on April 6).

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Today’s walk was 25 degrees and sunny, wind stinging cheeks and ears. Plants have been on their way up for some time now, the spiky fronds of daffodils poking out of the ground like pineapple tops, welcoming and waving, like “Aloha — warm weather.” It’s reassuring to see something green emerge from the subsiding snowbanks, unlike the dismaying quantities of dog poop mounded on grassy stretches and sidewalks alike. (Prentis and Third dog owners, for shame! Get your shit together. Literally.) It was, of course, just a matter of time before something bloomed.

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The first real flowers I’ve seen this season, a scant three days before the equinox, are Galanthus nivalis, commonly called snowdrops or snowbells and less often referred to as “February fairmaids” or “dingle-dangle.” They were coming up against the south-facing shelter of a big stone church amid some twiggy bushes that I mostly ignored and whose name I don’t yet know.

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The name ‘snowdrop’ can be traced back to 1633, when the revised edition of London botanist and herbalist John Gerard’s enormous tome Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes appeared. Although it makes enough sense visually (the tenacious plants pushing up through snow; the white flower hanging droplike from its stem), no one seems to be sure exactly where it came from. In the initial 1597 run of his book, Gerard was referring to it as the “Timely flowring Bulbus violet.” Some say the change may have been of German influence, the word Schneetropfen being a type of earring popular around that time. Whatever their name, they’re a most pleasant zeitgeber.

Incidentally — or not; it’s not as though there are plentiful floral options available this time of year — snowbells or snowdrops are practically the official flower of Dragobete, the ancient Romanian Valentine’s holiday celebrated nearly a month ago now. Tradition instructs girls and boys to pick snowdrops or other early-flowering things as a gift for the person they’re sweet on.

Despite the photographic evidence otherwise, I do actually walk places; I don’t just crawl around on the sidewalks, rummaging through bushes. On the subject of weird walks and a sudden flourishing, the West Coast’s crazy toast person, the one single-handedly responsible for the rise of the humble slice of Maillard-reactioned bread to artisanal fetish object, makes an appearance on This American Life this week. In her walks around San Francisco, she doesn’t literally crawl through any brambly bushes either, but the metaphor might not be a bad fit.

Giulietta Carrelli, zesty proprietor of The Trouble Coffee and Coconut Club, has schizoaffective disorder, which sometimes leaves her wandering the city for twelve hours at a time, hallucinating and lost, unable to recognize even herself. John Gravois, 35-year-old non-hipster and father of two, was the unlikely investigator into the origins of the toast trend. In a version gently dumbed down for radio, Gravois narrates, “She remembers this one episode, a long delusional walk though San Francisco, during which she called police to let them know a tree had fallen on top of her, which it hadn’t. And finally Guilietta found herself at China Beach, in the northwest part of town. On the sundeck was an elderly man, sitting on a towel, wearing a speedo, sunbathing on a cloudy day that suggested anything but.” Guilietta chimes in, “His socks always matched his sweater — no matter what. I was always amazed by that. But he was mostly in a Speedo, tanning.”

Gravois says, “This would be the beginning of the beginning for Giulietta and Trouble Coffee.” He describes her in her uniform of crop tops and headscarves, covered in tattoos, even her permanently-freckled cheeks, “like a biker Pippi Longstocking.” Like Pippi, you never know what you’ll find out on a walk. Flowers, a decent This American Life podcast in your headphones, Holocaust survivors relaxing in Speedos, who knows.

UPDATE 03.18.14:
What you’ll find out on a walk today is … more flowers. While these buttery yellow crocuses caught my attention, my attention caught a dog’s attention, and my camera’s attention wandered off into some other depth of field. The dog did not stop to smell the flowers, but it did smell me.

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Wambling

January 10, 2014

It goes without saying that it’s been cold this week. The polar vortex made a frosty, unwelcoming atmosphere that rendered any attempts to amble foolish, feeling not so much frigid as just deeply strange. Who can even remember the last time they took a walk at -11 degrees?

A likely species flourished in the elements, however. Snow creatures materialized with surprising force. Here are some of Detroit’s heartwarming efforts.

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Between Monday and Thursday, over a course of 9.67 miles, there were a total of 14 snow sculptures visible in the greater Midtown area. This makes for an unexpectedly dense 1.45 snowthings per mile, even despite bitter windchills. The tally was limited to snowthings accessible from sidewalks and alleys, but it appears that most residents had the altruism — or showmanship — to locate their creations in front yards for all to see.

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No small number of fire hydrants were masquerading as attempted snowthings, only to be revealed at a second glance as the imposters they were, sneering with the same metallic yellow grin underneath their white cap.

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Visiting places where there are often children playing in fairer seasons, it was surprising to find absolutely no snowthings. It seems that the brave creators of these large and sometimes elaborate sculptures were ‘kids’ of a different demographic. This one, especially, lacked sufficient modesty to be well-suited for a younger audience.

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In many cases, snowthings were left unfinished, as though the hands putting them together got too cold and went inside.

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Passing by corners memorable for their charming snowmen of yesteryear, it was a delight to find their progeny alive and well, like this friendly face at Second and Willis.

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At the end of the day, the award for best snowthing did not go to a rabbit, a buxom bear, a miniature igloo, a man, a woman (or both), but to the ingenious snow carrot-holder! Or is this a porcupine under all those quills?

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It’s fitting that the word of the day is ‘wamble,’ which sounds exactly like the kind of rambling that hapless sloppy snowmen might do this weekend as they melt their way back to where they came from.