Tag Archives: pedestrian-friendliness

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.

img20141010_130807

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.”

img20141010_131250

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.

img20141010_130718

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.

Where the pedestrians aren’t

October 1, 2014

Curbed Detroit has an image gallery up today ostensibly providing a photo tour of the future arenaland. The gallery is less the expected catalog of what is there and more an investigation of where the pedestrians aren’t. This could be easily turned into a children’s book about failed urban planning.

“You’ll notice there are not many pedestrians,” Curbed writes. “Not here,” it continues calmly under the following image, flipping what should be the next heavy page of a teething-resistant board book, “or here.” With its soothing repetition (except for the dozen or so photos where the author seemingly tire of typing that caption — come on, Curbed, copy and paste) and eventual surprise discovery, it has all the charms of a minimalist Where’s Waldo after Waldo moves to the burbs.

Photo by Michelle and Chris Gerard for Curbed Detroit.

Photo by Michelle and Chris Gerard for Curbed Detroit.

And good job, Curbed, for not counting the guy riding a bicycle the wrong way on Park at Henry as a pedestrian. Way to teach those kids what a vehicle is!

While the set of images seems intentionally skewed to tell the story that pedestrians don’t travel here, this is a great ‘before’ to 2017’s hopefully walkable ‘after.’ I usually see a number of people out when walking in this area. Perhaps they have been deterred by the rude truck drivers and other construction personnel with less fearsome vehicles who have nearly run me over in car, on bike, and on foot in their ill-mannered haste to carry out Ilitch’s bidding. The M1 employees have not been kind, either.

Photo by Michelle and Chris Gerard for Curbed Detroit.

Photo by Michelle and Chris Gerard for Curbed Detroit.

Today there was much activity in the area as movie crews took over the streets, erecting barricades. This meant another tough day for pedestrians scolded for trying to follow their usual routes and told to take sometimes lengthy detours. As I looked at the crews milling around, a security officer approached me, asking me to leave. “But I’m outside the barrier,” I replied. “They don’t care, they just want you to leave,” he told me. Last week, Motor City Muckraker reported that “[p]olice and security forced fans off a public street and sidewalk because they “were too close” to the groundbreaking” taking place at the future arena. While pedestrian traffic was low before, there may be good reasons it will remain that way for a while.

Keep out of the "Tiger Clubhouse"!

Keep out of the “Tiger Clubhouse”!

Where the sidewalk doesn’t end

July 22, 2014

Surprisingly good sidewalk news from the 7.2 and beyond:

    • No crosswalks have materialized on the recently bi-directional Second Avenue in Midtown, but crews are replacing disturbed sections of sidewalk.
      img20140722_115758
      One worker, looking zen as all get out as he smoothed the new patch with a cement-leveling tool, said, “We just fix what DTE breaks!” No response regarding the absence of crosswalks has been received following an email dated July 14 to the office of Jereen Rice, Midtown Detroit Inc.’s “Greenway & Non-Motorized Planner/Engineer.” Meanwhile, pedestrians still cannot get to the Bronx and back without undue risk.
      img20140722_115744
    • M-1 rail is breaking ground next week, which means it will be construction season on Woodward until 2016. While pedestrians know that this usually entails a wild goose chase of detours, M-1 rail planners are promising to keep sidewalks open, as Craig Fahle noted while skimming through publicity documents. “You’re going to make sure sidewalks are maintained; everything’s ADA compliant throughout the entire construction project. That’s not always the case in a project like this,” he said in an interview with chief operating officer Paul Childs.
      img20140718_191924
    • As the grand plan for the future Ilitch sports arena was announced this week, it brought some unexpected positive news for current Detroit pedestrians. Cass Park will still be a park, and a nicer one at that. As Curbed reported, “Most of the immediate construction in places like Cass Park Plaza will be in the form of new infrastructure (streets, sidewalks, etc) and landscaping to lure outside developers.” As Chris Ilitch told Crain’s, fixing streetlights and landscaping will “free the city up to spend its resources on other priorities.” How generous. Then, in a bizarre choice of words to describe a place where people actually live, Ilitch said, “This is an investor’s playground.” At least sidewalks are usually a priority near playgrounds.
    • Elsehere, sidewalks have bifurcated and grown lanes. In a “behavioral science experiment,” crews from a new National Geographic TV show have painted lanes on a Washington, D.C. sidewalk, splitting pedestrians into phone-using and non-phone-using groups.
      Photo by Cliff Owen for the Associated Press

      Photo by Cliff Owen for the Associated Press


      It went about as successfully as would be expected for a TV crew masquerading as behavioral scientists. Pedestrians either ignored it or posted pictures of it on social media. Can’t wait until this episode airs.
  • 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.

    img20140712_150934

    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.”

    img20140712_164352

    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.

    img20140712_154300

    “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.

    img20140713_111238

    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!

    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.

    img20140701_185829

    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.

    img20140703_112239

    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.

    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.

    img20131130_135345

    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.

    img20140111_172724

    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.

    Solstice

    December 21, 2013

    It’s the shortest day of the year; the longest, darkest night. The winter solstice is traditionally a time of turning inward to reflect on the cycles of nature. It’s an auspicious opportunity to take old familiar paths, pondering changes in the self and its environment. There have been many such changes.

    redmondbirds3

    Last year, the warmth of good intent cut through the cold. Someone was tending a fire in a barrel in Redmond Plaza, a welcoming flame inviting anyone who walked through to linger and warm themselves. Today the park is empty, but not on account of the cold or precipitation. It was fenced off months ago, the shiny metal barrier enforcing its vacancy for no discernible reason. The park’s visibility and the absence of any construction make its inaccessibility infuriating. On a few rare occasions the gates have been unlocked and people will amble beyond them, but it’s unclear why they open these times and not others.

    The concrete seal, an empty chair.

    Snowy day with the concrete seal and an empty chair.

    The weekend community barbeques that have been happening here for years are still scheduled to occur. A few folks gather around the perimeter, maybe in anticipation of this, sitting on the two chairs at the corner and perching on the concrete ledge. One of the only people I see often at the park these days is the guy who dances wildly in the crosswalk on Second, wearing headphones. He’s often preoccupied, but sometimes he notices me and militantly barks a greeting.

    This is his corner.

    This is his corner.

    The lot belongs to the city recreation department, but it’s slated for redevelopment by Midtown, Inc. in the coming year. Next door we’ll get a new restaurant, but what good will come for the people who previously spent time in the park? I doubt I’ll be getting catcalled much anymore while travelling through that intersection, but who will be there to wish me a good morning with such exuberance? Neither is the domain of the hipster or young professional, the kind of “Detroit by Detroiters” for whom this development is taking place.

    redmondbirds4

    It’s also one of my favorite corners for pigeons in the city, probably as many as at Rosa Parks Transit Center, but with fewer comings and goings, disruptions. They’re used to the presence of humans, seem to have a symbiosis with the people who hang out here. They’re not afraid of anything. If I stand there for a moment, sometimes they’ll all flutter down at once, landing close and inspecting my boots, maybe mistaking them for one of their own kind.

    When, like Third last year, Second gets its makeover into a two-way street with fancy bike lanes, where will the pigeons go? Nobody really cares about pigeons (though you can usually find a good spread of birdseed nearby at Third and Alexandrine), but a place too busy for birds impacts foot traffic, too. Will we have to contend with cars coming fast from both directions? For all its increased bikeability, the revisions to Third fail when considering the lack of safe crosswalks for pedestrians.

    Change afoot.

    Change is afoot.

    What will this intersection look like in a year? In ten? What will it look like then in our memories?

    UPDATE:

    img20131228_131907

    A week later, volunteers are setting up for the community barbeque, positioned in a line along the sidewalk. As others dither over whether to put the fruit next to the desserts, one man tending some coals tells me that they tried to get permission to continue using the park, but were turned down. “I don’t know why they don’t want us in there,” he says sadly. “We’re just out here having some fun, feeding people, doing God’s work.”

    Ghosts: remembering

    December 9, 2013

    Note: This is the second installment in a series about public awareness of pedestrian fatalities in Detroit, once one of the most dangerous cities for walking. Read part one of “Ghosts”. Seriously, we’ll come across something heartwarming soon, even with lower attendance at a very chilly Noel Night, its signature whimsical handheld neon letters clamoring on the DIA steps spelling out “not for sale,” and it won’t be another Heidelberg house catching fire.

    The dearth of memorials in Detroit for pedestrians killed by vehicles warrants a look at what other cities are doing with this conundrum. Death in this manner is tragic, and an added offense is the idea that a person will recede from their formerly vibrant life without a public trace. When something of profound collective gravity happens in a certain location, it should not pass unnoticed. As other cities show, history’s natural erasure can be easily shifted.

    Although ghost bikes originated in San Francisco, and Los Angeles infamously suffers ill repute as a treacherous and unlikely place for walkers, it’s the half of the country with less clement weather that’s more active in memorializing the dead. The ghost bike appeared in St. Louis, Missouri as a symbolic tribute a year after the San Francisco art project began. New York has a number of activist groups for pedestrian and cyclist safety putting their mark on the territory. Advocacy groups Right of Way, TIME’S UP!, and Citystreets have been doing stencil markers at pedestrian fatality sites since 1996. A more recent development is the Streets Memorials project, which aims to honor each pedestrian with an often personalized plaque.

    Right of Way traces the beginning of the stencil project to December 1996 and has memorialized over 270 lives to date, in addition to their analysis of traffic statistics and active organization of demonstrations to keep local roads safer. Citystreets and Right of Way were allegedly once the same entity, but split due to cyclists’ objection to the stencil project as focusing too much on pedestrian issues. Citystreets founder Harris Silver credits his group with the first of such pedestrian stencils after the death of Alice Wang in 1997, months after Right of Way began stencilling. Silver doesn’t describe how he heard of Wang’s death, but says that it touched him — it could have been him, or a friend, anybody. He says he then worked with an advertising art director at a prestigious firm to create the simple outline stencil darkly dubbed “Flatso” now used, it seems, by all three groups. TIME’S UP! shares the same medium with a more vocal and inflammatory stance, declaring that “Cars and trucks not only destroy our environment, but they can destroy each of us instantly!” Each group’s status seems to have fluctuated between periods of dormancy interspersed with their usual activity. The apparent lack of communication means that one group or another is working to establish memorials, but how they avoid overlap is unclear.

    The stencils are abstractly human-shaped, and look as though they are dancing in place on the asphalt. According to Right of Way, which offers a fairly comprehensive FAQ on stencilling, they last several months, unless placed in parks, where they vanish overnight. They’re colorful and surprisingly cheerful, the dotted line reminiscent of children’s toys or craft projects, maybe even sprinkles on a cake. While death needn’t be somber (and one suspects many of these cyclists and pedestrians would have chosen against something drab), the memorials lack a sense of finality. Doesn’t it look like she might just be stretching after a nap?

    A more recent development in pedestrian memorials in New York are the Street Memorials plaques installed on fences and posts near the scene of a pedestrian’s death. This group, founded about seven years ago by members of TIME’S UP!, Transportation Alternatives, and the anonymous art collective Visual Resistance, seems to benefit from better funding than previous efforts, and credits the ghost bike movement as their inspiration. A member of Visual Resistance said that while installing ghost bikes around the city, they had a “large response from people saying that they wish we could do for pedestrians what we do for cyclists who are killed.” Echoing a sentiment expressed by many others involved in the memorials, she said, “It’s oftentimes the same issues, where pedestrians are killed by cars and the drivers are usually not held responsible,” a polite phrasing of the belief guiding the instructive headline “How to get away with murder” on TIME’S UP!’s site.

    This project has significant advantages over the stencils — a more concise deployment, perhaps within greater legal favor than what is tantamount to graffiti. It also looks more dignified, a seemingly undeniable tribute to the pedestrians who died. It’s something enduring that will not be run over thousands of times a day, with the possible irony of being hit again and again by the very car that killed the person.

    Photo from Mode Shift

    Photo from Mode Shift

    Detroit certainly isn’t without memorials. As pictured in a recent article connecting Detroit’s streetlight woes, by now a national joke, to the summer’s high-profile pedestrian deaths on Gratiot, Dreadlock Mike has a memorial wheelchair. The collections of flowers and stuffed animals, crosses and hearts, that spring up worldwide in reaction to personal tragedies from shootings to car crashes are visible here, too. These memorials are potent, curated by family and friends, those who best knew the wishes of the deceased person.

    They don’t, however, draw attention to the fact that a person died at a particular place while walking, the most simple, basic human activity that unites just about all of us. They don’t tell the full story. As long as something persists unknown, there is little chance of improvement. As another Visual Resistance member said, “I’d like to see the need for this really dwindle to nothing, but that’s not going to happen until there are changes on the streets.”

    Watch for the third post in this series in the coming weeks as we consider these changes and measures we can take in the meantime.

    SAFEWALK your way around campus

    November 6, 2013

    Addressing Wayne State after the death last week of a law student whose body was found near the Packard Plant after being transported there from campus, university president M. Roy Wilson said:

    Most people feel very safe walking around our campus. However, even if you do not feel threatened, you should still exercise caution, and consider taking advantage of our Safe Walk program, particularly if you are alone after dark. Call 313-577-2222, and officers will either monitor you on camera until you reach your car or your campus destination, or escort you personally.

    Who knew? As it turns out, this useful and undoubtedly well-intended program has existed for eight years, the “most underutilized service” offered by the Wayne State police, according to Lieutenant Scott, who monitors crime statistics and sends out the monthly CAMPUSWATCH email.

    The program is simple: call the Wayne State police, let them know where you are and where you’re going. Depending on location and availibility, either a cadet will come to escort you on foot, or, if no cadets are available, a uniformed officer in a marked car will come drive very slowly behind you until you arrive safely at your destination. “Official policy is, we’re supposed to watch you walk,” Lieutenant Scott explained, and usually they do. “Unofficial policy is, hop in the car and we’ll take you where you need to go.” With some places on campus “it can take some time, you know, to watch you walk.” That’s why, he said, driving is easier. “It frees us up faster, but it’s basically whatever you want.”

    img20120324_230013

    If nobody knows about the program, who uses it? Since the reminder after the law student’s death last week, pedestrians have requested about seventy SAFEWALKs. To how this compares to averages for the program, Scott responded that they don’t really keep track of numbers for it, or a breakdown of student versus faculty use. “People need us, we’re there for them. That’s what we really care about,” he said candidly. Being there for people is more challenging than it sounds. One of the most frustrating reasons for low awareness is that the police just can’t get the word out. “We used to talk to each incoming freshman class during orientation, but in the past few years they won’t let us. Some upper-level administrator decided that students didn’t have time.” The priorities set for students are questionable if time can’t be made for a quick presentation on campus safety at a university like Wayne State.

    Retracing our steps to the means of monitoring pedestrians, the omnipresent cameras mentioned in Wilson’s statement may not be as creepy as they sound. The use of cameras isn’t actually very common, and depends on where you are and where you’re going — and in how much of a hurry you are to get there, another officer added wryly. “In some cases, we can follow with PTZ — pan-tilt-zoom — cameras, but we don’t say we can watch you walk on camera if we can’t see you all the way there, if there is any kind of obstruction.” Due to incomplete visual coverage of campus, most service is rendered in person.

    If officers can watch students and faculty walk around campus, can they not also watch those who might be preying on them? Sometimes, but not always, Scott said, sidestepping the matter of the camera feed’s helpfulness in preventing crime or identifying criminals. Whatever their use, the department is vying for more cameras, and perhaps more usefully, more awareness in the university community.

    It would be nice to see this program publicized, even just with some information posted on the Wayne State police department site. It would be better yet to have it expanded to something a little less onerous, less stigmatized, less wholly motivated by grim fear. Calling to get a walking buddy on campus is a fine idea, but less so if the buddy pads along behind you on four wheels, weighing a few tons and taking up the entire sidewalk. A volunteer-based campus walking network could help students meet and relate to one another, all while taking a fresh air study break. That, or give criminals an easier way to nab five iPhones at once.

    Beauty

    March 12, 2013

    What makes one thing more beautiful than another? Sometimes beauty can be measured, like the symmetrical arrangement of facial features; other times, it remains wholly elusive. What makes this landscape lovelier than that? What makes one street more appealing than the next? It’s a simple matter to characterize a neighborhood’s well-being by population flow, crime statistics, health trends. As Frank Hebbert of OpenPlans says, “But it’s harder to establish the softer feeling: Is this a place I like? Would I prefer the street on the left to the street on the right? That’s not a metric, but a gut feeling about comparing places.”

    This last quandary is what the people at OpenPlans have set out to quantify and solve. For Valentine’s Day, they launched the Beautiful Streets project, which asks visitors to choose the more appealing scene out of the two options presented on the page. The site is populated by images of Philadelphia from Google Street View.

    beautifulst

    Not everything in Philadelphia is beautiful, and this is what works so well about this project — its unabashed realism, albeit through a fisheye lens. Fortunately, there is a ‘skip’ button for each pair. While sometimes one image seems almost objectively fairer than the other, it is more often than not hard to tell which streetscape would better lend itself to a good stroll. Ask yourself: what are my priorities? Trees, shrubs, sidewalks, density and attractiveness of buildings? What about the instances when these fine things are in competition? It’s challenging, too, to base a judgement solely on the content of the image, without yielding to the enticements of good composition or blue skies, the distortion of lenses and the fleeting smudges of cars. It’s tricky enough deciphering where the sidewalk leads in the umbrage of trees, and whether it would be nice to walk in their shade, or peering past the bridge to see whether the shops are worth visiting without having to assign a superlative to either potentiality.

    beautiful2

    Whether Beautiful Streets will become the data goldmine the planners intend is a dubious unknown, but meanwhile it’s fun to flip through the images, taking a gander at the views of human nature on display. Read more about Beautiful Streets at the Atlantic, or help make the Beautiful Streets project more meaningful with your input!