Tag Archives: riverfront

Rambling report

October 24, 2014

The new $24 million segment of the Dequindre Cut, from Gratiot to Mack, is about as short as you’d expect if you’ve ever wandered Eastern Market end-to-end without even noticing. This 0.45 mile stretch is due to open next spring after some delays, following the initial 1.35-mile trail conversion which was completed in 2009. The railroad itself was constructed in the 1830s by the Detroit Pontiac Railroad Company, predecessor of Canadian National and Grand Trunk. Trains ran along the tracks from 1838 until the mid-1980s; passenger rail service to the riverfront terminated in 1982. A subsidiary of the MGM Casino purchased the parcels between 1998 and 2000 and handed them off to the city shortly after.

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Aside from just wandering and having fun, our intent was to examine the benefits and losses of greenway rails-trails conversion projects, particularly the impact on wild plants commonly referred to with the generic term “weeds.” Focusing on the greenery when the Dequindre Cut has been so well-known for its colorful graffiti was a shift that felt natural at the time, and almost certainly foretells the theme of many future walks there. Wildflowers were everywhere bland new embankment walls weren’t. How the pale blocks had been kept free of graffiti for their weeks in place baffles the imagination. Especially as the grade changes to join street level closer to Mack, the balance tips in a pastoral direction. Birds were chirping and flocking around grassy clumps unjostled by the heavy machinery lining the Cut. Behind the Detroit Edison Public School Academy, a birdhouse perched atop a tall pole.

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At Mack we waited a while for the roar of Lions’ game traffic to quiet before setting foot on the rails. This stretch of the Cut splices two different worlds — the vastness of bleak industry to the west where the Pepsi bottling plant sits, and a line of trees and some grassy lands to the east. It’s a dynamic that feels very Detroit. “These would be lovely to keep as parks,” I said. “They already are,” a rambler replied. The disused tracks themselves were littered with surprises — we examined pottery, the railways’ signature shards of metal, bones, shoes, trash, and treasure in the form of a fully intact shovel sitting in a bush.

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The tracks are fenced off with shiny chainlink at Farnsworth where they keep the trains. At this point we turned east, doubling back on St. Aubin for a glimpse of what life might have been like before the railroad. Cobblestone streets still push determinedly westward before petering out into high grasses next to dead-ending sidewalks. Rust inexplicably coats sections of pavement. At Forest, a naked flagpole sits lonesome in the grassy lot that was the Dabrowski Playground, in memory of the reverend who once founded a Polish Seminary there. There aren’t many houses these days. Outside of Eastern Market again, we stopped to check on the little cinderblock wonder at 2126 Pierce St., then followed the alley south to Wilkins. An eastbound detour gave us better viewing of the sculpture garden outside C.A.N. Art Handworks.

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The ramble paused on Gratiot to share generous rambler-made brownies with a belated contingent of tired tweed riders. After this ramblers disbanded to their vehicles and I trekked south alone. At Antietam a red-tailed hawk dove to scoop up a squirrel, dangling it from the power lines. I followed the Lafayette Parks to the river, broad green spaces paralleling the Cut. After the Greening of Detroit Park, I crossed Jefferson and ventured down Riopelle, looking at the Ren Cen looming past the wreckage of a torched building. It felt out of place. In Milliken State Park, the recent sidewalk led me over the hill, next to the canal, and back into the Dequindre Cut.

This is the familiar Dequindre Cut, where in an otherwordly composition graffiti is backdrop for the occasional sly storybook red fox straight out of Le Petit Prince. It’s also a greenway beloved by Detroiters who wouldn’t or couldn’t explore the wilder sections we’d seen earlier in the day. As I strode north, a family passed, pushing their stroller and talking about how safe it was there. Their hip-height young daughter smiled a few paces behind them. It was getting dark but a group of people still had a tripod set up in the pedestrian lane, filming skateboard tricks. This is something you might not try a few miles north along the rails.

If something is lost in this conversion from rails to trails, it isn’t the greater good. As one who lived for the spaciousness and unruliness of parts of this city, I can’t wholly mind that it isn’t here, right here, anymore. But will there always be somewhere else to go? As perambulists in other cities thoughtfully elegize their vanishing wildernesses, I wish they could ramble with us and see the before and the after simultaneously, two sides of a story, two ends of the same trail.

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Empire Detroit

January 11, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screen capture from WXYZ.

Screen capture from WXYZ.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rambling report

January 6, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pilgrimage

June 24, 2013

In summer, every outing stretches into a pilgrimage to water. A pilgrimage: any long journey, especially one undertaken as a quest or for a votive purpose, as to pay homage. In the heat, time distorts, and a perceived long journey shortens, culminating in mirage. Thoughts turn north to cabins, campsites, rivers; to cold Lake Superior and its rocky beaches. In the city, what can quench this thirst?

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Emerging into the sticky, still air, a homing device left over from some other evolutionary phase goes off in the brain, echoing, roving insistently toward the nearest body of water. Walks have been simple — a tour of fountains, the Yamasaki Reflecting Pools, the riverfront. It’s the kind of motion that is simultaneously idle. At the Yamasaki Reflecting Pools, the comfort of water is so palpable I swear I can smell the salt breeze of the ocean. I sweat a little and go home to drink another glass of water until it’s neither half empty nor half full.

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Walk Score not toeing the international border line

December 15, 2012

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Walk Score, the website that rates ease of life as a pedestrian in communities across the country, is afflicted with a nasty bug. DARN rambler Timothy Boscarino reports on this quirk in a tool that has become “more than just a cartographic curiosity.”

I agree that downtown could use a few things (like a bookstore and a place to buy broccoli) but with numerous major employers, almost-affordable housing, parks, shopping, the Rosa Parks Transit Center, and a nifty elevated monorail, it definitely warrants something more than the “car-dependent” red splash seen on the above map.

And why are the (supposedly) least walkable parts of town shaped like perfect right angles? Surely, it must be a math thing!

M-bike blames it all on the Detroit River. Walk Score’s algorithm, according to the blog, “might be okay for swimscore.com but it doesn’t work for walking.”

But water isn’t the real problem.

Follow Boscarino as he explores this on Modeshift, and for more on the topic (including maps!), visit his post “Walk Score gives Detroit the Shaft.”

Rambling report

November 13, 2012

Warm thanks to all who rambled with us this weekend! The weather was unexpectedly lovely. We convened in Scripps Park at 3:00 and enjoyed a modest southerly circuit. At the riverfront we sunbathed momentarily and admired the willows, the sinkholes in the concrete, the typeface of the United States Post Office sign. We then headed north, winding through Corktown, past the train station, and paused for refreshments at Astro Coffee.

The stately USPS Fort branch.

We used a pedestrian bridge, innumerable sidewalks, some roads and fields, and one forlorn playground. We only met one dog, and only one person that we know of trod through dog poop.

Some ramblers up ahead on the bridge.

We saw the usual amount of outdoor art, and one cardboard box full of salad (no dressing) that may or may not have been a part of art.

While we were out, we talked enthusiastically about future walks. For those who were unable to make it on Sunday, don’t worry — we will be rambling again soon.