Tag Archives: safety

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”!

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.

Earth Day

April 22, 2014

Happy Earth Day! While kids make happy crafts, fingerpainting soy-based inks on recycled paper and participating in a macabre-sounding “endangered species scavenger hunt” at the zoo, I’m taking a walk, and keeping in mind some of the world’s most impressive hikers, the sherpas.

Photo by Laurence Tan for Reuters

Photo by Laurence Tan for Reuters

Sherpas are an ethnic group living in Nepal’s northeastern Himalaya Mountain region. They’re renowned for their superior mountaineering skills in their home territory, due to a combination of experience, bravery, and, some have suggested, genetic adaptations to life at high altitude. In a country with few economic opportunities, some sherpas take high-paying jobs on Mount Everest, locally known as Qomolangma, ferrying fuel, food, and shelter for western adventurers, setting up routes for them to follow — basically doing the work of climbing the mountain, while climbers kind of just come along for the (really rough) ride.

Last Friday, the deadliest Everest avalanche in recorded history struck, taking with it sixteen sherpas who were out setting up paths for their clients to follow. That avalanches happen on mountains and are likely to be deadly is a given, an obvious danger recognized by sherpas who work there. After sherpas found inadequate the Nepalese government’s pledges to help with medical funds for injured sherpas and financial relief for grieving families, they’ve gone on strike, effectively cancelling the 2014 climbing season. It takes a lot to walk away from the most lucrative job you’re likely to find, work that lets you send your children to private school in hope of a different future. As the Wall Street Journal quoted one sherpa who lost a friend to the avalanche, “It’s made us pause and question whether the money we make is really worth the loss of our own lives and the harm to our own mountain from the mountaineering.”

Nobody’s saying it, but one wonders whether climate change has anything to do with the rapid end to this year’s Everest season. Avalanches happen, and any would be deadly if there were people in the wrong place at the wrong time. Aside from shaking heads at bad luck and bemoaning tragedy, maybe we need to at least reframe how we approach some the world’s most imposing natural features, since, as a whole, we’re not really into doing much to slow climate change.

Here, things are pretty tame on these walks, big fluffy clouds and lots of flowers. As I gear up for what will be my first backpacking trip, it’s good to temper my enthusiasm with this bad news and not become some righteous outdoors zealot, to not get too lost myopically poking around websites wondering whether I’ll be any happier getting the titanium cookset that weighs 90 grams less than the other titanium cookset.

Read more about the Mount Everest avalanche in the news:
“Sherpas leave Everest; some expeditions nix climbs” at the Associated Press
“Mount Everest’s Sherpas Shut Down the Rest of This Year’s Climbing Season” at The Wire
“The world’s most renowned Sherpa talks Mt. Everest” at Washington Post
“After Avalanche, New York’s Sherpas Recall Perils of a Job They Left Behind” at the New York Times

Smile!

March 8, 2014

“Cheer up, honey, you’d look so pretty if you smiled,” they’d say. “Why so serious? Put on a smile, baby!”

I started hearing these kinds of comments a few years ago, often from older men I see out around town. It was baffling. Had I suddenly lost it, been replaced overnight by a grouchy, snaggle-faced crone? I was smiling, I thought. Their comments felt preemptive. Should I try harder? I started scowling instead. I’d long considered it something of a job, to go around proudly walking and smiling and making days brighter, humming along the sidewalk like some audacious ambassador of happiness. Eventually it became apparent that other women were dealing with this peculiar phenomenon too, and were, unsurprisingly, weary of it.

Brooklyn oil painter, thinker, and muralist extraordinaire Tatyana Fazlalizadeh is one of those individuals. She got so sick of the “tyranny of the smile” and related harassment that she’s talking back to not just one gentleman here or there, but to everybody, through a series of snappy street art pieces. Stop Telling Women to Smile is a potent antidote to these grating reproaches.

Photo from STWTS blog.

Photo from STWTS blog.

Fazlalizadeh has done a meticulous job of interviewing women about their experiences getting hollered at, drawing their portraits, and formulating a concise message beneath each portrait. She pastes these on blank walls and other surfaces of public domain as a way for women to speak back against harassment, without encountering further, potentially endangering, harassment.

Photo from STWTS blog.

Photo from STWTS blog.

Most of my initial experiences with harassment here were on a bike. Detroiters have built an increasingly lovely, inclusive biking culture in which I’m lucky to participate. But harassment often takes a different shape on foot than it does on a bike. It’s obviously no breeze when cycling — come on guys, I barely heard you as I whizzed by. Isn’t it obvious I’m way too fast to ride you like that? On foot, the interaction is prolonged. The comments stick around, get uncomfortable under the skin. When I ignore catcallers, they raise their voices and repeat, or snicker to their friends about what a haughty bitch I must be.

It’s scarier as a pedestrian, too. When an interaction goes awry, sometimes there’s a large angry man screaming at my back, lobbing damning, obscene phrases for the next block. Talking back forthrightly has shown little benefit — when asked, “Hey baby, how you doin’?,” the vexed response of “DO I LOOK LIKE AN INFANT TO YOU?!” rarely goes over well. It’s more infuriating when it’s young men trying to catch my attention — shouldn’t they know better? If we’re from the same generation, don’t they know what’s offensive? Older men shouldn’t be excused, but outrage is tempered by the belief that back in some day, these were actually compliments that indeed garnered a woman’s smile. And chivalry is charming, right?

Photo from STWTS blog.

Photo from STWTS blog.

After a while countering harassment with art in her native Brooklyn, Fazlalizadeh took the project to other cities through a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign. Next week she’ll be in LA, as per the STWTS tumblr, doing more portraits and wheatpasting events. Despite Detroit being on the original itinerary, a visit here seems to have fallen by the wayside, and my email inquiry went unanswered.

Detroit seems an ideal location to bring a project like this — a city full of art spaces, fierce frontier women, spare time, an unhealthy dose of crime, lots of abandoned walls — but not a whole lot of pedestrians. Maybe it’s the case that Detroiters are so “dynamically creative,” as reported a recent video harping on the irksome “strong woman” stereotype, that they don’t need some New Yorker’s art project. “I feel like everyone that I know that’s a woman in Detroit, they do more than one thing creatively. Like, you can’t be a woman who just paints. She has to paint, dance, teach yoga and, you know, she makes everything that she wears,” one interviewee infuriatingly uptalked, as though running through a mandatory checklist for being female in Detroit. Surely these are the preoccupations of your other stereotypical Detroiter, struggling to balance time between job-searching and raising a family in a neighborhood where “nobody” lives anymore, an applicability far beyond the brave new women in the video moving “down to Detroit” to get a “harder edge,” because it’s cool and because they can.

Photo from STWTS blog.

Photo from STWTS blog.

I asked a thoughtful female friend, someone who more or less approximates this “strong woman” stereotype what she thought about starting up a wheatpasting contingent here. Prints of STWTS’ images are kindly furnished to groups of five or more committed wheatpasters. Perhaps an organization like the Feminist Collective of Detroit would be interested, I suggested. “Maybe,” she said unenthusiastically. “But I like smiling. I don’t want to not smile. Isn’t that message a little… extreme?”

And it is. Maybe the discord is simply semantic, or maybe we are more tenuously attached to the feminist cause than we thought. Stop Telling Women to Smile is a catchy phrase, but others are more apt. “What about ‘women are not outside for your entertainment’?” I asked. “Isn’t that brilliant?” “Sure,” she replied uneasily. Is the forcefulness of the project’s name necessary? Fazlalizadeh seems to think so, as do legions of women now padding around college campuses sporting t-shirts instructing their fellow students not to tell them to smile. Perhaps after interviewing women here, Fazlalizadeh’s posters for this city would be different than the ones we’ve seen before. Detroit likes smiling; Detroiters are friendly folk.

This unsmiling emphasis on friendliness intertwines curiously with a few other public art projects visible on Detroit’s streets, walls, and outdoor objects. The long-dormant project Cheer Up! Detroit encourages viewers to up their optimism with slogans like “Today will be the best day ever,” “Keep those bad thoughts out of your head” and, succinctly, “Boom shaka laka.”

Photo from Cheer Up! Detroit.

Photo from Cheer Up! Detroit.

Some of these are undeniably oriented toward the physical level, but turn a blind eye to gendered expectations, such as the one that reads, “Your moustache looks really lovely today,” in looping, multicolored script overlooked by a bushy blonde moustache (Let’s wonder for a moment, though — how many Detroiters actually have blonde moustaches?).

Photo from Cheer Up! Detroit.

Photo from Cheer Up! Detroit.

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A more recent appearance of happiness propaganda is the “Smile More” sticker. The associated website, itmakesyouhappier.com educates visitors about the perils of stress, and recommends smiling as a countermeasure. Stress, it says, causes angry outbursts, overeating, social withdrawal, headaches, and heart attacks — smiling lowers blood pressure, heart rate, and promotes healthy breathing. Also found to be beneficial in combatting stress are reading, creating, exercise, hugs, prayer, and being helpful.

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While their simplistic estimation of how even phony smiles make the brain a better place may miss some of the subtleties that work like Fazlalizadeh’s aims to address, it’s hard to argue that more people smiling is a harmful thing. So, if no one is to ask or tell anyone else to smile with impunity, how are we to compose our faces? Are we supposed to stop stopping smiling, or stop smiling? Although it’s a funny injustice to pick at, it’s yet another insidious double standard to say that men must be polite-faced to women, who are entitled to sail by with Bitchy Resting Faces unperturbed.

Yes, a face is a personal thing, but you’re in public. Do we want Detroit to be another cold city where no one will make eye contact or ask how your day is, whether or not they fancy getting in your pants? As the city expands, intermixing new perspectives and habits into the existing culture, do we have to forfeit the high level of friendliness and courtesy that has made our community feel as tight-knit as a small town? Smile, humans of Detroit. What do you have to lose?

Incidentally, today is International Women’s Day. Happy that! Here is one more cause for a smile. It’s embarrassing to chime in with what may seem to be mixed praises of women and their doubtless achievements, but affirming above all our shared humanity is to me in keeping with the UN’s theme for this year’s celebration, “Equality for women is progress for all.”

Empire strikes

January 19, 2014

There was nothing unusual afoot when the Quicken security car pulled up in front of Urban Bean Company, the eye-poppingly cheerful orange coffeeshop at the corner of Griswold and Grand River that is a favorite downtown rambling destination since its reopening last year. In addition to Dan Gilbert’s cameras, security patrols are a common sight during the workweek downtown these days. Rarely a dull moment around here, where Josh Greenwood, proprietor of Urban Bean Co. and longtime resident of Capitol Park, has seen it all, as far as I can tell. On the sunny afternoon I stopped in for coffee, a shiny black unmarked Magnum pulled up across the street, facing the wrong way on Grand River. Two plainclothes cops emerged outside a building recently acquired, Josh says, by Chinese investors. “They’re up to something big today,” Josh said, sounding kind of excited, and pulled out his phone to text with the cop. The car was soon joined by a sheriff’s SUV, followed by a Detroit Police cruiser.

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While, quaintly enough, these amicable interactions with authority seem to be the norm here, the atmosphere of friendliness sometimes clouds. On the occasion of this particular Quicken security visit, Josh said the security guard, a portly woman in uniform, came in and “bamboozled” him with questions over by the pastry display case. While she distracted him, a man smartly attired for business went over to the opposite door. Josh turned around in time to see the door closing as the guy finished peeling something off of it. Unsure at first what was missing but aware that something strange and sinister was happening, Josh ran after him, yelling to not mess with his property.

The man scrambled into the alley and Josh returned to his post in the coffeeshop, where the security guard flubbed through some story about having forgotten her wallet. She would have to come back later, she said. “She was lying! It was so weird. I knew something was up.” When she pulled a U-turn on Griswold, heading north away from the Quicken headquarters, he ran up the block and watched as the man exited the alley and dove into the marked security vehicle. She sped off, running a red light.

The sticker in question is a humble black and white thing, a gritty illustration of Dan Gilbert between text reading “FOR YOUR PROTECTION! DAN GILBERT IS WATCHING YOU”. Josh still has a couple, but they’re definitely not out on display with the menagerie of postcards and stickers and flyers arranged in front of the window. He digs through the drawer and sets one on the copper countertop.

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“I don’t know where they came from,” Josh claims. “Somebody just dropped them off. I didn’t even put that one on the door; somebody must have stuck it on in the night. I guess they didn’t like it,” he said, referring to the Quicken people. Looking at all the “approved” stickers still neatly lined up next to the door, it’s curious what flies — an Apple logo superimposed with the “SAVE DETROIT” sticker featuring actor Ryan Gosling’s face, a larger version of which is on view next door at d’Mongo’s. What do these messy hijinks convey about Empire Detroit’s agenda? At very least, it’s unclear now who is authorized to watch over or “save” Detroit.

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Josh still seems pretty indignant over the whole affair. “I saw her across the street a week later. I went up to her car and said, ‘So what was that all about?’ ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,'” she told him icily, denying what had taken place. She shrank away from her window as Josh, becoming more irate, tried to jog her memory of the incident.

Tampering with private property — or stealing, if you like — is not a good way to make friends with your neighbors, legalities aside. There’s no way of knowing from where the directive came to shape up the neighborhood image. Perhaps the sticker-peeler, who Josh doesn’t recall having seen before, was a customer somehow offended by the graphic and wanted to take some lunch break action. That a corporate getaway car was so readily available to him makes the situation undeniably sketchier.

As we celebrate the broader walkability improvements Dan Gilbert has made to downtown and bite our nails over some of its accompanying pitfalls, it’s worth noting the most liminal ways our landscape is changing as more of it falls into fewer hands. The thing with having money is, if you don’t like something, you can just buy it and morph it into what you do like. Let’s hope this is the first and last affront on the free speech and free existence of small businesses like Urban Bean Company that make Detroit the great city it is and will be.

It seems that a city with such financial troubles resulting from a single-industry livelihood would have learned some kind of lesson about having a Big Three in charge, whether of our local economy or our land. Monocultures are bad news for any ecosystem. Rambling back uptown past Cass Park, which the city appears poised to hand over to the Ilitches, the point is even clearer.

What will the “longest-enduring member of Detroit’s real estate plutocracy,” as Curbed called pizza emperor Mike Ilitch, do with our once-magnificent public greenspace? The park is reportedly to be preserved as a “park space,” which we hope won’t be later construed as a “parking lot space.” If, incredibly enough, the area is developed into something like what it once was, or like New Center Park, and the sculptures offend us, do we get to tear them down? In the case of such defacement, something hints that the only getaway ride for the public is in the back of a cop car.

Curb cuts

December 28, 2013

Looking back at 2013’s top news, Motor City Muckraker reminds us of their survey two years after the city’s installation of curb cuts allowing pedestrians with disabilities access to some of the infamous “sidewalks to nowhere” that truncate abruptly in weeds, unkempt trees, garbage, and rubble.

This is especially interesting in retrospect given the ongoing struggle over curb cuts, which included a wheelchair protest last month on the west side, where crucial intersections are lacking any kind of ramp for sidewalk access.

Photo by Steve Neavling for Motor City Muckraker

Photo by Steve Neavling for Motor City Muckraker

The curb cuts in question are the result of a 2005 lawsuit against the city by an Ann Arbor lawyer on behalf of Michigan Paralyzed Veterans of America and the Center for Community Access, the settlement of which stipulated that Detroit revamp its ramps. Detroit installed many curb cuts in the 1980s, before new Americans with Disabilities Act requirements were established in 1991. Specifically, the nubbly “detectable warning” surfaces on modern ramps are made of reddish rubber, while old ones sport concrete nubs or smooth surfaces making wheelchair traction a challenge. Never mind that the rubber ones tend to shear off and can sometimes be found decorating the gutters like cheerful Heidelberg dots.

In his article, Steve Neavling makes no mention of where the tax dollars came from, intimating that Detroiters should take umbrage at this, as if it were exclusively city money that financed these measures of questionable necessity. The headline alone, “Detroit spent $45 million on sidewalk ramps to nowhere while sinking into debt,” implies that Detroit had the option of spending the ADA sidewalk compliance funds on other city services, like streetlights, firefighters, or police, when this was not the case. While revenue from Detroit’s gas tax funded some of the ramps, the federal dollars that covered the rest of the bill were specifically earmarked for this purpose. Whatever the source, noncompliance with the court order is likely to have a higher price tag, both financially and socially.

“The law is clear as a bell that curb ramps have to be installed at every intersection,” attorney Mark Finnegan told the Free Press. This includes the mostly abandoned areas to which Neavling takes exception, failing to note that it’s often these places where higher concentrations of elderly people and people with disabilities live, those who are less upwardly mobile and unlikely find themselves using the ADA-approved ramps downtown. As one commenter put it, “They’re not going to write in the law… ‘Every city must comply, except Detroit, which is a lost cause.'”

The problem with Detroit’s ADA compliance is less that it is doing it citywide, but that it is doing it with no discernible order. Areas that receive a lot of traffic and might be prioritized, like Eastern Market, are still missing appropriate curb cuts in unexpected places. It seems that merely keeping track of which curbs have already been addressed would be a bigger job than it’s worth. The oversight feels spiteful. In explanation, Detroit Department of Public Works director Al Jordan told the Free Press in 2010 that installing curb cuts on main roads where pedestrian crossings are absent might communicate that it’s safe to cross the street at any point where there are ramps, assigning the blame to larger infrastructure issues.

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Neavling, responding to a comment, said that “[s]ome dense neighborhoods received [no curb cuts] while many desolate areas, some with no houses on a block, received installations.” No area is immune to this illogic, however. In some of Detroit’s higher-density, more walkable neighborhoods, curb cuts have been replaced as nonsensically as anywhere else. Creating ramps where there are no sidewalks in populous areas is as wasteful there as it is where sidewalks terminate in wilderness a few paces from the intersection, but hardly makes for a sensational headline.

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A block away from this corner, curb cuts have not been replaced despite being on a reasonably well-trafficked sidewalk running along a main road.

For once, Detroit isn’t alone in its dysfunctionality with regards to this issue. It’s happened everywhere there are attorneys trying to pay back their law school debt and everywhere stimulus plan dollars can stretch, like a small town in Oklahoma, where residents bemoaned a $90,000 sidewalk leading to a ditch that was replaced three times in a five-year period before finally arriving at ADA compliance. At least these curb cuts have only been replaced once that we know of.

And who’s to say that these curb cuts in largely vacant spaces such as the Packard Plant lead to nowhere — maybe the arrival of new neighbors will lead to development in these unlikely areas. This sidewalk will be perfect for Fernando Palazuelo’s morning stroll.

Photo by Steve Neavling for Motor City Muckraker

Photo by Steve Neavling for Motor City Muckraker

For a project already of such boggling duration, it seems a darn shame that such muckraking is still needed, and that we will likely be hearing lots more about Detroit’s sidewalk woes in 2014.

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.

Cumulus of change

November 24, 2013

Everywhere you go around here, there are pennies on the ground. Doesn’t anybody stop to pick them up anymore? All reports indicate the answer is no, not usually.

The summer before last, a guy walked around taking inventory of some 13,000 trees on city property, providing data to the U.S. Forest Service about the species and their health. On foot, he noticed many small features that others miss. As he told the Environment Report, “I’ve actually been collecting pennies on the sides of the roads for, like four months. I cashed in 2,200 pennies yesterday. People just don’t pick them up anymore apparently.” This is really a small wonder when, for those without a bank account, many financial institutions refuse to cash them in, a population at a certain intersection with those who might be out collecting change in the first place.

What to do with these thousands of pennies?

The Heidelberg Project’s “Penny House” burned down a few mornings ago. Incredibly, ridiculously, it is the third Heidelberg house to be destroyed by arson this year, first the “Obstruction of Justice” house, followed by the “House of Soul” last week. Of course, this isn’t the first time the houses have been threatened, recalling the mayorally-sanctioned demolitions that have occurred twice in its history.

"Dotty-wotty House" and penny car.

“Dotty-wotty House” and penny car.

When Tyree Guyton was planning the “House that Makes Sense,” he aimed to collect 384,000 pennies, some sent in by kids all over the country, some collected by Guyton himself. Today, he was walking around the block in a jacket with an orange dot on the back, holding the most perfectly ordinary hammer in his hands. “You heard it here,” he said, “We will not not stop. We will rebuild this bigger and better. The hard work is ahead.” I asked if he was still collecting pennies. Yes, he replied, although he has no idea how many the Heidelberg Project possesses now. Fortunately, he said, with staff to handle the numbers, he is able to focus on creating. “I still pick them up, too, though,” he said. “And we’re about to put up some more pennies on the ‘Penny House’ right now.”

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As accustomed as we are to its presence, as much as we might scoff at its attractiveness to the 275,000 visitors who come to see it every year, garnering a revenue $3.4 million for Detroit, it’s a serious, meaningful piece of art that all who live in the city are lucky to have. If it’s a tourist trap, it’s the best around. The day after the arson, WDET producer Laura Weber Davis was talking with Bankole Thompson on the Craig Fahle show when she compared the cultural capital of the Heidelberg project to that of the DIA, asking, “Should people be more outraged?”

They should, he agreed. But as Guyton himself said today, “We’re over it. We’re moving on.” To help secure the project and continue construction of one of the most unique public art projects in the world, you can donate here. When you’re out walking, you can start picking up all the pennies you see dotting the ground.

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“Tyree took stake in his community, and as a result, not a single serious crime was reported within a two block radius of the project for over 26 years.” Who can object to such artful living? This is why we’re here, this network, to watch out for each other, to make our communities better by being present.

Don't let these candles burn out.

Don’t let these candles burn out.

Donate to the Heidelberg Project’s fundraising campaign here.

Ghosts

November 19, 2013

You wouldn’t know it, but earlier this month, a pedestrian died crossing Grand River at Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.

Posting in a private facebook group for the neighborhood, a Woodbridge resident said:

“My wife witnessed a pedestrian/vehicle accident at MLK and Grand River tonight (outside of the liquor store on GR). Person was wearing all black and bending over in the middle of GR to pick something up, and got creamed. Not a hit-and-run; the person stayed. Cops came and threw a tarp over the guy so he probably didn’t make it. Please be careful out there.”
November 6 at 8:42pm

Responses were instantaneous and sympathetic, many expressing wishes that the post author’s wife was okay after the the trauma of unexpectedly witnessing the incident. Some focussed on the accident, deeming it “messed up” and “tragic, but not surprising at all.” One person said, “Hopefully there will be lights someday.”

What is disturbing is how anonymously this person vanished — no news report, no memorial, unknown to all except those who were passing by and the select community of people in this facebook group. A person “creamed” and covered by a tarp — this is how it ends?

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Pedestrian fatalities have attracted sporadic media attention, usually used to highlight some more universally lamented city flaw. The hit-and-run crash at Gratiot and Russell this summer resulting in the deaths of the “Eat ’em up, Tigers” guy and his friend Dreadlock Mike, both local celebrities of a sort, were depressingly construed as an opportunity to talk about the shabby state of Detroit’s streetlights. While undeniably streetlights in the city are a problem impacting pedestrian safety, it’s a hot enough topic on its own to attract scorn from the New Yorker without going so far as to invoke the emotional appeal associated with these deaths.

In some ways, the disparity in coverage is unsurprising — most deaths go quietly, unnoticed by the larger public, so why should the passings of pedestrians be any different? The news has an obituaries section for a reason, and certainly there are more dramatic ways to perish than being smushed by a car. The difference may be in that these deaths are in some way public — they occur outdoors, on streets we all use daily. Shouldn’t we know if people are dying by preventable external factors that effect us as well?

Commenting on the original post about the crash, another neighbor said, “Ever since the ghost bike appeared at Temple/Grand River I’ve been extra cautious biking on Grand River.” Ghost bikes have been around for the past decade, perhaps taking inspiration from a San Francisco artist’s work, painting white and chronicling abandoned bikes he saw as ‘skeletal remains.’ Ghost bikes now function as a memorial to a deceased cyclist and as a reminder to drivers to watch out for other road users.

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Since pedestrians don’t have bikes or other implements, what is an appropriate memorial that will similarly serve to caution drivers? Teddy bears and other plush objects clinging to a tree or pole risk perception as public art, an escaped Heidelberg project installation taking up residence. Roadside flowers, candles, crosses, and memorabilia are often seen at the sites of car accidents or shooting deaths. A plastic sign disappears too quickly, cardboard disintegrates.

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As for Grand River and MLK, the last time a pedestrian died there was on a Saturday in May 2012, when an intoxicated elderly man hit a woman with his Mercury Mountaineer on Grand River just north of Ash. It was past midnight. She died. The accident report contains no mention of a tarp. This intersection is hardly the densest location for vehicles crashing into pedestrians, but it is more deadly than the surrounding areas, where crashes resulted in either no or “nonincapacitating” injuries. MLK and Woodward was also the site of two crashes, and Cass and Michigan, a seemingly less complicated intersection, had three nonfatal crashes last year.

One placemarker per accident. Colors represent accident type: orange designates a 'single motor vehicle' crash; green 'other / unknown' out of options such as 'head-on,' 'rear-end,' 'sideswipe,' and other predicaments less relevant to pedestrians.

One placemarker per accident. Colors represent accident type: orange designates a ‘single motor vehicle’ crash; green ‘other / unknown’ out of options such as ‘head-on,’ ‘rear-end,’ ‘sideswipe,’ and other predicaments less relevant to pedestrians.

Detroit saw a total 435 crashes involving pedestrians in 2012, according to data from Michigan Office of Highway Safety Planning’s Michigan Traffic Crash Facts, which amazingly has full accident reports for each incident. Thirty-one of these crashes were fatal, and 12 of those, about 38%, were hit-and-run. This is about 62 crashes per 100,000 citizens in Detroit, compared with 18,558 total car crashes of all types, or 2645 crashes per 100,000. A little more likely than being struck by lightning, which victimizes 0.14 of 100,000 people.

As much as we hate to admit it, Detroit is a dangerous city for walking by these metrics, but the good news is that it’s nowhere near as bad as it was. The average pedestrian fatality rate for 2012 in Detroit is 4.42 per 100,000 people, compared to the national average of 2.33. As of 2010, Detroit’s fatality rate was reported to be 10.31, almost twice that of Chicago, as the Transport Michigan blog pointed out, immortalized in a labyrinthine infographic from GOOD magazine. Still, Detroit has almost twice the national average, making it one of 22 focus cities eligible for grant money “to try out new education and enforcement initiatives.”

Constructive thinking and potential solutions are not hard to come by. One of the five entries into Let’s Save Michigan’s Highways for Habitats contest is a redesign of the Grand River-Trumbull-MLK intersection by Jimmy McBloom, who says he travels through it daily and doesn’t “know a single person who doesn’t think it’s completely ridiculous.” Results of the contest will be announced later this week, although it’s unclear how winning will effect change other than providing the winner with a new bicycle to ride through the same hazardous intersections.

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Check back soon for more on this subject. Meanwhile, on your way over to Norm’s Liquor Express to pick up something to celebrate Detroit’s commendable decrease in pedestrian fatalities, make sure to look both ways before crossing the street(s) of this uncompromising intersection.

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.”

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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.