Tag Archives: thing-finding

Detroit Toolkit

January 23, 2015

The observant pedestrian may notice that there aren’t many street sweepers in this city. To some, this lack of city service is a benefit. The streets are full of things, and the things are full of stories. These stories get spilled out of dumpsters, filtered through holes in pockets, run over by cars, kicked to the curb — ultimately left for dead. As much as garbage can resemble treasure, these things might, to the right roving thing-finder. I’d halfheartedly taken up and discarded collections of them in the past, always ultimately throwing out the knife blades and the eyelash curlers gleaned from downtown alleys, the sockets and wrenches rusting in outlying streets. Instead, for one month, I humored my thing-finderly tendencies and let the items accumulate.


The result is the December 2014 Detroit Toolkit. The toolkit is currently at Public Pool in Hamtramck, honored to be part of Picnic Club Detroit‘s retrospective of its inaugural year of picnics. The toolkit represents the resourcefulness of Detroiters, the mindset of always doing the best that can be done with what can be had. More than I realized, this was a study in the extent to which the objects sought influence the objects found. While the toolkit came into being because of all the stray items I regularly see, December yielded an unusual number of knife sightings. (Pro tip: the shrubbery outside Comerica Park is a hotspot for crappy pocket tools of all stripes, probably discarded by forgetful attendees who didn’t want to make the trek back to their distant surface lot to leave the item in their car. Did they mean to retrieve them after the game? Who knows. Dogs will sniff out their own conclusions.)





Not all tools were ideal candidates for the collection. The obsolete cellphone, broken jingle bell, ugly silverware — I carried them into the gallery in a cardboard box, looked at them, and carried them back out to the dumpster. The toolkit is as complete as time and place permit. My only regret is that I rarely saw syringes when I was out alone, and no walking companion would let me pick up one of them when we were together — Detroit’s needle to go with the thread.




Visiting hours for the Picnics in the Polar Vortex exhibition are 1-6 PM every Saturday, with varied dreamy picnic programming going on each week. This Saturday is about “Ideas for Creative Leisure,” a workshop for generating “both inspired and mundane ideas for recreation.” If I’m not out rambling the daylight away as usual, this is where you’ll find me. It’s also a great chance to browse the Picnic Club library and spend some time with the photos and artifacts in the gallery. If gallery hours aren’t enough, the toolkit is for “sale”! Have you always wanted a bunch of miscellaneous hand-selected garbage and to take me on five walks of your choice? Yes? Let’s talk.



September 28, 2014

Even a half-asleep pedestrian in Detroit would not fail to notice the new public art that materialized this week. Perched on streetlight bases and utility boxes, decorating windowsills and ledges, sunbathing on grassy patches, 3,000 small white signs stencilled with a simple black tie infiltrated the landscape seemingly overnight.


Something special must be up, I concluded on seeing a seventh one in the short stretch of Woodward I was walking. But what? I asked some friends, asked some bystanders, asked the people working parking for the game downtown. Stationed directly across from a pair of the stencils propped up against stop sign posts, the guy flicked his neon flag, shrugged, and told me he had no idea.


The black ties are the symbol of the positivity-fueled “Detroit Stay Classy” campaign, which seeks to redefine class, vaguely asserting that “class encompasses a lot of things but most importantly is defined by your character and personality.” Their sparse manifesto puts a momentary blind eye to history, and maybe reality, with its awkward truisms reminding Detroiters that “every person is born with what is needed to take that first step towards their success.” “You and your ideas are special and have to be pursued,” the site cheerleads. The idea that you have to be pursued is one all too familiar to Detroiters behind on their utility bills.



Lacking either the curiosity or the entitlement, it never occurred to me to take any of the ties for myself, which was apparently the intent of the project. The back of each has scrawled on it “for you — from me. p.s. stay classy”, the website, and the tie’s production number. Some of the ties are now displayed proudly in store windows, some have gone home to the burbs, and a lot are decorating downtown offices, reminding their keepers to keep it classy at work, judging by elated comments.


What percentage of Detroiters will never have any idea of the meaning behind these white boards? If they don’t know, then what is the point? It’s only more mysterious stuff placed in their environment by some well-meaning “other” for some other well-meaning “other.” Missing the transparency of other positive-thinking public art efforts, like Cheer Up! Detroit, where the message is accessible to any literate person wandering by, the ties bristle with exclusivity. In not addressing the people it was intended to encourage — people who are not middle or upper class, internet-literate, and nestling this cute tchotchke into their art collection — how can the project really be meaningful, something aside from more fluffy lighthearted Detroit Future boosterism?

In the depths of conversation with a very positive woman, flagging cars of Tigers fans into a small lot near the stadium, she told me about her 45 minute commutes on foot to work — a 2.5 hour job — “and that’s taking all the shortcuts,” she said, “through the fields and through people’s apartment complexes, everything.” Instead of relating happy messages about black ties painted on boards, she told me about being robbed last year on her solitary route home, the reason she will no longer work night games. “I wish I had a bike,” she sighed, looking at my rusty Peugeot.


The ties are whimsical; I can seldom argue against whimsy. Inspiring something like a city-wide scavenger hunt — thankfully, the project succeeded in not limiting classiness to the 7.2 — is the kind of fun every metropolis needs. Yet it’s not really the most clever irony by which a project all about personality and character takes an article of clothing as its symbol — an article none other than the alienating tie that encircles white collars. Perhaps these boards and their surrogate neckwear are an apt talisman in a city known for its hard-working working class, but the undertone of exclusivity persists.

Detroit’s black tie makeover is part of a broader clash between understanding and respecting a space and its people, history, and culture, and understanding and respecting one’s personal needs and ambitions, and figuring where to interpolate oneself into that history and culture. This is a struggle every time I go out on a walk, thinking always of the millions of people before me who have walked the same route — the same sidewalk, the same street, the same path, the prairie and forest before the city. Where can the black tie fit into that?


Timely reading:
“Is There Room for Black People in the New Detroit?” by Suzette Hackney, who asks, “Still a question looms: Is there room for low income residents to benefit from the dazzling reinvention of their city?” As one resident she interviews put it, Detroit’s new development “is for the white folks and tourists. It ain’t for us.”

Wild west

July 27, 2014

Until recently, Detroit had a reputation for being a sort of urban ‘wild west.’ There was a certain pervasive lawlessness — the ignored traffic signals; the flourishing of large colorful Heidelberg dots on collapsing homes; the knowledge that if called, no police would arrive for days. There was a small undercurrent and large stereotype of anarchy and sometimes violence, of fierce frontier people eking out the best living they could. There were vast stretches of prairie, beekeepers, urban farms, and hardly any security cameras downtown. You could go to Belle Isle anytime you pleased. So could everybody else. There was a feeling that anything could or was happening here, very distinct from the kinds of anythings about which Dan Gilbert dreams.

With its wild midwest atmosphere, it’s about time Detroit has a proper ranch, but I was still surprised to see animals out grazing on grasses and chicory in the Cass Corridor. Actually, they weren’t quite animals roaming the lawn but the anthropomorphic forms of radiators, letting off steam on a cool afternoon.


The radiators have a bright petting-zoo color scheme and a silky finish. They seem friendly and well-adjusted — the small red one I approached didn’t bite. They’re much quieter than most radiators I’ve met, none of the usual hissing and clanking. In what is clearly their natural environment, they’re happily thriving.



Most radiators have free range on their patch of grass, with no fencing to keep them off the sidewalk. One young orange radiator, lanky and skinny-ribbed, is isolated in the security of a chicken tractor. A stenciled sign is accompanied by a charming note from the rancher instructing passersby not to feed the radiators. A ranch is pretty self-explanatory — there are animals; they are tended — but, being a city person unfamiliar with ranch operations, I had some questions. What do radiators do in the winter? Do they try to migrate? Do they stay outside in a shelter or coop like chickens do, maybe with a heat lamp? Should I bring them a dish of water, or does dew suffice? What are their names? The rancher was unavailable for questions.


On another fortuitous occasion, it was possible to meet the rancher, who turned out to be Aaron Timlin, of Detroit Contemporary fame. Installation of the new ranch was done with the help of a young niece, Timlin said, figuring that painting was a good project to share. The radiators have been out for a few days, but, occupied with other matters, he hasn’t been able to keep a close eye on them. He seemed relieved that neighbors were looking after them.

Timlin says ideally by winter the radiators will be nice and plump, able to endure harsher conditions. It will probably be mating season for a while, he laughed, looking at two heat exchangers that have been shamelessly going at it next to the sidewalk since they were let loose earlier this week. I hope the gestation period of radiators — one thing Wikipedia doesn’t know — is short enough that a healthy crop of radiator offspring will grow big enough by fall.


As a fellow rambler and I stood admiringly on the sidewalk, talking with a friend we’d run into down the street and convinced to come check out the ranch, a neighbor walking by stopped to talk. “They’re cute as hell!” He had his eye on a certain blue radiator, evidently inspired by Timlin’s example and interested in becoming a rancher himself. “Do you know how long they’re going to be out here?” he asked us. “I want to take a picture, but my phone’s broken!” This neighbor had barely left when another visited. “If I stay inside, it’s boring — so I just come out for a walk,” he said apologetically, excusing his lengthy explanation of his own collection of old things, which turned out to be antique dolls.

Something exciting is happening on every street — and if it isn’t, good neighbors will make it happen. (Except maybe on mine, where, despite the best neighbors, it took a fatal shooting this week to get everybody together, assembling in something like a really macabre block party). Although Timlin mentioned concerns over potentially negative new-neighbor perceptions of his ranch, this project is just how being neighborly should be done. As more of Detroit becomes the playground, as Chris Ilitch so plainly put it this week, of wealthy “investors,” it is all the more important to defend as much as we can of our playground, our wild west, from the encroachment of bland development’s manifest destiny. Preferably, as Timlin is doing, with creativity and humor.



July 15, 2014

This week, grab a sweater before you head out — apparently the polar vortex doesn’t yield to pedestrians, either. A piece of this arctic wind system seems to have broken off (by whatever mechanism wind “breaks” into “pieces”) and barrelled through Canada again, just like in January. While some insist this midsummer breath of fresh air is the vortex’s fault, the National Weather Service has retracted its previous observation. Meteorologists are tweeting their discord over what kind of air event this is, from polar vortex to “polar air invasion” to a mere “trough in the jet stream.” As one meteorologist said in a nicely graphic-assisted defense of the term, “Some critics are being too literal about its definition and/or burying their heads in the sand, blinding themselves from a fascinating weather reality.” Sounds a lot like the debate over climate change, actually.

The Free Press supports the National Weather Service’s new position that the chilly spell has less to do with polar air than with the usual jet stream breezes disrupted by a typoon — if not one sensational thing, then grapple for another. Mlive also denies heavy polar vortex involvement in this week’s weather, which, in a temperate summer overall, doesn’t even feel that weird, but advises to keep a lookout for waterspouts forming as the cold air glides over warm water. If you see any of these bumming around on the river with the freighters, let me know and I’ll ramble over extra-fast.

Whatever your beliefs about arctic air patterns, it’s luxurious waking up to a piece of Christmas in July. To acknowledge this meteorological gift of walking around being less sticky, I present some items from my ongoing collection of red bows found around town. Why are the bows always red? Why is the grass green, the sky blue? Science, of course. Social science.

This early holiday celebration is for longtime rambler Sara, who might love autumnal weather even more than I do and has recently been so kind as to share photos from our Hamtramck ramble in the Detroit Area Rambling Network flickr pool. Thanks!







And last but not least a boa of sorts.

UPDATE: 20:36

And a rainless rainbow emerging from the casino. Merry Christmas!


On the record

June 28, 2014

This week’s New Yorker has a funny little piece from David Sedaris on walking the English countryside near his home in the company of his Fitbit pedometer. Describing his obsessive tendencies and ever-increasing daily step count, he writes,

I look back at that time and laugh—fifteen thousand steps—Ha! That’s only about seven miles! Not bad if you’re on a business trip or you’re just getting used to a new prosthetic leg. In Sussex, though, it’s nothing. Our house is situated on the edge of a rolling downland, a perfect position if you like what the English call “rambling.” I’ll follow a trail every now and then, but as a rule I prefer roads, partly because it’s harder to get lost on a road, but mainly because I’m afraid of snakes.”


To facilitate such a high daily total of paces as he ultimately accumulated, having a purpose is advisable, and Sedaris embraced trash collection. This practice reminds me of the bumly litter-picker who used to rove Wayne State’s campus, obsessively tidying the grounds. I never really got to talk with this guy — he was always very intent on his task — but I miss him making his rounds, figuratively darning the environment like an old sock. Sedaris recently began carrying a trash-collecting claw on a metal pole, which sounds like a big improvement over his former habits.

With it I can walk, fear snakes a little less, and satisfy my insane need for order all at the same time. I’ve been cleaning the roads in my area of Sussex for three years now, but before the Fitbit I did it primarily on my bike, and with my bare hands. That was fairly effective, but I wound up missing a lot. On foot, nothing escapes my attention: a potato-chip bag stuffed into the hollow of a tree, an elderly mitten caught in the embrace of a blackberry bush, a mud-coated matchbook at the bottom of a ditch.

Strawberry shrubbish.

Strawberry shrubbish.

In his most recent collection, Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, for which I walked to the public library last year only to find I actually had to rent the book, he covers much of the same territory (trash removal being an ongoing thing and all). As one blogger said glowingly, inspired to reconsider his retirement plans, “I’m not sure why, but when David Sedaris talked about how he picked up trash alongside the highways and byways of Britain it seemed really cool. Maybe this is a mark of a good writer. They can talk about picking up trash and make it sound totally awesome.” Who knows how Sedaris even has time to write, with hauling around bags of refuse nine hours a day, but evidently it’s worth it. Perhaps this is just how literary greats roll.

Since getting my Fitbit, I’ve seen all kinds of things I wouldn’t normally have come across. Once, it was a toffee-colored cow with two feet sticking out of her. I was rambling that afternoon, with my friend Maja, and as she ran to inform the farmer I marched in place, envious of the extra steps she was getting in.

What noble thing-finderly spirit! Just wait until he mentions all the dead animals he comes across.


Sedaris’ sentiment at the death of his Fitbit is similar to that of many others — freedom! Of course, since it’s David Sedaris, there must be a twist. If a touch macabre is your kind of humor, don’t miss these droll musings on the true history of peppercorn sales and the relationship between fried chicken and sex. Read “Stepping Out” in The New Yorker.


April 10, 2014

A lot of the wonders of walking were most elegantly summed up in children’s book I read long ago. Pippi Longstocking, famed pirate heroine and vanquisher of boredom everywhere, knows a lot more about walking than your average grown-up. One morning, while Pippi is busy baking a modest five hundred cordiform pepparkakor, a kind of Swedish cookie, her neighbors Tommy and Annika visit. When she finishes, Tommy, like your average bored, screen-sucking kid, asks, “What are we going to do now?”


“I don’t know what you are going to do,” said Pippi, “but I know I can’t lie around and be lazy. I am a Thing-Finder, and when you’re a Thing-Finder you don’t have a minute to spare.”
“What did you say you are?” asked Annika.
“A Thing-Finder.”
“What’s that?” asked Tommy.
“Somebody who hunts for things, naturally. What else could it be?” said Pippi as she swept all the flour left on the floor into a little pile.
“The whole world is full of things, and somebody has to look for them. And that’s just what a Thing-Finder does,” she finished.
“What kind of things?” asked Annika.
“Oh, all kinds,” said Pippi. “Lumps of gold, ostrich feathers, dead rats, candy snapcrackers, little tiny screws, and things like that.”

Tommy and Annika thought it sounded as if it would be fun and wanted very much to be Thing-Finders too, although Tommy did say he hoped he’d find a lump of gold and not a tiny little screw.

“We shall see what we shall see,” said Pippi. “One always finds something.”

The children set off on their own, like few children have the luxury of doing today. Pippi thought it would be best to keep to urban surroundings, as most things to be found are where the people are. She tells Tommy and Annika about the incredible things she’s found in the forest, and she would of course tell you too, if you read the book.

Tommy and Annika looked at Pippi to see just how a Thing-Finder acted. Pippi ran from one side of the road to the other, shaded her eyes with her hand, and hunted and hunted. Sometimes she crawled on her hands and knees, stuck her hands in between the pickets of a fence, and then said in a disappointed tone, “Oh, dear! I was sure I saw a lump of gold.”


Thing-finding, like Pippi instructs her friends, can be as humble a pursuit as finding rusty tin cans and dead rats to hunting down prizes like gold. Today, I investigated a mesmerizing beacon that turned out to be a roadkill e-cig. Any takers?


It’s not the find but the perceptual game that matters, looking at your surroundings to connect seemingly disparate things together, to find new ways of making sense of the world. This can be as silly and undignified as stringing together some weird narrative to explain all those sad useless mattresses lying around, as the Walthamstow Tourist Board did this week. They’re also doing commendable work with the lost pair of shoes population. It’s all good, as long as, like Pippi, we’re wandering around and paying attention.

Excerpted from 'Celebs that Look Like Mattresses', by the Walthamstow Tourist Board

Excerpted from ‘Celebs that Look Like Mattresses’, by the Walthamstow Tourist Board

Suddenly Pippi gave a terrific yell. “Well, I never saw the like,” she cried, as she picked up a large, rusty old tin can from the grass. “What a find! What a find! Cans — that’s something you can never have too many of.”
Tommy looked at the can doubtfully. “What can you use it for?”
“Oh, you can use it in all sorts of ways,” said Pippi. “One way is to put cookies in it. Then it becomes a delightful Jar with Cookies. Another way is not to put cookies in it. Then it becomes a Jar without Cookies. That certainly isn’t quite so delightful, but still that’s good too.”
She examined the can, which was indeed rusty and had a hole in the bottom.
“It looks almost as if this were a Jar without Cookies,” she said thoughtfully. “But you can put it over your head and pretend that it is midnight.”

Tomorrow is Walk to Work Day, a perfect opportunity to stretch your whimsy muscles and see some strange things. According to the official website based in San Francisco, as few as fifteen minutes of commute-oriented walking count as walking to work, so there aren’t many excuses not to do it (injured feet might be a valid one). You never know what could happen. Maybe Pippi herself will appear and reward you with a pepparkakor from her Jar with Cookies for your efforts.


April 1, 2014

Walk around Detroit for five minutes and you’re likely to run into some ketchup. If not a packet or to-go cup of it loitering on the sidewalk, imminently making trouble, the telltale red bursts and splats have left their mark. Detroiters sure love their ketchup, or hate it, judging by how much of it is cast to the ground. Occasionally a few packets of mustard will materialize, maybe some barbeque sauce. Less frequently there is hot sauce, mayonnaise, and rarely, relish. Why all the ketchup? What are people doing or not doing with this stuff? To answer these longstanding questions, I could think of no one more apt than the Singing Hot Dog Man himself, Charley Marcuse.


Marcuse, for those who live under a rock the shape of a baseball and lack TV reception, was for fifteen years Tiger Stadium’s most infamous hot dog vendor. His first season in the business was the last year of games in the now nonexistent “old” Tiger Stadium. During this incredible tenure, Marcuse, like any intelligent person selling a thing, sought to diversify his product and service from the masses. Aside from providing excellent customer service, he set his hot dogs apart with an operatic chant of “HHHoooOOoooootttttttt DDoooOOoooogggsss!” He is also loved and hated for his provocative views on condiment use, stating often and very loudly, “There is no ketchup in baseball!” I struggle to not render that in all caps.

A more jubilant Marcuse, after the game on Opening Day 2013, wearing a scarf handmade by a fan.

A more jubilant Marcuse, after the game on Opening Day 2013, wearing a scarf handmade by a fan.

Having periodically encountered a mute, rasping Marcuse loading honey into his tea certain unfortunate mornings or late at night after games, it’s apparent that the job involved a level of sacrifice for which few would give him credit. Selling hot dogs was truly a passion. After being fired amidst fierce supportive uproar last fall, this is the first year since 1999 that he wasn’t at work in the stadium, making fans happy, if not healthy. Negotiations may still be under way to reinstate Marcuse as Detroit’s best hot dog vendor (he’s actually won awards), but no deal was struck before Opening Day yesterday. I caught up with the Singing Hot Dog Man after the game to get to the bottom of the battle between ketchup and mustard.

As any Detroiter who braved the streets, sidewalks, and parking lots yesterday can tell you, Tigers fans are not an easy crowd. Passed-out pedestrians got cozy on sidewalks while others screamed and cried gibberishly into their phones. They abandoned garbage using most of the prepositions in the English language. One pedestrian got hit by a car in Grand Circus Park, and traffic veered sloppily around the medical treatment area. Marcuse was a valuable walking companion, having seen it all in his decade and a half of service.


Several times during our walk, we were interrupted by the more alert fans scrambling to get a picture with the Singing Hot Dog Man. Others were not so courageous. “Look! It’s him, the Singing Hot Dog Man! I saw him on TV!” someone said as we passed. “No, that’s not him,” their friend replied. Marcuse stopped to buy a newspaper, the last one in the box. He turned to the second page. “Sorry, Charley,” read the headline. He wasn’t kidding when he said he’d had a number of interviews already this season.


1999, Marcuse’s first year in the business, was a transition year in stadium concessions. Management had just phased out the traditional condiment cup with wooden spreading stick that Marcuse remembers from ballgames of his childhood, replacing this old-fashioned, personalized dispensing with plastic packets that allowed the purchaser to fiddle with their own condiment placement. Not all fans were pleased with this tacky, fast-food arrangement, though. “I even got a plastic cup and straws for a group of four guys,” he says, coming up with makeshift mustard spreaders for older fans looking for the authentic hot dog experience.


“I tried the packets, but nobody wants them. About two weeks into the season, I went out and bought some squeeze bottles.” Marcuse appreciated the control afforded by the squeeze bottle, so he could put a perfect squiggle of mustard on each hot dog. If all this isn’t a labor of love, what is? “If a little kid would ask for ketchup and no mustard, I’d get them to at least try some, put a few dots on the end.”

While he’s always enjoyed mustard, Marcuse was more lenient about condiments in the early years. “I used to do a traffic light,” he says, “ketchup, mustard, and relish. They didn’t have relish, but I went out and bought some before every game. If onions came in squeeze bottles, I’d have done a Detroit traffic light in winter,” he chuckled to himself. Marcuse was the first vendor to offer relish. He says someone else tried later, wearing a pin that said, “Ask me, I’ve got relish,” but, in another oppressive move for rules and standards, management eventually took note and curtailed it.

The turning point in the Singing Hot Dog Man’s fight against the pasty tomato was in 2004, when he was barred from singing during games. After protracted contention, he was permitted to sing again, but only between innings. Working with these restrictions, he switched tactics, emphasizing mustard’s superiority and haranguing people requesting a gloppy mess of condiments on their dog. “The news likes to say that I do this for the attention, to get on TV,” he says, “but I really just want to do my job and sell hot dogs. And this sells.”

Marcuse isn’t alone in reviling ketchup, I found when wandering around Chicago last fall. Advertisements for what might have been a phone service insinuated that their competition was as ridiculous as putting ketchup on a hot dog. Even President Obama, like a true Chicagoan, has taken a stance in favor of Marcuse’s ideals, saying simply, “You shouldn’t put ketchup on your hot dog.”

In 2008 Marcuse launched Charley’s Ballpark Mustard, with the slogan, “It will make you sing!” In this household, no one has ever actually sung for mustard, but the complaints voiced after running out of a bottle of Marcuse’s signature condiment were anything but musical. Even if he doesn’t get his job back, he still plans to relaunch his mustard in the future.


As we made our way uptown from the stadium, picking past heaps of tailgating garbage of all flavors, we saw plenty of destitute ketchup and mustard containers. Marcuse grumbled about the litter, pointing to a problem even bigger than ketchup versus mustard — that hardly anybody, residents and visitors alike, has enough respect for their environment. Looking around, claims that the suburbanites descending on the city are here to lavish money on it for a few hours seemed to me unsubstantiated. The sports-friendly bars in the area do, and definitely Mike Ilitch’s parking lots, but judging by the trash, many fans stocked up on sundries at their average suburban grocery store before making the trip “down” to Detroit. One has to wonder how many will have the nerve even to stop for gas in the city limits.

The rest of the time, Marcuse said, it’s not as if people are dropping these ketchup packets by accident. I’d always sort of imagined people sifting through their bags of take-out, utterly overwhelmed by the bulk of ketchup packets in the way of checking to see they’d been given the right sandwich. He didn’t seem to share this vision. “They get thrown away because that’s the nature of packets. You use it, and then who wants to put a sticky, residue-y, gross piece of garbage in their pocket?” This only really explains the half-consumed ones, not the full packets waiting to squelch underfoot, or why exactly there are so many to begin with. “Ketchup is traditional for the two most consumed fast food groups,” Marcuse conceded, “burgers and fries.” You can put it on lots of things, just not on hot dogs, nor on the ground.


How did the Singing Hot Dog Man feel at the close of Opening Day? The Tigers won, but without him in the park, was this also a win for Big Ketchup? He laughed. With the nearby Leamington, Ontario Heinz factory reneging on its closure announcement from last year, it’s hard to say how ketchup will prevail. On the streets of Detroit, I can only wish we had more guys like Charley. The world around here needs fewer plastic packets of ketchup and a lot more song.

Spring cleaning

March 25, 2014

Nothing particularly exciting happened to mark the flip of seasons last week. The equinox came and quietly went with a little fuss of wind. Days are 2 minutes and 53 seconds longer. Today it’s been snowing. People groan and make small talk, wishing the weather would break. A breath of fresh air, a cool glass of water.


It seems that someone has decided it’s time for spring cleaning anyway. For the past two weeks, toothbrushes have been materializing everywhere, in all conditions, minty fresh to old and scrubby. Is there a new dentist in town, handing out freebies? A clean-teeth evangelist making rounds?


An odd flush of toothbrushes isn’t the only anomaly to puzzle sidewalk users — repeated instances of a particular item will appear in the tight space of a week or two, then vanish. If not all over the city, this is at least the case in the small wedge I most often explore. At the end of February, citrus peels suddenly decorated the snowbanks. Why did pedestrians go so nuts about fruit in that moment? Warm enough for picnics already? Citrus on sale? (Citrus sale happens in January, too). A viral listicle enumerating the health benefits of oranges? What can account for this peculiarity? As mysteriously as they began, the appearances of bright mandarin rinds, half-eaten grapefruits, and smushed clementines ceased abruptly about two weeks later. I can’t wait to see what the world comes up with for April Fool’s next week.


In another type of spring cleaning, Detroiters shooed out the dweeby Nain Rouge again this weekend, hooting and hollering over the 0.9 mile trek through the Cass Corridor to banish the legendary demon. After standing around getting wasted outside Traffic Jam for an hour, the parade slowly threaded south, past new parking lots and imminently shuttering businesses. This obliviousness to history and environment seems to be part of the new tradition of the march. Allegedly a revival of the French colonists’ annual rite to bring peace to their city by chasing the evil red man out, this story is really, as one of the parade organizers admitted to radio producer and journalist Mike Blank in 2011, a complete fabrication. It seems instead to be, if anything historic, an appropriation of Ottawa myth.


There was sun but it was chilly, and the march seemed much smaller than past years, though certainly no more shabby. Most people were in costume, except the uniformed cops benevolently corking sidestreets. Amid drag queens and hotdogs and people with grotesque masks there was a funeral procession for Capitol Park, some kind of perambulating coffin setup attended by a cluster of people in black clutching umbrellas. The whole effect was comic; despite the spangles, it was slightly reminiscent of goths in high school. Their presence is appreciated, but these are probably not the same kids who would offer to help the evictees move out of their apartments this week in the hideously rebranded Albert building.



While there were important messages to be conveyed, few seemed to be in the mood to send or receive them. It was a Sunday, and these people are called ‘revelers’ taking part in a ‘parade’ for a reason. Inebriation and spirits were high, and questioning the debatable history or political correctness of the march was out of the question. One person told me that he cared a lot about our neighborhood but really just wanted to drink tequila with his soccer team. Whatever, I say, as long as it gets people walking. After a dull speech by the Nain, revelers quickly dispersed north toward the starting point or descended into the bowels of the Masonic Temple for the afterparty.


Unlike previous years, nobody even touched Cass Park, which isn’t all bad — less spring cleanup. One resident muttered that having people in the park might not be the best idea anyway, given the creaky trees and downed branches. Did I want some firewood?, he asked. Mike Ilitch doesn’t seem to out there making good on the pledge to make or keep the park a functional greenspace. With the ominous shifting of land and narrative, the march just wasn’t as fun this time as previous years. Whether the march is what they say it is or not, Detroit needs fun, and it’s hard to argue against such earnest attempts at it. But must fun come with a certain amnesia?

Today the ground and bushes on Canfield and on Cass are brightened by dyed feathers and snippets of ribbon. I imagine a lot of the unfamiliar faces I saw on Sunday back in their elsewhere, recollecting a boozy memory of the weekend gone by. The wind scrubs clean the shrubs bit by bit, Detroiters lose their toothbrushes, and flowers come up soft and unsoiled.


Field guides without fields

March 22, 2014

Announcement: Marche du Nain Rouge is tomorrow! As if you needed a reminder. The walk starts at 1 at Traffic Jam in “everyone’s Midtown Detroit” and goes to Cass Park, Mike Ilitch’s Midtown Detroit.
For those who don’t believe the hype, this means that the Anti-Funeral Procession for the Cass Corridor is happening from 2-6.
Also, please stop calling it the ‘Marche de le Nain Rouge.’ That’s just not right.

Browsing the library shelves, I came across an enticing new acquisition, A Field Guide to American Houses: The Definitive Guide to Identifying and Understanding America’s Domestic Architecture. Originally published in 1984 by Virginia Savage McAlester, the second edition, released last December, offers considerable updates, such as how to “read” a neighborhood, and information on homes built after 1940, which constitute an entire 80% of American dwellings.


The immense hardcover volume, the size of an obnoxious biology textbook, weighs quite a bit more than could be easily packed to take into the muddy field or hefted open to consult while perched on a slippery snowbank — a better title might be An Encyclopedia of American Houses. As intended, it’s a trusty desk reference companion. The preface suggests three ways of using the book: flip through it to find similar photos, use the sprightly pictorial key to identify main features, or read about the historical precedents to the main American house styles. Taking this information out into the field, “style identification can become almost automatic,” and the book waits at home to aid in sorting out subtypes.

Whichever way you approach it, at least a little of the information seeps in almost instantly, broadening perspective of the built environment in a way that a tree guide, for example, can seldom do for the natural environment. To an untrained eye, the differences in siding on houses are easier to discern than the subtleties of bark patterns. It’s been a great game to wander through neighborhoods, peering at porches and chimneys and cataloging types of dormers or “other roof elaborations,” piecing together more of Detroit’s abundant history.

From Native American tepees and wigwams to the McMansion (McAlester favors the kinder term ‘millennium mansion’), the coverage is inexhaustible. When you think you’ve come to the end of the book, a short appendix dealing with green and alternative construction appears, accompanied by photos of geodesic domes. This astute comprehensiveness was a long time coming. As the New York Times relates, McAlester had originally assembled “some 100,000 house photos, many from the Library of Congress, and pinned them on a giant corkboard. Picture the tormented detective in a thriller, rearranging mug shots, with bits of red string.”

The extensive visual references are hard to choose from, but this Spanish Revival has the best landscaping.

The extensive visual references are hard to choose from, but this Spanish Revival has the best landscaping.

Many of the houses I’ve recently wandered past are Queen Anne or Stick, some Shingle, Second Empire, Italianate, Richardsonian Romanesque — in short, lots of Victorian homes, the entire chapter gorgeously represented in a few mile radius. What’s fascinating is how old some of these stylistic impulses are. In an age of new construction techniques like balloon framing and the beginnings of the design industry, Victorian homes were still being modelled, albeit loosely, on Medieval prototypes — the same thatch-roofed stuff people had been building from the 6th through 15th centuries. Even as MIT established the first American architecture program in 1865, the dominant styles recalled Medieval times, with or without various Classical elements appended to them. McAlester coordinates the solidly useful information in the field guide with well-placed tidbits of architectural history. Until 1840, she notes, before the boom of competing architectural styles and schools producing architects to advance them, there was only one formally-trained architect in the United States.

The many features of a Stick style house.

The many features of a Stick style house.

The Queen Anne wall itself as a decorative element -- graphic titled "Devices to avoid flat wall surfaces".

The Queen Anne wall itself as a decorative element — graphic titled “Devices to avoid flat wall surfaces”.

Detroit is as diverse as you’d expect for such a large city, and exploring neighborhoods with both newer and older wonders of residential architecture is something to look forward to as the weather warms and forgotten sidewalks are unearthed. Where are all the Tudors, the boring Neoclassicals and Colonial Revivals, where are my secret favorites, the smartly-tiled Spanish Revivals?

Geographic distribution of Greek Revival subtypes.

Geographic distribution of Greek Revival subtypes.

It did make me curious about what is arguably the oldest house in Detroit, the Charles Trowbridge house on Jefferson. The house is easy to miss, so easy I’ve walked past it dozens of times without noticing. This has probably happened to millions of people since it was built in 1826. Coming north off the river, I walked past it again, and kept going. There is no green historical marker in front of the unassuming Greek Revival brick structure, painted white with a mishmosh of Victorian elements tacked on at some point. It’s not very interesting to look at, outdone by the showier adjacent residences-turned-offices, one of which has been attached to it by an enclosed walkway.

Apparently this is it. The oldest house in Detroit, built 21 years after the 1805 fire.

Apparently this is it. The oldest house in Detroit, built 21 years after the 1805 fire.

This inviting bench has a nice view of the adjacent carriage house, totally mismatched in style from the house it sits behind.

This inviting bench has a nice view of the adjacent carriage house, totally mismatched in style from the house it sits behind.

If I get around to reading the field guide cover-to-cover, it will take some time, but it’s wonderful to savor in small portions, and a sensible purchase for that privilege. It’s also done the favor of keeping me occupied during the obligatory daily segments of the thousand miles. If gold were as helpful in understanding what goes on with our building habits, this book would definitely be worth its weight in it.

The fact motivating the creation of this field guide, that old homes hold a certain value in our culture and their ownership conveys some level of prestige, is by no means universal. In other countries, such as Japan, no such field guide would be written. As Freakonomics reports, the average lifespan of a house before its value dwindles to nothing is just 30 years. Some studies even pin this number as low as 15 years. Half of all houses are demolished within 38 years of construction. This, from a country that lent the rest of the world aesthetics like wabi-sabi, encouraging us to celebrate the small imperfections of our homes, inside and out. Here, older homes don’t tend to depreciate like used cars, and a hundred years will pass before the average home is demolished. One can begin to understand this, in a location that sees 20% of the world’s high-magnitude earthquakes and has a recent history of homes obliterated by bombings, leading to crummily-constructed houses popping up to quickly accommodate the million people left homeless, but the obvious, like McAlester illustrates in her field guide, is never the whole story.

It’s hard to say which is curiouser, our paradoxical penchant for filling our old homes with sleek, cheap Ikea furniture, or the Japanese drive to knock everything down and design exactly the house that is desired by the occupant. In a culture of ancient temples, recycling, and traditional values like mottainai, or avoiding wastefulness, the Japanese approach to housing comes as kind of a shock. To simultaneously value newness as “spiritually clean and pure,” except perhaps in the case of a fresh pair of vending machine underpants, is bizarre.

Maybe the more profound way to accept transience is to demolish everything that isn’t a mossy Buddhist shrine — but I hope, stuck as we are on hanging onto the past, it doesn’t come to this in America. The ability to see the proverbial hand of time moving across a landscape is not a pleasure I’ll easily give up, a reluctance likewise felt, no doubt, when I have to walk this field guide back to the library.


March 17, 2014

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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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