The new $24 million segment of the Dequindre Cut, from Gratiot to Mack, is about as short as you’d expect if you’ve ever wandered Eastern Market end-to-end without even noticing. This 0.45 mile stretch is due to open next spring after some delays, following the initial 1.35-mile trail conversion which was completed in 2009. The railroad itself was constructed in the 1830s by the Detroit Pontiac Railroad Company, predecessor of Canadian National and Grand Trunk. Trains ran along the tracks from 1838 until the mid-1980s; passenger rail service to the riverfront terminated in 1982. A subsidiary of the MGM Casino purchased the parcels between 1998 and 2000 and handed them off to the city shortly after.
Aside from just wandering and having fun, our intent was to examine the benefits and losses of greenway rails-trails conversion projects, particularly the impact on wild plants commonly referred to with the generic term “weeds.” Focusing on the greenery when the Dequindre Cut has been so well-known for its colorful graffiti was a shift that felt natural at the time, and almost certainly foretells the theme of many future walks there. Wildflowers were everywhere bland new embankment walls weren’t. How the pale blocks had been kept free of graffiti for their weeks in place baffles the imagination. Especially as the grade changes to join street level closer to Mack, the balance tips in a pastoral direction. Birds were chirping and flocking around grassy clumps unjostled by the heavy machinery lining the Cut. Behind the Detroit Edison Public School Academy, a birdhouse perched atop a tall pole.
At Mack we waited a while for the roar of Lions’ game traffic to quiet before setting foot on the rails. This stretch of the Cut splices two different worlds — the vastness of bleak industry to the west where the Pepsi bottling plant sits, and a line of trees and some grassy lands to the east. It’s a dynamic that feels very Detroit. “These would be lovely to keep as parks,” I said. “They already are,” a rambler replied. The disused tracks themselves were littered with surprises — we examined pottery, the railways’ signature shards of metal, bones, shoes, trash, and treasure in the form of a fully intact shovel sitting in a bush.
The tracks are fenced off with shiny chainlink at Farnsworth where they keep the trains. At this point we turned east, doubling back on St. Aubin for a glimpse of what life might have been like before the railroad. Cobblestone streets still push determinedly westward before petering out into high grasses next to dead-ending sidewalks. Rust inexplicably coats sections of pavement. At Forest, a naked flagpole sits lonesome in the grassy lot that was the Dabrowski Playground, in memory of the reverend who once founded a Polish Seminary there. There aren’t many houses these days. Outside of Eastern Market again, we stopped to check on the little cinderblock wonder at 2126 Pierce St., then followed the alley south to Wilkins. An eastbound detour gave us better viewing of the sculpture garden outside C.A.N. Art Handworks.
The ramble paused on Gratiot to share generous rambler-made brownies with a belated contingent of tired tweed riders. After this ramblers disbanded to their vehicles and I trekked south alone. At Antietam a red-tailed hawk dove to scoop up a squirrel, dangling it from the power lines. I followed the Lafayette Parks to the river, broad green spaces paralleling the Cut. After the Greening of Detroit Park, I crossed Jefferson and ventured down Riopelle, looking at the Ren Cen looming past the wreckage of a torched building. It felt out of place. In Milliken State Park, the recent sidewalk led me over the hill, next to the canal, and back into the Dequindre Cut.
This is the familiar Dequindre Cut, where in an otherwordly composition graffiti is backdrop for the occasional sly storybook red fox straight out of Le Petit Prince. It’s also a greenway beloved by Detroiters who wouldn’t or couldn’t explore the wilder sections we’d seen earlier in the day. As I strode north, a family passed, pushing their stroller and talking about how safe it was there. Their hip-height young daughter smiled a few paces behind them. It was getting dark but a group of people still had a tripod set up in the pedestrian lane, filming skateboard tricks. This is something you might not try a few miles north along the rails.
If something is lost in this conversion from rails to trails, it isn’t the greater good. As one who lived for the spaciousness and unruliness of parts of this city, I can’t wholly mind that it isn’t here, right here, anymore. But will there always be somewhere else to go? As perambulists in other cities thoughtfully elegize their vanishing wildernesses, I wish they could ramble with us and see the before and the after simultaneously, two sides of a story, two ends of the same trail.