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Archive for March, 2010

Detroit has many great, viable neighborhoods where people take enormous pride in their property. On my two-wheel travels through the city, I’ve seen blocks and blocks of well-maintained neighborhoods, where most, if not all of the vintage brick and frame homes are in remarkably good shape, considering that many are approaching 100 years old.

Nearly all the outstanding, restored homes I’ve seen are located in some of the city’s most notable, historic neighborhoods – East English Village, Boston-Edison, Corktown, Lafayette Park, Brush Park and many others as this map shows.

These tight neighborhoods are usually well-marked with custom signs and utility pole banners that reflect the personality of the area. Like my eastside neighborhood, I assume these tight communities have an association made up of volunteers from the neighborhood that meet regularly to promote revitalization, safety, and work with the city to enforce code violations and other issues that may arise. Some are so well-organized that they promote their neighborhoods by hosting home and garden club tours, open house realty bus tours and other events to draw people into their community.

Many of us are aware of these high-profile, prime residential communities of Detroit. But there are other small residential organizations in Detroit making a big difference as well.  Block clubs.

I never realized how many block clubs there are in this city until I started noticing the many identity signs found in a small eastside stretch. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are hundreds of these grassroots organizations found within the city. Someone is — or groups of people living on those streets are — concerned about their neighborhood and want to improve quality of life for them and their neighbors. Like all of us, they want to stop crime and illegal dumping, have their street plowed in the winter, take care of the elderly, hold block parties and protect their investment. It’s encouraging to see community activism at such a local level.

Take a look at the variety of block club signs, note the tag lines and designs, and think about those in Detroit that are making a difference.

Leaving Helen Street

Entering Helen Street

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Trains are massive, powerful and move all kinds of stuff across this city and region. We’ve all been stuck in our vehicles while waiting for one to ramble across the road we’re traveling. Most of us complain about it because in many cases they seem to be moving at a pace slower than we can walk. Sitting on a bicycle at one of the crossings is a much different experience than waiting in a car at a crossing. 

 Chrysler – Jefferson Assembly Plant R.R. Yard

Being so close to these monsters of commerce, one of the first things I’ve noticed is the sheer size and variety of cars that make up a train. We’ve all seen them passing by, but probably haven’t looked closely at what makes up a train. There are vandal-proof stainless steel sided cars that protect the autos they are carrying, as well as cars stacked with auto parts on their way to some manufacturing facility on Mack Avenue. You’ll also see tankers on their way to a downriver refinery carrying liquids with hazardous material signs attached, rusty open top cars, brown box cars and those carrying passengers. Many have been tagged by graffiti artists, which begs the question, who tagged these cars and where? Did some artists slip into a train yard in Phoenix or Kansas City and after many hook-ups, their art finally made it to a Detroit neighborhood? Or were they tagged in a rail yard near Flint? It does make me wonder. 

Graffiti Covered Car

The sounds of a train are incredible when next to one. I noticed the variety of sounds they generate a couple of days ago when I rode my bike to the Michigan Central Railway Tunnel entrance that runs under the Detroit River to Windsor. I was able to get quite close to a freight train pulling a hundred plus cars that was making its way into the tunnel to Canada. The initial horn blasts from the lead engine was deafening. Those blasts were followed closely by the constant hum of the steel wheels riding on the steel tracks. There’s also the endless clicking noise as the wheels hit the seams where the rail sections meet each other. Mix in the rich, squeaking sounds of the shifting cars and you have a symphony built around commerce. Quite an experience.

As I Lay Dying

I just finished reading  As I Lay Dying, a 1930 novel written by William Faulkner, and I’m not sure what I read. The book is relatively short and lean by Faulkner standards. It follows a family’s journey from a small Mississippi farm to the county seat where the family matriarch, Addie, wishes to be buried upon her death. The book is written from the point of view of fifteen assorted family members and acquaintances, each having dedicated chapters throughout. Faulkner describes Addie’s last days, how family members construct her casket, place her in it and load it on a wagon hooked up to mules. The loaded wagon, manned by her husband and children, strike out across the county to the county seat for her burial. The trip took about nine days and along the way they struggled with many obstacles such as a flooded river crossing where they lose the mules, a son’s broken leg and a fire in a barn where the casket was stored for a night. 

Although the chapters were short, many seemed to ramble. Others seemed unrelated to the story, which was a bit confusing. I’d reread certain chapters a couple of times to help me understand what was going on, and yet I was still often perplexed. After completing the book, I did a little research and found that this book is important because it is one of the first ever written using a “stream-of-consciousness” narrative. Basically, a story written from fifteen view points. That explained a lot. I was also surprised that this book is frequently ranked among the best 20th century novels. I’m not sure I agree, but I haven’t read many stream-of-conscious novels, and I assume the ranking is based on this writing style. 
 

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As a Detroiter, I’ve been reading with great interest about Mayor Dave Bing’s initiative to downsize sparsely populated neighborhoods. Having ridden through many of the eastside and other inner ring neighborhoods that he has targeted for possible downsizing, I’m amazed at how few homes there are in these areas.

I’ve pedaled block after block along these streets and on most, only a handful of occupied homes exist. The few lived in homes remaining coexist with those that are vacant and with parcels of land that seem to be reverting back to prairies. It’s almost like biking in the country except the Detroit skyline is visible in the distance.

Homes in an Eastside neighborhood
Sparsely populated Eastside neighborhood

Obviously these are poor neighborhoods. There isn’t much activity, and traffic is basically non-existent. There may be a couple people walking toward stores that are few and far between. Occasionally, older folks can be seen sitting on their dilapidated porches, and they usually wave as I pedal by. Others have congregated in one of the many vacant lots sitting on makeshift chairs eating, drinking and talking about who knows what. I can only imagine their conversations.

Does it make sense to move these people to more vibrant, prosperous areas of Detroit as Mayor Bing proposes? Will his plan to reinvent the city save substantial money by eliminating services to these vacated neighborhoods? What will happen to these tracts of land if residents are moved? Who knows? If the Mayor’s plan is successful, maybe an urban park system could be established throughout these areas that would incorporate bike trails, wetlands and nature areas.  Urban forests could be groomed and allowed to re-establish themselves. Some of the existing 100-year old plus buildings could be restored and turned into museums. Pie in the sky? Perhaps. But if done right, Detroit could have one of the best urban park systems in the country.

Music Options

As a once loyal listener to WDET, I’m still searching to fill the music gap left open when WDET switched to a news/talk format a few years ago. But unfortunately it’s been a tough hunt. It seems Detroit radio has become quite mainstream and it’s almost impossible to find any station playing alternative music such as Wilco, Ben Harper, Cat Power, Jessica Lee Mayfield or other indie/folk/roots music artists. CBC Radio 2 (89.9 FM) out of Windsor offers some interesting music, and I’m encouraged to see that WDET has brought back some pretty good music programming to their weekend schedule. But there is a still quite a void when it comes to alternative music in Detroit. So, like many others, I’ve turned to the Internet.

Listed below are five stations that I listen to . They offer a good variety of music, each in their own, unique way. Click in and take a listen.

  • WCOM – North Carolina – Small community station offering regional music as part of the mix
  • KCRW ELECTIC24 – Santa Monica – Big variety, everything from Freddie Hubbard to Massive Attack
  • WWOZ – New Orleans – Jazz, R/B, and Cajun, what more can be said
  • WXPN – Philadelphia – Lots of indie music with classic rock sprinkled in
  • KCSC – Chico State University California – Quite a mix of New music, Electronic/Techno, Jazz and R/B

– Fine print – You may or may not agree with my observations or opinions, and I’d value your input. 

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Welcome to my blog!

03-10-10

As you can probably figure out by the title of this blog, there are three areas of interest that I’ll be writing about. Some will deal exclusively with bicycling. A few may focus on books and others on music. Yet others may feature two or all three categories. Only time will tell.  

I’m mainly an urban bicyclist, and I spend most of my time exploring Detroit’s multi-faceted streets, neighborhoods, commercial districts and parks. On my earlier two-wheel journeys across this diverse city I’ve seen lots of positive, interesting things and things that aren’t so good. I’ve experienced the sweet smell of bakeries and barbecues, breathed in the smokey fumes from beat-up cars, and diesel exhaust from buses or trucks has left my throat scratchy and dry.  I’ve heard the sound of gospel music filling the streets on a Sunday morning. I’ve heard the people mover rumbling overhead. I’ve heard dogs barking, horns blowing, sirens blaring and street corner vendors hawking their goods. Most of all, I’ve seen considerable contrast between wealth and  poverty.  As I cycle through this city, I hope to present some of  the unusual sights and rich sounds found within its borders. My camera is usually at my fingertips, so look for a few interesting photos along way.

 

Urban Art, Detroit’s Eastside

 

Another interest of mine is books. I read all types of books. Books of fiction by contemporary American authors are at the top of my list. Writers like Richard Ford, TC Boyle, Jim Harrison, Richard Russo, and others. I also spend time reading the works by many of our greatest writers; Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Richard Yates, Wallace Stegner and John Steinbeck, just to name a few. Books of essays, current events, travel and books on culture are all part of the mix. In this section, I’ll be sharing my thoughts, opinions and impressions on what I’ve read. 

The third component of this blog will be dedicated to music. My plan is to write about the types of musical styles that I listen to and why they move me. Keep in mind that I’m not an expert on music nor do I play an instrument. I simply enjoy it and have a special passion for 1950’s and 60’s jazz.  Music has an interesting history that goes back thousands of years. It has a unique power that seems to bring people together, regardless of race, nationality or economic status. It can be heard in the world’s best venues or on a busy urban street corner.  It touches us in many ways and it can bring tears to our eyes, make us edgy, or calm us in stressful situations. It can also invoke change. As Longfellow wrote, “Music is the universal language of mankind.” I hope you’ll enjoy reading my perspectives on music.

 

– Fine print – You may or may not agree with my observations or opinions, and I’d value your input. 

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