One of the many things I like about bicycling in Detroit is the contrast and diversity found along the endless commercial districts that cross this city. No matter where I end up riding, the range of local entrepreneurial undertakings has always intrigued me. In the midst of the commercial abandonment and blight, I’ve seen viable barber shops; people shopping at discount beauty supply stores; full parking lots at check cashing facilities; and liquor stores with people coming and going. I’ve also ridden past active wheel outlets; car repair facilities where customers are lined up to get in, and Coney Island restaurants where most tables were full. I’ve seen few national chains, with the exceptions of fast food restaurants, dollar stores or an occasional well-known bank or hardware store. This was quite evident as I rode westbound across McNichols Road (6-mile) to Linwood Street.
My ride began at the intersection of Whittier Street and I-94. I rode Whittier north to Chalmers where I took a right to Seymour Street (6-mile), an area where I once lived. A one-time active commercial strip, this stretch of Chalmers has no retail to speak of and many of the commercial structures are either gone or slated for demolition. At Seymour, I turned left and headed through what’s left of the residential neighborhood to Gratiot Avenue where Seymour turns into McNichols.
A few blocks north of Gratiot on McNichols I caught a piece of major eye candy on my left. Painted on the sides of a check-cashing store were some of the best urban murals I’ve ever come across. Not only did they promote the business, they also featured some of Detroit’s famous landmarks such as Hudson’s and Eastern Market. Well known people like Joe Louis and Henry Ford are also painted into the scene. An amazing piece of urban art!
I continued west on McNichols past the usual assortment of auto fix-it shops, car washes, barber shops and storefront churches where members were headed for Sunday services. Approaching one such place of worship, I could hear the sounds of Gospel music filling the street from about a half-block away. When I rode up to that particular small church, I couldn’t help but pause and spend a little time listening to the congregation singing the praise of God to the rhythm of a hard-driving gospel band. It was quite moving.
McNichols is closed at City Airport so I took East Outer Drive to 7-Mile and took that to Van Dyke Street. Heading south on Van Dyke to McNichols I noticed a purple building with some unusual, decorative female looking “gargoyles” jutting out near the top. They didn’t appear to be original to the structure and they made me think that perhaps the building was once used as a theater.
Turning west on McNichols off Van Dyke, the area became noticeably industrialized. Mixed in among viable manufacturing businesses were abandoned, graffiti covered post-industrial structures with weed-choked lots. Along the stretch between Van Dyke and Mound Road and a little further beyond, were numerous scrap buying businesses and junkyards. Some were highly organized by particular auto part category and painted in bright, eye-catching colors. Others were basically fenced in lots with random car parts scattered about the oil soaked ground.
Pedaling west it was clear McNichols, like many other roads in the city, has its share of “grass root” businesses that advertise their goods and services through hand painted signs nailed to poles or sandwich boards strategically placed next to the road. Other businesses leaned their signs against a building or fence and some had hand painted their message to the side of a building. In the advertising industry, this type of messaging is called “guerilla marketing”. In neighborhoods like this, I like to refer to it as “trying to make a buck.”
On my two-wheel journey across McNichols, I saw many small places to eat, with most being Coney Island restaurants, a common sight in Detroit. As I rode slowly by one of these hot dog places, I peered in. Looking past the “daily special” poster stuck in the window, I saw bulletproof glass separating the order/seating area and the kitchen area… a customary Detroit restaurant and liquor store fixture.
I passed under I-75 headed to Woodward Avenue. That stretch mirrored most of what I saw up to that point: storefront abandonment, small businesses barely hanging on and various convenient stores that cater to the poverty-stricken community.
As I crossed over Woodward, I was reminded of how wide the avenue is through that section of north Detroit. It must be eight lanes wide. However, I’m not sure because I was busy watching traffic as I crossed over, losing track of how many lanes I was crossing. A few blocks past Woodward, McNichols becomes mostly residential. There are beautiful, well-maintained apartment buildings on the south and to the north, sprawling brick homes that abut the Detroit Golf Club.
When I reached Linwood Street, I paused to enjoy the peaceful, calm environment of the Detroit Golf Club in the distance. Finally, I turned south on that street for my ride home.