In late June I had the opportunity to cycle in Detroit with Rudolf v. Waldenfels, a journalist from Germany who was in town for a week or so working on a feature story about Detroit. I met Rudolf at a political “meet and greet” for a state senate candidate. He mentioned that he had ridden a bicycle throughout Asia. That sparked a conversation about bicycling in Detroit, and I mentioned this blog.
He called me the next day, said he’d read my blog and wanted to know if I was available to cycle through Detroit. We met at the Wheelhouse on Detroit’s Riverfront later that day. Upon meeting him there, it began to rain quite hard. We took advantage of the 20-minute downpour by talking about what he’s seen so far, where he’s been and areas of interest he’d like to visit. He had already been to Eastern Market, the abandoned train station, Lakeshore Drive in Grosse Pointe and other parts of the city. Based on that discussion, I wanted to give him a balanced picture of the city, and show him some places he might not otherwise see. Once it stopped raining we ventured out.
Since we were near the Dequindre Cut that is where we began our first 3-hour ride. Riding through there, we stopped briefly under a viaduct to wait out another rain shower. I pointed out some graffiti, and Rudolf didn’t show much interest. He explained that he didn’t want to tour around looking at graffiti because he sees so much of it in Berlin. Next, we crossed Gratiot Avenue and headed up St. Aubin Street. This is a once densely populated area with streets packed full of homes, small businesses and manufacturing facilities that is now mostly lined with vacant lots and fields.
As we pedaled along St. Aubin I pointed out some of the unique architectural details found on a few of the remaining early 19th century commercial structures. Rudolf had a keen interest in what I was showing him, and after stopping to take a few photos he suggested I put together organized cycling tours. He said I’d make a good tour guide because of my knowledge and enthusiasm for the city.
Hoping to catch some authentic Detroit Blues music we pedaled to the corner of St. Aubin and Frederick Streets – A Field of Blues. Unfortunately, the recent rain showers had moved the starting time back by a couple of hours. That didn’t seem to faze the crowd who were there barbecuing and picnicking while waiting for the first band to set up. After a slow ride past the field, we left there and headed to one of Detroit’s most famous post-industrial ruins, a 3.5 million square foot abandoned auto factory on East Grand Boulevard.
On our way there, Rudolf mentioned that he needed something to eat, so we decided to stop into a corner party store featuring a Subway sign on the outside. We rolled up to the door, and I stayed outside and watched the bikes while he went in. It was kind of a creepy area with unsavory looking people walking around. Although I didn’t feel endangered, the neighborhood was a bit unsettling.
After a few minutes Rudolf came out carrying a bag, visually tense and said, “The store keeper said we must leave the area immediately. It isn’t safe.”
“Really?” I said.
“Yes, he said we must leave now.” Rudolf said in a concerned voice.
“Okay” I said pointing left, “let’s head toward the abandoned factory, no one will bother us there.”
Just outside the industrial ruin we stopped to eat. While eating some pretzels, I asked him what it was like in the store. He said they had no sandwiches, mostly liquor, cigarettes and pre-packaged snacks. Just then a family from Brazil pulled up in a car and we struck up a brief conversation with them. In town for the U.S. Social Forum, they heard of the place and were curious of its history. I provided them with a brief overview, but I’m not sure they fully understood because of language differences.
Afterward, Rudolf and I pushed our bikes across broken glass to the rear of the factory and worked our way up the loading ramps to the fourth floor. Once there, we came across a group of urban explorers taking interior photos of graffiti, abandoned boats and vehicles scattered about the building. As we soon found out, the group was part of a photography class run by my neighbor! It was an odd coincidence seeing her there.
When I asked Rudolf what he thought of this abandonment and the surrounding community, he said, “It’s very surreal.” He didn’t understand how a building this size could fall into such disrepair. He was also intrigued by a graffiti-covered, abandoned truck on the floor and the many derelict boats scattered throughout.
As we left the factory, we could hear Blues music from the Field of Blues echoing off the place. So ends day one of our two-day tour.