Archive for August, 2010

A Westside Ride

As an eastsider, I haven’t spent much time west of Woodward Avenue on my bike, so I decided I’d ride out to Fenkell to see what life is like on that side of town. My two-wheel journey took me from West Warren Avenue north on Rosa Parks Boulevard to Fenkell. On Fenkell I headed west to Grand River Avenue and once there headed southeast to Downtown Detroit.

Rosa Parks is a great street for bicycling. Although a little rough in spots, it’s one way from West Warren to just past West Grand Boulevard where it turns into a wide, nicely paved, chuckhole free boulevard. At Clairmount Street, where the 1967 riots started, it once again becomes a one-way street and stays that way to Oakman Boulevard, where it shrinks to a two-way street for the rest of the way to Fenkell.

Similar to countless other edgy streets and roads I’ve ridden in this vast city, Rosa Parks is lined with open fields, boarded-up, abandoned graffiti-tagged commercial structures, and numerous derelict homes. The exception was the area around Clairmount. This section has been rebuilt since the riots, and the Boulevard is lined with new homes and apartments and a nicely maintained shopping area. It was an interesting, sudden contrast.

The five-mile stretch of Fenkell I rode was vibrant. It’s lined with cell phone stores, café and Coney Island restaurants, national food chains and small businesses such as auto repair places, barbershops, pharmacies and nightclubs. I especially liked some of the colorful buildings I saw along the way.


Cool use of hub caps! Note the Art Deco porcelain tiles peeking through above the entrance.


Nice contrast, blue building and red bottles.


I don't understand the need for all of these lights.


Near Livernois sits the Campus Ballroom, a vintage 1920’s era building that has fallen into disrepair. Surprisingly, the building has not lost much of its architectural features and still retains its arched windows, highly detailed roofline and intricate brickwork.  I wonder what the interior is like. It would also be interesting to know its history.


The Campus Ballroom has nice architectural details.


Close to Wyoming is Watts Club Mozambique. At one time, this was one of Detroit’s most famous jazz clubs. Many national acts such as organist Lonnie Smith, guitarist Grant Green and saxophonist Houston Pierson have played there. So have many of Detroit’s top-notch local musicians like trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, drummer Leonard King and many, many others. The club now features male dance reviews.

Fenkell at Grand River is congested. It’s congested because that intersection is also a major exit for the Southfield Freeway.  Plus, Grand River runs on a weird angle so it’s not a true “grid” intersection that’s easily crossed. Patience is required, and so is paying close attention to the pedestrian signs. It would be easy to venture into that busy intersection and get caught in a Forrest Gump no-mans land of “walk – don’t walk”.

Grand River headed southeast to Downtown is a good city road for cycling, especially on Sunday. It’s wide, fast and not many cars are parked along the curb. The only exception is in the immediate area around a church. Caution is advised around them because of car doors opening. Some of the intersections are also a bit dicey because of Grand River’s odd angle.  It’s part of that old spoke pattern of the streets that stem from downtown much like Gratiot and Van Dyke on the eastside.


Great wall art on this Grand River business.


While heading downtown I did a quick loop through the Grandmont residential neighborhood. The tidy brick neighborhood reminded me of East English Village on Detroit’s eastside. A little further down I came to Greenfield Road, a major shopping district that at one time included Montgomery Wards, Federals and Hughes and Hatcher. Many of the great retail buildings are still there and in use.

Just below Joy Road is the venerable Grande Ballroom, Detroit’s premier concert venue in the 1960’s and early 70’s. In its prime, a who’s who of rock-n-roll played there. Bands like Led Zeppelin, The Who, The Stooges, Jeff Beck and Janis Joplin just to name a few. Unfortunately this historic site has fallen on hard times.


The Historic Grande Ballroom on Grand River.


Near West Grand Blvd. is the MBAD’S African Bead Museum. It incorporates two buildings, and both are covered in glass, mirrors, colorful tiles, and beautiful wall paintings. There is also a multi-colored, vibrant sculpture garden behind the main building. Quite a sight and a fitting end to my westside ride!

This bright, cheerful place has character.


Entrance to the bead museum.


One of the many colorful walls at the museum.

One of the many colorful walls at the museum.



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Colorful Caribbean Floats

The other day I was pedaling down a nondescript Detroit side street on my way to Belle Isle. While rolling along, I came upon an old, brick warehouse where the exterior walls were covered with colorful banners that reminded me of butterfly or dragonfly wings. The 10’ to 12’ high wings were glowing in the late afternoon sunlight creating a spectacle of vibrant, bright, radiant colors.


Props lining the exterior of the building


As I soon found out, the warehouse is home to Caribbean Mardi Gras productions, a float building and costume design outfit that produces many of the colorful, lively floats and costumes for Detroit’s Annual Caribbean International Festival Parade. In talking with one of the many artists working there, I was told the production company is owned by a fellow from Trinidad, and it has built the floats and props here in Detroit for over 30 years.

The artist explained how the steel frames are designed and welded together. I was also shown how they clip onto one of the many floats that will be featured in Saturday’s parade. He described how the array of bright-colored fabric is cut based on a pattern, stitched together, and stretched over the steel frames creating the look of a wing from a cicada bug. Looking closely at the colorful props, I was amazed at the craftsmanship and work that went into them.  I saw glued-on sequins that created intriguing patterns, hand stitched ribbons attached along the edges creating colorful highlights and an array of bright fabrics fanning out from the bottom of the prop to the top, producing the look of an exotic seashell. Fascinating stuff!


"Wings" outside the warehouse


After seeing how some of the float materials and props were made, I made it a point to check out Saturday’s Annual Caribbean Parade. From downtown, I pedaled up Woodward to Mack Avenue, the starting point. There I saw the final preparations being made to the floats, the costumed marchers, and I also heard calypso bands and steel drum players practicing. What a colorful, uplifting experience!


Back of a float headed to Woodward Avenue.


Note at the detail in this headdress.


Float handler waiting for the parade to start.


In addition to the exotic floats featuring many of the colorful wings I saw a few days ago, there were groups of people of all ages dressed in bright Caribbean costumes and dazzling clothes getting ready to march down Woodward to Hart Plaza. I saw little kids dressed like Indians, bright-feathered headdresses larger than life, straw hat-wearing women dressed in dazzling, yet subdued colors of the islands, elaborate Mardi Gras type masks and young drummers playing steel drums and other percussion instruments!

What struck me, as it has in the past while attending this parade, was the upbeat energy! It was reflected in the marchers, those on the floats and especially those viewing the parade along Woodward Avenue on that hot steamy day!


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Wildflowers of Detroit

I see them on my 2-wheel travels. They seem to be everywhere this time of the year. Some are small, yellow in color, stuck in a patch of overgrown grass. I’ve seen a few purple colored varieties, mixed in with other unknown plants, growing wild along railroad tracks where the ground is hard as a rock. I’ve glimpsed other colorful assortments that have taken hold and pushed their way between the cracks of unused sidewalks. Others I’ve spotted are rooted along the curbs of less traveled streets.


Black Eyed Susan

Black Eyed Susan


Chicory Plant


Sweet Pea


Many can be seen creeping along chain link fences or covering trees and utility poles or growing up the sides of long abandoned homes, much like an evening shadow that slowly covers all it touches. They can be spotted growing on the roofs and between the bricks of once bustling manufacturing facilities and other derelict commercial buildings found throughout the city. The wetlands and inner woodland pathways of Belle Isle are full of them and so are other soggy areas along the Detroit River.




Staghorn Sumac


Common Cattail


Many of us tend to view them as weeds, and in our small part of the world perhaps they are. But in many cases, they’re nothing more than a perennial gone wild. A perennial that someone planted years ago, in his or her small garden, on land that is now vacant and overgrown.  Bicycling across this vast city, I’ve stared in awe at the colorful array of wildflowers that in several instances, seem to stretch endlessly across the many open fields of Detroit.




Red Osier Dogwood


Red berries on unknown plant


The variety of wildflowers in this city is quite remarkable and they seem to be everywhere this hot, dry summer. 


Queen Anne's Lace


Aster Family


NOTE – Please let me know if I incorrectly named any of the flowers in the photos. 

An Update

On April 28th, I wrote about Detroit’s Van Dyke & Harper Neighborhood. In the story, I gave a brief history the graceful Eastown Theater, built-in the Renaissance Revival style that opened in 1930. Unfortunately that gem of a building caught fire early Monday morning (August 9th) and the vacant apartment section of the complex was completely destroyed. From what I understand, a firewall saved the theater portion of the deteriorated building, but I would not be surprised if the entire structure is demolished because of safety concerns.

What a shame.

Looking west on Harper, fire truck in front of theater part


Close-up of the fire damage to the building

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Last Friday evening I was one of 250 to 300 bicyclists who met at Trumbull Avenue and West Warren for the monthly Critical Mass urban bike ride. The ride is a worldwide event held on the last Friday of the month in over 300 cities. It’s designed to bring awareness to the unfriendliness bicyclists sometimes face while riding on city streets.

Riders included families, assorted hipsters, older folks and others from Detroit and the surrounding communities. Some were dressed in full riding garb, others in shorts, sandals and tee-shirts. A few were dressed as if they were going out to dinner or a play. Overall, it was a casual bunch of cyclists out for an evening ride in Detroit.

Stylish, fur-trimmed helmet
Obviously this cyclist has never read my blog

The informal 12 to 14 mile bike route took us south on Trumbull Avenue, through the fringes of the Detroit Medical Center and out to the Packard Plant on East Grand Boulevard. We zigzagged our way through the tight streets near the Packard ruins to Farnsworth Street, an eastside artist colony. Riding through that area we passed many community gardens, homes being rehabbed and smiling kids standing on a street corner with their parents, waving us on. People love bicycles en masse, especially kids.


These kids were awed by the amount of bikes

Leaving that lively eastside community, we rolled north on Mt Elliott on our way to Hamtramck, that tiny island of a city surrounded by Detroit and Highland Park. When we came to Holbrook, we took a Rolling through a tight cornerquick left and pedaled west four-to-five blocks to Joseph Campau Street. At Joseph Campau we swung right and rode north through the city’s main commercial strip to Caniff Street. Riding through this compact area, families and others could be seen on the upper porches of the many two-story flats found throughout Hamtramck, cheering us on and waving as they barbecued on the warm summer evening. I also saw a couple of party store owners trying to increase sales by waving us in.

At Caniff, we took a left and headed west. Shortly after, we slowly crossed over a series of rough, slippery railroad tracks before the street passed over I-75.  We stayed on Caniff until we hit Oakland Street and then headed south to Chicago Boulevard. At Chicago we turned right into the historic East Arden Park and Boston-Edison Historic Districts, an enclave of early 20th Century residential homes and mansions built by many of Detroit’s early industrialists and business owners.

One of many tee-shirt messagesExiting the historic neighborhoods, we snaked our way south, skirting the Henry Ford Hospital to the New Center Park on East Grand Boulevard and Second Street. There, the ride unofficially ended with an after-party, featuring free music in the park.



I also posted an entry on the Halloween ride – “Critical Mass or Masquerade”.  It can be viewed by clicking here.

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