Archive for April, 2011

Saturday was sunny in Detroit with temperatures in the low 70’s, a pleasant change compared to these past weeks of cold, damp dreary days.  A perfect day for a bicycle tour of Downtown Detroit!

My little tour took me down East Jefferson Avenue to Belle Isle Park where I did a quick 5-mile loop around the island. The park was active with other cyclists, runners, and sightseers, but not as busy as I expected. From there I pedaled toward downtown and jumped on the Detroit RiverWalk at the foot of Mt. Elliott, its furthest point east. This is an interesting section of the walk with the U.S. Coast Guard Station, harbors and a variety of apartment and office buildings, yet it’s usually void of people. I guess it’s too far of a walk from the popular section along the Renaissance Center and Hart Plaza areas near downtown.

I made my way to Hart Plaza along the RiverWalk and there I cut through the Plaza and wound my way through the streets of downtown Detroit. The city was hopping in the warm weather! The few sidewalk cafes that were set up all had patrons sitting outside, enjoying lunch and a beer while relaxing in the sunshine. There were bicyclists roaming around, baseball fans on their way to a Tigers game, a couple of older gentlemen were playing an intense game of chess in Capital Park, not to mention people just out for a walk in the warm weather. Even the maintenance and landscape workers were taking advantage of the warmth by spicing up flower beds and other common areas along the sidewalks. I also came across a wedding party fighting wind gusts as they walked along Woodward on their way to Hart Plaza. Very cool to see!

I got a big kick out of the tourists, posing with fists forward, taking turns getting their picture taken in front of the Joe Louis Fist sculpture on Jefferson Avenue at Woodward Avenue. It was quite humorous watching them as they shifted positions and outstretched their arms and fists, trying to mimic the sculpture.

One of the things I really like about around riding around downtown Detroit is the street musicians I often see and hear. They seem to be everywhere on warm days, especially when the Tigers are in town or another major event is taking place. There are hard blowing saxophone players whose notes echo through the streets. The sweet sounds of soulful trumpet players roll through the park where they are playing.  The distinct, clean sound of a bluesy guitar player’s riffs can be mesmerizing on a busy street corner; as can conga players as they pound out steady rhythms with their palms near the ballpark.

This particular conga player was also a singer, with words adapted right from the street activity in front of him. When I rolled up to take his picture he began singing something like this, “You can take my picture, but I need to get richer. Can you spare some money to take home to my honey?” I don’t remember the rest, but he did have it down, much like a seasoned rapper.

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The Heidelberg Project is part of what makes Detroit what it is: a place of surprises and the unexpected. And what a place it is! The project is located in one of the poorest sections of the city, and it has brought hope and stability to that neighborhood through art and education. It’s a center of outdoor creative expression that spans a multi-block area in one the toughest neighborhoods on Detroit’s near east side.

The open-air, urban folk art center features a tremendous amount of brightly painted everyday items such as boats, tires, kitchen appliances, old doors, sheets of plywood and hundreds of other discarded items that have been salvaged and constructed into vibrant pieces of art. Many of the abandoned homes along the streets are brightly painted and encased in art, as are many of the trees, utility poles, curbs and vacant lots.

The showcase area is filled with a broad, unusual array of colorful art pieces that have awed people of all ages, through eye-opening, artistic expression for well over 20 years. The thing I’ve noticed while riding through is its constant evolution. There are days, for example, I’d notice a small, colorful painted piece of wood or discarded chunk of metal that had recently been added to a larger installation. On other days, I’ve spotted new, brightly colored, everyday household items, such as unusually painted vacuum cleaners, strategically placed among a variety of other such things in a vacant lot on the site. There is the infamous two-story polka dot house, a row-boat full of stuffed animals, and many other eye-catching artifacts scattered throughout the property.

With so much to look at in the multi-block area of the project, sometimes the subtle touches and pointed messages can get overlooked. On my recent ride through the grounds, I came across a series of painted political messages, each held by a man in suit. Not a real man, but a realistic looking cardboard cutout of a smiling man. In his hands were the signs. The 8 to 10 or so hand-held signs were all in the same general area surrounding a brightly painted, message-ridden old house. Some were even attached to trees in front of the structure. A few were meaningful in their anti-war wording; others featured anti-drug messaging. Still others offered simple words that made me pause and think of where we are as a country and as a city.

An Update – It has come to my attention that the signs above are from Tim Burke’s Detroit Industrial Gallery. He is a resident artist on Heidelberg Street.

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This past Sunday, the temperature in Detroit was in the 80’s and I took advantage by biking 30 miles or so. The day’s journey took me downtown where I jumped on the RiverWalk and joined other bicyclists and walkers in a leisurely ride along the Detroit River. I did a quick pass through the Dequindre Cut Greenway and from there, made my way over to Comerica Park where the Tigers were playing an early afternoon game. I circled the stadium and afterward, headed down Michigan Avenue past the Historic Michigan Central Station into Southwest Detroit.

The best part of the afternoon ride was Belle Isle, that gem of a park sitting smack dab in the middle of the Detroit River. As I was about to finish a lap around the park, I noticed quite a bit of activity at the Belle Isle Boat Club, that beautiful early 1900’s historic structure that has been vacant since 1996. The full parking lot and people everywhere raised my curiosity, so I decided to zip in through the open gate and poke around. I struck up a conversation with a woman near the parking lot and was told there was a high school rowing event underway.  Since I haven’t been in the club house for at least 20 years, I asked her questions on the condition of the building’s interior: how bad is the plaster work, are there water leaks, that sort of thing (hoping to get a look inside).  Low and be hold, it worked. She invited me in!

Upon entering, I was struck with how good of shape it was in. The old place wasn’t too bad, although major restoration work is badly needed. Structurally, the interior is in better condition than the deteriorating stucco exterior. Despite water damage to the ceiling, the integrity of the crown moldings I saw had not been affected by leaking water. Nor were many of the ornamental plaster moldings found throughout. Many of the light fixtures appeared to be original and working.

The building is home to series of ballrooms, meeting spaces and bar areas and all needed scraping, painting, etc. But overall, they looked good. There is also a beautiful hardwood staircase, with a railing featuring seahorse balusters and spiral columns.  I took it to the second floor and there, I saw gorgeous arches trimmed in dark hardwood that matched the staircase and the ceiling panels of the uppermost reaches of the three-story ceiling. The woodwork I saw, including the panels in various meeting rooms, was in fine shape.

I really liked the craftsmanship and attention to detail found within. There are what appeared to be hand painted nautical scenes on many walls, interesting padded doors with intricate designs made from furniture tacks and other subtle design elements. It would be a shame if this historic landmark, the first concrete structure in the U.S., was lost through neglect.

Update to this entry – It recently came to my attention that the Detroit Boat Club Rowing Crew is currently using the building for rowing events and have been for the past few years. They are also doing what they can to maintained the building.

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Rusting Classic Cars

In a weed filled, overgrown lot on the fringes of Detroit’s New Center area sat a few classic cars slowly rotting away.  I noticed the vintage vehicles on my last ride of the season, late last year. I’ve seen them in the past, but not as clearly as that fall day, because the thick-leafed trees and overgrown weeds were bare, no longer hiding them from sight. Looking up at the vehicles from the downward sloping street I was riding on, curiosity got the best of me. Therefore, I ditched my bike in a secluded area and climbed the steep hill to check them out.

What I saw was pretty amazing. There were 5-6 classic cars virtually disintegrating into the tire-strewn, fenced in lot they were enclosed in. Although I’m not a classic car aficionado (or a car enthusiast in general), they looked like they may be worth something to a collector. Even in their rough condition. In that abandoned lot was what I believed to be a 1950’s Studebaker, a few pastel colored Chrysler vehicles of the same era, and a vintage 1940’s Ford or Chevrolet. From the looks of them sitting in that fenced in area, I would not be surprised if they had been in that location for well over 20-years.

Poking around the outside of the fence, I discovered a chained gate, surrounded by overgrown bushes, trees and weeds that looked like it had not been opened in many years. A little further down, I came across a hole in the fence large enough for me to squeeze through. I decided to get a closer look and worked my way through the opening. Shortly after entering, an odd, creepy, unsettling feeling came over me. It felt like eyes were off in the brush, staring and watching my every move. I had visions of wild street dogs, bolting from their hiding spots in the underbrush at full speed, and launching themselves at my throat. Needless to say, I didn’t get too far past the opening in the fence before I decided I’d seen enough of those cars on that particular day.

One of my cycling goals this year was to revisit the site to get a better look at the vehicles, despite the “eyes off in the brush” staring at me. So, this past Saturday I pedaled to that area off Russell Street to take a closer look, and I was totally surprised at what I found. There was nothing. The cars were gone!  There was not a sign of them anywhere in that isolated, overgrown, fenced in lot.  Plus, the gate was still closed and chained as if it hadn’t been opened in years. Go figure. Those vintage rusted vehicles looked like they’d been there forever, but when I returned to view them once again a few months later, they had vanished…without a trace!

I don’t know how someone removed these vehicles from that weed choked lot or where they ended up. But it seemed quite peculiar that they were gone, considering the high secured fencing and the overgrown, secluded area in which they once were.

Reminder – Click on any photo to view them larger.

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