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Archive for May, 2011

Wilkins Street east of Detroit’s Historic Eastern Market has a nice downhill slope to St. Aubin Street. The incline starts at its highest point, the overpass of the undeveloped portion of the Dequindre Cut. On my travels along that section of the street I would occasionally see skate-boarders or roller-bladers taking advantage of the gentle slope or people standing on the overpass checking out the graffiti below. That’s about it for pedestrians. But as I discovered, that wasn’t the case this past Saturday. As I pedaled along St. Aubin, I noticed Wilkins was blocked to traffic and downhill racers were rolling down the street in custom-built, wooden race carts.

The carts were constructed of two-by-fours, plywood, lawn mower sized wheels, and rope, used to steer the small racers, was connected to the wooded front axles. The driver seats were made of wood, some were padded and all had seat belts to hold the young drivers in as they rolled at what may have seemed to them some pretty swift speeds.

Driving the little beauties were Cub Scouts from various packs within the city of Detroit and the inner suburbs. In talking with parents and scout leaders, I was told the kids hand-built the carts with supervision, and they were on Wilkins to compete with each other. The slick little cars were built by the boys as a team project for their respective pack. Each of the scouts had the opportunity to pilot them down the hill and was scored by time. The driver’s time was averaged with their team and compared against the competing teams to arrive at a final score.

Much like sliding down a snow-covered hill on a toboggan, reality must have sunk in when they had to drag the carts back to the top for the next run.  Everybody seemed to like going down, but climbing up the slope is never as much fun.

Although not as streamlined as Pinewood Derby cars, the graceful four-wheelers could roll at a pretty good clip. Based on the facial expressions I saw, they were a serious, proud bunch of drivers!

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Like any major city in the U.S., Detroit has its share of expressways with multi-level interchanges that take traffic in many directions. The pillared, sloping cement roadways rise above and below each other at gentle, winding angles, like a ribbon used in a bow. The cement walled lanes are banked like a NASCAR track, designed to hold cars in place as they glide into the sweeping, clover leaf-shaped corners. It’s safe to assume that most of us have driven through these interchanges at one time or another and think nothing of the incredible infrastructure beneath our four wheels.

On a recent bike ride, I passed under I-94 near the I-75 interchange on a street I have ridden on many times in the past. But this particular morning, I noticed a bunch of fresh graffiti art on the concrete expressway support walls and decided to check it out.  I made my way up the embankment and rode under the expressway overpass to the graffiti gallery. Once there, I was awed not only by the colorful graffiti, but by the vast highway, load bearing support system. It was incredible.

The cement pillars were massive in size, and in some cases, they soared 20’ to 30’ feet straight up to the bottom of the expressway roadbeds they supported. There were rows of them; all uniform in size, evenly spaced, and they seemed to stretch forever, reminding me of soldiers standing at attention. The steel supports that straddled the pillars looked as if they could withstand an earthquake. The thick cement road sections were placed with precision and, most likely, haven’t moved a quarter of an inch since they were positioned on the huge pillars many years ago.

Exploring further beneath the sprawling concrete freeway system, I was amazed by the myriad layers of expressway roads and the supporting infrastructure. The gentle flowing curvature of the connecting highways, ramps and safety walls blend seamlessly into each other, like a well-designed stage set. What an engineering feat!

While poking around under the concrete ribbons of the viaducts, I could hear the steady, low hum of vehicles all around me. It was a relaxing, calming sound, similar to that of buzzing insects on a late summer night.

“The Razor’s Edge” by W. Somerset Maugham

I had never read anything by W. Somerset Maugham. This book, by far, is one of the best I’ve read in quite some time. The story dives head on into man’s constant struggle of conformity in a materialistic world, versus the courage it takes to following one’s inner self in order to achieve an enhanced life of enlightenment and fulfillment.

The story is set during WWI and the ensuing years, spanning the Great Depression and beyond. The narrative revolves around Larry Darrell, a war veteran, who has given up the bourgeois life of privilege to pursue inner happiness and strength. His fiancée, Isabel Bradley, chose wealth and social standing over his love, and her choice had far-reaching consequences throughout her life.

Maugham’s exquisite, sharp, writing skills visually captures the shallow life of society’s upper echelon. Through his rich, formal writing style, he presents highly descriptive scenes and social commentary on wealthy families and friends living in London, Paris and the Riviera. It’s a world where gatherings are defined by who sits where, who’s wearing what and the lineage of a certain porcelain plate on which Pâté de foie gras is being served.

He contrasts that with the adventures of Larry, a truth-seeking, and self-described loafer who travels widely after returning home from the war, in search of life’s meaning. His worldly travels takes him through the backbreaking work of coal mines, farms and other labor intensive jobs, to the far east where he studies years at an ashram, the home of a Hindu Saint. There he is introduced to the three pillars of the Hindu trilogy: Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, changing his life forever.

This book introduced me to one of the best literary characters I’ve come across in a long, long time, Elliott Templeton. Templeton is Isabel’s wealthy uncle. He’s a classic, American expatriate snob that has lived the charmed life (in his mind) to the bitter end, even though his place in society has waned more than he’s realized.  Maugham captures the haughtiness and superficiality of Templeton as he journeys from middle to old age, as a garrulous, opinionated, tragic character that is full of life. Through Templeton, I believe Maugham has presented us with a great psychological character study of what drives people, and at the same time how life in a materialistic world can take over our spirit, trapping us in a non-fulfilling lifestyle of boredom and superficiality.

There is a lot in this book, but “The Razor’s Edge” really has a simple message. It asks us to look at how we lead our lives and question ourselves. Do we follow the masses or seek inner fulfillment? These questions are ones that mankind has dealt with forever.

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As I wrote back in February, Detroit has some of the coolest bikes. They can be found throughout the city, but some of the hottest, tricked-out one-of-a-kind custom bikes are in the neighborhoods; in particular Southwest Detroit.  Similar to the lowrider car culture, many of the bikes I’ve spotted in that part of the city are stretched, low slung street hugging machines, trimmed in tons of chrome or gold, with paint jobs worthy of display in art galleries.

In this, the second in an occasional entry on the coolest bikes I’ve spotted while riding in Detroit, I’ve featured some of the personalized beauties from Southwest Detroit. What struck me about these spotless, two-wheeled rides is the attention to detail. The well designed bikes pictured below feature steering wheels crafted out of chrome chains. Highly polished, glimmering spokes are a major highlight of the wheels. There are elaborate spring-loaded front fork setups and gleaming spare tires mounted on the rear of some, reminiscent of the early days of the automobile industry. Velvet seats follow the sleek, flowing contour of the bike’s top tube (bar) that stretch from the handle bar stem back to the rear wheel.

Many of these elaborate bikes belong to members of the Good Times Detroit Lowrider Club. From what I understand in talking with one of their members, this group is basically a lowrider car club whose members own custom, vintage autos that can be raised or lowered by the flip of a switch. The young bike owners are members, and once they reach legal driving age, the car guys take them under their wings and help them build out a classic lowrider car.  So basically, they are immersed into the lowrider car culture and ownership through bike customization beginning at an early age.

Take a look at some of the tastefully designed bikes that can be found on the streets in Southwest Detroit.

Click here to view “Detroit Bikes are the Coolest” Part 1  

Musical Fathers & Sons

I’ve been listening to a lot of young, talented singer/songwriters lately.  These are guys that write and sing like they’ve been through it all: broken dreams, life on the road, family conflict, relationships gone bad and issues many don’t experience in a lifetime. What I find intriguing is their history. They are sons of a few of modern music’s most influential singer/songwriters. What’s fascinating to me is the similarity to their fathers in vocal styling and rich songwriting abilities. Four in particular are stand-outs and worthy of checking out.

->  Click on the song title below each of the artist overviews and take a listen.

Father – Tim Buckley – Began his career as a folk singer in the early 1960’s. Having a strong interest in jazz, his songwriting moved in that direction during the early1970’s. His album, “Greetings from L.A.” is considered by many to be his best and I agree. Not only does the album showcase his extraordinary, powerful vocal range, the music reflects his keen interest in jazz and funky soul music. Tim Buckley died at age 28 from a drug overdose.

Son – Jeff Buckley – He too was blessed with a similar grand, far-reaching vocal range as his father. Jeff began his career as a folk singer and evolved into a well-regarded, talented songwriter. His fine album “Grace” was his only one. It received critical acclaim throughout the music industry upon its release. Unfortunately, he drowned in the Mississippi River while swimming with friends. Jeff was 30-years old when he died.

Father – Richard Thompson – A founding member of the influential 1960’s British folk-rock band Fairport Convention. He’s well known for his masterful guitar playing skills and extraordinary song writing ability. He left that band in the early 70’s and has since built a solo career writing and performing witty and political slanted songs. Richard has over 60 albums to his credit that include folk, rock, acoustic and alternative genres.

Son – Teddy Thompson – One of my favorites. Clever wording coupled with brutal with best describes his lyrical song writing skills. A talented guitarist, his musical influences include country and 1950’s rock and roll. He writes and plays many types of music including folk, alternative country and rock.

Father – Loudon Wainwright III – Know as a folk singer, Loudon Wainwright III is probably best known for his humorous song “Dead Skunk”. Some say the song’s underlying message is a direct attack on then President Richard Nixon. His quirky songs feature humorous lyrics, many of which are autobiographical in nature.

Son – Rufus Wainwright – A multi-talented singer/songwriter with a lush, distinct, tenor voice. He performs a wide range of musical styles including opera, cabaret and alternative just to name a few.  Many of his songs feature strings, horns, and early jazz rhythms which blend perfectly with his vocal style, which I really like.

Father – Steve Earle – A Texas roots-rocker, Steve is know for his leftist views and stinging political commentary found throughout his work. A talented singer, composer, and guitar player, he has recorded over 15 albums from country, rock, and bluegrass to folk.

Son – Justin Townes Earle – Gifted songwriter and guitar player with a distinct, clear understated singing voice. Leans heavily to folk, country and roots rock. I can best describe his story telling style as a blend of Waylon Jennings and Woody Guthrie with a bit of blues thrown in. He too, is one of my favorites.

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Sunday was the 47th Annual Cinco De Mayo parade in Southwest Detroit, a lively section of the city heavily populated by those of Mexican descent. Cinco de Mayo is an annual event celebrating the Mexican army’s implausible victory over French forces at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. While it has limited significance in Mexico, the date is observed in the United States as a celebration of Mexican heritage and pride. That pride was evident on Sunday.

The parade route stretched for about three miles along Vernor Highway, the main commercial district in that part of town. Much to my surprise, thousands of parade goers lined the route from end-to-end, in some cases standing 12 – 15 deep! Cycling the length of the route, I couldn’t help but notice that many in attendance were proudly wearing the colors or holding and waving the national flag of Mexico.  Quite colorful!

Along the parade route there were smoking barbeques and the mouth-watering aroma of grilled chicken filled the air. Merchants had their goods spread out on tables along the sidewalks taking advantage of the heavy foot traffic. Both seemed to be doing a brisk business, as were the taco trucks tucked along side streets selling lunches at bargain prices.

The parade itself reflected the cultural heritage and vibrancy of the neighborhood. In addition to the normal marching bands, there were Mariachi Bands in the back of flatbed trucks; Mexican Rock and Roll bands playing on trailers; and record spinners were set-up and blasting a diverse mix of hip-hop music from the back of pick-up trucks. Some were even tossing cd’s of their recordings into the crowd.  The variety of multi-cultural music in the parade was interesting, captivating and energizing.

Beyond the music, other parade participants reflected the population of the neighborhood. There were tricked out, chrome plated low rider bicycles moving in packs. Vintage 1960’s and 70’s low rider cars, equipped with hydraulic lifts contorting the vehicles at angles that didn’t make sense, bouncing slowly down Vernor to the approving cheers of the guys watching.

There were beauty queens and dancers of all ages. The little ones were taking advantage of the clapping, cheering crowds by spinning and twirling in their colorful costumes. All were smiling and waving as they passed the onlookers.

One of my favorites of the day was the dozen or so horsemen showing off their riding skills. They expertly put the horses through paces that included side movements, bucking, and stepping backward. One rider carefully worked his horse through the crowd as the little kids screamed in awe. I find Southwest Detroit fascinating, and the Cinco de Mayo celebration is one of the reasons why.

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