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Archive for June, 2011

It’s been on the news and on the blogs. People are talking about them at community meetings and public events. There are vendors at Detroit’s Historic Eastern Market selling their fresh products and it seems I’m spotting them everywhere on my two-wheeled travels through Detroit. Community gardens are what I’m talking about, and there are hundreds and hundreds of them scattered across this city. Many are small pocket gardens; others span an acre or two. A few of the larger ones I’ve seen cover ten or more acres and have tractors with harrows for tilling the soil. Greenhouses spanning large sections of the gardens have been installed on some of the larger plots as well.

Detroit community gardens can be seen on major streets such as Jefferson Avenue on the east side, or on Grand River near Trumbull on the west side. But what I find encouraging is the amount of small gardens I see deep within some of the city’s most blighted and sparsely populated neighborhoods. Riding through those parts, I’ve come across areas where residents have turned vacant, weed chocked parcels of land into well maintained gardens featuring a variety of vegetables, all planted in neat little rows without a weed in sight. Rustic fences (some made of tree limbs) line the plots. Small signs, in many cases hand painted, note the block club or organization responsible for the garden. In addition to vegetables, many of them include colorful wildflowers in a variety of sizes.

On the other end of the gardening spectrum are the larger community gardens. These are run by organizations such as the Georgia Street Community Garden and Earthworks, and they promote education, social justice and neighborhood stabilization. Their operations engage neighborhood kids, mentoring them on gardening and how it benefits their community through collaboration and sharing with others. Much of the food grown is given to the poor through various outreach programs.

No matter the size of the gardens, their affiliation with larger organizations, or their goals or mission in the community, I see them all as great stabilizers.  Something small and meaningful for those that may not have much to look forward to in the communities in which they live. It’s heartwarming riding through Detroit and seeing that people are making a difference in some pretty tough neighborhoods.

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Boats on Land

The state of Michigan leads the nation in the number of boat registrations. That makes sense, considering the state is surrounded by the great lakes. Although I don’t know how many are registered in Detroit, I do know the river and the lower portion of Lake St. Clair are active these summer months with sailboats, fisherman in small boats drifting with the current and other pleasure craft powering their way through the waters. On my two-wheel travels I also see that the harbors along both East and West Jefferson Avenue are filled close to capacity with hardly an open slip available.

But there’s a group of other boats I’ve seen while pedaling through some of the little used waterfront parks, sparsely populated streets and near the weed choked lots of Detroit. These boats are dry-docked, but not in the normal winterized way within a secured area, waiting for summer to hit so owners can get them back in the water. The boats I see have been stripped of their mechanicals and dumped to rot in those areas, and others in places such as neighborhoods or inside abandoned factories scattered across the eastside.

I started noticing a few of these discarded hulks last summer in a park along the Detroit River and in a couple of vacant lots somewhat close to the river. Compared to last year, I’ve noticed a significant increase in boat abandonment. What surprises me is where I’m seeing them this year. In the past, I’d spot them in isolated fields or other out-of-the-way areas, like a secluded alley full of overgrown plants. But now, I have literally seen them in front of me, in the streets and in the tall brush lining the streets I’ve ridden, creating quite an eyesore. These boats were obviously trucked or placed on a trailer and transported to the illegal dumpsite. What a shame that some people think that Detroit is their dumping ground for unwanted boats!

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A Country Bike Ride

Detroit is a great place to ride a bicycle. The streets are wide. There isn’t much traffic and the city offers an endless stream of diversity. There are beautifully painted, multi-colored wall paintings, gorgeous abandoned art deco buildings, decaying industrial ruins that once employed hundreds of thousands of workers and plenty more to feast an eye on. There are times when I’ve wondered what it would be like riding in a rural environment. So that is what I did; I headed into the country for a Sunday morning ride.

What a contrast! Riding down an asphalt road without the fear of hitting chuckholes, broken glass and other urban road hazards made for a leisurely, relaxing two-wheeled cruise. With the city clutter and noise stripped away, I could hone in on the natural surroundings. What really jumped out to me were the vibrant colors and the tallness of the grasses in the fields I passed. The green and earth tone colors seemed to glow in the morning sunlight. The same with the trees and bushes; they too had a certain richness of vibrant tones of green. Riding down these country roads was soothing, peaceful and quite restful.

The paved roads I was riding were unusually free of cars and didn’t look as if they were traveled much at all.  In fact, only a couple of cars drove by as I pedaled along in the stillness of the morning.  There weren’t many homes in the area either. Riding past them, the only life I saw or heard was a few barking dogs behind fenced in yards.  Again, it was a pleasant contrast to the urban riding that I’m so used to.

Although I was hoping to spot deer or other wildlife, I didn’t see anything moving about with the exception of squirrels. Like city squirrels, they skittered across the road in front of me, their tails high in the air. However, I did hear the unmistakable cackling of Ringneck Pheasants in a few of the fields that had crept their way to the edge of the blacktop.

There was a point on my ride when I heard the distinctive blast of a freight train horn in the distance. Surprisingly, that soothing, non-threatening sound wasn’t imposing and actually added to the serenity of the natural surroundings. Shortly after, I came upon and crossed railroad tracks that cut through the wooded area where I was riding.  While crossing them, I couldn’t help but notice how highly polished the surface of the rails were. A direct result (I assume) from tons of steel rolling over them for years.

What I liked about this country getaway is its closeness. I didn’t have to load my bike into the car and travel twenty or more miles away to enjoy it. In fact, it’s so close I can jump on my bike and pedal there from my Detroit home. This little section of natural paradise is within the Detroit city limits near City Airport on the eastside.  At one time, the streets of this neighborhood were lined with small wood-framed homes that have since been abandoned and torn down. As time moved on, the vast area in which the homes once stood has slowly regressed back to its natural environment of woodlots and fields, creating a beautiful country setting. I’m always amazed what I stumble upon while cycling across this incredible city.

The open land stretches far in this part of Detroit

One of the few abandoned homes left in that area

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On a recent westerly bicycle ride along the new bike lanes on Michigan Avenue, I couldn’t help notice how vibrant the avenue was. There were dollar stores with constant in and out traffic, active auto parts and repair stores, and fast food outlets serving those in the drive through lanes. There were small independent shops, such as tattoo parlors with lighted neon open signs, antiques dealers, and second-hand stores selling household odds and ends. Like many commercial stretches throughout Detroit, blight and abandonment is evident, but it wasn’t as bad as some sections of this city. One thing I did notice as I rode the new bike lanes of Michigan Avenue were the bars. Not window bars (although there were plenty of those) but bars, as in drinking establishments.

Not sure if this downtown place is open

Riding Michigan Avenue from its origin at Woodward Avenue west to the Dearborn City limits, a distance of about five miles, I counted 23 bars. There were all types of watering holes along the way: sports bars near the old Tiger Stadium site; rough-looking corner barrooms housed in vintage brick buildings; some establishments with updated wooden facades and others with clean, bright brick and modern tinted windows.  Many of the joints looked bomb-proof with their solid brick, small windowed or windowless walls and steel doors with three or four locks. Looking at these places made me wonder what the clientele is like.

Red, white and blue is the theme here

Nice old two-story building

This tavern is surrounded by parking lots

I was surprised that so many of the saloons are clustered in the Corktown community between the Lodge Freeway, west to I-96. In fact, from Woodward Avenue downtown to I-96, I counted twelve taverns, and that is only a 2-mile or so stretch of Michigan! Go figure.  West of I-96 they seemed to be more scattered and along some lengthy sections, there were virtually none. Perhaps a few of the abandoned buildings lining the roadway may have housed a few in their earlier life.

My favorite, a three state bar located on Michigan Ave at Florida St

Plenty of locks on the front door

At the western end of Michigan Avenue, within a mile or so of the Dearborn city limits, is a whole section of strip clubs, topless joints and gentlemen clubs. A few are painted with eye-catching bright colors and feature plenty of neon signs to hopefully draw in patrons. Quite a contrast to the sports, dive and corner bars I saw along the way.

One of the adult clubs near the Dearborn city limits

One of the things I find fascinating while riding across this vast city are the buildings businesses are housed in and the names and tag lines used on their respective signs. The bars of Michigan Avenue are no exception and offer an array of interesting buildings and names.

The awning is an eye catcher, especially the rose

Nice sign wording and curved brick above the doorway

I like the slogan below the name

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Detroit Street Band

Detroit is known around the world as a hotbed of music. It’s the home of Motown, Bob Seger, Eminem, Carl Craig, Marcus Belgrave and countless others.  Much of the music found in this city comes from the streets, and it can be heard on most warm weekends downtown as talented musicians set up small amps, plug-in their guitars and play for those wandering by. Brass instrument players can be found on city street corners blowing jazzy tunes, and drummers’ pound out rhythms on pails and congas at Eastern Market.

There is one group of classy musicians out there that are making a difference in the lives of young people here in Detroit. Those musicians are members of The Detroit International Community Band.

I recently discovered this group of young, gifted players while riding on East Jefferson Avenue at the foot of the Belle Isle Bridge. They were on the traffic island, lined up two deep, playing a variety of marches, soulful jazz and other music styles for the hundreds of commuters on their way home from work. While speaking with a couple of the horn playing members, I was told the group’s mission was to promote the benefits of performing arts to support a higher quality of life for young people across the city, as an alternative to crime, drugs and gang activity. One of the members went on to explain that the band consists of musicians ranging from elementary kids through college age.

The dozen or so players in the ensemble I saw consisted of saxophone and flugelhorn players, trumpeters, trombonists, and tuba players. They were all first-rate musicians that knew how to swing, both literally and figuratively.  The music selections played were one-to-two minute snippets spanning a variety of marches, jazz pieces and gospel-influenced blues. The format was a good way for them to showcase the variety of music styles and how well they performed together as a unit.

If you see these guys playing on a street corner or elsewhere, stop and take a listen. I think you’ll be impressed!

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