Archive for September, 2012

The Signs Read Open

Open signs: we see them every day.  Most are made of neon, and they glow in storefront windows. Others rapidly blink on and off, designed to draw the attention of those passing by letting them know they are welcome to come in and shop.  Some, hanging in the window of a rundown building on a dark deserted street, softly illuminate the sidewalks in front, much like a distant headlight of a midnight train. Some magically spell out the ”open” letters in a variety of colors. Others, like LED types, are so bright and colorful that they stand out on a cloudless sunny day. Many that hang on a closed-door are pre-printed, made of simple plastic or laminated cardboard that can be purchased at the local hardware or office supply store.

There’s an entirely different type of open sign I see while riding the streets of Detroit. Those are the crudely hand painted versions I spot leaning against buildings, sign poles, fire hydrants and other stationary objects near an open business.  Those types of grass root signs are some of my favorites.  The signs of that type are cobbled together from discarded weathered plywood, or old flat wooded panels that may be found in a 1970’s basement. A-Frame stand-alone open signs, ones that may have carried a different message in a earlier life, now block the sidewalk in front of the open store. They usually have an arrow pointing to a door.

I see many hand-made open signs leaning against party stores

I spotted this in front of one of the many storefront churches in Detroit

Made from scrap tin, it works

The lettering on these one-of-a-kind, stand-alone open signs can be interesting. Most appear to be painted with a cheap, wide brush designed for large applications. Because of that, the wording on some of them may have dripped, creating a jumble of hard to read individual letters. The colors used on these beauties are usually basic white, black or red; nothing fancy. In some cases, dark paint was used on dark boards, making them a challenge to read. I find these one-of-a-kind, loosely painted open signs (and others) intriguing. It’s as if they represent a sub-culture of grass root entrepreneurship that is part of the history and soul of Detroit.

High up on a building with drippy letters makes for tough viewing for customers

Hand painted on the back of an old picture frame

I would guess the word open is a bit hard to read for those passing by

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Detroit was buzzing with bikes and bike related events over the past weekend. It all started Friday night at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) with the showing of the documentary film Bicycle Dreams.  It is a powerful movie that focuses on a number of bicycle riders as they race 3,000 miles across America in just ten days. The film follows the cyclists as they battle desert heat, strenuous climbs through the Rocky Mountains, and the fatigue associated with long straight roads that seem to go on forever.

It’s a beautifully shot film that is more than a bicycle movie. It is an incredible story that examines what drives people to the edge of complete emotional and physical breakdown. The film makers effectively capture the decline of the riders as they pedal non-stop up to 40 hours without sleep before they take quick, agonizing 2-hours naps that are basically useless. Some of the most powerful scenes included riders being helped to and propped up on their bikes after quick breaks, and tearful mental breakdowns when they hear of a tragedy that has taken place. The filmmakers also capture the painful descriptions of the riders as they talk about hallucinating from lack of rest and falling asleep while riding. This engaging movie is highly recommended, even if you aren’t a bicyclist.

Saturday was the annual Tour de Troit, a 30-mile bike ride that takes riders through some of the city’s most historic and interesting areas.  Like many of the previous rides, it started at Roosevelt Park in front of the historic Michigan Central Station. This year’s route took a record 5,000 riders through vibrant parts of Southwest Detroit, then north to the fringes of the city’s New Center Area. From there, we rode past the ruins of the historic Packard automotive plant before heading south to Indian Village (a neighborhood of historic mansions).

With 5,000 bikes, the start of the tour was more of a walk than a ride

Bikes packed the streets on Detroit’s near eastside

Belle Isle Park was the next on the tour. Once there we were given a break, and refreshments were served by a team of volunteers.  Leaving the island park, we were routed through downtown streets that took us back to our starting point, Roosevelt Park. At the park lunch and refreshments were available, and we had an opportunity to mingle and visit various sponsor’s booths such as Detroit Bicycle Co., Whole Foods, Renew Detroit and many others. There’s nothing like riding with thousands of bicyclists on a sunny day in Detroit.

Bike related vendor booths and others lined the edges of Roosevelt Park

The weekend of biking ended with an artful 12-mile ride that started at the DIA early Sunday morning. The organizers of the ride (Tom Page of Detroit Bikes! and the staff of the DIA) took us to various Detroit buildings and places where we viewed a total of 12 gorgeous reproductions of some of the masterpieces housed in the museum.  The outdoor installations are all part of the museum’s outreach program called Inside/Outside. It is a program intended to expose people living and visiting Southeast Michigan to the many treasures found within the DIA.  About 130 riders took part in the well-paced, informative 13-mile ride. The group was split into two groups and the one I was in was led by Scott Boberg of the DIA. He offered a tremendous amount of insight into the pieces we viewed.  This relaxing tour was a fitting end to a long weekend of bicycling activities in the City of Detroit.

“Flowers in a Glass Vase” by Rachel Ruysch was one of the many reproductions visited and explained on the tour

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Detroit is a great city for bicycling. The neighborhood streets and major roads carrying car traffic in and out of the city are super wide. Quite a few of them are one way, making for ideal cycling. Throughout busy Southwest Detroit and sections of midtown, many miles of bike lanes have been installed, and from what I understand, more are coming. Over on the city’s eastside, there’s been progress on the Conner Park Greenway that will eventually extend from the Detroit River out to Eight Mile Road, a distance of about nine miles.

In addition to the wide streets and bike lanes that make for easy city riding, one of the best things I like about riding the streets of Detroit is the lack of traffic. It’s not uncommon for me to ride two to three miles on major three-lane, one-way roads or on two-way streets without a single car passing me in either direction. Although Detroit lost over half its population in the last 40-years, (thus fewer cars on the streets) it’s still a major American urban center. Considering its size, the lack of traffic on the city’s streets is incredible to me.

Obviously not all the streets and roads are void of cars. Woodward, Michigan, Gratiot Avenue, and others always have plenty of traffic. One of the things that I don’t understand about riding on the wide, less traveled one-way streets is that most cars don’t generally move out of the right hand lane.  I’ll be pedaling close to the right curb, and they still whiz closely by, even though the left lane(s) are completely open with lots of space for them to move over. Drivers must be programmed to stay in the right hand lane, no matter what.

Bicyclists in Detroit are fortunate to have access to lightly traveled streets and roads. Their openness makes for enjoyable, stress free rides.  Of course, there’s the exception of stray dogs, but that’s another story.

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Detroit is known as a city of neighborhoods and the never-ending miles of streets are lined with a variety of homes. Most are well-built single-family residences, constructed mainly of common red brick, and many have matching garages. Bricks were widely used in the construction of these places because they are cheap to produce, strong, and came in standard, common sizes.

In some ways, riding throughout the city’s diverse neighborhoods reminds me of suburbia. Many of the city’s homes are constructed in the same architectural style, but incorporate small, almost unnoticeable variances, such as door or window placement. There are plenty of look-a-like bungalows and colonials built in the 1940’s and 50’s, as well as single-story ranch homes lining the city streets. In some of the more upscale neighborhoods, English Tudors seem to be the style of choice.

Before the city’s rapid expansion in the 1940’s and 50’s, many of the homes being built tended to be one of kind, custom places with unique stone details, slate roofs, ornate trim, etc. Although red bricks were widely used, several of the earlier, larger, and more expensive homes were built using sandstone bricks. That type of brick has a warm earth-tone hue and a rough texture. They come in uneven sizes, making for an interesting house design. They look like something found on a European building constructed hundreds of years ago.  Not only were many of the earlier, larger Detroit homes built of them, so were many of the accompanying garages.

One sandstone brick garage in particular caught my attention on a recent ride. The beautiful old two-story structure is located behind a small mansion of a house on East Grand Boulevard. It looks as if it was initially built as a carriage house, and the two barn doors facing the side street appear to be original. With the exception of the bricked-in door openings and windows on the alley side, the garage looks to be unaltered and in pristine condition. If I had to guess, this beautiful old European style garage was probably built in the early 1900’s. It’s a gem of a place and not your typical Detroit brick and mortar garage.

This could have been built as a carriage house

Various sized bricks add interest to the building

The barn doors may be original

Beautiful old-world craftsmanship

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