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Archive for September, 2013

With so much of the city’s population moving away over the years and vacant homes removed, many of Detroit’s neighborhoods have turned into urban prairies. As I’ve written in past blog entries, the city’s prairies spread across blocks and blocks of open land, land that once contained homes packed in so close that only a sidewalk divided them.

 Also gone are the small specialty stores such as bakeries and butcher shops that served the population of those once vibrant neighborhoods. In some cases, small manufacturing facilities shared the same landscape employing those that once lived nearby.

Riding through many of Detroit’s neighborhoods on my bicycle, I occasionally spot small, simple looking community churches out on the urban prairies where the homes and businesses once stood. They are usually quite old, made of clapboard wood painted white and have a simple contrasting colored cross mounted near the entrance. Most look to be former homes and are located off the beaten path, creating a sense of loneliness to them that I find inviting.

A small church on the prairies of Detroit

A small church on the prairies of Detroit

On Sunday mornings and early afternoon the pastoral houses of worship and surrounding streets come alive with church goers. It’s quite a stark contrast to their dormant, lifeless existence during the week when no one is around.

Pedaling by the old weathered structures during those Sunday services, I usually stop and listen to the rhythm and blues flavored gospel music that streams from the open doors and windows. The spiritual music, singing, and chanting coming from within those small unassuming places is a moving and uplifting moment in an otherwise lonesome environment.

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There are plenty of fish available in Detroit. On my bike rides along the Detroit River and the edges of the city’s island park, Belle Isle, I’ve seen and talked to quite a few fisherman that are reeling in bass, perch, walleye and many other types of fresh water fish. That makes sense because the fish-packed Detroit River flows freely past the city and its famous park.

In addition to those being caught along the river, there are plenty of other species that people in Detroit may not know about, but are easy to spot. The fish I’m referring to come in a variety of colors and sizes. In a few cases they are laid out on a platter, ready to be served.

Most look happy, as if they are jumping out of the water to enjoy the bright sunlight. Others are simply floating along, blowing bubbles between the reeds in the water, with eyes wide open. A few have huge lips and wide mouths, and look as if they are singing something from an Italian opera.

There are a few low-key, modest looking fish that appear to be just floating along, living the carefree life. No matter the species or type of fish I’ve seen beyond those being hooked by the fishermen, all are quite colorful. Their scales are bright green, deep blue, glowing red, or various other eye-catching, shimmering colors.

Amazingly, you don’t have to explore the riverfront to see the unique fish I’m referring to. The colorful, happy looking fish are painted on the sides of bait shops, fish markets and restaurants along most major commercial streets in Detroit. Yes, there are plenty of fish in Detroit, and not all come from the Detroit River.

Hooked

Hooked!

"Let's party, I have my bottle!"

“Let’s party, I have my bottle!”

Looks to be signing away

Looks to be signing happily

Lost in the reeds

Lost in the reeds

From Detroit's Chinatown (if there was one)

From Detroit’s Chinatown (if there was one)

This guy has a casual look about him

This guy has a casual, bored look about him

Ready for the dinner table

Ready for the dinner table

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A Proud American

The other day I was riding down a desolate, car-free street in Southwest Detroit in the old Del Ray neighborhood. Out of the corner of my eye I spotted a little old man sitting hunched over on a milk crate. He was holding an American flag that was flapping in the breeze. I didn’t think much about him sitting there as I pedaled by. However, a few blocks beyond, curiosity got the best of me, so I swung around and headed back to visit the old guy. As I approached, I saw that he was up and slowly walking along the street looking like the Hunchback of Notre Dame.

I rolled up next to him and noticed he had two flags. He was holding a stick with one in his right hand, and another looked to be pinned to his shirt. I asked him about the flags, and he said he loves this country.

Raymond Smiling w:Flag_7973

Raymond is a proud American

I told him my name and asked his.  “Raymond,” he said. Then he mentioned that he’s a lifetime Detroiter and has lived in that old, battered neighborhood for a couple of years. He also said (with pride) that his mother worked for the CIA as a body guard.

Then suddenly out of nowhere, he excitedly asked if he could sing me a song. I said sure, and unexpectedly he launched into the Civil War era song, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.” His singing started out softly and as he got deeper into the song his voice became louder and stronger. He ended it with a gut wrenching, loud “Hurrah! Hurrah!” and a smile on his face.

Singing "When Johnny Comes Marching Home"

Singing “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”

After he finished the traditional war song, he said he must get to the store up the street so he could buy some cigarettes. I asked him if he should quit smoking and he said, “No, I’m too old to quit and it wouldn’t make no difference now.”

He then turned to me fully, straightened up, and saluted before slowly turning and shuffling off to the store; the stick-mounted flag held proudly in his right hand.

A salute before he turned and walked toward a store

A salute before he turned and walked toward a store

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There are plenty of railroad tracks that crisscross the city of Detroit. The long trains carry auto parts, rolls of steel, chemicals, cars from the auto factories, and many other manufactured goods. It’s not unusual to see the trains with two engines chugging along pulling upwards of 100 cars. Judging by the markings and corporate logos on the trains I see rumbling past my front window, they come from all across the country, Canada and Mexico.

Riding around this big city on my bicycle, I noticed that most of the train tracks are elevated above the streets and roads. The tracks are held up by huge cement supports that straddle the centerline of the streets below. The arched supports stand at least 13 feet tall.

There are also smooth, thick cement walls supporting the overhead tracks that flank the sidewalks, and they run the length of the overpass. From what I see, the large flat, horizontal gray walls make perfect canvases for graffiti and street artists.

It seems that every railroad underpass I ride through has some sort of graffiti; whether it is quick hitting simple one-color signature tags, large colorful elaborate “burners”, picturesque murals, or other graffiti types. Three underpasses in Detroit’s midtown area have outstanding wall paintings and are worth seeking out for their unique designs and overall artistic execution.

The first is the Trumbull Street underpass just north of I-94. It features a geometric pattern in an endless array of colors. The well-designed, complex wall painting stretches the length of the underpass. The multi-colored, bright design elements are also incorporated on the center supports. The pattern almost looks three-dimensional.

Outer wall of the Trumbull Street underpass

Outer wall of the Trumbull Street underpass

Colorful supports and wall

Colorful supports and wall

Geometry played a big roll in the design

Geometry played a big roll in the overall design

Arches in contrasting colors

Arches in contrasting colors

One street over from Trumbull is Lincoln.  The railroad underpass walls and supports found there are covered in a variety of eye-catching, intricate graffiti art, stunning wall murals, simple tags, and stenciled images.  Most have been designed and painted by a number of Detroit’s finest street artists: Malt, Stori, Fel3000ft, Tead, and others.

A couple of pieces by graffiti artist fel3000ft

A couple of pieces by graffiti artist fel3000ft

An artist at work on the Lincoln Street underpass

An artist at work on the Lincoln Street underpass

The flooded underpass reflects the art on the arches and outer wall

The flooded underpass reflects the art on the arches and on one of outer walls

Graffito artists Malt and Patch Whiskey collaborated on this piece

Graffito artists Malt and Patch Whiskey collaborated on this Lincoln Street wall mural

A little further to the northeast is the Beaubien Street underpass. The art there consists of simple colors painted in 45-degree angles, much like a pyramid. Depending on the wall or support, the V-shaped angles start at street level and rise to the base of the overpass, or they start at the top and cascade down. The inner arches of the center supports feature red and white bars that remind me of piano keys. The overall theme of the design on this underpass seems to be transportation.

Entering the Beaubien Street underpass

Entering the Beaubien Street underpass

Trains painted on the outer wall as viewed through the arches

Train engines painted on the outer wall as viewed through the arches

Cars painted on the opposite outer wall as viewed through the arches

Cars painted on the opposite outer wall as viewed through the arches

Note the red bars in the arches

Note the red bars in the arches

This is just a sampling of some of the amazing art found on the walls of railroad underpasses in the city of Detroit. Take a look the next time you pass through them.

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