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Archive for October, 2013

Detroit is an old city, and it grew rapidly from the early 1900’s through the 1950’s.  As the city spread and the major streets expanded, plenty of small businesses were built and lined the streets. Like today, advertising was a must for getting people into those small businesses to buy their products. One of the advertising methods used back then was hand painted signs created on the side of buildings.

Many of those vintage signs with beautiful, scrolled lettering, and product highlights can still be seen on old buildings along the city’s commercial streets. In most cases the colors have faded quite a bit. Despite the fading, it’s not unusual to see fresh-looking, pastel colors on the ornate, hand-painted illustrated signs.

Stylish letters outlined in black

Bank ad features classy letters outlined in black

Nice use of paste color on this cigar ad from long ago

Note the soft,  paste colors on this cigar ad from long ago

In this blog entry (the fourth in a series) are some of the more fascinating illustrated signs I’ve seen on my bicycle rides. A couple of the vintage wall-side ads remind me of something that may have been printed on packaged goods found in a general store many years ago. There is a lot of history in this city, and unfortunately more and more of it is fading away, just like the signs.

Classic flowing letters of the flour brand is the main focus of this old sign

Stylish, flowing letters of the flour brand name is the main focus of this old sign

Vernor's, a Detroit classic

Vernor’s, a Detroit classic

This vintage Stroh's sign is fading quickly

This vintage Stroh’s sign is fading quickly

Cool pickle illustration on this old Aunt Jane's sign

Cool pickle illustration on this old Aunt Jane’s sign

This is the fourth of an occasional entry on Detroit’s fading wall signs. You can check out the earlier entries by clicking on the headlines below.

Fading Wall Signs

Fading Wall Signs – Part 2

Fading Wall Signs – Part 3

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Like many intersections in Detroit, West Warren and Grand River Avenues are pretty nondescript. There is a used auto parts place on one corner; a former bank that now houses the Kunsthalle Detroit Museum of Contemporary Art sits on another. There is a small warehouse type building on the southeast corner of the intersection, and a grassy field spreads inward from the southwest corner where buildings once stood.

Like most, if not all major intersections in the city, the corner is home to bus stops. In this case, they pick-up and drop off riders for those traveling east and west on Warren Avenue and along Grand River from downtown to the far northwestern city limits. What struck me about the stops that service West Warren at this intersection were the bus stop benches. They are not the usual DDOT plastic encased units with benches that span the interior length.

The benches there are unique, hand crafted, one-of-a-kind benches. They are a simple, functional design, made from a variety of basic building supplies available at any home center. The materials used to build the intriguing benches include ordinary wooded doors, a couple of pieces of plywood, standard 10’ metal wall studs, and thin sheets of translucent plastic panels found in drop-ceiling lights of many new buildings. Various eye bolts, long threaded rods, clamps, and small turnbuckles hold them all together.

Simple, yet practical design

Simple, yet practical design

The seat art compliments the backrest

The seat art compliments the backrest

The simple x-frame structures are painted in bold colors and the new, shiny aluminum studs add a contemporary look to the unusual benches. The colorful, eye-catching designs of the handmade benches remind me of a swing set that may be found on a large front porch. Both of the imaginative benches are on Warren Avenue, a little west of Grand River. They sit across the street from one another and both add a blast of color and interest to a rather dreary, urban intersection.

Aluminum wall studs supports the simple structure

Aluminum wall studs support the simple structure

The brightly painted backs are eye catching

The brightly painted backs are eye catching

The bench and backs are made from doors

The bench and backs are made from doors

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Owen Park Sign_8323

There is a park I’ve ridden past hundreds of times on my bicycle rides, but until recently I hadn’t paid much attention to it. It’s a small park, about a quarter-mile deep and 100-yards wide.  It bumps up to East Jefferson Avenue on the north, and from there it extends south to the Detroit River. The little green space, named Owen Park is bordered on the east by an abandoned apartment building and a well-maintained, multi-story apartment building on the west.

Although there are two washed out dirt roads leading into the park, there is really no defined entrance. Cars and vans just hop the curb and take one of two dirt roads to the riverfront.  Spotting a car doing this the other day is what drew my attention to the not so well maintained park. Watching the car slowly work its way across the sidewalk to the riverfront (where fishermen were casually tending to their poles), I decided to take a ride down to the river as well.

Road into Owen Park

Road into Owen Park from Jefferson Avenue

Lamp Post in Owen Park_8325One of things I noticed right away when riding the rutted road to the river, was the lack of trees. There were few of them in the overgrown park, and those few were clustered close to the river. Another thing I noticed was a couple of vintage streetlights standing in a grassy area. I assume that section once had a road winding through it. Although the lights at the top of the beautiful old posts were dangling by their wiring, the old streetlights were in remarkably good shape.

As I approached the small cluster of trees near the river’s edge, I was completely surprised at what I saw within the tiny wooded area. Painted on a mounted piece of plywood that was cut to resemble a house of sorts, were the words “Native American Art Gallery”.  The background of the sign had a Jackson Pollock painted look to it, and the abstract colors were overlaid with paintings of various Native American symbols, including the legendary, iconic Thunderbird.

Art gallery sign found under the trees

Art gallery sign located under the park trees

Just beyond the sign were a series of other painted panels mounted to posts that looked as if they were recently put into the ground. There were approximately 8-10 Native American type paintings mounted to the various poles.  One was a rendering of the State of Michigan, color-coded by the various tribes found throughout the state. The biggest surprise at the outdoor gallery were the panels that featured the work of Sintex, a well-known and respected Detroit graffiti artist whose work is featured on many buildings and walls in the city.

A variety of paintings in the park

A variety of paintings in the park

Rendering of state map color doded by tribes

Rendering of state map, color coded by tribes

A Native American Portrait by graffiti artist Sintex

Native American portrait by graffiti artist Sintex

Thunderbird painting by Sintex

Thunderbird painting by Sintex

Looking around the outdoor gallery, I saw quite a few of the fresh poles. They lined the edge of the treed area and dirt roadway leading to the river, in preparation (I assume) for more painted panels of Native American art. I don’t know what organization or individual(s) is behind this installation.  However, I can guess this little open-air art space under the trees in Owen Park will eventually evolve into an outdoor education center, which will be based on the state’s rich Native American heritage.

Poles in place for future art panels

Poles in place for future art panels

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It is no secret that graffiti and wall murals are widespread throughout the city of Detroit. In many ways it makes sense, considering the sheer amount of abandoned buildings with flat walls that seem to span city blocks. There are also plenty of tall railroad and street overpasses with flat, vertical walls. The large, smooth walls make perfect palettes for the artists, and it shows because they have created some of the best street art in the country.

Large mural by Detroit artist Sintex

Large mural by Detroit artist Sintex

There are other forms of interesting street art that can be found throughout the city in places beyond the underpasses and building walls. The art can be found almost anywhere, on street signs, bathroom walls, busses, store windows, and plenty of other conspicuous locations including within the many large graffiti galleries scattered across Detroit. The widespread art medium is stenciling and stickers. Both formats are quick hitting, highly mobile forms of art.

The stenciled art I’ve spotted are usually one color and made of well-designed cut-outs. The cut-outs are created from various materials (paper, plastic, etc.) in many sizes and shapes, and are temporarily taped to a wall or other surface. Once attached, the artist quickly spray paints over the stencil then peels it off. What’s left is the image created by the cut-out.

Falcon near the top of a tall wall

Stenciled falcon near the top of a tall wall

In an empty electrical box, one of my favorite stenciled piece

In an empty electrical box, one of my favorite stenciled pieces

Various colors using the same stencil

Various colors using the same stencil

Simple, clean stenciled image

Simple, clean stenciled image

Stenciled lizard on a freeway overpass

Stenciled lizard on a freeway overpass

Pre-printed stickers are the quickest type of graffiti for artists and others to spread their message. They are relatively cheap to produce, and easy to carry. Applying them to any surface is fast; just peel and stick. Many are used to promote a political cause while others are used to highlight an artist’s logo, website, or unique colorful image they created in a fast, efficient way.

Poster size sticker

Large, poster size sticker

Traffic signs seem to be a popular spot for stickers

Traffic signs seem to be a popular spot for small stickers

Political sticker

Political sticker

Sticker on Man in the City sculpture

Sticker on a Man in the City sculpture

Quirky black and white stickers on a fence post

Quirky logo stickers on a fence post

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Detroit has plenty of beautiful, old tall buildings that were constructed around 1920. At that time building codes were much different than they are today. One of the key elements of the codes back then was that the buildings going up were to have fire escapes. For obvious reasons, those were mandatory on both high-rise commercial buildings, as well as apartment buildings, that were being constructed during the city’s period of rapid growth and expansion. The multi-level, steel staircases with built-in landings can be found on the exteriors of most buildings throughout the downtown area.

Based on the footprint of a particular building, some of the escapes are attached at steep angles to accommodate the narrow width of the walls. The steep escapes have landings at each floor that are nothing more than a turning point leading to the next set of stairs leading down. Other buildings have wide horizontal walls. The escapes mounted on those wide walls flow into long landings that seem to span the length of the wall before connecting to the next set of descending stairs.

Steep stairs, small landings

Steep stairs, small landings

Steep stairs, long landings

Steep stairs, long landings

The open steel grating on the steps and landings (that were designed to keep snow and ice from being built up), can be quite decorative, much like ornate trim elements found on a Victorian era house. Depending on the time of the day, the shadows and lighting found on the zigzagging, well-built escapes can be quite dramatic and often draw attention to the workmanship of the escapes. Not only does the soft light of an early morning sunrise or late afternoon sunset highlight the intricate steel work of the escapes, but it also highlights the textured brick found on the walls where the escapes are attached.

Ornate railings and supports

Ornate railings and supports

Cool snake pattern at sunset

Cool snake pattern at sunset

Shadows at sunset create an interesting pattern

Shadows at sunset create an interesting pattern

I see many buildings with outside fire escapes on my bicycle travels in Detroit, with most being clustered downtown. I also see where graffiti artists have taken advantage of the adjoining open space that surrounds the escapes. In many cases they were able to work their way up the escapes and create their bubble-lettered tags on the walls surrounding the platforms and stairs. The painted graffiti usually follows the sharp angle of the stairs or the level landings, highlighting the pattern and flow of the fire escape.

Graffiti lines the wall along the horizontal landings

Graffiti line the wall along the horizontal landings

Graffiti follows the angle of the stairs

Graffiti follows the angle of the stairs

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