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Posts Tagged ‘outdoors’

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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Snakes in Detroit

I saw some snakes in Detroit the other day. They weren’t the ordinary slithering, winding dollar sign moving reptiles that are common in woodlands and swampy bogs. The snakes I spotted were quite large. They were deep black, evil-looking creatures that don’t move about the field and grass. They are in the same place both day and night. The unusual, creepy looking reptiles are sitting on top of an embankment that lines Trumbull Avenue near Lincoln Street.

The scaly creatures are sculptures. They are made from reclaimed logs and other cast-away materials that include bicycle tires and tubes. The various sized logs are wrapped in scrap bicycle tires, with the tread out, creating remarkable reptile look-a-likes. The knobby bike tires have a crusty rough texture, oddly similar to the skin of a snake, lizard, crocodile or other cold-blooded scaly animals.

Rubber Snake Head_5296

Rubber Monster Back_5299

Rubber Monster Full_5308

A couple of the snarly faces on the unique pieces have long textured tongues and stringy facial features made from thin black rubber bike tubes. Countless hanging entrails and legs dangle from some of them and they too are made from a variety of shredded rubber tires and tubes. In many cases, the rubber pieces used to build the slim sculptures are held in place using colorful bottle caps. The long tongues, facial accents and multi-length innards sway gently in the daytime breeze, as if they were alive and breathing.

Rubber Face with Tongue_5301

Rubber monster_5305

Rubber Monster face_5306

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What’s not to like about a December night in Detroit with the temperature hanging around 60 degrees, especially if you ride a bicycle? That was how warm it was a few nights ago, so I took advantage of the mild temperatures and headed out on 2 wheels to explore downtown and beyond. After all, that night may have been the last comfortable evening before that white, slippery stuff fills the air and coats the streets creating dicey road conditions for more than just bikers.

Despite a slight hazy mist in the air and damp pavement from an earlier steady drizzle, it was a great night to be out on a bicycle. There was no need for a heavy or rain resistant jacket, gloves or other cold weather clothing; quite unusual for this time of year.

My night ride took me through Detroit’s mid-town neighborhoods and streets to downtown. Once there I headed south on Woodward Avenue through the city’s central business district. The store fronts and office buildings along that 6-8 block section were lined with colorful holiday lights that reflected and shimmered on the pavement in front of me.

Holiday lights in Downtown Detroit

Holiday lights in Downtown Detroit

The Greektown commercial strip was glowing

The Greektown commercial strip was glowing

After zigzagging my way through the downtown streets, I crossed Jefferson Avenue into Hart Plaza, a public outdoor space that faces the Detroit River. Despite the unseasonably warm weather, the Plaza was quiet and empty except for a few people slowly wandering toward the river.

A view of downtown Detroit from Hart Plaza

A view of downtown Detroit from Hart Plaza

From there I rode the RiverWalk to the Dequindre Cut. Just as I entered the urban greenway, I passed a couple of runners in full stride and a security guard sitting in his car keeping an eye on things. That was about it for people. The many wall murals and intricate, colorful graffiti found on the cement walls in the Cut took on a whole new appearance in the misty, Edgar Allen Poe type of night. The images and colors appeared flatter and eerier, as if the eyes in the images were watching my every move.

Wall painting in the Dequindre Cut had a creepy look to them

Wall paintings in the Dequindre Cut had a creepy, sinister look to them in the low light

My ride wound down after a quick loop through the Eastern Market, a much different place on a weekday night  versus Saturdays when it is jammed with shoppers. There were no lift trucks moving crates of produce from one building to another; no semi-trucks backing into loading docks; and the specialty stores that ring the market were all closed.

However, there were a few folks buying Christmas trees from vendors that were setup at the far north end of the market. It was a rather fitting end to a bike ride in Detroit on a warm December evening.

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Frequently, I take advantage of the early sunrise by riding out to Detroit’s gem of a park, Belle Isle. The large island park is centrally located in the middle of the Detroit River and is generally packed with thousands of people on hot, summer afternoons. But in the early morning it is quite calm. There are few picnickers, smoking barbeques are noticeably absent, and loud music rolling out of the small picnic sheds is non-existent. Thankfully, there isn’t the bumper-to-bumper traffic that slowly cruises the five-mile loop around the island, with bone-shaking music blasting, as is normally the case on warm weather afternoons.

The early morning calmness is refreshing and soothing. It’s as if the island hasn’t awakened from its nightly rest. Biking across the half-mile bridge on those crystal clear mornings, with the rising eastern sun lighting the Detroit skyline, is an invigorating ride. The tall downtown buildings seem to take on a golden, reddish glow, as does the Ambassador Bridge that spans the Detroit River to Canada, just beyond downtown. The river itself appears to be a much brighter blue in the morning and is generally smooth as glass.

A view of the Detroit skyline from the Belle Isle Bridge

Once on Belle Isle, it’s common to see other bike riders or groups of riders circling the outer island. Numerous joggers and a few walkers (some with dogs) are also out there enjoying the peacefulness of the early morning hours. Others are out there at their special spot, sitting and relaxing in lawn chairs or on blankets, watching massive thousand-foot ore carriers as they silently slide by, like bats in the twilight sky.

Thousand-foot ore carrier heading downriver

I cherish the serenity of the island in those early morning hours where, on occasion, I see herons and swans in the inner ponds. I’ve also spotted wild turkeys on the side of the roads, and there are always plenty of ducks and geese. The river itself is always soothing to me. I especially like watching the Detroit Boat Club Crew members pulling on the oars of their sleek rowing boats as they effortlessly glide across the ripple-free water. The calmness I feel out there as I ride along the edge Detroit River is the perfect counter balance to the harsh realities of the city.

Two-person rowing boat off the tip of Belle Isle

Detroit Boat Club Crew Members taking advantage of the calm waters of the Detroit River

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Lately I’ve been riding my bike throughout the many downtown Detroit streets and along the three miles or so of the city’s river walk.  Both areas have their unique sights and sounds. Depending on when I’m there, the streets can be light on cars and free of city busses that, in many cases, tend to crowd the curb lane for obvious reasons. In more of the central office building sections of the city, the sidewalks are usually free of pedestrians and have practically no activity. In other more popular areas of downtown sidewalk cafes and outdoor tables are setup on sidewalks in front of pubs and restaurants, and they are typically full of people taking advantage of the warm summer weather.

The river walk can be quite busy, especially along the stretch from Hart Plaza (at the foot of Woodward Avenue) to Rivard Plaza, a half mile or so east of the Renaissance Center. That section seems to be the most popular for families, casual walkers and those taking a leisurely bicycle ride along the Detroit River, where both pleasure craft and thousand-foot ore carriers share the river’s narrow passageway. Further east, beyond Rivard Plaza to Mt. Elliot Park where the walk now ends, the pedestrian traffic is noticeably lacking and almost non-existent in some sections, with the exception of a few runners, bicyclists and a fast paced walkers.

Both bicycle rides offer considerable contrast. The city’s urban environment, with its tall buildings, traffic, businesses, etc. is in harsh contrast to the calmness, serenity and the casualness of the constant flow of the Detroit River as it moves past the walk. If there is one thing that both settings offer, it’s the striking background to the incredible puffy, rolling clouds I’ve seen on my early evenings bike rides over the past few weeks. I’m not sure if they are the result of the recent heat we’ve been experiencing. Whatever the reason, the stacked clouds have filled the sky with rolling, bulging white masses, various shades of gray and the heavy darkness of pending storms that never seem to arrive.

Clouds framed by a few of the downtown Detroit buildings

Dark clouds highlight the sunlit brightness of the buildings below

Turmoil in the sky over Detroit

The cloud mass looks like smoke stemming from Windsor, Ontario across the river from Detroit

Puffy clouds over a carnival ride at the Detroit River Days Festival

Dark clouds filled the sky above the carnival that was set-up along the Detroit River front

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Summer Heat

The weather is heating up in Detroit. So far this spring the thermometer has hit that magic 90 degree mark a number of times. This past weekend was no exception, with both days hitting that number. Surprisingly, the heat came without the humidity, a rarity here in Detroit, and it made for a comfortable bike ride.

My bicycle journeys in the warm weather took me through a number of neighborhoods where folks were out enjoying the sunny weather. I saw people attending to ribs and chicken on smoking grills, as they talked and laughed among friends and neighbors. Some were out early in the day mowing the lawn before the heat of the day kicked in. There were a few homeowners poking around in their flower gardens or sweeping the sidewalks in front of their modest homes. Others were simply relaxing in the shade of a Norway maple tree, offering small waves or shouting out words of acknowledgment to those passing by.

One of the coolest things I came across while riding was an open fire hydrant with young kids relishing in the spray. It was something I haven’t seen in quite some time. The hydrant I saw was spraying an arc of water over the street, and there were 4 to 5 kids streaking through the waterfall. They were laughing, screaming and daring each other to stand under the water for as long as they could. What a fun, little party they were having! So I decided to join in by riding through the spray and cool off.

The kids were having a blast playing in the cold water

What a shock! The ice-cold water that was blasting out of the fire hydrant poured down with major force, much harder that I thought. Although I was soaked from helmet to shoes, it was refreshing in the hot afternoon. As I rode back through the deluge to continue on my journey, a kid about 7-years old yelled out to me, “Hey mister, you owe me $3.00 for the water.”  I just waved and continued on, smiling to myself.

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Saturday was a perfect day in Detroit to be on a bicycle. It was breezy, sunny, and the temperature was in the mid-seventies; an unusually warm day for mid-March. So I took advantage of the day’s heat by jumping on my bike and riding the ten or so miles to downtown.  Pedaling along, I was quickly reminded how cautious I needed to be on my spring rides. Not so much because of buses and traffic; that’s a given…but because of the broken glass and trash that seem to accumulate along the curb areas this time of year. I didn’t want to fix a flat tire on my first two-wheeled trip downtown this year.

On my way I passed through the Historic Eastern Market. It was jammed with shoppers pulling carts and carrying bags of fresh goodies. Russell Street, the main through street of the market, was gridlocked with cars, all vying for a place to park. Like most warm days at the market, blue smoke from barbeque pits that lined a section of the street cast a sweet-smelling haze across the area. It was also St. Patrick’s Day, and plenty of shoppers were dressed in green.

The moose on Mack Ave had the Irish spirit

From the market I zigzagged through numerous downtown streets to check-out the St. Patrick’s Day festivities. Like Eastern Market there were gobs of people dressed in green wandering the streets. The city’s most famous downtown Irish pub had two circus sized tends set up in parking lots behind the place, and they were jammed with revelers. In fact, there were long lines of motionless people leading into the two tent entrances. The lines, at least four people wide, stretched a block from each opening. I could hear music coming from tents well before I got there, and surprisingly it wasn’t Irish. It was Techno!  So much for a true Irish celebration.

Next, I biked out Michigan Avenue a mile or so, to Detroit’s oldest neighborhood, Corktown, an early enclave of Irish settlers. The Corktown area of Michigan Ave. is lined with Irish saloons and, like the place downtown, they were crammed with party goers brightly dressed in the color of the day. Many were moving from pub-to-pub taking in the activities. But unlike the place downtown, the music of Ireland was pouring out of the drinking establishments.

Since I haven’t been out on my bike for a few months, checking out some of the city’s graffiti hotspots was in order. Therefore, I headed out Trumbull Street to one of favorite outdoor galleries, an unassuming wall along some railroad tracks. Once I made my way to the wall, I found some fresh, colorful pieces that weren’t there last fall. Checking them out, I was amazed, as always, at the flow and how creative the graffiti artists can be using only paint from spray cans. After poking around the site for a while, I hopped on my bike and headed back to the eastside.

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