Monday, September 3, 2012

In the USA–Biking Detroit

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Michigan Central Station is an imposing
 building, albeit a bit architecturally confusing.
Detroit’s RiverWalk and Michigan Central Station

Growing up near Detroit in St. Clair Shores, Michigan, we kids spent a lot of time on bicycles. So it was only natural that, soon after I arrived for a visit with Dad at the end of July, I was searching for an opportunity to bicycle.

I didn’t have to look far. Detroit has redeveloped its riverfront and replaced the empty parking lots and abandoned wharves and factories with a bike- and pedestrian-friendly path along the river. Back in the 1970’s, before the city’s iconic Renaissance Center was built, I had a summer job working for a food concession at the Detroit ethnic festivals on the waterfront. I remember looking out over the bleak blacktop at the river while I served popcorn, hot dogs and sidewalk sundaes at the Greek, Irish, Polish, and Italian festivals. It was just series of parking lots and empty, deteriorated buildings.

One Saturday, watching the sailboats in the river, it hit me: I could be out there, sailing downriver with my Dad. What was I doing in a hot trailer, in a hot parking lot? But that's another story ...

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Something for everyone, on the
Detroit RiverWalk.
Today, the Detroit RiverWalk is an attractive public space where business people and workers can take a lunch or afternoon break, and families can enjoy water play in the fountain. Renovated buildings are interspersed with still-vacant ones. Yet people are naturally attracted to water, and the Detroit River, with its view of the Ambassador Bridge to Windsor, Ontario, Canada is as pretty as any. It’s certainly improved since the 1970’s.

At least this bike had hand brakes.
Searching online, I discovered that Wheel House Detroit, located in the heart of the Detroit RiverWalk, rents bicycles. I called my childhood friend Janet, who is my resource for local knowledge on Detroit. We rode bicycles around our neighborhood as kids and through high school, and we have remained close friends despite living on different sides of the US for the past 36 years.

Would Janet be up for a bike ride downtown? I was happily surprised to learn that she has recently taken up bicycling again, riding 15 or more miles a day on a regular basis. Not only would she join me, but we could meet her daughter Candice for lunch at nearby Joe Louis Stadium, where she is Assistant to the Director of Security.

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Little children play in the
fountain on hot days.

We rented bikes at Wheel House Detroit, $25 for four hours, and rode south on the RiverWalk, passing the fountain, Renaissance Center, and Cobo Convention and Exhibition Center. We stopped to look at the shell of Cobo Arena, where we went to rock concert in the 1970’s -- Rod Sterwart, David Bowie, J. Geils, Dave Mason, Led Zeppelin, The Who … I could hear the crowd cheering and calling “Moooore, moooore!” as they held up lit matches. “It looks small,” I said.

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The first concert I went to was here:
Johnny Winter. It was also one of
my first dates.

Cobo Arena is also where the Detroit Pistons used to play. As Phase III of a total $279 million renovation and upgrade project, Cobo Arena is being transformed into a 38,000 sq. ft. ballroom, with meeting areas underneath.

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Jan and I have been friends since --
well, before we were born, I guess.
At Joe Louis Arena, we brought our bikes inside and Candi showed us through the near-deserted concourse to a lighted concession booth with table seating and a catering company serving hot lunch entrees or soup and salad bar for $5. It’s a new program for Joe Louis employees and anyone else, such as Jan and me, who happen to know about this great deal. Afterward, we looked in on the arena. There was no ice at the time, and in the silence I could hear the echoes of roaring Red Wings fans.

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Hockey is BIG here.

It was a rare glimpse into everyday life in Hockeytown, USA.

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This old hotel must have some stories to tell.
One of my main goals of the bicycle tour was to ride to the old Michigan Central Station. I departed there in January 1976, on my first Amtrak trip west. I still can remember the feeling of being in an impossibly grand, relentlessly decaying place. Despite being abandoned for decades, the shell of this formerly magnificent beaux arts train station stands proud today behind a protective fence. When it was built, this was the tallest train station in the world. Completed in 1913, it remained in use until 1988.  Today it stands as a symbol of the rise and fall of Detroit.

Read its history at A grassroots effort has begun to renovate the building, but the costs of asbestos removal and restoration make the completion of such a project virtually unimaginable.

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 This station was a huge investment for the City of Detroit
during the Beaux Arts/City Beautiful era.

As we neared Michigan Central Station, I noted the high protective fencing surrounding the building. It was quiet, although there was one vehicle inside the fence, and a banner on the building. The grand station has already been thoroughly looted, vandalized, sprayed with graffiti, and served as a home to squatting homeless and drug addicts for decades.

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This is how cities are beautified now.

We rode around behind the building to look at the tracks, and as I was snapping photos of graffiti murals and old train engines, Jan rode off to explore. Presently she came riding back, very slowly.

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Energetic young people are moving
into cities again. There is hope!

“I have a flat tire.” Great! We called Wheel House, and they sent out a young woman, who was on her day off but lived nearby, to replace the tube. The stem had broken off.

Back on the road, we pedaled through Corktown, named after Detroit’s Irish population. Jan and I both have old Detroit Irish blood running in our veins. We approached a vacant lot surrounded by an iron fence, and Jan rode her bike inside. Where the heck is she going … ? I followed.

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Tiger Stadium pitcher's mound,
viewed from home plate.

“I think,” she said, “that this is Tiger Stadium.” I got a little chill. Sure enough, we realized that we were standing on the pitcher’s mound. Again, I heard the roar of the crowd in my memory. The Tigers play at Comerica Park now, but perhaps someday, this site will be redeveloped into something befitting the old Tiger Stadium legacy.

We returned to the RiverWalk. And … another flat tire for Jan. What gives? For those of you who have read some of my other stories, you might think that this was happening to her because … she was with me. I don’t know. This time, I rode the mile back to Wheel House, reported the flat tire, and was greeted with a look of some disbelief. Nonetheless, a Wheel House employee (we were lucky there was more than one working) rode a replacement bike back with me to where Jan was waiting. As she adjusted the seat to Jan’s height, the bolt broke off. “I don’t believe this!” she exclaimed. So Jan had to ride the replacement bike, with the seat all the way down, back to the shop and get a THIRD bicycle.
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The wetland returns to the riverfront. I wonder how like -- or unlike -- it is to what was there in Native American times?

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Some day soon this will be a bike path
to Belle Isle Bridge.

We explored to the north end of the RiverWalk, including the wetland, and the construction now underway to extend the path to the Belle Isle bridge.

When we returned the bikes to Wheel House Detroit, we joked about our luck. “We’ll be back to road test your other bikes!” we said.

“We don’t want to see you ladies again!” they replied.

Like it or not, we'll be back!

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