I love Detroit. It’s my hometown. Sort of. I grew up in an east side suburb of Detroit. Moved to NYC 25 years ago but Detroit has never left my heart.
The city has been through some hard knocks for a long time. Detroit isn’t all bankruptcy and crime. There’s a lot of good happening in Detroit. You just don’t hear about it in the media (as much), but it’s there.
I was back home recently for a family reunion and in planning my visit, I made sure to include a Monday night. I wanted to Slow Roll.
Slow Roll is a weekly family friendly social ride that takes place every Monday night in Detroit (and occasionally Thursday and Saturday nights). It was started about two or three years ago by two people who also love Detroit- Jason Hall and Mike MacKool.
In the beginning, maybe ten or maybe forty people would show up. Over time, it slowly began to build. Then last summer it exploded, attracting around 1500 riders some weeks. It was no longer just a bike ride- it was a movement.
The day of Slow Roll was the only day I could grab to actually ride around Detroit, so I made sure to set out an hour earlier than needed to get to the meet up point so I could meander and explore on my own. Pedaling through the Grosse Pointes, the most exciting thing I came across was this guy.
As I took his picture, he apologized for ‘breaking all the rules” because he was riding with his dog alongside on a leash. I just laughed and told him to keep doing what he was doing. Yes, it’d be better if he were in the street and in a bike lane- but there isn’t a bike lane yet on Kercheval and there are hardly any pedestrians on the sidewalk, ever. I’ll give this guy a pass.
Continuing downtown, I rode Jefferson for a stretch. It’s the simplest route from GP to Downtown Detroit. Not exactly an inviting route or exciting in terms of seeing people on bicycles the Monday I rode it (though it will take you past several Detroit landmarks such as Belle Isle and Pewabic Pottery). If alternative transportation advocates succeed, the first protected bike lane implemented in Detroit will be on Jefferson Avenue.
The photo above of Jefferson Avenue is from my 2011 visit to Detroit. Though the urban landscape does shift as you travel along Jefferson, the nature of the road doesn’t. It’s an extremely wide boulevard and even when I rode at the onset of the evening rush hour this summer- motor vehicle traffic is deeply under capacity. Hoping next time I visit it will have undergone a significant road diet. As for my journey this year, I was more interested in the tiny moments of artistic expression on building storefronts…
… and avoiding the never ending detritus of broken glass and other tire puncturing litter that seems to be the bane of Jefferson Ave. So when I came across a sign indicating that I was near Indian Village, I detoured inward.
Indian Village is a unique historic district of Detroit. It’s an enclave of beautiful homes (many are mansions) that exists like an island amidst one of the most poverty stricken areas of Detroit. You could be on one side of the street on the edges of Indian Village and standing next to a majestic english tudor while across the street is a burnt out house/crack den next to an urban field.
I encountered very few people as I rode along. When I spotted this gentleman on a bicycle headed in the direction of downtown, I asked if he was headed to Slow Roll (hoping to meet new people and gather some company for my journey). “Nah” he replied, “I’m too old. I’m tired”. “You’re never too old. Join us next time” I responded, and wished him a lovely ride home.
A little deeper in, Indian Village became East Detroit and I came across this lovely urban farm.
I mostly had the streets to myself, occasionally encountering other people. Preference given to those on two wheels.
I made a point of finding Earthworks Urban Farm, which helps support the Capuchin Soup Kitchen and Gleaners Food Bank. This was a personal nod to the memory of Charity Hicks, a Detroit activist who fought for food justice (among other things). In May, Charity was struck by an automobile in NYC while waiting on the sidewalk for a bus. The day I landed in Detroit, she died of her injuries. I am a member and organizer with of Right of Way, a direct action street justice group. We had wanted to try to organize something in honor of Charity’s life while I was in Detroit, but sadly even with the help of local area friends- time was too short and a quiet, private remembrance was the extent of what we could accomplish.
The photo above doesn’t do justice to the fantastic job Detroit area planners did in designing the route (which connects from the Eastern Market to the Riverwalk) so here are two more photos from my 2011 visit.
Nice wide travel lanes and beautiful landscaping.
And a collection of some of the best graffiti art in Detroit. The art was intentionally left in place when the Dequindre Cut was built. The city even encourages new works to be installed as long as they are not obscene or offensive and “as long as they pick up their aerosol cans after themselves.“
Arriving downtown, I came across the fabulous public beach of Campus Martius Park.
Spotted a Zagster bike share station.
Observed residents at play in public spaces designed to encourage interaction.
This gentleman was on his way home from the Hub of Detroit bicycle store. He had just gotten a new set of tires but kept his old set because he didn’t want them to go to waste. We ended up having a nice chat about Detroit, touching on the myriad of positive developments and even how the city could be doing a better job on some things.
At an intersection across the street from one more Detroit icon -American Coney Island, I noticed a group of riders with some cool custom bikes. I had a hunch we were headed to the same place. So I took that as my cue to head on over to the Old Shillelagh and finally meet Slow Roll in person.
To be continued…