My hunch proved to be correct, the guys with the cool bikes were headed to Slow Roll. As they crossed the intersection, a mother and daughter drafted into the flow.
The crew was from the Southwest side of Detroit. They wanted to know if I was headed to Slow Roll and was it my first time. I told them that I was back ‘home’ on a visit from NYC and yes, I was a Slow Roll ‘virgin’.
The night’s meet up point was the Old Shillalegh parking lot in Greektown. A steady stream of people on bikes slowly trickled in. There were also a lot of people arriving by car, unloading bicycles brought along for the ride. You may question why one would want to arrive at a bike ride by car. At least two reasons for this. One: many of Detroit’s streetlights don’t work. Once it gets dark, it may not be safe (or feel safe) for some one to ride back to their home neighborhood. Two: people come from all over to participate in Slow Roll. One of my cousins and her husband travel from Ypsilanti (about 40 minutes away by car) to Slow Roll. They were joining that night; as were other cousins, spouses and old friends.
From of the corner of my eye, I spied a gentleman unloading some familiar looking custom bicycles. Excited, I hurried over to ask if he was with Grown Men on Bikes. He was and his name was Marcus. Introducing myself to him, I explained that I had been following them for a few years and was elated to meet them. GMOB, as they are familiarly known is one of many cycling clubs in Detroit. Aside from fabulous custom bicycles and panache, the thing that made me such a big fan of GMOB was their requirement that members volunteer time for community service. Marcus was a bit bemused when I asked to take his photo. “With my wife’s bike?” Sadly, I neglected to introduce myself to his wife- because damn, she is a woman after my own heart. Love those shoes.
The steady trickle of people on bicycles gathered up steam. The parking lot and streets surrounding the Old Shillelagh began to resemble a happy beehive of cyclists. It was a diverse and beautiful crowd- representing the many faces of Detroit.
Another Slow Roller kindly introduced me to Mike MacKool (one of Slow Roll’s co-founders- in case you missed my previous post). During our brief chat, I discovered they were still able to host Slow Roll without needing a permit. Considering how many people show up for Slow Roll each week (2200 the night I rode, over 4000 at the August 24th ride according to posts on their FB page)- that’s pretty incredible. I scrambled onto the bed of a pick-up truck to try and get a shot of how many people were in attendance. I would have been better off climbing on top of the People Mover or one of the buildings – it’s impossible to convey the number of people amassed through my photos.
Past Comerica Stadium- home to the Detroit Tigers baseball team.
Downtown gently faded into the background as we pedaled east.
I love the picture above, since it’s the only one I managed to get of Slow Roll co-founder Jason Hall riding. (Correction, it’s not Jason Hall but Bobby Brown, Jr, but I still love the photo.). You can also see Jason and the Slow Roll in this recently released Apple commercial. It’s great to finally see Detroit represented in a positive light- nationally. Frankly, I prefer this TedX Detroit 2103 clip where he talks (humbly and humorously) about the journey and reasons behind Slow Roll. One of them- he wanted to bring people back into Detroit and remind them what a great place it is. A handful of people have even moved back in to the city because of Slow Roll.
I think it’s safe to say that Jason and Mike have succeeded beyond expectations.
Even though the Slow Roll Code of Conduct asks cyclists to stay right (so as not to impede motor vehicle traffic), most of the time we had the streets to ourselves. There were no street closures, it’s simply that most of the streets we traveled just didn’t have any MV traffic. We were just a glorious sea of people on bikes. This may not represent daily cycling in Detroit yet, but sit up and take notice Denmark and the Netherlands.
Speaking of the Netherlands, I even spotted my first bakfiets in Detroit.
The pace of Slow Roll is just that: slow and easy. It’s a very family friendly event and it was great to see the number of kids along for the ride.
Rounding a corner somewhere in East Detroit, I stopped to hang with one of The Squad (and try to find my friend who was somewhere in the sea of Slow Rollers). Straddling our bikes as we watched everyone roll by, he told me how much he loves everyone who comes out to Slow Roll and that everyone was his favorite. I met many people that night. Though I remember faces and conversations, sadly I either forgot or didn’t get everyone’s name. I mention this because the Code of Conduct also asks people to make friends. How can you not love a bike gathering that puts making friends at the top of their priorities? Pretty frickin’ cool.
Stopped at a red light, I spotted the most precious Slow Roll participant of the evening.
Throughout the city, people cheered us on. They stood on their front porches waving and smiling as we went by. Car drivers honked and pumped their fists in the air in encouragement. Others were curious and riders rallied them to join ‘next time’. At one point we even encountered a Detroit fire truck who tooted his horn in solidarity with our bells. Slow Roll is infectious, even when you’re not riding a bicycle.
I was a bit slow to notice people detouring ‘off the route’ and wondered what they were doing. Then I realized we were at the Heidelberg Project which was started by Tyree Guyton in 1986 as a reaction to the deteriorating conditions of his neighborhood. The last two times I had been in Detroit, I had wanted to visit but things didn’t work out. The Heidelberg project has been the target of arsonist attacks over the past year, destroying 6 out of the 10 buildings. Sincerely hoping the remaining buildings survive for future generations. This very pleasant surprise was made even more special by a little homage to NYC.
Eventually, the clouds let loose and the ride started circling back towards our meet-up point in Greektown. Despite the rain, the mood remained ebullient and smiles abounded.
Finally; I found my friend, soaked and grinning from ear to ear.
Back in Greektown, I reconnected with the last of my family who rode (and those who didn’t). Jason and Mike made sure people stayed respectful and invited them to join for the after party at Old Shillelagh. Some people headed home, while others stuck around to show off their bikes (yes, those are the bikes of GMOB, East Side Riders, Southwest Riders and more), introduce themselves to other riders or to just try to keep the glow of the evening alive.
In the end, was Slow Roll everything I expected? Yes, and so much more. This isn’t Critical Mass- no politics involved. The only agenda is getting people to fall in love with Detroit again. It’s free and there’s no need to register- just show up (but please make sure the bicycle you plan to ride is in working order). Yes it’s a huge mass of people on bikes but it’s more than that- it’s about community and pride. Slow Roll is the coolest family reunion you never knew you really wanted to attend.
I want everyone to visit Detroit. But do me a favor, please don’t go for the ruin porn or street cred. To explain how Detroit got to the place it’s in today is so complex, it would take volumes to tell the story. And frankly, it’s in a much better place than when I moved to NYC 25 years ago. Go to see the city I love so much, that even though I moved away continues to define the person I am today.
Explore the city’s neighborhoods. If you’re not familiar with Detroit, do reach out to locals for advice on which areas to visit and those you should avoid. Visit our local treasures such as the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Eastern Market, Mexican Village and more. Eat in one of the many fantastic restaurants. Support the local shops. Check out the local music scene (if you’re not familiar with Detroit Gospel, you don’t know what you’re missing).
But most of all, go to meet the people of Detroit. There’s a special kind of pride in Detroit- it’s humble, generous, down to earth and full of love. The people who’ve stayed in Detroit or moved back are the heart and soul of this city. It’s their hope and determination that are reinventing this city one dream at a time. Give them a chance to share that with you.
Make sure to include a Monday night in your stay, because you really don’t want to miss Slow Roll. Detroit: it’s better by bicycle, and why not make a few thousand new friends while you’re at it?
Detroit, I love you.
~~I took close to 290 photos at the Slow Roll and managed to edit them down to 167. If you want to explore the full album click here. Some may seem a bit repetitive at first glance, but each one captures a slightly different perspective of either the Slow Roll community or the landscape of Detroit. Enjoy.