October 19, 2017
The final walk was Michigan Avenue. I liked that it stretched west out of Detroit across the entire state of Michigan, through Indiana and up into Chicago, becoming the Michigan Avenue of downtown Magnificent Mile fame. I liked the poetry of the final road leading me home. Michigan Avenue was built roughly following a Native American path called the Great Sauk Trail, also known as the Potawatomi Trail. Its construction by the U.S. government served the twin needs of settler colonialism -- to facilitate transportation for would-be settlers, and for military defense. In the 1821 Treaty of Chicago, the Odawa, Ojibwe and Potawatomi signers granted the U.S. government permission to build the road through native lands.
The day started with reference to transportation, specifically the auto industry. Theophilus, the Uber driver, was an African American man in his late 60s or early 70s. He had been born in Memphis, and after coming to Detroit in 1965, had worked as a pipe fitter at GM for 37 years. He told me that at the plant in Pontiac where he worked, they had built cars "from the first bolt." He had retired in 2000 and moved from the west side to Southfield, and now spent time with his pinochle club. He told me several stories of what Detroit had been like "back then."
I set off on a sunny fall day, through Corktown, over highways and under bridges. I crossed Highway 94 and entered Dearborn. (See Dearborn/Inkster case studies for information about Dearborn.) This east side is the Arab section of Dearborn, where roughly 40% of the population is Arab American.
Passing through the center of Dearborn, the businesses thinned out, and the road split with local lanes on each side and through-lanes under a bridge. I saw the Dearborn police headquarters building across what was starting to feel like a highway. Then the sidewalks disappeared. A previous drive down Michigan Avenue had prepared me for this, but it was entirely different to actually navigate these sidewalk-less sections. All of the times this happened on all of the walks, I felt exposed and humiliated. The sidewalk sanctioned my presence. Walking on the grass, I felt like a target -- someone who could be sighted and picked up (picked on?) as an outcast, a criminal, a psychotic -- someone outside of society.
The first parts where this happened in Dearborn felt risky but ok. The Ford headquarters was a distracting novelty, as well as the mysterious field of sunflowers next to it. But the section afterwards felt actively dangerous. There was no way to tell if a car was coming over the hill to run me down in the middle of crossing an on-ramp or off-ramp.
I kept going. Pavement re-appeared, then buildings in the distance. Back in “civilization,” it turned out I had reached downtown Dearborn. This is the west side, where the white people live in Dearborn. Construction in progress made me wonder who was investing in this place.
From Inkster into Westland, the landscape became more sparse. I passed a strip club, trying to walk both briskly and nonchalantly at the same time. I unconsciously steel myself in the vicinity of such places -- feeling awkward, endangered, and titillated all at the same time.
Vast expanses of lawn stretched around an abandoned hulk of a hospital. Downtown Wayne was a typical suburban downtown. After that things became more rural. I passed a union hall, with a stern sign at the parking lot entrance warning away foreign cars. Across the street in the distance was a large industrial site, with multiple factory-looking buildings sporting domes and pipes and towers, surrounded by parking lots.
Approaching another highway entrance, the sidewalk disappeared again. I navigated another set of on-ramps and off-ramps, trying to look as if I belonged there and the cars were the declasse intruders. Past the highway entrance, Michigan Avenue itself felt like a highway -- no sidewalks, concrete divider, few businesses. I passed a couple of signs indicating imminent development of malls and corporate complexes.
Entering this indeterminate landscape of sprawl is when I became irrationally angry at what I decided to call "vanity sidewalks." I knew intermittent sidewalks were inevitable, but there was one church that had a sidewalk just for the 25 yards of its property on the road, on either side of the entrance to its parking lot. To add insult to injury, there was a sign posted at either end that declared "SIDEWALK ENDS."
It got darker. I worried that I wouldn’t reach the end before total darkness. I worried that someone in a car would stop to ask if I needed help. I worried that I wouldn’t find an outlet at the destination to charge my phone so I could reach my friends who would be picking me up.
Despite the worry and my (ir)rational anger, I did have a moment of pleasure. In the last 30 minutes, I figured out how to make my gait smoother and longer. My hips, my knees, my feet, all were in sync working together, feeling good. Is that what people mean when they say you hit your stride?
And the sunset was beautiful.
I finished at a Target in a vast mall of big box stores surrounded by acres of parking. I found a spot inside the store, charged my phone, and found my friends.
George Galster. Driving Detroit: The Quest for Respect in the Motor City. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012.
Paul Sewick. “Radial Avenues Part III: Michigan Avenue.” Detroit Urbanism: Uncovering the History of Our Roads, Borders, and Built Environment, September 19, 2016. http://detroiturbanism.blogspot.com/2016/09/radial-avenues-part-iii-michigan-ave.html. Accessed April 15, 2018.
Some photos taken by Tim Johnson and Jennifer Lindemer.