Friday, August 28, 2009

On Returning to Los Angeles

This morning we disembarked from our Superliner Roomette on the Southwest Chief and re-entered the metropolis of Los Angeles. It was smoky out, as there were some fires burning in various hills. Unfortunately Bobby's bike was a wee bit smashed by its travels on the train; somehow Amtrak managed to bend his fork and his rack such that the bike is currently unrideable. We waited around for a while doing claims paperwork and then headed home on the Red Line.
I had tried to think of LA as another one of the urban centers we had visited on our trip, like a new Oz on the horizon rather than a familiar welter of sounds, motors, and colorful language. I was kind of successful, and it actually made my homecoming more pleasant than usual.
I'm awfully behind on documenting our travels, and I'll be making it up over time. Each city we visited seduced me (except Cleveland, sorry), and I've much to say about Detroit.
The smoke has dissipated, it's breezy out, and even the foul words of my loudmouthed neighbor drifting in the window add to the lovely afternoon.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Live from Ruggles Beach!

Today's the last day of the distance biking portion of our trip. We're somewhere between Huron and Ruggles Beach, Ohio, at a motel on the shore of Lake Erie. I have tremendous plans for adding entries to this thing about our bike trip across Michigan and our week in Detroit, but it hasn't happened yet. We've been spending all our time meeting people and seeing things. For example, yesterday we crossed the Detroit River in Ontario, Canada, had breakfast in a small café in Kingsville, and boarded a ferry to Pelee Island (about which a Canadian woman sitting next to me in a bar at the top of Detroit's tallest building, the Ren Cen, said, "I wouldn't call it beautiful"), in the Canadian Bahamas. From there we took another ferry to Sandusky, Ohio, viewing the dreadful climbs and falls of Cedar Point, Ohio's Knott's Berry Farm (it's true! There's a Camp Snoopy and everything).
Check out time, more from Cleveland, where we're arriving later today.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Biking Across Michigan: Day 2

We left our host's home in Grand Rapids around 10 am on a Thursday and hit up a local sporting goods store to get a gazeteer that showed us Michigan's streets in more detail than a folding map would.

We rode rode rode along Grand River Avenue for many miles, passing through some small towns. We stopped for lunch at a place that made pies, bread, and pastries. Delicious English muffin bread! So not all of America's wholesome food producers have been destroyed by Wal-Mart and Costco and fast food.

When you're cycling at speed along verdant highways, you catch a lot of bugs, just as a car windshield does. Occasionally I'd feel a little slap as some bug or other lost its life against my skin. At least they didn't splat on me, just glanced off. On our first day of riding it was worse, because the bugs were butterflies and they kept flinging themselves into our bike wheels.

The air was hot and damp, but we kept up a wind by riding fast across the flat plains.

Lots of clouds, corn, and soybeans. Actually we didn't see any other crops.

Some fields had little signs stuck in the ground at intervals along the road that specified what genetically modified seed was growing in that section. Creepy stuff.

We had intended to make it to Lansing on our first day, but then we rode into charming Portland.

Though this little town has a well-maintained little Main Street, there are no hotels in that section. We had to bike out to some chain motel located next to a freeway interchange a few miles away. However, Portland has a collection of river trails that allowed us to bike from our motel to the restaurants in town looking at old bridges instead of dodging highway traffic.

This was a very pleasant surprise; we hadn't expected bike facilities in rural Michigan.

When we biked back to the interstate motel after a large cajun dinner, many fireflies lighted our path eerily through the green corridor we followed.

Biking Across Michigan Interlude: Grand Rapids

We spent a day wandering around Grand Rapids while our legs recovered from our first day of distance biking.

Grand Rapids is home to an old farmer's market from the early twentieth century called Fulton Farmer's Market. Our host took us there on a Wednesday, and introduced us to a manager who also happened to be an anthropologist. She's done work on Polish social clubs and is wrapping up a master's thesis on farmer's markets. (There's a lot of fodder for anthropologizing in alternative exchanges like these).

We bought some jam, even though the vendor really wanted us to buy hummus. It's a free country, damn it!

Grand Rapids has an old downtown a few blocks east of the Grand River that runs through the city. This old downtown has been revitalized and there are a lot of bicyclists. There are also events held at night that include hundreds (!!) of teenagers having good clean fun. We witnessed a swing dancing party in Rosa Parks Square that went on for hours. Apparently they also hold some kind of record for the most people pretending to be zombies at once (one of those pointless over compromised Guiness Book of World Records things). I guess it's good that not as many of them are on the streets doing drugs, but Grand Rapids does have gang activity in some areas. The local media, however, has a policy of not covering gang-related violence because it might lead to more gangs. Hmm.

There's a large Alexander Calder stabile in GR in a little-used civic center plaza.

You know what else Grand Rapids has, a Gerald R. Ford museum! Sadly we did not make it there, but I'm sure I would have gotten totally into Gerald R. Ford if we had.

Since we were staying with a prominent bike advocate, we got to listen in on one of the first meetings of the Greater Grand Rapids Bike Coalition (something like that). It took place in the delightfully appointed home/ studio/ gallery of a local artist in a converted building that was pretty fancypants. Then our host took us to the Motion Initiative workshop, pictured below.

This place, which takes up two adjacent garages and also uses a large basement for bike storage, started a few years ago out of the backs of two guys' trunks. They wanted to show kids how to repair bikes, and built up a mobile workshop and now have this large location to work from. The Motion Initiative differs from other bike workshops in its Christian mission, though Dwayne, one of the founders, told me that they've preferred to follow Christian guiding principles rather than adopting an in-your-face, proselytizing model. I like the mobile workshop, and they've been able to give bikes to ten children through their volunteer credits program.

After this we visited local watering hole Founder's Brewery. This place supplies beer to a lot of local people, and we'd heard about it numerous times before we actually made it there. It was SO LOUD. I mean, I spend time in bars, I know loud, but damn, they kept cranking the volume up as the evening wore on. Guess what I've learned about the Midwest: people loves em some beer, and more please.

Exploring Milwaukee

Again, I'm taking a break from chronological linearity on the blog right now. This time I'm traveling back to August 9-10, when we were convinced to stay in Milwaukee instead of immediately jumping on an early morning ferry across Lake Michigan.
From our Couchsurfing hosts' apartment in Riverwest, we rode along a beautiful trail to downtown Milwaukee, stopping at local fixture Alterra. The bike racks testify to the popularity of this coffee shop.

And here's the facade of the place, this one housed in a sewage pumping facility that is actually still functioning.

Later we rode along a lakeshore trail and jumped in the freezing waters of Lake Michigan. After that we went to see the famous Santiago Calatrava-designed art museum. Here's a detail shot Bobby took:

And here's the harp-like complex viewed from beneath the older museum building/ war memorial next door that was designed by Eero Saarinen.

A little bit down the lakeshore from these museums sits a really neat public art installation called Wind Leaves. It's these tall funny half circles covered in giant sequins that shake in the wind, causing pleasant sounds and flashing sparkles.

In short, Milwaukee has many delights to offer. Maybe one day I'll consider a post-doc at the University of Wisconsin. Of course, the city's highly segregated, with the usual gentrification cycles going on, and a lot of areas that are considered uninhabitable by local whites. But what city is immune to these problems? At least more and more people are facing this shit instead of running and hiding from it in the suburbs.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Biking Across Michigan: Day 1

I'm a bit behind in documenting our bike trip, so I'm time traveling back through the journey.
Tuesday, August 11: That morning we left our happy hosts' home in Riverwest, Milwaukee at 5 am to catch a 6 am ferry across Lake Michigan. By 9:30 am EST, we were brushing our teeth in a ferry terminal in Muskegon, Michigan. Shortly our bike trip across Michigan began.
Muskegon looks like something bad hit it, or has been hitting it for many years. It's got a lot of old houses, and its city hall is a brutalist bunker, but there are a lot of empty lots and it took us about half an hour of riding around to find an open restaurant. Then we discovered that the city has a designated bike path along a major street, Laketon Avenue.

This took us nearly all the way across the city to the Musketawa Trail, a rails-to-trails conversion that spans almost the distance between Muskegon and Grand Rapids, our next destination.

26 miles of this, much of it shaded by overhanging canopy on both sides.

We stopped for lunch at Ravenna, one of the villages the trail passes through. Hungry beasts that we were, we ran through a grocery store grabbing wildly for sustenance. We ended up feasting on roast chicken, Chex mix, apples, chocolate pudding, and this Midwestern delight, banana Nilla wafer pudding:

Then the bees found us and demanded our chicken, so we had to run away.

Finally after hours of cycling, and the harsh realization that my bike shorts, while awesome, really do need a pad for additional comfort, we made it to the end of the trail. See?

After the end of the Musketawa Trail, we had to wind our way through suburbs on the outskirts of Grand Rapids. This meant riding along a highway and being harrassed by teen boy drivers for a few hours till we finally reached the city itself. Instead of staying over with the Couchsurfing contact we'd found, we decided to treat ourselves to all the luxury a Days Inn can afford.
Total miles traveled: 39-45, not really sure.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Watching LA from Milwaukee

Tonight we saw "(500) Days of Summer" (you know it takes itself seriously as an artistic statement cause of the parentheses. Pro tip!) at the Oriental Theater in Milwaukee. I had read A.O. Scott's review of the movie a while ago, and wanted to see it because it uses downtown LA as a setting that is lifestyle urban rather than post-apocalyptic. I had prepared myself for cloying indie cliches and an undeveloped (yet adorably quirky!) female lead. There was a lot of boring gendered crap, too, with the female lead being the only woman in the movie universe who didn't look like a trashy barfly, and the male lead's requisite dumb friends saying stupid shit about girls being stuck up bitches. Uh...huh. And there was lots and lots of LA, which Bobby and I gleefully recognized like an old friend had made it as a character actor after working for years as a peon in the industry.
But then, when the male lead is explaining LA's architectural worth to the female lead, he drops this little bomb: "The street isn't so exciting, but if you look up..." and then cue the car commercial as the camera pans up and the whimsical music plays. So basically if you overlook all the pesky humanoids who inhabit LA and just admire the few buildings that remain of its urban past, what is it that you're appreciating? A shell of a city? Cities are made of people. The thing is, that is such a typically architectural trope: the landscape would be so lovely if all the people were gone, or used it just right, or whatever.
I say, downtown LA is not best viewed swept clean of the bustling throngs that have converted so many old buildings into flea markets, small businesses, and churches. The Latino community that thrives in downtown LA defines the city so much more than beautiful but empty old buildings do.
The Hollywood representation machine does much to define the world for movie viewers, and it's nice that this movie shows an LA different from what so many others have thrown at audiences (dangerous, awful, hideous, full of sirens, volcanic). The male lead even rides a bus at one point, though it's mostly done as a contrast to "The Graduate"'s final bus scene. In the end, though, if you ignore the life that happens in Los Angeles you're just generating another simulacrum that will fool so many into believing it to be real. And hey, reality check, LA is a hell of a lot more than an architect's urban fantasy of a Mexican-free skyline. Thank goodness!

Riding through downpours in two states

Now I've gotten soaked on my bicycle in Chicago and Milwaukee. Getting soaked in Milwaukee was way better, cause I was much closer to my hosts' house and am now sitting dry and warm in their cozy kitchen. In Chicago, woof! what a nightmare it is to be drenched miles and miles from where your dry (but very dirty) other traveling clothes are hiding. We visited the Chicago History Museum on Friday, having stayed the night in Rogers Park at the Roost, a small intentional community up there. We started the day with a very nice cat named Hazel, and then moved on to the Heartland Cafe for breakfast. I hear it's a local icon, and I can vouch for their breakfast burrito. We took the Red Line down to the Clark station, and rode the few blocks to the museum from there. It had started raining a bit, but a warm rain that we didn't mind very much.
Hours later, having walked through every cheesy exhibit in the museum (industry! creativity! crisis! IS Chicago!) (I liked it though, especially the parts about the Haymarket Affair and the race riots of 1919. Although they did pretty much gloss over the bad stuff about exploiting workers as exposed by Upton Sinclair in The Jungle in favor of celebrating the revolutionary development of ways to process kajillions of pigs in one place. Build me a theme park ride based on The Jungle, and I'm yours. What a missed opportunity), we finally left to face the steady sheets of rain pouring down. Not far from the Gold Coast area where the museum is situated lies one of Chicago's hipster districts, Wicker Park. According to the bike map, it wouldn't take us long to bike over there where we could find some tasty lunch. So we started riding, and it just felt awful. We got soaking wet pretty immediately, with disgusting grey water thrown on us by passing cars and hurled onto our backs by our own fenderless rear wheels. By the time we made it to Earwax, a circus themed diner, I had to peel my wannabe windbreaker (not at all waterproof) off of myself and squeeze the cuffs like sponges. Then I shivered through some pulled pork (no coleslaw!) and ice cream and then we went across the street to Myopic Books to try and warm up. It wasn't actually cold out, though the soaking had lowered both our temperatures and the ambient temperature a little bit. The bookstore, while obviously beloved and full of character, did not offer much in the warmth department. I sat my damp self on a couch for a while and then bought a book to make up for the fact that I'd left a strange watermark on a cushion.
Okay, so you can't take bikes on the L between 4 and 7 pm, and it was like 6 pm when we left the bookstore to make our way back to Hyde Park, so we found a bus. Two buses and an hour and a half later, we finally made it to our dry clothes.
Contrast to this the Milwaukee situation, wherein we rode over to a lovely beach on Lake Michigan, splashed around in the freezing water, and then left as a thunderstorm was beginning over our heads. We rode about five miles through the storm with no incidents, and, like I said before, cozy kitchen etc.
I think I like small cities better than big cities. Milwaukee does remind me of my darling Portland, what with its nice cafés, good local coffee, and tattooed bike activists of my generation. Oh yeah, and this too:

Milwaukee gets SIX THUMBS UP

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Open Streets: Chicago's Ciclovía

On Saturday, August 1, the Active Transportation Alliance hosted Open Streets, closing eight miles of roads to cars and opening them to pedestrians. I checked it out around the Green Line.

Despite the rain, there was a smattering of bicyclists trickling past, and booths to support them. Also, bike rental:

There were recreational activities set up and kids seemed to be enjoying this big jumpy thing.

When I headed back to the El station, these volunteers stopped me and asked me to fill out a survey. I felt I was a pretty ideal survey candidate since I'm a ciclovía activist. They were nice and let me take a copy of the survey.

The tone of the event matched that of Bogotá's ciclovía, where wet streets do not necessarily fill with people but there is a steady stream of users passing through. It made me think about the difficulties of introducing the ciclovía concept to Americans because it's not a street fair or a parade (though those things could be contained within a ciclovía). The closest we've been able to get with our descriptions of cicLAvia is that the closures create a linear park and make better connections between popular destinations. I wonder how many people came out for Open Streets this time around.

Exploring Chicago on Bikes and Trains

Riding and walking along the shore of Lake Michigan is made easy through a good portion of the city because of this Lakeshore Trail. It does crowd up, though, so you'd better like dodging little kids.

Here's the view up a pedestrian walkway leaving an El station that's situated in the middle of an expressway.

Some train stations, like the Blue Line's Jackson station, are underground, but most are elevated.

There are a lot of people on bikes in Chicago, including this dude who is wearing a Michael Jackson tribute shirt and sitting at a weird angle.

Here we are as reflected in Cloudgate/ the Bean.

Southwest Chief

The Southwest Chief travels between Los Angeles and Chicago. It leaves LA at 6:45 pm and arrives at 3:20 pm in Chicago two days later. Here, at Amtrak's website, you can view a map of the route. I didn't take many pictures on my trip because train windows tend to be smudged and things whip past while you list from side to side, but here are a few:

A storm over Kansas as night falls.

Earlier, golden plains catch the last rays of sunlight.

The fantastical spires of Trinidad, Colorado.

Busy Lil Traveler

I'm sitting under a viaduct that lets Metra trains run over Hyde Park, Chicago. Yes, LA is far away! I rode the Southwest Chief from there to here between last Tuesday and Thursday, spending 42 hours total aboard the train. Then I got swept up in festivities for a friend's wedding, and am just now emerging from party mode and re-entering Urban Exploration mode. Bobby's here, we've got our bikes, and I've now traveled from Hyde Park to Rogers Park on the Lakeshore Trail.
Things that I have learned about Chicago:
1. People swim in the lake, and the color of the water is lovely in spots
2. People will refer to an area as having bad transit connections if there's no L stop close by (buses considered less good)
3. There are many bike workshops here, some of which are making connections between low-income cyclists and the bike movement
4. The Chicagoland Bicycle Federation is now called ActiveTrans and they contract with the city sometimes
5. Molecular gastronomy thrives here
6. Ditto on mixology
What is this strange place that lies in the midst of vast farmlands and lakes and hills on a flat plain that doesn't seem inclined to mimic New York in all ways? The city's full of tourist attractions, and this reminds me of San Francisco. SF stands in as the Platonic "city" for Californians, and maybe Chicago does that for midwesterners.