Friday, July 30, 2010

Greenfield Village

When I had had my fill of ironic distance from Henry Ford's simulacrum of small town America, I headed toward the exit. An old motor coach from the 30s or 40s was barreling down the road I was walking beside, and tooted its horn at some people crossing the road. One of the people, a young man, started running to get out of the way. The other person, a middle aged lady, stiffly stopped and waved the bus on. The bus driver seemed a little sheepish about this, but continued on after a brief pause. Then the lady finished crossing the street. I heard her grumbling to her companions about how she can't stop suddenly. Her legs were covered in swollen veins.

Greenfield Village could not shut out the tension between speed and social life.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Biking into the Belly of the Beast (by which I mean Dearborn)

On Monday I rode my loaned cruiser from Corktown to Dearborn, ready to spend some scrilla on admission to Greenfield Village and the Henry Ford Museum.

I used Google Maps' bike directions to figure out a route, and I had passed through Dearborn when arriving in Detroit from a bike tour across Michigan last summer, so I figured it couldn't be that impossible to bike there.

The first impressive thing I encountered was this massive pedestrian bridge project that connects Bagley Street across the Fisher Freeway.

Rather striking, Calatrava-esque. It was totally empty, though. And why are there so many bike racks? Who is locking up their bike at this bridge instead of taking it across the bridge to Mexicantown? Nobody, apparently.

This thing looked brand spanking new. There was also a mural.

I think it's probably supposed to celebrate international friendship, but it looks more like a yummy rendering of Detroit and Windsor as colorful pizzas. Also, it's a well known problem that you can't take a bike across either the bridge or the tunnel on the international border. A bit ironic, then, to have these fancy bike racks in the foreground of the mural.

Once I crossed the ped bridge I noticed that it creates a striking contrast with the iconic Michigan Central Station looming on the horizon.

I decided to stop in at Café con Leche on Vernor Highway in Mexicantown cause I wanted to see if it reminded me of LA. It did. Seems like a pleasant meeting spot. When I was leaving, having been latte-d to perfection, a strange young gent pulled his bike up by mine and asked if I was so-and-so's friend. Turns out he is on the board of directors of the Hub/Back Alley Bikes, and I was supposed to talk to him at the chicken races the day before, but I'd run off to enjoy a bike ride through downtown before sunset. It was a perfect illustration of the best side of Detroit's networked universe, at least relative to the vastness of LA. In LA you can be working on some problem at the same time as someone else and have no idea. For example, CicLAvia recently found out that the city of Santa Monica will be holding its own ciclovía on the same day as us (10-10-10! What fun it will be!). Who knows how long they have been planning this?
But in Detroit, it seems more likely that people cross paths when working on similar projects.

I rode on to Dearborn, passing through first a scrapyard area where I probably breathed in some metal dust, then a working class neighborhood, and then through some legitimately enormous industrial complexes.

I think I might have skirted the Ford Rouge plant.

I'm an experienced vehicular cyclist, so even though I was on a squeaky old cruiser and a few times I wondered if I'd accidentally turned onto a freeway onramp I didn't feel too uncomfortable with semis whizzing past. Plus, it wasn't heavy traffic, just a truck passing every so often with plenty of lanes to spare.

When I reached an area in Dearborn that seemed to be nothing but suburban office complexes and the most blandly exclusive subdivisions I could imagine, I did hop onto a sidewalk. But then I took a lane again once I saw street signs directing me to the Henry Ford stuff.

I felt a haughty pride as I passed under the gates of the park. My princess dress may have been drenched with sweat, but I'd ridden a bike to a monument of car culture tucked into one of the least human scale landscapes I've seen in a while.

I've been using an iPhone app called Cyclemeter to track my bike rides, so here's a record of how I got to the Henry Ford from Corktown.

View Larger Map

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Detroit ≠ Détruit

(I couldn't resist that pun, it cycles through my mind regularly)

This summer I'm doing a project where I compare formal bike infrastructure and DIY approaches to making biking easier in LA, Portland, Detroit, and New York. Why four cities? Yeah I don't know. Comparisons are seductive for anthropologists.

I'm researching bike infrastructure issues in Detroit now. There are a few off street bike paths here, but for the most part there are no bike lanes, no signage, nothing to indicate the presence of bicycles. There are a fair number of bicycles, though.

When I visited this place last summer, a few things struck me:
1. So many European intellectuals visiting at any given time
2. Everyone here knows each other
3. Bicycling is a horse of a different color here.

It all still holds. Detroit has become a laboratory for people curious about urban farming, architecture, decay, rebuilding a localized economy, and shifting away from cars. Living here seems hard in some ways, for instance the center city suffers from a lack of services. If you are alternatively minded, though, the opportunities for creative solutions to survival overflow.

The city's wide avenues work well for bicycling, especially because density is a hard thing to find here. The only crowd I've seen so far had gathered around a high school football game. I knew something must be up, cause I was riding along an otherwise empty street and came upon lots and lots of parked cars. Then I saw the game, which explained the people.

Bicycling here feels very free in some ways. The painted lines of the street seem irrelevant on a four lane street with nobody else around. I can turn in wide arcs instead of sharp darts. Oops, missed the turn; make a big ol' U turn, no problem.

At the same time, many parts of the city have been abandoned, creating grids of empty fields marked by one or two remaining old row houses. As an outsider I don't know how to gauge where it is a better or worse idea to travel. I like to drift around and explore unfamiliar cities, and it is so easy to bike here that it seems inviting to just wander around. The other day, though, I found myself on a block of ruins with no major street in sight, a disabled person sitting in a wheelchair in the middle of the road, a few pedestrians walking toward me, and one or two cars cruising past. Oh shit, it dawned on me. Am I safe?

Part of it stems from my Californian ignorance regarding Midwestern color lines. As a brown person, I do not understand how to negotiate the habitual divides between blacks and whites in this part of the country. What do Detroiters think when I ride by on a cruiser, clad in some turquoise dress, looking my most Mexican with my deep summer tan? Does race matter when one is clearly subculturally marked "hipster"? How does socioeconomic status get revealed through things like a vintage bicycle and pink plastic glasses?

The other factor I've encountered in bicycling in Detroit stems from an opposite problem to what we face in LA. There, I worry about not being noticed by drivers. Their lack of attention freaks me out on a regular basis. Here, the attention is a-flowin', but it's pretty sexualized. I am not accustomed to people talking to me through car windows, or trying to have a conversation with me as I ride past. When I'm riding in LA I feel pretty insulated from unwanted social interaction, like much more so than when I'm walking or using public transportation. In Detroit I haven't tried taking a walk cause it seems like there would be no buffer at all between me and every man who wants to comment on my body in some way.

In short, the experience of bicycling in Detroit becomes highly gendered because of cultural norms regarding attention to female bodies, and the requisite exposure of bodies in an activity like cycling.

I'm still enjoying being here and biking here, though, despite feeling like a spectacle from outer space sometimes. I went to an art festival on Belle Isle (America's largest city-owned island park) yesterday. The people contributing to Access Arts got to design installations around trees, fields, and other earth forms in the park. Visitors could pick up maps from various points around the island.

My favorite piece, Jacklyn Brickman's "Vernal Pond(s)," invited visitors to make sounds with various devices strung up in a tree or attached to a fence. A little booklet gave instructions on how to approach the noisemakers, and since the artist was on hand she explained that each sound derived from a frog call.

This part of the installation let you pluck a rubberband that had been strung across a plastic cup. We were instructed to wait ten seconds between plucks. Each cup produced a slightly different tone. I think this one referenced tree frog calls.

Then I rode back into town, and oh my gosh, the combination of the blue green river and the gorgeous sky, so lovely.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Cruisers...aren' bad

I got to Detroit at 12:30 am last night, and was promptly spirited away to a wonderful land of showers and couches by my gracious hostess, Mary Beth.

This morning we headed to Ann Arbor, where she's been househunting in preparation for starting a grad program at University of Michigan in the fall. We took along some bikes so she could show me around the place.

I assumed Ann Arbor would be similar to Eugene, Berkeley, Austin, or any other college town I've visited. And it was, which is not a bad thing. Lots and lots of subdivided houses crammed with tiny units housing students sit in relaxed neighborhoods, and the numerous porches see frequent use. It reminded me that this part of the country seems teeming with life to me, what with all its humidity and greenery. I'm still digging this "exotic Midwest" thing for whatever reason.

We rode bikes around the university area. Mary Beth fixed me up with this pretty old Schwinn cruiser, the same kind of bike I'd just been bashing yesterday with a friend while having lunch in Chicago on my train layover.

As I am accustomed to hand brakes, and know how to get my road bike's pedals quickly in position to start off again, I found stopping and starting on this guy a little difficult. But I actually enjoyed riding it a lot more than I expected. It does feel awfully regal to sit up straight and pedal down the middle of the road, never fidgeting with shifters or bending over the handlebars to get speed.

Part of the pleasantness derived from the general behavior of Ann Arbor drivers, who appear to have surrendered to the inevitability of unexpectedly darting pedestrians and bicyclists. Even as I struggled to stop just so, or started pedaling in anything but a straight line, I felt pretty safe. Nobody honked, nobody swerved. I didn't notice much bike signage or even many bike lanes, but there still seemed to be a general attitude of acceptance of bikes. People freaking shared the road!

Grabbing lunch in a food co-op, I had a conversation with the cashier about the differences between biking in LA and in Ann Arbor because he had spent some time commuting from Inglewood to West Hollywood. This thing on my leg, which I keep forgetting about, keeps revealing my secret bike identity to strangers. Mission accomplished.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Southwest Chief, Over and Over Again

I'm once again speeding east on the Southwest Chief, Amtrak's line running from Los Angeles to Chicago. My destination is Detroit, which can be reached from Chicago on a line called the Wolverine (grrr! Ferocious).
I can't remember how many times I've taken this train. Maybe this is my fifth ride in the last two years?
Perhaps my favorite part of train travel happens in the middle of the night, when I get awoken from my light sleep by a sudden lurch as the train stops. I look outside, and there sits some old brick town that has been slowly drying up since the demise of Route 66. This time I woke up at Needles, on the state line between California and Arizona, and beheld a massive ghostly complex sitting next to the tracks. I couldn't figure out if it was a ruin or some half finished parking garage with Doric columns as flourishes. It went on and on down the tracks, layer upon layer of colonnades.
Up top it read "El Garces," so I took advantage of my mobile phone and discovered that it is an old Harvey House that is being restored.
Fred Harvey built an empire on providing good meals and clean beds to rail travelers in that bygone age when enough Americans rode trains that it made sense to feed them something better than slop.
Now most of his hotels sit empty and decaying along the tracks, hopefully haunted by the hardworking eastern girls Harvey recruited and the travelers they served.
I just passed through Las Vegas, New Mexico in a thunderstorm and saw another Harvey House, the Castaneda. Its windows can't see for the boards covering them.
As I was leaving Union Station in LA I noticed that there will soon be a Subway Sandwiches franchise stinking up the place.
Fred Harvey, rise from your grave and comfort us weary travelers!

Monday, July 19, 2010

Drifting in East Hollywood

My recent visit to Portland reminded me how much I like walking through streetcar suburbs while awash in delightful songs. On Sunday I decided to go for a solitary ramble in my neighborhood in LA, which sits at the convergence of Koreatown, East Hollywood, and Virgil Village.
First I cut up to Cafecito Organico at Hoover and Bellevue, the coffee shop run by a fellow ecovillager. Iced coffee in hand, I proceeded to bounce across the neighborhood while listening to two Marshall Crenshaw songs on repeat. I pretty much had it to myself. When I got near churches other humans would appear, but it was mostly just me, old houses, and broken sidewalks torn apart by upthrusting roots.
I walked over to the Bicycle District at Heliotrope and Melrose, then continued along Melrose under the 101. At the next residential street, Mariposa, I made a right and found myself on a rather charming block.

It had big trees and an honest mix of restored and dilapidated homes. Also, it's situated on a hill, so the views are nice. My phone camera was not up to the task of capturing them, though.
I turned right on Oakwood and made my way to the Beverly Hot Springs, which uses the same mineral waters that used to feed the Bimini Baths on my block. In typical Korean spa fashion, one entered through the parking lot. There was a little pedestrian gate into the lot, but it was totally blocked by the driveway gate that had been left open.

Hmmph. It was too hot for a spa day, so I plunged back into the neighborhood instead.
In total I walked for about two hours and saw lots of new blocks.
I had to write a lot recently about the different experiences of space we have if we bike instead of drive, but something I tend to gloss over is the difference between walking and biking.
For me the biggest difference is paying attention to other road users when I'm biking and paying attention to houses when I'm walking. I tend to bike AS FAST AS POSSIBLE, whereas when I walk I like to meander. It has a lot to do with the prevailing style of interacting on roads, too. In LA it's all ZOOM-SWERVE-SLAM BRAKES.
Meanwhile the neighborhoods beckon.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Embodying Bike Love: The Story of My Sharrow Tattoo

[I wrote this for the LA Eco-Village Blog. Writing in the summertime seems less appealing than drinking white beer and staring at walls of sound, so I'm kind of slacking on the composition front at this time]

I’m an ecovillager who is studying to get a PhD in cultural anthropology, and my dissertation project revolves around biking in LA. I’m going to spend a lot of time in the next year talking to people and writing about the way our bodies become engaged with our city differently through bicycling than they do through driving or walking.
Since I think of bicyclists as “body-city-machines,” I started wondering about the boundaries between our bodies, our bikes, and our streets. How do they get stirred up as we ride? As an experiment, I decided to do some active boundary blurring and get a sharrow tattoo.
As many cyclists know, “sharrows” are share-the-road-arrows or, as they are listed officially in the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), shared lane markings. They get painted onto roadways to remind cyclists and drivers that the safest place to bike is in the middle of the lane, not hugging parked cars. I really like the design of the sharrow, with its simply bicycle outline and two chevrons indicating forward motion. So a few weeks ago I visited New Rose Tattoo in Portland and consulted with Mikal Gilmore, who had just finished tattooing a friend.
My friend Kristen Cross documented the process for me.

Mikal developed this stencil by just going outside of her house and looking at the street, since Portland had just painted a whole bunch of bright, shiny new sharrows on many bike routes. The tattoo design differs a bit from the MUTCD regulation sharrow:

Let’s hope I don’t get fined for installing nonstandard signage. Not only does the symbol differ slightly, my tattoo is not retroreflectorized.

I felt like getting a sharrow tattoo would not only be a fun way to display my interest in transforming how we move in the United States, but also be a play on infrastructure.

It hurt.

It’s exciting to run around with this guy on my leg, especially since the City of LA just started painting their own sharrows due to the hard work of the LA County Bike Coalition. It also makes me feel like my commitment to bikes is something inalienable, something embodied.
Coming soon: a picture of the sharrow tattoo riding over one of LA’s new official sharrows.