Sunday, February 27, 2011

Minding the Motor City: an Ode to Detroit

Beware Detroit Tigers - the entrance to the baseball stadium
The city of Detroit conjures up two things for me: the brilliant 14-minute Dire Straits anthem "Telegraph Road" and the movie Robocop. I would describe both as bleak, dingy, hard-edged and yet beautiful odes to the aptly-named Motor City. The last time I spent an overnight in Detroit, it was to run the Detroit Marathon the next morning. The time before that, I did the Motor City Triathlon. But I've been in Detroit many more times than that - I just never wanted to stay there.

I've spent more time in Detroit than any major city in the American Midwest (other than places I've lived). The main reason for so many visits is because Detroit is the closest city to Cleveland (my current home) that manages to get bookings of my favorite UK musicians (despite every musician's deepest desire to shout "Hello Cleveland!" while lost in the maze of hallways beneath a music venue).

Thus, once again, this weekend found my husband Jim and me making our way to yet another gig in Detroit, this time to see David Gray at the Detroit Opera House. When we found out it was a Saturday show, we decided to spend the weekend instead of attempting the three-hour drive home after midnight like we always do. We ate at our two favorite area restaurants: dinner at Pizza Papalis in Greektown (discovered before the triathlon in 2008) and brunch, complete with a Michigan pint, at Foran's Grand Trunk Pub (discovered after the marathon in 2010).

And, once again, because I'm training for an Ironman, I had to do a long run the morning after a gig in another city. And despite all my previous trips, today was the first time it was necessary for me to just "go running" in Detroit. Running - or FINDING someplace to run  - was not something I was looking forward to based on what I've seen of and heard about Detroit.

But to be fair, I usually enjoy long runs in new places and this time, I wasn't working with an absence of information. I scoped out a place I already knew - Belle Isle. Belle Isle is an island smack in the middle of the Detroit River with the U.S.A. (to which it belongs) on the west bank and Canada on the east. It is the site of the Motor City Triathlon and about four miles of the Detroit Marathon.

Obviously, I've run on Belle Isle before. What I haven't done is run there alone on a Sunday morning in the winter. And like the bonehead I am, until I was running along the commercial, barren stretch of Jefferson Avenue that leads to the bridge to the Isle (called the MacArthur Bridge), it never occurred to me that this might be a bad idea.

But here's where I can say this: sometimes, not often, being a bonehead has its payoffs. I set out Sunday morning dressed for 30 degrees F with a 10 mph wind from the south. I headed out to the riverfront and then north. I instantly remembered the familiar path I was on - the Detroit Riverwalk. How could I forget it? During the last three miles of the marathon, while on the Riverwalk, I reveled in chasing down several women and men who had passed me early on the course. Except, this time the view and weather were much different. A dismal and cold gray haze hung in the air and all greenery was blanketed with several inches of snow. My only companions on this run were large islands of ice floating along the river's edge.

These floaters are much colder and less friendly
than the ones I race by in my pool lane.
View south toward Robocop's building (i.e., GM Renaissance Ctr)
on Detroit Riverwalk, Detroit-Windsor bridge in distance.
In retracing my steps from the last six miles of of the marathon, I eventually ended up in both upscale new loft housing neighborhoods and barren areas with old buildings and lots of graffiti. But forged on to Belle Isle. And to my extreme surprise, every single person I ran by or near, whether a runner, dog-walker or street-wanderer, had nothing for me but a smile and a greeting. I am happy to say my run wasn't scary at all, and I'm impressed with the care taken to keep Detroit's riverfront recreational, even during the snowy months.

By the time I was heading back, now against the wind, I should have felt much colder. But my heart had warmed to Detroit, and my appreciation of midwesterners had risen to a new level. And although I will probably always miss my native home of New England - with it's rocky beauty and sandy ocean beachscapes - and continue to complain about my adopted home of Cleveland - with its stark machined concreteness and harsh lake-effect winters - this weekend I have discovered quite a bit of depth and beauty in the tough exterior of a Midwest industrial city, and I'm happy to have it as part of my experience.

Beauty in form (and streetlights): MacArthur Bridge to Belle Isle

The river just north of the bridge was the site
where open water ended and a single ice sheet began.

Concrete as functional art - the Detroit Riverwalk has a giant
stamped map of the Detroit, USA - Windsor, Canada region.

1 comment:

  1. All this time I thought that was just a (brilliant) long song.

    Turns out (according to my crack research staff) it was “inspired by a bus trip taken by Knopfler, the lyrics narrate a tale of changing land development over a span of many decades along Telegraph Road in suburban Detroit, Michigan.

    In the latter verses, Knopfler focuses on one man's personal struggle with unemployment after the city built around the telegraph road has become uninhabited and barren just as it began.”

    Not sure what you talked about in the rest of this post. I wondered off to find my “Love over Gold” CD.

    Good Day,