Detroit... one Ride at a Time

My bike, ‘Big Red,’ was stolen prior to my move to Detroit from Durham, NC this August. To be honest, it had been stolen for at least a year. And for a year I went without the thrill of riding in traffic, down hills and without the burning sensation that grows almost unbearable while peddling ceaselessly uphill. I made one futile attempt to replace ‘Big Red’ with a rusted, Frankenstein-esque Raleigh road bike, for which I’d overpaid at my university’s annual bike auction. All of last year, that powder blue bucket of a bicycle stood perched against a wall in my office – its presence becoming as ubiquitous as the many books I’d accumulated during three years of graduate school. Queries from friends regarding its utility and my ability to fix it were so frequent – and my motivation to improve its condition so little – that I began describing it as a “conceptual piece on immobility.” Eventually, the conceptual piece found a new place to perch – the dumpster behind my office building – right before I left for Detroit.

When I arrived in Detroit this summer to start my dissertation research, purchasing – not fixing – a bike was on my to-do list. I ended up buying, better yet, making an investment in a Jamis Nova Sport. I say “investment” because I fully intend for this bike to last me a lifetime – it better, considering how much I paid for it and the various accoutrements (e.g. bike rack, helmet, front/rear lights and a pannier) that adorn it. I chose this particular Jamis because I figured it would make a good commuter bike, one that would provide a healthy mix of speed and durability, the latter of which I figured would come in handy as I navigated the city’s at times cavernous roads. I was correct. Although, just a few weeks ago I had to have both tires patched up, a “double flat fix,” according to an attendant at The Hub. To make matters worse, a few days ago, my bike, 'Maybelle,' and I went for a fall. My front wheel got caught in a segment of the rail lines running along Woodward Avenue. As a result, I now have a badly bent front rim and a mildly sore right calf.

My Detroit summer was full of solo rides throughout the city, despite the fact that my neighbor hosted weekly communal rides. On each trek, I made it a point to get “lost” on my bike, to peddle until the physical landscape became unfamiliar. This is how I found my way into and around parts of Highland Park, Southwest Detroit, the North End and the lower East Side. I had high hopes of riding out to Outer Drive on Sunday mornings to volunteer at D-Town Farms, but the combination of an early morning rise and an hour-long bike ride, thwarted those dreams. I drove instead. But I did make it elsewhere in the city. In fact, I have biked Detroit way more than I have walked, bused or driven it. In my opinion, it is a far more intimate way to learn the city, or any city, and the character of its neighborhoods. I weaved all about with ease, in and out of spaces and neighborhoods, stopping when need be to take in a mural or to have a conversation.

Undoubtedly, my favorite summer past times were those rides that turned into impromptu urban foraging expeditions. The first time I encountered an edible area within Detroit’s urban geography was while driving along Chandler Street towards Woodward Avenue. I came upon a tree with a number of round rotting objects at its base. When I came closer, I noticed an apple tree. After running over a few fruits, I stopped, got out and eagerly loaded my backpack with the spoils. The tree stood in front of vacant lot. And though houses flanked it on either side, by the looks of the rotting fruit on the ground, no other was as ecstatic about its bounty as I. That weekend I made an apple pie for a friend’s dinner party. The next week I was biking down Chandler, on my way to another harvest with thoughts of apple crisp and applesauce in my mind. In September I came upon a second tree, in Cass Corridor, one with fruit more developed and crisper. Unlike the first, this tree had been patronized. Clothes, empty bottles and food wrappings littered its base, along with apples. I took the refuse as a sign that this tree was contributing to someone’s food intake, to the food security of an increasingly insecure district. I harvested mindfully this time, neglecting to gorge my backpack.

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We’re at mid December and the apple trees have dropped their fruit and leaves. Despite the absence of the promise of a mid-ride forage and the drop in temperature, I ride, though while wearing far more layers of clothing. And each time I set out on my bike, I learn the city, one neighborhood, one greeting and one peddle at a time.

Willie Jamaal Wright

* Originally from Houston, Texas, Willie is a PhD student in the Department of Geography at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is in Detroit observing, interviewing and combing archives until February of 2016. His dissertation is a historical geography of the Republic of New Afrika.