Saturday, August 8, 2015

Something out of great Detroit experience

One of the best parts of my job is getting to really experience the cities I visit for meetings and conferences. Working for an organization that helps build strong cities, I love the chance to explore a city's story beyond the everyday tourist sites.

A conference I attend every summer typically takes us to locations that aren’t at the usual conference sites like New Orleans, Seattle or Orlando. In recent years, we've met in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, a state park in South Dakota and downtown Minneapolis  - places that never would have hit my radar for travel otherwise.
Original interior of
the Guardian Building
in downtown

This year, the meeting was in Detroit. I’ve never been to Michigan and, other than checking my bucket list item of visiting every state, I probably would have had no real reason to visit the state. I will admit my perception of Detroit was that it was unsafe, dirty and with no real attractions to make it an interesting destination.
Part of the decaying
former Packard plant 
Was I wrong.
Unlike most conferences I attend, this one gave us opportunities to experience the real city - its struggles and its hope for a new future.  We saw shiny architectural gems of the city's past glory.  We saw what it became through years of neglect and decay. But best of all we experienced the blinding light of future hope.
During our time in Detroit, we learned about decades of a crumbling economy that left behind crumbling infrastructure and crumbling buildings. We saw street after street of abandoned mansions, shotgun houses and apartment buildings that had once made up welcoming and safe neighborhoods. We learned about creative public/private redevelopment efforts that were transforming these abandoned properties back into neighborhoods, restoring buckling sidewalks back to welcoming paths and connecting various parts of the city with a new trolley system.
This scene is everywhere downtown
as the new trolley system is built
Construction detours, orange cones, incessant drilling and traffics jams caused by all of this building and construction activity usually results in annoyed pedestrians and impatient drivers. In Detroit however, I got the sense that folks welcomed these distractions as their currency of hope and growth.
As one of our Detroit hosts pointed out several times, this city is good at making something out of nothing -- a simple idea...a creative solution...a spirit of collaboration...a willingness to take a risk. All were evident as we learned about this city's demise and its ongoing rebirth.
Motown music struck me as one perfect example of how this city made something real and enduring from nothing but a simple idea and an $800 investment. More than 50 years ago, the Motown sound was born in a tiny house in a questionable neighborhood and grew into one of the defining movements in American music. Its success remains a symbol of this city's legacy of possibilities.
Spot to stop and relax
on the River Walk
For generations, the Detroit riverfront was nothing but industrial warehouses. Today, the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy is responsible for converting the city's industrial waterfront into a stunning River Walk drawing both locals and visitors.People of all ages and walks of life stroll, run, bike, play volleyball, dart through dancing water features or just chill in one if the many hubs of lounge chairs dotting the path.

When I biked the 5.5 miles of this wide welcoming path along the sparkling blue river, I had to detour off a couple of times onto a busy thoroughfare with cracked sidewalks, industrial warehouses and abandoned storefronts. These pockets of the riverfront that hadn't been redeveloped vividly illustrated for me just how far things have come over the years.

Rotary dial telephones
are art
At one of our mobile tour stops, we learned about art that grew out of the nothingness of abandoned homes, empty lots and garbage piles. In some contexts, this art may be mistaken for junk or random graffiti, but for 26 years a local artist has been transforming this discarded and unwanted stuff into art through an effort called the Heidelberg Project.

On Heidelberg Street where the artist lives, the buildings themselves have become the artwork exploding with color. Decaying wooden fences have become a gallery wall hung with canvasses fashioned from plywood. Empty lots on the street are the display case for urban sculpture made from discarded items such as shoes, rotary  dial phones and vinyl records.

His art stands just blocks from the Detroit Institute of Art that houses masterpieces by the greats like vanGogh and Picasso. This city welcomes and embraces both ends of the artistic spectrum.

We experienced the creative entrepreneurship of two locals who saw a need and filled it…again creating something out of nothing. One converted an abandoned warehouse in a sketchy part of town into a successful entertainment venue that appeals to a quirkiness I found in abundance around this city.
A conference session on the topic of leadership and innovation took us to this warehouse. The route to get there illustrated the Detroit I had envisioned - abandoned buildings, overgrown lots, chain link fences protecting shells of warehouses from more abuse. But it turned out, this session on innovation couldn’t have been planned for a better space.

Entrance to the Fowling
We walked into this old warehouse that is the home to a football/bowling hybrid game called fowling. This game created by the warehouse's owner is a perfect example of creative entrepreneurism in a recovering economy…picture bowling pins knocked over by a thrown football. There’s also a full bar, a music stage and lots of high round tables surrounded by bar stools. Apparently the place is packed every night!

The fowling court
Our group’s session on innovation started out with pizza, treats from the bar and a lively game of fowling (sure beat the typical conference session in a cold stark hotel meeting room). It put us in the perfect mindset for innovative thinking and learning.
The second example of this creative entrepreneurship that built something from nothing was the bus that transported us during our stay. I knew we were in for an experience when the bus picked us up for the session on innovation and leadership.
Our transportation
This was no typical air conditioned (freezing cold) conference bus. The windows were down on this balmy afternoon, and let’s just say I felt like Laurie Partridge boarding the bus that looked like it came straight from the Partridge Family tv show.
The driver was engaging and clearly proud of his city. Turns out the bus company is owned by a young entrepreneur who got tired of the fact there was no public transit in the city. He started buying old busses and moving people around town. The Detroit Bus Company now owns more than 40 of these buses that serve locals and visitors.
Urban playground
I'm always drawn to urban green space, and I loved the dozens of parks that dot downtown. My favorite was a block from the hotel, Campus Martius Park. It is a cool welcoming space that serves as a hub and gathering space for downtown.

The dancing fountain
The park sports a sandy beach where the kids stop and play by day and young professionals can later celebrate happy hour. A stage for daily music performances, a beautiful dancing fountain and a tiny gelato stand join dozens of tables and chairs for eating, working or just visiting.
Over the course of our time in Detroit, we also got to see urban gardens with urban scarecrows tucked into pockets in neighborhoods of all types. Urban agriculture is big here…and this movement has again created beauty and hope from abandoned land.

Detroit is clearly a pro sports team city, and we enjoyed an evening of Tiger baseball at the beautiful stadium nestled right in the middle of downtown. But the best baseball story I heard wasn’t about this shiny modern stadium. It was the story of how the neighborhood around the original Tiger stadium is reinventing itself after the team moved.
The team moved downtown in 1999 and the old stadium structure itself was demolished in 2009. But the field was left intact. Neighbors and volunteer lovers of the Tigers took it upon themselves to keep the field in shape as the landscape of the surrounding neighborhood changed. Recently a developer announced plans for retail and residential construction surrounding the field. Plus the Police Athletic league will take over management of the field, and it will again be the focal point of a thriving neighborhood that's coming back to life.
When I travel, I always love to take something home with me as a reminder of places I visit. It seems appropriate my remembrance from this trip picks up on the spirit of my Detroit friend who said the city is good at making something out of nothing. 

My new travel bag is made from recycled seatbelts - how appropriate for Detroit!

Published on August 21 in Midlands Life

Monday, August 3, 2015

Life's a Bike

When I made an impulse purchase of a shiny yellow bike during a recent trip to Greenville, I had no idea how much I'd learn from those 30 pounds of metal.

Just to be clear, this isn’t some fancy multi-speed bike that requires special shoes, flashing LED lights and an expensive water bottle. Think Pee Wee Herman on his cruiser not Lance Armstrong speeding through France.
Swamp Rabbit Trail
I'd bought the bike after spending two afternoons in Greenville riding the Swamp Rabbit Trail on a rented bike that was a perfect fit for my small frame. The trail is a converted rail bed that runs nine miles between downtown Greenville and Travelers Rest. It's a peaceful ride with scenery as diverse as the back of industrial buildings to the rolling campus of Furman.

Curiosity about the bike I'd enjoyed riding led me to ask the folks at the rental shop about it. The shop, with the cool name of Pedal Chic, focuses on bikes and equipment for just for women. The sales people and the owner were willing to give me lots of help, time and insight, even though I had made it clear I wasn’t in the market to buy, just learn.

Pedal Chic in Greenville
I was particularly drawn to the shiny yellow one that stood out among the more high-end racing and mountain bikes. The curves of the slanted center bar screamed girl power, and the seat held me like it was made for me. I test rode that one and several others but kept coming back to that yellow one. The practical side of me kept thinking this is like buying a pair of shoes - don’t buy the sassy cute wedges even if they don’t quite fit just because you like the color.

I learned from the shop’s owner that this yellow bike’s frame is slightly smaller than a typical woman’s bike. Perfect for someone whose driver’s license fibs that I’m five feet tall.

The petite size sealed the deal. I knew that bike was meant for me. Fortunately, the bike fit in my convertible with the top down, so I headed back to Columbia with a huge smile on my face and my new yellow bike wedged into the back seat.
The ride home

After riding this bike almost daily for two months now, I've been pleasantly surprised to learn several things:

1 – Don’t’ avoid the hills. Yes, they require a climb. But life is a climb and, just as with any challenge, there are different ways to approach the climb using gears, pace and speed. I've decided there's no disgrace in having to walk the bike up a particularly long or steep hill. I just start at the bottom with a slow steady pace, deep breaths and an eye on the next few feet in front of me.

2 – Slow down and enjoy the ride. Riding a bike allows a more intimate experience with what’s around me at that moment. I can smell the cut grass longer. I can differentiate the sounds of cicadas, crickets and birds. I stop and experience things I would never have slowed for from a car…ducks crossing a road toward a pond, an impromptu prayer vigil at the State House after the Charleston shootings, a concert under the gazebo in Travelers Rest. I didn't just watch those happen, I experienced them. I didn't fly by them in a car.

Taking a breather at Litchfield
This yellow bike has showed me a whole new way to slow down and love the beach. When riding my bike, the salt air smells saltier and the crunch of shells under the tires feels crunchier than they do on foot. It's not about speed when riding on the beach. It's about  negotiating around the various types of packed sand and the gullies from the tide or watching the egrets dip in the water for food.

3 – It’s OK to ask for help. The first time I tried to take the bike somewhere I wedged it in the back of my car. After arriving at the parking lot in Travelers Rest and struggling to get the bike out without getting grease all over the seats, I realized the chain had become dislodged. I had no idea how to re-string the chain onto that complicated looking gear thingie.

A guy unloading his bike asked if I needed help. I quickly told him I was fine. Ten minutes later, I realized I wasn't fine and didn't have a clue what I was doing. I forced the bike back into the car and drove to the local bike shop where the mechanic quickly restrung the chain…and patiently showed me how to do it myself next time.

4 - Getting caught in the rain doesn't have to ruin a ride. The rain started as a gentle drizzle after I'd been riding for about 15 minutes. By the time I arrived back in my driveway, the drizzle had become a downpour. I wasn't cold and I wasn't in danger of a lightening strike.  I was soaked…but I knew I wouldn’t melt. The bike was wet but it would dry off. So I just enjoyed the sensation of rain blowing in my face, beating down on my helmet and rolling down my back.

5 - Do the hard part first. Ride into the wind and take the hard hills at the beginning.  Just like a kid does his homework before watching tv, I found a ride to be much more enjoyable when I work hard and sweat a lot at the beginning. Then I get the downhills and wind at my back on the return trip.

Lunch view at Murrells Inlet
6 – Discover new things in familiar places. I’ve been going to Hilton Head and Litchfield all my life and never noticed all the bike trails threading behind trees alongside main roads.

What a pleasant surprise to learn it’s possible to ride on a paved, safe trail the six miles from Litchfield to Murrells Inlet to enjoy a quiet lunch on the water. I had no idea Hilton Head is the only "gold award" bike friendly city in SC and one of the top 25 in the US. I was able to get to my shopping, dining and even yoga classes by bike on the island without getting in my car once over a weekend. Good exercise plus experiencing things I never noticed before.

Central Park Rental
On a recent trip to NYC, I rented a bike in Central Park and rode the six miles around the perimeter of the park. Admittedly Central Park isn't a daily familiar place, but I'd been there on foot enough to know I'd only seen a small part of the park. Rolling hills, a public swimming pool, a zoo and numerous music venues surprised and delighted me on this hour-long ride around the park. I never would have thought to do that without the help of my yellow bike.
7 –Trust the rack. Once I realized I'd like to travel with my bike, I grudgingly decided to invest in a bike rack. I just never trusted those things.

Looking at a bike rack on a car speeding past me on the highway always gave me visions of the bike coming unhooked and sailing across the interstate to slam into another speeding car. To think about mounting a rack on my precious blue convertible and trusting those straps would hold completely terrorized me.

At the bike store, the sales person battened down the rack’s four straps and clips and positioned the rubber feet on the trunk. She showed me how to place the bike on the rack and strap it in with three…yes just three..buckles and a few bungee cords. I slowly drove the car home with the bike attached certain it would have flown off by the time I arrived in the driveway.

But before long, I was confidently lifting the bike on the rack by myself, strapping it in, bungee cording the wheels and setting off without so much as a second thought. Not only did I learn to trust the rack, but I also learned to trust my own ability to get the bike locked in safely.

Never would have imagined 30 pounds of yellow metal could teach me so much.