Sunday, October 3, 2010

David Byrne Bikes in Detroit or the Rise and Fall of the Motor City

David Byrne's recently released Bicycle Diaries contains a section on biking in Detroit, which Mr. Byrne summarizes in a recent post to his journal describing a recent trip the the Motor City. The entry is an insightful and sensitive examination of the decline of what was once a vibrant metropolis that was laid low by a multitude of complex economic trends and social tragedies. The post is extensive; I recommend it.

I was particularly struck by Byrne's take on the Mies Van der Rohe townhouses in Lafayette Park and the dual nature of the neighborhood that seems to have characterized Detroit throughout its development and decline. Lafayette Park, which I've written on before, has some of the most beautiful, retro-modern residences in the city. But it also has its apartment tower, Lafayette Towers, a glass-steel monster that garishly dominates that city quarter's skyline. I have some friends who live there; it offers beautiful views of the city - from its interior.

File:Mies van der Rohe Residential District.jpg

Like Detroit, Lafayette Park is split between beauty and attempted utility. Townhouses and tower, and what Byrne dubs a "proto strip mall."

The same can be said of the wide avenues and parkways of Detroit that its planners, politicians, and automotive oligarchs opted for in lieu of public transportation and downtown density. The automobile was king and the city's face was shaped according to its whims.

Now many of these sometimes nine-lane roads remain largely empty, even during the day. Things can get a little hairy come rush hour depending on where you are, but for the most part the veins of the city are wide open spaces.

This emptiness and freedom from the cars that were once the city's lifeblood have been a boon to bikers. Detroit hosts its own regular Critical Mass events and other writers have covered the burgeoning cycling culture of the city. One of my law professors bikes from Ann Arbor to Detroit once a week by way of one of the still-beautiful parkways. The trip takes just over two hours.

David Byrne touches on some of this in his post. However, there is another Byrne-on-a-bike story that I like even more. I quote it at length:

“You drank too much and fell off your bike” could be the title of a drawing by David Shrigley. But in this case, it actually happened to me after meeting Shrigley for dinner and drinks. While riding home, C and I were briefly separated. Upon reuniting, my tire slipped on the cobblestones of West 14th St., and I remember lying in the street, looking at oncoming headlights and rolling towards the curb so they wouldn’t run me over. Two cops approached and looked down at me. “Have you been drinking?” they asked. Probably a typical question in that neighborhood at that time of night. “Yes, I’ve had a few drinks,” I replied. “But I’m hurt.” I managed to get up by myself and retrieve my bike (no help from the NYPD, though one of them asked if I was David Byrne) and it wasn’t until later, when I was in bed, that the pain made itself truly known. I wondered how I would ever even get out of bed. The next day I went to the hospital and x-rays revealed two broken ribs — numbers 3 and 5, way up high. They're healing now, little by little, and I was told that in 3 weeks I should be OK.
Brilliant. The first chapter of Bicycle Diaries is available for free download.

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