East to West

Sunburned again. And it seemed so damned overcast when I started. I went on another one of those urban mega-hikes on Monday afternoon. This time, I accomplished something I’d never done before: I crossed the entire width of the city, from the bay to the ocean, on foot.

I didn’t really plan it this way. I just started walking. And I kept walking and walking. Past Union Square and the Civic Center and onward through the Western Addition projects. I crossed Divisadero, where the honey-baked ham store sits across the street from the Jewish mortuary. I wandered past the old Sears store at Geary and Masonic and into the Richmond District.

By the time I hit Green Apple Books at 6th and Clement, I knew I wasn’t going to stop until I hit the Pacific. And I didn’t. I finally came to rest atop a hill amidst the ruins of Adolph Sutro’s mansion overlooking the sea.

Then I got on a bus and came home. I’ve spent the rest of the evening recovering.

Why do I do this? Mainly, because I can. Having a walkable city is one of the biggest benefits associated with living in San Francisco, even for a diehard road tripper like myself. Long-distance walks allow you to see things you don’t notice from a car or a bus. Seemingly dull areas develop unexpected nuances and textures.

I recommend it, even though eight miles may be a bit much. Maybe it was jut frustration from not getting laid this weekend…

Winston-Salem

 

I stayed an extra day because the flights were tight and because there were one or two more relatives to visit. Instead of the relatives, though, we took the back road to Winston-Salem (NC’s own Route 66) to see some urban decay and a mall.

 

Mall first. We shopped. We looked around. I watched more scary redneck kids. Security stopped me (with Mom and Dad) and told me I was not allowed to videotape in the mall. I told the rent-a-cop that was fine because I was through anyway. She didn’t look pleased. I didn’t look like I cared. We left. See the “concept shots” which so threatened the sanctity of the mall above.

Then we headed downtown to the factory district. This was the area where R.J. Reynolds used to make Winstons and Salems and Camels, until they moved to a new plant on the edge of town. The area is threatening to develop into a high-tech office and loft condo area, but a major fire a few months ago delayed some of the plans.

 

Parts of this area resemble Detroit. Lots of abandoned and boarded-up buildings are surrounded by large open areas, the result of unsuccessful urban renewal in the 1960s and 1970s. If I lived in Winston-Salem, this would be my neighborhood.

Winston-Salem is kind of an interesting place. As one might guess, it was formed when the towns of Winston and Salem merged. Until the 1920s, it was North Carolina’s largest city, and it still retains an older and more urban feel than Greensboro, even though Greensboro is now a much larger city.

Minneapolis

Bob Vila remained at home today while Bil and I toured the wilds of Minneapolis and Saint Paul, missing no White Castle, neon motel, nor thrift store which crossed our path. This was one of those mindless driving days, with no particular destination in mind. I love those.

 

We hit the ghost mall in Saint Paul (not as ghostly as it was a few years back, apparently). We visited this strange surplus store with funny signs. Bil bought used toys at the thrift store, so we went to K-mart for batteries. And then we ventured to the State Fair. Of course there was no fair in progress, so the crowds were a bit sparse, but the gopher was there in all his (her?) glory.

 

Monday night brought crappy pizza and Goth/Industrial Night at the Saloon. The Saloon was better. The Minneapolis version of this scene is not nearly as annoying as the versions on the coasts. These people actually seem to have senses of humor. And personalities. And lives. I even got hit on. Sort of.

More late food at the rock and roll Mexican place.

Minneapolis and Northfield

 

Headed to Northfield in the afternoon to pick up Carroll and bring her back to Minneapolis. This was the first time we’d seen each other in seven or eight years, but (as usual) we were able to pick up as if no time at all had passed. You can do this with your best friends and not even be surpised by it. This is a good thing.

Back in the city, Carroll checked into the Marriott and did some shopping while I napped on her bed. And then drinking ensued…good old-fashioned hotel room drinking, with eight years worth of collected conversation and an incredible view. Afterward, we fought our way through the strange collection of corridors connecting the hotel, the skyway mall, and the parking garage (oops…I mean parking RAMP).

 

Dinner at The King and I, a surprisingly good Thai place. Afterward, a little Mastercard-financed Telnetting at the hotel kiosk (Carroll and I having become major nerds since last encounter) and home to bed.

 

Milwaukee WI to Madison WI

Odometer: 87217

  

A mildly hungover moring in Milwaukee, cured by a big lunch at a great old-school Italian restaurant. This place was really incredible, with the kind of Italian food I grew up eating (in other words, none of your foofy “light trendy pasta of the month” bullshit…). The host was a classic “mama” of the sort who pinches your cheeks at the table and asks why you didn’t finish everything. Great.

 

In addition to a tour of the city, I met the neighbor kid, a very out 14-year-old queer who was about to give a class presentation on Truman Capote. I saw the “Laverne and Shirley” building. I saw what used to be the Schlitz brewery. We drove by some Milwaukee resident’s own personal version of the Cadillac Ranch. Pretty interesting place. Milwaukee. I should have given it more time.

It was almost 4:00 by the time I left. I was worn out from too little sleep and too much lasagne. It was starting to rain. I was offered crash space for the night, but I was determined to make it to Minneapolis, so I hit the road.

I got as far as Madison. That big indention in my butt was the result of kicking myself (hard) for being so stupid.

I didn’t even go out in Madison. I checked into the Motel 6 from hell (this place was REALLY bad), got dinner from the sub shop across the street and settled in for some strange voodoo incest movie on HBO, followed by a PBS documentary on the history of the ACLU. All in all, I guess it was a pretty good low-impact rest break. All in all, that’s a pretty good descrition of Madison in general.

Detroit MI to Milwaukee WI

Odometer: 86376

I made it out pretty early. Would have been even earlier, but there was cruising to be done at the motel. Seems the “high school/homecoming kid” we’d noticed earlier was (a) a couple of years older than originally pegged, and (b) cruising me really hard. Unfortunately, we never completely connected and we didn’t get to fuck to a background of Judge Judy. Pity…

 

Southern Michigan is not the most exciting place in the world. There’s Ann Arbor, the cute college town, Battle Creek, the depressed cereal town, and Kalamazoo, the town where I couldn’t stop singing that song about “I got a gal…”

I made it through pretty fast, ate somewhere, and all of a sudden I was in Indiana again. There was cheap gas. There were cheap cigarettes. And I made my way through Gary, the dowdy gateway to Chicagoland just a little too close to rush hour for comfort.

Logistics (OK…money…) kept me from spending any time at all in Chicago. I didn’t even drive through the city since I arrived so late in the afternoon. I flew through the far western suburbs on I-294 and didn’t stop ’til I was in Wisconsin.

Somewhere along the way, I realized I was running a day early, and I was hoping this wouldn’t screw up my chance to meet up with Dave in Milwaukee. Fortunately, it didn’t. We met up at the bookstore where he works part time and were soon joined by boyfriend Doug and roomie Davee. At this point, there were far too many Davids in one room. We survived.

 

I’m told Milwaukee has more queer bars per capita than any other city in the country. This is a pretty reasonable notion since Milwaukee is traditionally “Beer City USA”. Strange thing is, all of the bars we hit were tiny sleazy little corner bars. Of course, I liked this aspect of the place. There was This Is It, with the big booth an the strange man who wanted to escort me to the bathroom. At C’est La Vie, Dave and Doug won a lovely porn video playing pob-ball. At the Ballgame, there was wood panelling, strange statuary, and a security camera. And there was also this straight bar which I really loved. Cheap beer all around. I really loved that too…

 

And (again) it was really cool to meet people and instantly feel like old friends. We hung out. We drank beer. We watched demolition video. I was in awe of all the techno toys in the house. I was in awe of all the HOUSE in the house. After Detroit (where I lurked in a house being purchased for an obscenely low price) and Milwaukee, was becoming increasigly impatient with the walk-in closet I call home.

More Detroit Pictures

I shot a lot of video in Detroit and tried to edit myself somewhat to fit the text. All the same, I used a lot of pictures and there were still some left which I wanted to use as well. So here they are:

 

 

 

Detroit Still

 

Seems the Detroiters I was lurking with are not at all sentimental about the place but are still fiercely loyal to it in a certain way. San Franciscans seem to have no discernible sense of humor about themselves, perhaps due to absolute terror that someone might get offended and deem them “unworthy” of living here. On the other hand, it is quite acceptable for residents to make wry and sarcastic comments about Detroit without being branded traitors. A refreshing quality indeed…

 

A few idiosyncracies I noted:

  • Major intersections do not have left turn lanes. They have built-in U-turn zones at mid-block. An interesting experiment which really doesn’t work.
  • It’s hard to see much of Detroit’s decay from the freeways. This must be very comforting to the commuting suburban residents who rea most responsible for this decay.
  • Grosse Point is very aptly named.
  • Hamtramck, described by the Utne Reader as one of the ten coolest urban neighbrhoods in America, vaguely resembles an urban version of a trailer park. Apparently, many of the residents are not totally out of place in this environment, given the large racist skinhead presence, etc.

 

Scott and I spent Sunday afternoon driving around the city taking pictures and discussing what had happened. We toured Grand River Avenue, a once fashionable area of large houses, which now features neat and well-kept homes interspersed with bombed-out shells and vacant lots. Near Woodward Avenue, the headquarters of General Motors, one of the world’s largest corporations, fittingly presides over the decay. The irony is apparently not lost on GM; they’re in the process of moving to the Rennaissance Center.

 

We visited a large pile of rubble which had once been the Cadillac factory which employed Scott’s father and the adjacent neighborod which went to hell when the factory closed. We visited the west side and some suburbs where a midde class still exists. We played “White Castle or White Tower”, where the object is to guess which chain an abandoned white porcelain building used to belong to.

 

 

It’s a strangely emotional thing for me to drive through Detroit, a place which dramatically illustrates the end result of of racism and corpoarate greed. I realized that the Hudson’s building was in some ways a metaphor for the entire city: abandoned, neglected, and a little too big and cumbersome for real adaptive re-use. The massive and majestic train station pictured above is perhaps an even more striking metaphor. It’s a beautiful building which sits on the outskirts of downtown, completely abandoned and gutted, almost begging to be put out of its misery because it will never be restored.

 

I don’t mean to suggest that Detroit is begging to be destroyed. There’s still life here, despite popular opinion. Scott summed up the city very well with one single statement he kept repeating: there’s absolutely no place else like Detroit. And I’m still drawn to the place. Every minute I spend in Detroit makes me crave ten more.

From Windsor ON, downtown looks completely different. The view from the hideous new casino reveals no trace of the dark side of the faded jewel across the river. What it does reveal is just how bad the Detroit waterfront could look in a few years when the casinos open there. Casinos are a really misguided plan for revitalizing a city, methinks. Look what they did for Atlantic City, after all. Thy’re insulated environments which feed of the city and give nothing back.

Sort of like the Renaissance Center. And sort of like General Motors, its new tenant.

 

Time to move on. Scott had to start a new job on Monday and I had to be on my way after another morning drive through a downtown which ones had chain and people and now had one less abandoned department store across the street from the boarded-up Lerner Shop.

Building Fall Down Go Boom

Have you ever sat through the Saturday morning teenybopper shows on NBC? All of them seem like warmed-over “Saved by the Bell” wannabes, each with exactly one stylishly-attired member of each major ethnic group (although some have two or three stylishly-attired white kids…audience demographics, y’know…). I can’t imagine watching this crap even when I was a kid. However, I did sit through it on Saturday morning in Detroit.

I should have been visiting the boy in the room next door: the one Scott and I had (mistakenly, it seems) pegged as a straight high school kid throwing a homecoming party or something. More about him later.

Instead, I waited for the abortion protest to end and tried to get in touch with Mike, another email correspondent who was planning to show me around a little. Unfortunately, we never could connect (a problem exacerbated by the fact that the message light on my phone wasn’t working).

 

Soon enough I was off with Scott to downtown Detroit for the demolition of what used to be Hudson’s Department Store, second largest building of its kind in the United States. This is the event around which my entire trip was oriented, and frankly I was pretty amazed that there wasn’t a bigger crowd assembled to see it. All the same, I’m told, there were more people downtown on a Saturday afternoon this day than there had been in years. Specifically, there were more WHITE people. Maybe they felt safer knowing their suburban counterparts were there to protect them.

There was definitely a crowd at Jacoby’s, a cool bar nearby, with a tasty bartender and a good beer selection.

Demolitions of old buildings are always disturbing to me, and since I’m just barely old enough to remember when big downtown departent stores were the rule rather than the exception, I could identify with the old-timers who were sad to see it go. On the other hand, this building could never really have been re-used and its vacant shell was a big slap in the face to residents forced to see it everyday…a constant reminder of what Detroit used to be and would probably never be again. So I could also understand that many people were glad to see it go.

  

After a few delays, we heard the first blasts. Nothing happened. I wasn’t worried, having watched the Hotel Charlotte in North Carolina demolished in similar fashion about ten years before. Eventually, wings started collapsing, the crowd started cheering, and the whole thing was over in a few more seconds.

  

And then came this horrendous dust cloud. I was prepared for this as well, having been caught in it at my last implosion. We even brought masks and offered the extras to a few kids so they could propagate the species. Once the building came down, I grabbed Scott and we ducked into a corner bar (which locked its doors against the dust a few minutes later). When the dust settled, it looked like a gray blizzard had hit.

 

After drinking a toast to Hudson’s, there was time to roam around downtown Detroit (which was now relatively dust-free) for a while. This was a good excuse for food at Lafayette Coney Island, which came highly recommended by my friend Rae. Coney islands (hot dogs) seem to be a pretty high art form in Detroit. This place was incredible. Thanks Rae.

 

I took lots of pictures. Downtown Detroit is such an amazing place, with blocks and blocks of early 20th century commercial buildings and skyscrapers, many of them alarmingly vacant and abandoned, standing like testosterone-deficient phallic symbols (did I really write that?). There is life downtown. You just have to look for it.

 

There was another beer or two later, of course, at Steve’s, this very strange old bar run by the same marginally bitter couple for about 50 years or so. Huge place. Nothing on the walls. Bathroom from the 30’s. Cheap beer. I love hanging out with locals. Afterwards, we retired to the Motel 6 for what was supposed to be a nap (no…I’m not offering any details thank you…) and then off to more Detroit nightlife.

 

We hit a leather bar called the R&R (I think), which allegedly has some backroom action some nights (but not this night) and then a beautiful, huge, new club on Michigan Avenue. This place was your basic top-notch dance club. At 1AM on Saturday night, we were the only customers. I don’t understand…

Find a City

Not that I’m committing to any radical course of action in the face of my current disillusionment, but I find myself scoping other cities with increasing frequency. Any comments (particularly from people who live or have lived in any of these places) are most welcome. First, some of the criteria:

Type of City:

I fancy a fairly large place (in the 500,000 to 1,000,000 population range) just because these cities tend to be more interesting and diverse, and have bonuses like working transit, a variety of bars and restaurants, etc. I do, however, want a place where having a car is not a complete nightmare. I do in fact have a bias for older (perhaps even decaying) industrial-type cities. One bedroom apartments in the $500 range are a plus. Cheaper ones are a much bigger plus. Some job options might be nice too…

Geography:

Proximity to the Family is increasingly important; I’d like to be within a day’s drive from home. This rules out the west coast. Having a river, lake, or other large body of water IN the city is pretty essential as well, for aesthetic reasons rather than recreational ones. A variety of fairly close road trip destinations is just as important. I don’t particularly mind cold weather, or even some snow, although these are not “must haves”. I really hate hot summers.

Ruled out from the start:

Cute college towns, gentrified yuppie meccas, and relatively suburban boomtowns (Houston, Denver, Charlotte) hold no appeal whatsoever. Neither do congested nightmares like Washington, New York, and Boston. Portland and Seattle are probably not options either, losing out only because of distance from the parents. Los Angeles and San Diego never were options, nor was the southwest or New England. And I will not move back to the south…no discussion allowed…

And now the short list (not that I’m planning to move or anything):

  • Chicago (visited in 1996 and 1997): A little big, a little pricey, and the summers (and winters) are brutal. But it’s a great place. I like the way it looks. I could spend several years exploring and not get bored. There are White Castles and cheap Indian restaurants, and bowling alleys which host bands, and the transit is good.
  • Detroit (visited once in 1997): Most people who know me realize I have an unhealthy obsession with Detroit. The climate sucks, there’s no transit to speak of, and the place can be down right scary. But I still like it. Canada’s just across the river. The cost of living is close to nothing. They have White Castles too…
  • Baltimore (most recent visit in 1997): I’ve visited pretty often and Baltimore has always intrigued me. No one seems to like the place except its residents. This is a big plus. It’s also close to New York, Philadelphia, and home, and not all that far from Chicago and Detroit. Could be an option…
  • Toronto (visited once in 1979): I don’t know about the logistics of moving to Canada. But I’d like to look around the place and see how it’s changed since my last visit nearly 20 years ago…
  • Oakland (just across the bay): I include Oakland simply because it’s where I WILL live if I stay in the Bay Area…
  • Minneapolis (visited once in 1996): Damn…talk about ugly winters… But I like the place and I have a fair number of friends there. It’s a little far from home and the road trip options are pretty much limited to Chicago, but they do have White Castles, so I’ll say Minneapolis has a slightly more than slight chance…
  • Pittsburgh (visited once in 1997): Another one with an outside chance. Great place, hugely industrial and working class feel. Lots of hills and rivers. But it’s a bit isolated and I fear for the nightlife options. Very possible, still…

The second tier: Cleveland, St. Louis, Philadelphia…

Suggestions, comments, job offers, and links to cool web sites are solicited. Not that I’m planning to move or anything…