The drive to my work site is about seventeen minutes long from the Anthony Wayne apartments. It takes me east through Midtown until I merge onto I-94. I continue on along the highway before taking exit 218 to turn onto Van Dyke Avenue. The next segment of the trip is the ten to twelve minute trip up Van Dyke to the very northern edge of the city of Detroit. I’ve done this trip almost every day since arriving in Detroit. The ritual of doing it so often has made it less of a novelty, and therefore, less jarring, but it was not like that during the first few weeks of DCERP.
I’ll admit I wasn’t exactly thrilled about the drive at first, especially the Van Dyke segment. It’s a little overwhelming for a driver like me, who falls more on the timid side of the driver scale. The speed limit on Van Dyke is 35 miles per hour throughout the stretch of the street I take. It seems as though the average car blasts down the street at least fifteen miles per hour over that speed limit, though. My mentor, Pat, told me she agreed with this observation. She told me about a moment when she was going around a curve and ended up being squished by a truck because of the tightness of the road. Today, I was alarmingly passed by a cement truck going well over the speed limit.
Back in late June, I had to take an uber from the bus stop to the apartments because the Q-line was backed up and a tornado watch had been announced. As small-talk in taxis or ubers typically goes, I broadly told the driver where I was from and what I was doing in Detroit. He seemed pleased to hear about my hometown and told me (as a Detroit local) that Downtown and Midtown would be the “cool” places to explore. He then specifically told me not to go places like the 7 Mile/Van Dyke stretch, which is coincidentally the near-exact location of my worksite and a bulk of my drive. The week after I was told this, I saw a car disrupting traffic as it spun in a figure 8 formation in the center of the road. The other drivers calmly maneuvered around the stunt, although I can’t be sure I would have been so calm had I been driving at that moment. Needless to say, the drive was not my favorite part of the day.
This past week, however, I’ve had a change of heart or maybe just a change in perspective. Perhaps it is just that I am gaining more confidence or better understanding the driving culture on Van Dyke. Perhaps it is that I am more comfortable navigating with the U-M fleet car now than I was at first. I have begun to notice, however, certain other details that make the drive less intimidating. Murals dot the walls of buildings- both abandoned and used. Some older buildings stand with the pride of a rich history as architectural symbols. The stretch of Van Dyke adjacent to the Mt. Olivet Cemetery is beautifully serene. Although chaotic and seemingly impersonable given its orientation towards cars and not towards people or bikers, Van Dyke serves a vital purpose. It is used by a good several-hundred or thousand people every day. Being a larger corridor, it is a face of Northeast Detroit.
In a recent meeting with the Executive Director of the Detroit Greenways Coalition, I found out that the city of Detroit conducted a study in the past year to evaluate the major corridors of the city in terms of their safety levels. The study indicated a sect of Van Dyke as high-risk and in need of improvement. In the works, is a plan to make this sect safer and easier to take. I can only hope that the city will follow through with this plan to make the street more functional and hospitable. Van Dyke needs and deserves it.
Through the many encounters I have had with Van Dyke Ave, I’ve been able to reflect on Van Dyke and some of the other streets I’ve relied on in the past. It’s led me to formulate a more articulated stance on streets as a concept. The role of a street varies depending on its location, the community it serves and the surrounding geographic area. It is a connector, landmark or social space, if not all three. It can simply be a place to drive by or it can be a place to stop and stay awhile. It can be ancient or just recently paved. Humans rely and have always relied on pathways of some sort, and this time period’s ‘pathways’ are undoubtedly streets. Van Dyke serves a spread-out community that stretches further than just Detroit. It has seen change over time and yet it is still fundamental because of the businesses that line its edges, the people that live in neighborhoods just beyond it and the commuters who pass through every day. While it’s taken me more than a month to appreciate Van Dyke, I am just now beginning to understand its ‘role.’ I assume the drive along the loud, fast avenue will continue to become less of a spectacle as I desensitize to it, but I hope the lesson it has taught me will not be lost on me.
Attached is a favorite mural I see on Van Dyke every day. I was able to take a picture of it because my mentor was driving me.