143 Square Miles of Ghosts: Mudita and Schadenfreude on Woodward

On the third Sunday of every August, about a million gearheads both young and – more likely – infirm head out to Woodward Avenue to take part in the world’s largest celebration of the automobile, the Dream Cruise. They get in their 3 ton hunks of gleaming ’50s and ’60s era Motor City muscle and cruise up and down the busy strip, tailfins tripping the lights fantastic. Dense clouds of exhaust and flatulence float up to the heavens like some kind of offering to the gods of the auto industry. They burn gas, drink beer, kick dust and live and relive the dream.

Ah, Detroit.

Except the Dream Cruise doesn’t take place in Detroit. OK, so the first half mile does – but that’s it. Instead, the cruisers make their way up old, quaint bedroom suburbs like Ferndale, Royal Oak, and Birmingham, ending in downtown Pontiac, the city that lived and then died by the auto factory. It’s a celebration of growing up in the suburbs during the golden age of the automobile, when drive-in movies, drag races and hamburger stands were the whole wide world.

But just a half mile south of the old Michigan State Fairgrounds, where many Dream Cruisers first rev their engines, you could drive on the nation’s earliest stretch of concrete road: the section of Woodward between 6 Mile and 7 Mile. Paved in 1909, you could say that it – ahem – first cemented the American dream, the series of arteries, junctions, and collectors that act as conduits for the lifeblood of our prosperity. Today, concretes roads crisscross the country, and everything’s just a drive away. It’s become hard to imagine life back in 1909.

You’d think that there’d be some special designation, some historical marker for this important landmark in our history, but instead, it’s just another Detroit neighborhood. Well, not just – it’s home to the 140 acre Palmer Park, a huge apartment district that looks like it’s out of One Thousand and One Nights, and unique businesses like Dutch Girl Donuts and the curiously named Innate Healing Arts Center.

When I last visited Palmer Park a week ago, it was a cool, drizzly day. Great blue herons swam next to the weathered lighthouse on “Lake” Frances, and rainwater pooled in the Greco-Roman Merrill Fountain. The fountain’s battered mythological creatures watched forlornly over the brick apartments on Merrill Plaisance, and the fountain’s turtle had literally lost his head. The Senator Thomas W. Palmer log cabin, named after the man that donated the land to the city over 100 years ago, sat shuttered with rusted wrought iron covering the windows. In the yard, a bell cast in Spain in 1793 never rings. Women in their Sunday dresses used to spend lazy afternoons here. You could go rowing, or ride horses. Now?

I felt lonely, and so alone.

But there’s still life here, vibrancy, a dim glow amid the darkness. The grass is cut, and on “Chess Row” you can sit on a nice bench with a built-in chess board. The apartments, with their grand horseshoe arches, brown bricks, and red, yellow, and green tiles, are mostly occupied. Up the street at Dutch Girl Donuts, you can buy handmade, fresh donuts with strawberry glaze, maple crullers, and other sweet confections from the friendly ladies behind the bulletproof glass. One night a week at Innate Healing Arts Center, old stoned hippies get together in front a psychedelic shack and drum to the spirits in the sky while young suburban kids hang around to get hammered, smashed, and blown until they puke their guts out in the alley.

Some blocks along Woodward are full of proud, stately homes, and others look gap-toothed and crooked, choked by vines and tall grasses. The kids play basketball in the streets on portable hoops regardless, their shadows as long as NBA players.

This little cut of Woodward is where it all started. Maybe it’s where it all ends, too.

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