Best/Worst: Bikes & borders in metro Detroit

Communities are complicated, forever trying to deal with the legacies of the past, the demands of the present and needs of the future. Some are pretty good at balancing those concerns. Others, not so much. Whatever the situation, we here at Metromode think there are lessons to learned from both good and bad decisions. 

That's why we've started BEST/WORST. Each month we'll point to the choices metro Detroit communities are making and what we can learn from them - teachable moments if you will. The point isn't to shame or inflate the egos of those we single out, but rather to initiate a candid, solutions-based discussion. Up this month: Ann Arbor and Grosse Pointe.

BEST: Ann Arbor' launches a public bike share program

In September, Ann Arbor launched the first fully-public bike share in the state of Michigan. ArborBike may just set the precedent for future bike share programs with its unique approach of being a publicly invested venture integrated into the existing public transportation system. While there have been several other variations of bike share programs throughout Michigan, none of them have been able to get off the ground as fully-public ventures. In metro Detroit, the closest thing we have are private bike share programs in Detroit and in Warren, which are privately funded by Quicken Loans and General Motors, respectively, and are solely for the use of company employees. 

ArborBike is unique in that it is a partnership between the University of Michigan (which is funding all operations for the first three years), the City of Ann Arbor, the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority, and the Clean Energy Coalition. This kind of hybrid partnership bodes well for the program, when bike share programs throughout North America, even "successful" ones in terms of ridership, have struggled with financial sustainability. 

Who can learn from this? Detroit.

For a city that is being hailed as one of the nation's hottest cycling cities, with major group bike ride events like the annual Tour de Troit and the weekly Slow Roll that each draw in thousands of riders, the more than 150 miles of bike lanes installed in recent years throughout the city, and a booming new bike industry to go with it all, it's a bit surprising that Detroit hasn't been able to get a public bike share program of its own off the ground, aside from the private one in 'Gilbertville.' 

Lisa Nuszkowski, Senior Project Administrator for Economic Development at Wayne State University, says she has been "working with business, community, and government stakeholders to start a public bike share system in Detroit" and they have been actively "planning and raising funds," which is welcome news considering they commissioned a study last year with the intention of demonstrating the feasibility of a bike share program in the city. In fact, if the two-page-long list of funding partners and participants for the study – including major corporations, nonprofit organizations, government, and community organizations – would agree to fund and facilitate the program together, Detroit could take Ann Arbor's example and multiply it several times over to get this thing rolling (*rimshot*). 

WORST:  Grosse Pointe builds barrier to keep Detroit out

Perhaps you heard a little bit of the uproar earlier this year when the city of Grosse Pointe Park built a barn-blockade on Kercheval Avenue effectively on the Detroit border on the first block east of Alter Rd. Ostensibly this was with the intention of building a farmers market that would be for everyone on both sides of the border and community and walkability and blah blah blah etc etc. And that's all well and good and a farmers market sounds lovely, but the fact remains Grosse Pointe Park effectively constructed a WALL separating itself from the Detroit border at Alter Rd. All the community-pandering rhetoric in the world isn't going to make that look any less severe or any less pointed. Even if the intentions were good, the perception is anything but. 

“I want to say I’m shocked,” Cynthia Jackson, who lives near Alter Rd. on the Detroit side, said in an interview with Steve Neavling of Motor City Muckraker. “But this has been happening for as long as I remember. Might as well put up a sign that says, ‘No coloreds.'”

Historically 8 Mile Rd. has been seen as The Great Divide between Detroit and its more affluent neighbors. But despite the popularity of the boulevard as a cultural icon, there is no more severe dividing line between Detroit and any other city, no starker a contrast than that between the extreme poverty of many of Detroit's citizens and the extreme wealth of the Grosse Pointe communities, as Alter Rd. 

Detroit's other neighboring communities leave a lot to be desired when it come to being, well, neighborly. To the south you have to drive through a massive industrial wasteland before you get to Allen Park, Lincoln Park, and Melvindale; to the west lies Dearborn and Dearborn Heights, where the freeway network intersects in such a way as to act as a functioning set of barriers; to the east there's Eastpointe, which made its intention of separating itself from the city pretty clear by renaming itself "Eastpointe" a couple of decades ago. This leaves Grosse Pointe Park and the remaining 8 Mile border cities adjacent to the Woodward corridor.

The better example: 8 Mile Rd.

Thankfully, it's on 8 Mile that we actually find a little inspiration. A significant effort has been made to rebrand the boulevard as a gateway instead of as a divider, hence the construction of a massive shopping complex including a Meijer, a 36-acre, 325,000 square feet development, which opened last year on the corner of 8 Mile Rd. and Woodward and is named the "Gateway Marketplace."

Tami Salisbury, Executive Director of the Eight Mile Boulevard Association, sees the Marketplace as a physical shift away from the negative "8 Mile perception," transitioning it to be more of a connector than divider. 

Ferndale, for its part, was welcoming, with far more discussions about "what about our local grocers?" than concerns over municipal borders. 

The thing is, Grosse Pointe Park actually has a lot to gain by integrating with their Detroit neighbors rather than isolating themselves from them. Development in areas like downtown, Corktown, and Midtown is humming along quite nicely, and community and neighborhood development groups are focusing on some of the outer ring neighborhoods, including Jefferson-Chalmers, just a couple blocks on the "other" side of Alter on Jefferson. A redevelopment strategy is underway, which includes housing and commercial space, and businesses that started as pop-ups are doing well enough to open permanently. The last year has seen a flurry of activity in this area, and Grosse Pointe Park can do nothing but win by inviting open dialogue and exchange with this neighboring retail and residential community. 

Nicole Rupersburg is a freelance writer extraordinaire. She is primarily known for her former blog, Eat It Detroit. 
All Photos by David Lewinski Photography.

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