Metro Detroiters drawn to open street festival

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Detroit — The extended Chang family might have spent Sunday afternoon on their respective couches, watching the Detroit Lions play division-rival Minnesota Vikings. Instead, as the five adults in the group looked on, six of the seven children played a game of chess on Michigan Avenue.

Not inside of a business, but on the red brick road itself, just east of the Lodge Service Drive. The occasion: Open Streets Detroit, in its second year.

“I love that you can get around so freely,” said Brenda Chang of Eastpointe.

Chang works downtown but took the occasion to show her family a side of Detroit rarely seen, one that exalts the pedestrian experience.

That non-motorized experience is “something people crave,” said Lisa Nuszkowski, project leader on Open Streets Detroit and founder of the bike-share service MoGo Detroit. “It’s not people versus cars. It’s a chance to reimagine what our streets can be.”

Open Streets Detroit premiered over a two-weekend stretch in 2016. This year’s version was one afternoon lasting from noon to 5 p.m. Between First Street, Michigan Avenue and West Vernor, 3.5 miles of roadway were blocked off from motorized traffic.

Walkers, cyclists, joggers and parents pushing baby strollers or wagons shared the roads with confidence that no two-ton vehicles would be joining them.

For the 110 vendors and community groups that signed up, the event is a chance to reach audiences who wouldn’t necessarily come looking for them or know how.

About 29 girls and one boy, all students at the Detroit-Windsor Dance Academy, started the day with a warm-up dance at the newly opened Beacon Park, at First and Grand River, before heading to their station on Michigan.

Academy co-founder Debra White-Hunt started the New Center-based dance school more than 30 years ago with her husband. Some girls who started at the academy as children have grown up to become professional dancers.

“Our girls have gone on to travel the world,” White-Hunt said.

The Open Streets event is part of a trend that has seen Detroit become more accommodating to non-vehicle traffic in recent years.

A stretch of Michigan Avenue offers protected bike lanes, allowing cyclists to travel between parked cars and the curb.

Jefferson Avenue is in the midst of a “road diet” including protected bike lanes. And the southernmost stretch of Woodward Avenue, between Congress and Jefferson, has been turned into a promenade.

Vehicle traffic in the area on Sunday was permitted on streets off Michigan at Third, Trumbull and Rosa Parks and off Vernor at Scotten.

Kelly Rickert sped west on Michigan on her bike with the visage of a whale flapping at the end of her kite string. The wind was not particularly cooperative, but with repetition and effort, sometimes tugging the kite while simultaneously loosening its slack, it caught a smooth glide.

“That’s such a feeling of success,” Rickert said after.

And it’s a feeling the Detroit Kite Festival, which set up at Open Streets, hopes to replicate.

“You have to listen to your kite, the wind, and just feel it,” festival founder Margo Dalal advised. Dalal said the kite festival premiered in July at Belle Isle and drew 3,500 visitors.

Dalal said it was last year’s Open Streets Detroit that inspired her to start the kite festival.

“Kites are something every culture can identify with,” Dalal said. “For adults, they’re nostalgia; for kids, they’re fun.”