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Finley: Bike seat gives new view of Detroit

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

Last Saturday, I dragged my fat butt out of bed at 5 a.m. and hauled it down to Historic Fort Wayne to see Detroit from a different point of view: the seat of a bicycle.

Lured by Chip McClure, the enviably fit former CEO of Meritor, I joined abut 40 other riders who form the informal Beat the Train bike group. And because misery loves company, I volunteered Mark Wallace, executive director of the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, to ride along.

No one would mistake me and Wallace for the Olsen twins. We’re a couple of dough boys. When McClure told us we’d be riding 25 miles or so, we weren’t sure we’d make it. When we found out the day’s route would actually take us 30-35 miles (it measured out at 31), we were sure we’d die.

But we made it, and are glad of it. The pace and perspective of a bicycle ride forces you to think about the city differently than when you’re racing through in an automobile. You can see more of the potential, and of the challenges.

Start with Fort Wayne. Built in 1840, the city-owned fort on the Detroit riverfront was in service until 1973, finishing its active duty as an induction center. The brick buildings and grounds are fabulous. And while there has been considerable deterioration, it’s not so far gone that it can’t be restored into a major tourist attraction. But it needs to happen soon, before more is lost. It’s a perfect place to plant state Natural Resources Fund dollars.

From the fort, we headed downtown to ride along the Detroit River Walk. This is Wallace’s baby, and the proud papa has big visions for capitalizing on the city’s breathtaking riverfront. The mission of the conservancy was to open up the river to the people of Detroit, and it’s done that. The walkers and riders out on the River Walk Saturday morning were largely Detroit families enjoying a resource that had been closed off for decades.

After looping around Belle Isle, which is blooming under state management, a quick ride up the Dequindre Cut brought us to Eastern Market, still one of the coolest places in the city, and typically packed. We opted not to stop by the Detroit Distillery to sample some hometown bourbon, but it wasn’t an easy decision, given how our legs felt.

The east side fully revealed the Two Detroits. The mansions of Indian Village made our jaws drop. And the beauty and history of Elmwood Cemetery were the highlight of the ride.

But first we pedaled through block after block of blight and abandonment. When you’re moving slowly, the vastness of Detroit’s vacancy is overwhelming. We tried to guess how many billions of dollars it would take to make these neighborhoods liveable again.

Then our route took us back across the center city and into Corktown — where Wallace lives — and the vibrancy of that community swept away the pessimism and turned our thoughts again to the possible. The Mexican breakfast at Los Galanes also helped.

Detroit, for certain, is not a uniform landscape. In a three-hour ride we saw views we couldn’t pull our eyes away from, and things we couldn’t bear to look at. And if we hadn’t climbed on those bikes at such a ridiculous hour, we wouldn’t have seen any of it in quite the same way.


Follow Nolan Finley at, on Twitter at @nolanfinleydn, on Facebook at nolanfinleydetnews and watch him at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays on “MiWeek” on Detroit Public TV, Channel 56.