Monday, July 6, 2009

Free As in Speech, Not As in Beer

For Independence Day, I went to the Detroit Zoo for the first time in at least four years. It seemed a little smaller than I remembered and I don't seem to be as excited about exotic animals anymore, but overall I liked it. I got some great pictures of a polar bear pooping above us while we were in the underwater tunnel. I also found the mysterious plant growing in my backyard that I've been trying to identify for the past several years growing at the zoo and took a few pictures of it. It's some sort of thistle, but I can't figure out which one, though I'm sure I could figure it out if I actually put some effort into it.

After the zoo, I decided to head all the way down town to Belle Isle. I also hadn't been there for several years, and I wanted to take some pictures. The island/park was completely covered in huge crowds of people picnicking, and the streets were filled with cars, both parked and unparked. I eventually found a spot and walked around the tip of the island. The weather could have been less gloomy, but I got a few decent pictures of Detroit, Windsor, America, and Canada. Before heading back home, I decided to drive the length of the island, just to see it, and saw a police officer having a field day ticketing car after car illegally parked. I passed by the old small zoo and aquarium -- the aquarium has been closed for several years now unfortunately, but the zoo has been restored -- slowly made my way through all the traffic, and decided to try a new way back onto the freeway.

I thought I would quickly find the street I was looking for, make a left, and then head onto the highway, but instead I passed through a neighborhood of formerly splendid mansions that now were simply larger examples of urban decay. Only a few miles from downtown, these houses were on spacious plots not to be found in any other major city. If this were any other city, these houses would be worth at the very least $2 million, but being Detroit, you'd be lucky to get $100,000. I passed by many more houses that had been boarded up, and even several house-less plots of land. Only two miles from downtown, I found myself passing through empty fields. In a city of a million people, I didn't think urban prairie could lie so close to skyscrapers and office buildings.

Failing to find the street I was looking for, I turned around and eventually went down Gratiot Avenue, one of the main roads leading to downtown. The wide boulevard lay completely unused. As I passed by the barred liquor stores and the abandoned gas stations, I saw one or two cars here and there. It was eerie. But when a million people move out of the city, this is what happens.

I found the onramp to I-75 at last, and I drove 75 miles an hour away from the crumbling Art Deco skyscrapers and the condemned row houses, past the wealthy, segregated suburbs, through the forests and farmland, beyond the struggling, decaying city of Flint, and back into the gritty, dying town known as Saginaw. I drove past the boarded up houses of this mini-Detroit, past the closed car dealership, past the sign praying God for hope on our city, towards the safety of well-manicured lawns and houses with all their windows intact.

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