Gore and green space

After being stuck in traffic for more than an hour, I’m sick of concrete gray and construction orange. All I can think about is getting out of the car – like the Michael Douglas character in Falling Down, I could just leave my car in the traffic jam and walk the few miles home.

"And wreak havoc along the way, don’t forget," says the Lizard of Fun, who seems perfectly content to heckle road crews and hang out the car window to get the cell phone numbers of attractive SUV drivers. I begin to growl.

"What’s that sound?" asks the Lizard. "Is the engine on the fritz again?"

"All I’ve seen for the last week is freeways," I say. "I’m in need of chlorophyll therapy. I must see green space. Plants. Lawns. Trees. AstroTurf. Anything, as long as it’s green."

"A Midori margarita?" asks the Lizard hopefully. "I know a bar just a few miles from here – it’d only be a tiny detour."

"No!" I shout, frustrated. "That’s the whole problem! Everything’s just a few miles away from everything else. I’m sick of spending two hours in the car, just so I can go grocery shopping. I hate having to drive somewhere so I can go for a walk. This urban has sprawled about 40 miles too wide!"

At least I’m not alone in my frustrations. After spending 50-odd years fleeing to the swimming pools, carports and spreading lawns of suburban paradises, Americans are beginning to notice the disadvantages of actually living there.

"Like not being able to tell your house from your neighbor’s?" asks the Lizard.

"Like a sense that even the nicest lawn isn’t worth a two- or three-hour daily commute."

I exit the freeway near Tiger Stadium and drive along the city streets, where I can at least see a few shrubs and trees leafing in yards and vacant lots. "That must’ve been what Al Gore was talking about when he was here last week," I say. "Sustainability is about being able to live in a pleasant environment, without being dependent on cars. About having parks, and green space, and … "

"Wait a minute, this fun-sounding dude can’t be the same Al Gore who wants to limit kids’ access to the Internet and who has that wife, Flipper, who didn’t like explicit song lyrics – can it?" The Lizard looks perplexed.

"He’s trying hard to get elected," I note.

"That makes me need a drink," says the Lizard.

We park at the corner of Bagley and 18th, where the Lizard dashes into the Honeybee Market to pick up a cold bottle of Mountain Dew. When it returns, looking somewhat refreshed, it looks up at the old Michigan Central depot, which is gleaming dimly in the early evening sun.

"Hey, let’s check out the old train station," says the Lizard, pulling me across the street and down toward the building. "I hear it’s totally fun, especially if you’re into spelunking."

But I’m more interested in the miniature woodland that opens to our right. There’s a path leading around a bend, with flowering trees and waving grasses on either side. I feel as though I’ve stepped through some kind of cosmic window between dimensions – from inner city to outer country in just a few steps.

"What was in your Mountain Dew, freak girl?" asks the Lizard. "I think this is what they call ‘brownfields’ – disused industrial land."

"It’s not disused," I say. Two guys wander across the train tracks, carrying battered backpacks and brown bags containing bottles of what I can only assume is Mountain Dew. "Hey, lady," calls one of them, pointing at the Lizard. "Hey, call off your alligator!"

"It’s OK," I reassure him. "He doesn’t bite. Usually."

"Cool," says the guy, gesturing toward the train station like an English lord inviting me to his manor. "Go on in, take a tour. My friends are in there, Joey and Bill, they’re cool. It’s good, man, a good place. Say, you got a smoke?"

I shake my head and we all wander on. The Lizard and I walk along a gravel path which winds eastward, between the train tracks on the left and disused brick industrial buildings on the right. Beyond those, we can see the Ambassador Bridge. In front of us, in the distance, shines the Renaissance Center.

"Man, this is primo real estate!" says the Lizard. "You think we could get some of Gore’s $700 million tax credits if we installed lounge chairs and called it a park?"

Suddenly, a train approaches, chugging slowly toward us. It stops for a moment – long enough for a minor altercation with the Lizard, who wants to reincarnate Boxcar Willie and go on tour – and then disappears, car by car, into a tunnel.

"See, there’s even entertainment," the Lizard says, skipping ahead along the path. "Why doesn’t everyone hang out here? This is fun!"

I nod, feeling refreshed. Chlorophyll therapy works. "So, who owns this land?" I wonder.

"Probably those two guys we met," the Lizard suggests. "But I’ll bet they’d sell it cheap."

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