An American Abroad

The Murals of Toledo’s Old South End

Toledo’s Central Union Station, where my sons and I have caught the Lake Shore Limited east many times, is situated in the city’s Old South End. I had gone down to the tracks there to photograph an antique steam locomotive as it chuffed through Toledo on its way to Youngstown for a special whoop-de-doo. Like many such events, there was about an hour of waiting and about a minute of what I’d really come to see. Since I was already in the neighborhood, I decided to explore.

This part of town now has a significant Hispanic population, a fact that’s reflected in the public artwork there. Many of the murals had been designed by Mario Acevedo Torero, a Peruvan artist who has an ongoing relationship with students of Bowling Green State University, a large state school about a half hour south of Toledo. The murals were in good condition, with very little overtagging or other defacing.

The murals were painted on the concrete supports for a large overhead highway. They made what might otherwise have been a grim (or even forbidding) environment feel loved, tended to, and peopled.

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The murals below adorned the exterior walls of Adelante, a Latino community organization.

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I liked the idea behind the two pieces below. The use of the blank faces encourages viewers to see themselves — or maybe their friends and family members — as the artist’s subjects. Fill in the blank: you, too, can be famous.

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The one institution that I remember from years back that’s still in operation is the Green Lantern, a classic burger café that’s been continuously operated at the same spot since 1927. I’ve never eaten there myself (I think I popped in for coffee once several years ago), but it gets rave reviews from the diner aficionados on Yelp.

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Outsized portraits of American heroes such as Cesar Chavez and Martin Luther King graced the sides of several old buildings on Broadway. These, too, were painted by a BGSU group.

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It was encouraging to see that even on obviously decrepit and decaying buildings, someone had made an effort to make them look cheerier.

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Less lawful artwork could be found under the highway and atop a nearby water tower.

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Oh, and the steam train I came out to see? Here it is: The Nickel Plate Road No. 765. Quite a machine to behold.

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40 Books That Made Me a Traveler — Part 2

This week’s entry in my series about books that made me a traveler is all over the map. Literally. Iran, the Caribbean, Congo, the road from Istanbul to India, and South America are all represented in these selections. What these books have in common are stories about overcoming fears and overcoming odds. I read some of these while I was dreaming of travel and others while I was on the road in China and Tunisia.

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Buying these books through the links here doesn’t increase your cost by a cent, but it does put a few cents into my bank account (which I will use to keep this blog going). Enjoy! And please let me know what you think of them.

By the way, if you are interested in other books I’ve read recently, check out Part 1 of this series, or go to my buy page.

Iranian Rappers and Persian Porn: A Hitchhiker's Adventures in the New Iran
Jamie Maslin
One of the best things a travel book can do is to de-cartoonify a country and its people. Many of my countrymen have a cartoon image of Iran as a place of joyless religious fanatics moving in ignorant lockstep to the edicts of stern ayatollahs and their murderous henchmen. Maslin's book humanizes the Iranians, especially the young people of that country who delight in finding ways around the no-sex no-drugs no-fun mores of the Islamic Republic. The author of this raucous but informative book goes to private parties in people's homes that, in their touching awkwardness, reminded me of high school dances. He rides in fast cars. He listens to ridiculous European bands no one outside Iran has ever heard of. He and his newfound Iranian friends watch porn and do drugs. The very things that make Western culture so superficial and alluring become revolutionary aspirations for an oppressed people.
Robinson Crusoe
Daniel Defoe
If you can lay aside the heavy doses of Christian religiosity that sidetrack the narrative every twenty pages or so, what's left is a good story about self-reliance in an alien environment. Crusoe is a 17th century MacGyver, solving the practical problems of living on a deserted island with a series of clever improvisations. He meets and befriends both natives and other westerners. I read this classic while I lived in China and found it to be a pretty good metaphor for expat living.
Bonobo Handshake: A Memoir of Love and Adventure in the Congo
Vanessa Woods
Bonobos are the primates whose genetic makeup is closest to that of homo sapiens, sharing 98.7% of our DNA. They live in matriarchal troupes, engage in frequent and imaginative sex as a way of defusing social tensions, and are generally more peaceful than other primate species. This makes them very interesting to primate scientists. Two such scientists (the author and her boyfriend) move to a bonobo preserve in the Democratic Republic of Congo to conduct primate research. There they discover much about the animals, the Congo, and themselves. Woods subtly and humorously compares her boyfriend's behavior to bonobo behavior, and it's not always clear who comes out better.
Magic Bus: On the Hippie Trail from Istanbul to India
Rory MacLean
Back in the 1960s, there were these people called hippies who came from North America and West Europe. They grew their hair long and took drugs and traveled overland through western Asia all the way to the promised land, which turned out to be India. Along the way, they invented a whole genre of travel and had a significant impact on the economic and social lives of many of the south Asian communities they visited. This book does a neat job of showing how that generation's ideals and imagination helped to create modern travel -- and how the remnants of that generation are keeping those ideals alive today.
Two Wheels Through Terror: Diary of a South American Motorcycle Odyssey
Glen Heggstad
If I had to point to just one book that formed my ideas about travel, this would be it. It's an account of how the author, a former Hell's Angel and current martial arts instructor, decides to motorcycle from California to the southern tip of South America and back. He rides alone, but with a woman on his mind. He is disciplined, but takes risks. He's tough, but compassionate. He's got a code, but he's not an ideologue. All goes well until he is kidnapped by a guerrilla army in Colombia and held captive for five grueling weeks. Once released, he is forcefully told by the U.S. Embassy in Bogota that he should leave the country as soon as he recovers his strength. He refuses. Instead, friends back home ship him a new motorcycle and he continues his ride and completes it. Along the way he is robbed, almost frozen, and suffers mechanical and personal breakdowns. And yet he perseveres.

Nicaragua 2008: The Dogs of El Castillo (Plus a Couple of Horses)

Caution: dangerous generalization ahead.

When I was in the jungle town of El Castillo, Nicaragua in 2008, I was surprised to see so many dogs. I noted with pleasure and approval that the dogs generally looked cared for, well-fed, and to belong to individual households. I don’t recall seeing a single stray there.

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The dangerous generalization is that you can tell something about the general happiness of a town and its citizens by how happy their dogs look.

There were no cars in El Castillo and no roads where you could drive one if you wanted to. I did see men coming into town on horseback, though — something else I didn’t expect in the jungle.

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Nicaragua 2008: The Town of El Castillo

(This is a continuation of my narrative of a trip I took to Nicaragua seven years ago.)

We awoke the morning after our journey down the Rio San Juan to find ourselves in the Victoria Hotel. Since the power had been out when we arrived the night before, we hadn’t had the chance to check out out accommodations. Now we took advantage of the daylight to discover a simple but friendly place which served us a good breakfast. We then set out to explore the town we had traveled so far to see.

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El Castillo is a small settlement on the northern bank of the Rio San Juan, near the border of Nicaragua and Costa Rica. The town is sited on a hill by a river bend where the usually-calm waters turn to rapids. This geography made the location the ideal spot to build a fort to defend the river, which is just what the Spanish did in 1673. The bend in the river would force hostile craft coming along the rover to stay within cannon range for a longer period of time than a straightaway would. The rapids would make it difficult for an enemy ship to hold its position long enough to direct cannon fire back at the town. The hill would give the town’s defenders a superior tactical position. Over the centuries, various naval battles took place here as the Spanish fought both pirate ships and the British Navy. In one such battle, the British forces were commanded by a then-22 year old Lord Nelson. The river is still vital to the town; even at the time our our 2008 visit, it was the only practical way in and out of El Castillo.

We found a mellow, slow-going town which seemed to have escaped the extreme poverty we saw as we passed other settlements on the river. There were a couple of restaurants which, during our time in El Castillo, served only chicken as a main course.

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I got my first-ever look inside a restaurant kitchen in the developing world and was struck by its small size, its use of every available space, and its thoughtful organization.

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There were also some small stores in town where water, bug dope, cigarettes and beer could be purchased.

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One institution I was surprised to find in such a small, isolated outpost was Alcoholics Anonymous (“Unity, Service, Recovery”).

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The signs of other paths to redemption were evident too.

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I didn’t know if the name written on the wall was the name of the bird who always sat on his perch in front of it, but I took to calling him Marvin nonetheless.

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Housing was simple but well-kept.

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I had never been anyplace like El Castillo before, a town that was so self-contained, so cut off from the rest of the region. It felt peaceful and quietly prosperous. The animals there were well-fed. The school uniforms on the children walking to class were clean and tidy. The buildings were simple but pleasing to the eye. My son and I seemed to be the only foreigners in town, but our presence was taken in stride by the locals who neither ignored us nor swarmed over us, but were more than willing to talk with us. Our interactions with them furthered my impression of the Nicaraguan people as generally reserved and friendly.

Audio Interview With Yours Truly

Odyssey Master and fellow travel blogger Jay of Jay’s Odyssey conducted an audio interview me earlier this week about my travels and tribulations. It was a fun — even outrageous — conversation. We covered the pitfalls of eating spicy food in Bangladesh and then using a urinal, as well as the perils of being interrogated by the Tunisian police on suspicion of fornication. You can listen to it here.

Jay is a serious bicyclist who is about nine days away from embarking on an epic trip through Mexico and points south in just nine days. It’s a trip that’s been delayed twice, most recently because his bicycle was stolen. Now that he has wheels again, I look forward to following him on his journey. He’ll be Tweeting about his travels @jays_odyssey.

40 Books That Made Me a Traveler — Part 1

Literature and travel are tightly linked with me. Back when I graduated from college, bought a Eurail Pass, and backpacked through western Europe, I learned to love the racks of Penguin and Pelican paperbacks that seemed to be stationed in every convenience store. I read my way through train rides, solo meals, and rainy days. The books I bought added noticeably to the weight of my pack, until I finally, reluctantly, and for the first time in my life began leaving books behind after reading them.

Later in life, I was a founding member of a book group that reads only literature in translation. Our group traveled the world through literature. We also made a point to serve the food and spirits native to the country that produced whatever book we were reading. Through that, I learned to appreciate the literature of the non-English speaking world and added a number of must-sees to my travel list.

Still later, when I was going through a difficult emotional time, one fraught with many losses, I turned to travel books to enable my imagination to roam the world and to help me forget my woes. During one six-month period, I brought a book — usually a travel book — to a biker/bikini bar four or five nights a week, camped out on a barstool, and read while chaos roared behind me.

More recently, books have been an essential part of my expat life. As wonderful as living in another culture can be, it also has its share of lonely stretches. Reading gets me through those. After weeks and months of immersion in another language, it’s a delight to become reacquainted with English.

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The books I enjoyed most were those about travel adventure. “Adventure,” though, is a much-overused word. Many folks apply it to some mildly exciting trip that goes according to plan. Not me. I think of adventure as what happens when things don’t go according to plan. Ziplining in Mexico? Not an adventure. Being interrogated by the police in Tunisia on suspicion of fornication? Definitely an adventure.

Then there are other books that aren’t specifically about travel, but take place in foreign locations and/or involve expatriates. Graham Greene is the gold standard here; I learned about much of the world through his stories of weary British expats living in the developing world.

Here, then, is the first installment of the forty books that made me a traveler. You can read Part 2 here or visit my buy page. I’ll put up a new installment every week or so. Each of these books is hyperlinked to Amazon. Buying a book through the links here doesn’t increase your cost by a cent, but it does put a few cents into my bank account (which I will use to keep this blog going). Enjoy exploring this literature — and please let me know what you think of my selections.

The Quiet American
Graham Greene
I had a prejudice against this book for a long time after I read it due to its title. The titular American isn't any quieter than any other character. At one point, Greene simply tells us that he was, as if that settles things. But that cavil aside, this is a fine -- perhaps definitive -- portrait of expat life during the 1950s. It warns against the hubris of ideologically-driven westerners who come to tropical lands full of theories to test on the natives. On a more powerfully emotional level, though, this is a book about the strange and unequal relationships between expats and their native lovers, the way they romanticize each other, and the grief they often come to.
The Old Patagonian Express: By Train Through the Americas
Paul Theroux
Veteran travel writer Paul Theroux took a train trip from Boston to Patagonia. He loved putting his hand on the Red Line tracks in Boston and being connected to Argentina by a ribbon of steel. It wasn't literally true, of course, but the image stayed with me and made me a fan of train travel throughout the world. And the fact that I read substantial portions of it while actually riding the Red Line made adventure travel seem all the more possible. He took books with him as he traveled, like I do, and blended what he was reading at the time with what he was seeing as he rode the rails.
South: The Story of Shackleton's 1914-1917 Expedition
Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton
My favorite definition of "adventure" is what happens when things don't go according to plan. By that standard, Shackleton and his crew had adventures up the wazoo. Heading for Antarctica, they were shipwrecked and then made a daring, if not crazy, journey across the southern ocean in an open boat to reach an island where they might stand some hope of being rescued. There's a lot of technical, nautical and meteorological data to wade through, but Shackleton's leadership skills shine through the jargon. And the bravery and stalwartness of his crew convinced me that he couldn't have chosen a finer posse to accompany him to the ends of the earth. The fact that every last man survived the ordeal is an incredible testament to human strength and perseverance in the face of the most daunting odds.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values
Robert Pirsig
I first read this classic when I was in my teens and it didn't do much for me. Almost four decades later, though, I reread it and it made a great deal more sense. Pirsig was brilliant yet mentally ill and went to pieces in a way that destroyed his marriage and terrified his young son. The motorcycle trip he took from Minnesota to California was his attempt to reassemble his very self. It's also about his obsession with the metaphysics of quality, a theory he developed to connect the objective with the subjective. When I became a motorcyclist myself, I identified completely with the contemplative states Pirsig entered into while rolling through Montana. This is a book that satisfies dramatically, intellectually, and spiritually. I was surprised and gratified earlier this year when I spotted two twenty-something women reading it at a hostel in Sri Lanka. The book has stood the test of time.
The Royal Road to Romance
Richard Halliburton
This is a -- no, the -- classic wanderlust book. In the 1920s, Richard Halliburton, a small-town merchant's son from Tennessee, was more famous than Amelia Earhart. The Royal Road to Romance, an account of his travels from the Alps to Andorra to India to Panama, served as the basis for his profitable work on the American lecture circuit. He continued to travel and have adventures all over the world until he was lost at sea in 1939 while attempting to cross the Pacific in a Chinese junk. He traveled with a insouciant attitude toward money, convention, and officialdom. This led to him being jailed as a spy in Gibraltar, spending the night at the Taj Mahal, evading fares on various trains, and climbing the Matterhorn despite being utterly ignorant of mountain climbing and woefully under-equipped. Though they may not know it, every backpacker who has set off for a foreign land with a light wallet and no firm plans is following in Halliburton's footsteps.

Detroit: Chaos at The Eastern Market

The art in the gallery-like ruins at Brush and Baltimore is controlled. Mannered. Almost formal. So when I went directly from there to Detroit’s Eastern Market, I wasn’t prepared for visual chaos. My initial reaction was confusion bordering on distaste. It took me a good fifteen minutes to adjust my expectations and to appreciate a different but fine example of unauthorized public art.

The streets around the market were almost deserted on a Friday mid-afternoon, like so many others in Detroit. Since the wholesale food market there is still functioning, there were some pretty putrid smells in these back alleys, to be sure, but nothing worse.

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On one street, there was a sad reminder of how some people live in America today. Much as I like prowling the mean streets in search of the beautiful, it’s important to be reminded that real, vulnerable people sleep in places like this. This bower was someone’s home; I didn’t disturb it.

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Works like the one below definitely show the Juxtapoz aesthetic, which I grow weary of in large quantities but appreciate in isolation.

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Some of the other murals picked up on the historic function of the Eastern Market.

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The mural below has stood on this wall for over three years now and is, amazingly, almost untouched by other taggers. Maybe it’s the proposal and the “She said yes x1000” that makes people refrain from defacing it. People like to see people in love get together.

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Detroit: The Museum at Brush & Baltimore

I was thinking about why people make art when I came across a desolate intersection in Detroit. In the post-apocalyptic environs of Brush and Baltimore Streets, there are dozens of vacant lots where houses and stores once stood. Most of the remaining buildings have been stripped of everything burnable and salable; they stand like monuments to some undefinable slow-moving catastrophe. I shot a few photos of the ruins’ exteriors.

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Then a Chrysler drove up. The driver’s window slid down. I tensed a little, in spite of myself. Usually when something like that happens to me in neighborhoods like this, there’s someone who wants something from me that I don’t particularly want to give.

“Hey!” the driver said. “You should go in there.” He pointed to a burned-out shell of a building across the street. “All kinds of art in there. Wild stuff. Beautiful stuff.”

I was still a little on guard. “Just walk in?” I asked.

“Yeah,” replied the driver. “We go in there sometimes, party, look at art. Some of it’s done by the people from the gallery there.” He pointed to a windowless building across the street that was painted completely black.

I must have looked a little doubtful, because the driver smiled and said, “It’s cool.”

What the hell. If I’ve learned anything from two years of traveling, it’s that some of the best things happen when you say yes to things you don’t understand. So I walked up to the building the driver had indicated. Plastic bags stuffed with moldy, smelly bread were strewn around the porch. Flies buzzed around them. A cinder block was propped against the front door. I toed it aside, pulled the door open, and beheld an amazing art collection.

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The building I had entered had no roof, no windows, and no finished walls. It did have something much better: stunning portraits of ballerinas painted by Everett Dyson. Some of the them seemed to be dancing their way out of the shackles that once bound them.

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Elsewhere were palimpsests of tags, notes, and images, reflecting unintentional collaborations that are still in progress.

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As I photographed the artwork, a freight train rumbled by twenty yards away. Nearly every car on the train had been tagged extensively. Watching them pass was like watching a filmstrip on the tagging aesthetic. I wandered through the back door and found several other small buildings in the same bombed-out condition. The whole complex was a museum with different galleries. I continued to explore.

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Some of the works were text-heavy, illuminated manuscripts inscribed on cinder block.

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As I made my way back to the street, I again wondered what motivates people to make art. The question seemed especially poignant in this environment. Everything in the “museum” I had visited spoke of the transitory and the ephemeral. The murals that artists spent hours and hours meticulously painting will not long survive the elements or human depredation. In that respect, they are more like performances than fine art, dances that, once completed, live on only in memory. Unlike a “real” museum, the complex at Brush and Baltimore is subject to time, decay, and dissolution. Heraclitus, who famously said you can’t put your foot into the same river twice, would have understood. Perhaps the artists who worked here needed to lay down an I-was-here marker in the river of time more than they needed to occupy a static space.

Detroit: The Hipsters Move to Corktown

There are signs of an artist/hipster presence in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood. Near Michigan Central Station, some abandoned buildings have been painted up and turned into giant urban canvases.

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Other buildings show signs of being brought back to life, albeit slowly.

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There’s a cool bicycle shop and several new bars and cafes near the station, as well as a redeveloped commercial district designed to appeal to the lovers of vintage watering holes.

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And then there are some businesses that look like they’ve been there for decades.

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It’s easy — chic, even — to deride the hipsters who have settled in Detroit in the last six years. But it’s almost always a cheap shot and seems more aimed at their sartorial and tonsorial choices than at their values. Their critics also tend toward stereotype; not every dude in a pork-pie hat, horn-rims, and a goatee drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon is a pretentious jerk. Yes, hipster disposable income and insistence on certain amenities drive local rents up and may displace longtime residents. But if the alternative is keeping rents low while the neighborhood crumbles and dies, then I’ll give at least two cheers for a hipster influx.

Detroit: We Did It to Ourselves

Detroit’s Michigan Central Station is now an American icon, a metaphor for the ruination of American industry and the hollowing out of once-vital American cities. Its very existence is commentary on our current inability to construct buildings that are grand, beautiful, or even functional. In his essay “Detroitism,” John Patrick Leary wrote:

The station is the Eiffel Tower of ruin photography and probably Detroit’s most recognizable modern monument other than the downtown Renaissance Center complex, as shown by the hobbyist and professional photographers who descend upon it on every sunny day. An imposing, neoclassical behemoth even in life, the windowless station has become a melancholy symbol of the city’s transformation in death.

The first view I got of it yesterday was from an elevated highway. From that vantage, I could see through the building from front to back. Light streamed through the ruin unimpeded by office furniture, walls, or workers. One might have thought it was a Potemkin building, a grand edifice thrown up to impress visiting dignitaries as they drive by in air conditioned comfort. But as I stood on the street directly in front of the station, it became clear that this was no two-dimensional facade, but a very real place where real people had worked, a place of heft and substance that had been allowed to fall into ruin.

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The placement of a new American flag in front of the station puzzled me. Was it supposed to instill pride? To symbolize determination in the face of adversity? Or, as Leary might suggest, to commemorate America’s new national monument?

As I looked at my photo, I recalled another photo, one I did not take:


That image of the American flag planted amid the ruins of the World Trade Center, backed by strong vertical lines, always seemed to me to be an expression of perseverance, national unity, and determination to wreak vengeance on the men who destroyed the twin towers.

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But here, the men who eviscerated American industry and gutted our cities were not foreign terrorists. Pace Walt Kelly, we did this to ourselves.

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Inside the shell of the building, a handful of workers were engaged in labor whose purpose was obscure to me. It didn’t seem to be restoration or renovation. Perhaps they were securing the structure against trespassers. For their own safety, of course.

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Roosevelt Park sprawls in front of the ruins. A group of elementary-age kids sat in a semicircle under a tree, presumably getting instruction of some kind. The scene was almost pastoral. And it called to mind yet another image, Giovanni Paolo Panini’s painting of Apostle Paul Preaching on the Ruins:


I didn’t get close enough to hear what was being preached to the children in the shadow of the derelict Michigan Central Station. I think I was afraid to listen.