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I think the first thing anybody notices as they pull west from U.S. 127 into Lansing are the crumbling streets. The old houses. The shrubbery nobody’s bothered to prune. The chuckholes on Kalamazoo, the sloppy patches of asphalt upon asphalt. The gentle decay and neglect give Michigan’s capital a noir look and feel, a world away from the polished glimmer of East Lansing and MSU physically not far to the east.
But polished glimmer has never fancied much curiosity from me. Shiny towers of learning and commerce and upscale living may be better for the tax base and the condition of the streets, but I’ve never given them a second glance. I moved here in late June, and it’s the old places that I seek to hang my hat, the rough-hewn diamonds. And in that spirit, what could be older and more human than Stober’s Bar, the oldest watering hole in Lansing, operating since the days FDR freed us from Prohibition? You can almost see John Dillinger sitting in those red naugahyde booths, smoking a cigar and enjoying a whiskey with his moll. A giant, winged, wooden phoenix creature glowers over the bar in the dim light of old-fashioned chandeliers.
Or DeLuca’s. No city is complete without a good Italian place. A family place. Chairs and tables that remind me of my grandmother’s, may God rest her soul. Portraits on the wall of notable Italians — is that Columbus or Macchiavelli? In the foyer, they have signed portraits of local Michigan celebrities, from Tom Izzo to Jennifer Granholm. And then comes the food, acres of pizza, who knew 18 inches could provide so much, perhaps too much, deliciousness?
Head to Kewpee’s downtown for the only-in-Lansing kind of sandwich, the olive burger. Every city needs its own lowbrow food, from the Chicago hot dog to the Detroit coney to the Philly cheese steak, and Lansing is no exception. I’m no stranger to olives generally (I just had them on my pizza at DeLuca’s) and the tang on this sandwich definitely leaves me on the love side of the love ’em or hate ’em camp. And I wash it all down with a pint of housemade root beer. They cater to all the folks. Your granpappy ate here.
No summertime is complete without a good watering hole, and while I’m not too proud to swim in the river, my return to the Rust Belt made me hesitant to wade out into the Red Cedar and the Grand, which on the deceptive surface, in the shade of the maples, do look as nice as all Oregon. Instead, I found Hawk Island Park — a kind of urban paradise reclaimed from an old stone quarry. In the early ’40s, a 30-acre lake was dug for the Sablain Gravel Pit. I bluff on the history and imagine those rocks helped the allies win the war. Today, it’s a playground for Langsingites. Cast a rod for the bluegill or paddle around in a giant mute swan boat. There’s a swimming beach on the east side, although I like to sneak in through the woods, away from the high school life guards. Parking is $3, but don’t worry about your ability to pay — if you can’t afford it, Ingham County will let you in for free.
I can also ride into Hawk Island Park on a bicycle from the River Trail — perhaps Lansing’s most unexpected delight. The city’s fathers don’t seem to have always had the vision, as the big ugly I-496 freeway barrelling through the middle of the city attests.
And the bike lanes, when the roads aren’t falling apart, lack for connectivity, with a dedicated lane on Washington Avenue south of REO Town just ending for no apparent reason, and likewise on Mount Hope Avenue, east of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. But if you can stick to the trail, this civic gem will take you places without needing a car. Ride on the wooden bridge over Pennsylvania Avenue to Ingham County’s little Potter Park Zoo and maneuver the elaborate zigzags to navigate the railroad tracks and the many bends of the city’s rivers. My bicycle can navigate to Old Town to the north, Moores Park to the west and MSU to the east and share the trail only with hikers, joggers and other two-wheelers.
In REO Town, there’s Blue Owl Coffee, which is pricey but rich in ambiance, where they’ve made old furniture and chipped-paint walls look hip and stylish, like a place Hemingway might’ve sipped a cup during the Spanish Civil War. The Biggby’s chain (the company that franchises them is local) is also a welcome contrast to the corporate monotony of Starbucks, and a thermos refill is only $1.49. Some of these locations could use a little TLC. While the two downtown on Allegan and Ottawa are quaint and cozy, the two on Michigan Avenue feel more like sitting in a fast-food joint with just a few tables set up in a big area.
Summer may be ending but a Lansing tour still requires a stop at Quality Dairy for an ice cream, and this being Michigan, a Mackinac Island Fudge cone, with the island’s famous chunky butter fudge blended through the vanilla. For a brief blissful moment, it’ll take you back to childhood and the clop-clop-clopping of the horses on the cobblestones.