The bench labeled C.13.C.1 is in North Corktown, and swings from inside of a metal frame. Benches E.21.B.1-2 are black metal benches next to a tennis court along the Dennis Archer Greenway.
Bobbi Baumez created this esoteric indexing system to identify all of the 533 benches she has cataloged in just nine months. The catalog exists in a spreadsheet and some of the benches get posted on Twitter under the handle @detroitbenches where she is the self-appointed Detroit Bench Freak. (Many of the posts also appear on Instagram.)
“This is mainly a hobby,” Baumez said. “Though it’s now consuming a large part of my brain.”
In her taxonomy, the first number and letter pair identify the part of the city where the bench sits (C.13 was the 13th area cataloged in Corktown). The second pair identifies where the bench sits in a particular group of close-together benches. For example, bus stop benches are often in groups of one. Corktown’s C.13 area has three groups of benches. The swinging bench was in group C, by itself.
Some benches get the location “BAL,” which stands for “benches at large.” Baumez says this tag is reserved for benches that are “out in the wild” and not part of a clearly defined area.
Detroit Bench Freak is an astounding display of nerdy obsessiveness. But the casual commentary, where Baumez evaluates what does or doesn’t work about a particular bench, also have elements of playful urbanism.
On April 24, for example, she posted about an “ambiguous bench-like structure” in Erma Henderson Park (numbered E.3.B.4). “If you think this does not belong in my bench taxonomy, please find some room for whimsy in your life,” she wrote.
Baumez wishes she could undo what she considers some early cataloging mistakes. The area “D” stands for “downtown,” which includes the RiverWalk. She now thinks the RiverWalk should get its own designation. But she’s decided not to revamp the system.
“Once it’s on the internet, it’s ‘bench canon.’” Baumez said. “So I have to organize new bench districts carefully.”
The 34-year-old Baumez moved to Detroit from Phoenix in September last year. Since then, she’s taken it upon herself to showcase the city’s benches — good, bad and everything in between.
Baumez doesn’t own a car and wanted to have a list of good places to rest while walking her dog or biking around town.
She originally collected the benches in a slide presentation — which she said she would “force people to look at” — until one day, a friend said she should put it all on the internet.
“If you’re out riding the bus, for example, you sometimes have to wait forever,” Baumez said. “I thought it would be useful for me and others to know where to hang out if you get tired.”
Baumez was a kindergarten teacher for three years until she recently became a risk management consultant. She doesn’t have a degree in urban planning.
But since moving to Detroit, she’s become a full-on bench evangelist.
On May 31, she posted about a bench in Milliken State Park (D.13.C.2), much like a biologist writing about a newly discovered animal. “This genus of bench is unique to this park – but I hate that it’s a hostile one :(,” she wrote.
A “hostile” bench is one that’s designed to prevent people, particularly unhoused people, from laying down or sleeping — in the style of hostile architecture. Baumez marks benches as hostile on her spreadsheet and often calls this out in her commentary. The armrest in the middle of D.13.C.2, for example, would make sleeping on it uncomfortable. Baumez calls out other benches as “passive aggressive” with armrests so tiny it’s hard to imagine they are designed for arms to actually rest on.
“You should be able to rest on a bench in whatever way you want,” she says. “Anybody should be able to lie down, and they should be as comfortable as possible.”
Baumez believes hostile architecture has no place in cities, and benches should come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Around one-quarter of the benches in her catalog are hostile. More than 80% of those hostile benches are either downtown or at bus stops.
“It’s very hard to find a bus bench that’s both sheltered and not hostile,” Baumez said. “That makes being outside and taking public transit more difficult than it needs to be.”
There’s no way to know exactly how many benches there are in Detroit, but Baumez guesses there are around 17,000 (which means she’s cataloged around 3%). Her favorite benches so far are the ones on the east side salvaged by the Heidelberg Project covered in dolls and the cement benches (E.BAL.B.1 through 7) found near Easter Island-like statues at Kercheval and Concord avenues.
Baumez says she has no major goals for the account beyond continuing to catalog Detroit’s benches and promote their use.
“I just want to have fun and encourage people to use benches,” she said. “I want people to see them as something that is valuable to their urban landscape. Your city is a place for you to live, exist and rest if you want to.”