Motorized wheelchairs are the best vehicles in the city.

Collected images.
March 17 2009 10:34 AM

Motor City

Power wheelchairs are the best vehicles for navigating the urban jungle.

Click here to launch a slide show on motorized wheelchairs.

As I get older, I have become more attentive to the question of physical mobility. A few months of limping with knee pain has made me keenly aware of older folk navigating the city with their canes and walkers. I see them slowly crossing the street, anxiously hoping that the light won't change to red before they get across.

Then I began to notice motorized wheelchairs everywhere, transporting the sick and the elderly about the city. Riding low at a top speed of 6 miles an hour, these personal vehicles would seem to be the ideal way to get about the city, allowing the elderly and infirm to carry their groceries, pets, oxygen tanks, and sometimes even their children or grandchildren.  Heading to the fair, market, church, or liquor store, these riders of motorized wheelchairs proudly tell the world that they are still living their lives.

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On the sidewalk, they approach me from behind and zoom past me. They ride alongside me as I drive my car on some of my favorite streets—Woodward Avenue in Detroit and Pennsylvania Avenue in Baltimore. I think of some of these motorized wheelchair riders as flâneurs, taking a leisurely look at life around them.

These riders customize their vehicles. I have seen dolls, crosses, and sometimes even a cover to keep the rain out. Motorized wheelchairs have funky brand names such as Pronto, Jazzy Select Pride, Golden Companion, Legend, and Victory 10. Small and economical, they generally cost about a tenth of the price of an automobile, most of which is generally covered by Medicare, the Veterans Administration, or a union health plan.  For a few hundred dollars you can buy a used model at the local Salvation Army store. You can travel 10 or more miles from home on one of these machines.

On a recent visit to Detroit, I met a woman named Gloria who told me she used to work at the local Cadillac plant. Another rider, Sylvester, said he had been a landscaper. I photographed an elderly woman riding her wheelchair in the middle of Woodward Avenue; she was smoking a cigarette, and the American flag proudly fluttered from the back of her machine.  I met Frank, a former Army Airborne mechanic, along Livernois Avenue. He was driving dangerously close to buses and heavy trucks, a broken reflector dangling from the back of his wheelchair. When he saw me, he stopped to ask me for a dollar. Most memorable of all was George, who had lost his legs to diabetes and seemed to have become one with his motorized wheelchair. He reminded me of a cyborg.

Camilo José Vergara is a 2002 MacArthur fellow whose books include American Ruins and How the Other Half Worships. You can see more of his photos on his Web site and can contact him at camilojosev@gmail.com.

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