Archive for April, 2008

One wall, many doors…

Here is a wall in Detroit, that has an interesting variety of doors.

Do what Cleveland does…

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After watching Making Sense of Place: Cleveland, I was reminded of something I’ve said over and over. Metro Detroit is in competition with all of the other metropolitan areas in the country for today and tomorrow’s young and educated population. At one point in the episode it was stated that the city had two choices: “entice this desirable demographic with the ammenities and lifestyle they desire, or hand them suitcases,” because if Cleveland couldn’t provide them with what they wanted, they’d head elsewhere.

Metro Detroit is facing this same problem, and until everyone gets on board…the decline will continue.

One of the most interesting aspects of the episode was the continuing cycle of building and abandonment. Newer, outer ring, suburbs always think they are going to be immune to the problems of the city, or now, inner ring suburbs. But the fact is, it catches up eventually. What was once the new hot place, eventually becomes a struggling area of despair. It is one of the reasons commutes continue to grow. Living in Lake Orion, and working in Dearborn makes no sense, but people do it. But tough times and crime know no borders. Someone always has to buy your old place before you move to your new place. It’s unsustainable. Now outer suburbs build massive high schools. Tomorrow, those same communities are trying to close schools, and condense their school system due to a declining school population.

New infrastructure follows the ever outward migration, paid for by the general population’s taxes. The infrastructure continues to require maintenance regardless of the ability to fund it.

So what do we do? So many think this cycle is just as it should be. But it’s incredibly expensive. It’s wasteful. It makes it hard to create real communities. It creates dangerous social divisions. The rich live here, and the poor live there. Running from our problems is not a solution to the problem. It is the problem.

Detroit to get mass transit?

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I have to admit, I got a little excited when this Model D newsletter appeared in my inbox. I’ve written letters, made calls, and hoped for years that the dream of a reliable, user friendly, form of mass transit would arrive in Metro Detroit. Of course I was always told the standard line, “Detroit’s the Motor City…we’ll never get mass transit.” And of course L. Brooks Patterson once said on Michigan Public Radio, “we can’t afford to spend a dime on an experiment like mass transit…” Never mind that this “experiment” has been successful all over the globe, and most desirable and economically prosperous metropolitan areas have some form of this “experiment” also known as mass transit.

I’ve followed the debates, and the ups and downs of possible mass transit in Metro Detroit for more than ten years now. Now that the Michigan and Metro Detroit mass exodus of highly educated, motivated, and entrepreneurial people has hit a peek of sorts, and gas is expected to hit $4 per gallon, more Metro Detroiters than ever are asking why a mass transit system doesn’t exist.

Of course many people in the area would never step foot on public transportation in Metro Detroit, and would rather move than have their tax dollars support such a thing. I’ve had acquaintances tell me, “I’d never ride on public transportation here. Who would?” Of course when I was young, some people were afraid the criminal element may use mass transit to escape from the inner-city, come out to the safe haven of the suburbs, and still their refrigerators. Criminals apparently could steal refrigerators, but not cars…

So now here we are in an enlightened time in Metro Detroit. We’re ready for a regional mass transit system. Right? Ok, maybe not. It’s Kwame after all. Remember the police station in the abandoned train station plan? Is this just another “plan” that actually has less than a snowball’s chance in Hell? Time will tell. One problem may be the need for local dollars. The “plan” calls for a light rail system from downtown to the State Fair Grounds. Which of the two communities in which the light rail will pass through have any money. Neither Highland Park, nor Detroit has enough money for schools, libraries, or basic public services. The other problem is getting any other community on board. After all, it’s not going to be successful if it’s just a line from downtown to the State Fair Grounds. A successful plan has to include the communities to the north such as, Ferndale, Royal Oak, and Birmingham. Of those three the most likely to commit to such a plan would be Ferndale. Regional agreements have never been Metro Detroit’s strong suit.

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Even if all does work as planned, it’s stated in the article that nothing would happen in this decade anyway. And anything beyond Detroit hasn’t even been discussed. So Metro Detroit is once again going to fail to become relevant anytime in the near future.

Megan Owens, executive director of Transportation Riders United, states “It’s better that they take it slow and do it right,” Owens says. “The worst thing we could do is spend a bunch of money to do it quickly and build a bad system.” Unfortunately Detroit doesn’t have time. It’s already too late to the party. In fact the party’s pretty much over. Detroit needs something, and they need it yesterday.

Detroit’s Abandoned House of the Day

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Picking on Detroit?

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I’m occasionally accused of only pointing out Detroit’s flaws. It’s mostly true. I do have a “glass is half full” kind of attitude about Detroit. Actually my attitude is more of a “glass is empty” sort of attitude. But this isn’t elementary school. I’m not a bully, and Detroit’s not a little school child. I’m one person pointing out why droves of the most desirable people are leaving Detroit. And I do point out what I think needs to change. Detroit can take it.
And I’m not alone. Lately Detroit’s daily paper’s have taken up the cause as well.

The Free Press is reporting about the Nation’s cities, and what needs to change in order to keep them safe, vibrant, and economically viable. While this series does not focus solely on Detroit, it does point out what Detroit faces, and what it needs to do in order to recover from the depths it’s reached.

The News is reporting about the horrible state of the Detroit Public Schools, and right or wrong, presenting a way to fix it.

The Free Press compares Detroit and Pittsburgh. Detroiters often defend Detroit, pointing out how it’s so different from other cities. Of course it’s not that different. And the solutions aren’t that different either.

And here’s something I’ve mentioned and complained about before. Some idiots still refuse to get with the times. Banning smoking, in public spaces, is within State’s rights of protecting public health, and does not ruin local economies.

An article in the Free Press about how Detroit’s biggest problem is providing basic services to it’s residents.

A Free Press article about Michigan’s over supply of homes.

The area still can’t get it’s act together on the convention center (goodbye Auto Show?).

Some will say that all this misses the good things happening in the area. That may be the case, but reporting about the lipstick on a pig, doesn’t prevent anyone from recognizing that it’s still a pig. Detroit and the Metro Area, won’t get better until a majority of the residents look in the mirror and realize the area’s failings, of which there are way too many.

A positive story

I just saw this article on CNN. A native of Detroit, Michigan, Viola Vaughn’s seen more than her share of tragedy and heartbreak, but still managed to do what most never would never even attempt. She’s made life better for those around her, and in doing so has made her own life better. In today’s “winner take all society,” it’s really nice to see someone do something that isn’t focused solely on the bottom line, or at least a bottom line that isn’t just money.

If this can happen in Africa, why can it not happen in the U.S., and specifically, why can it not happen in Detroit? And if it has happened, or is happening, I want to know about it.

Parking

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An interesting scene I drove by several times a week for a couple of years.

Michigan’s foreclosure problem

Michigan’s foreclosure problem, like in so many other states, is huge. And like with so many other issues no one seems to be able to agree on any possible solutions. The primary question seems to be, who do we bail out? Why do we have to bail anyone out? Because, number one, spending our money is what the government does when there’s a problem. We should all know that by now. Secondly, and more importantly though, bail out or no bail out, we’ll all pay one way or another.

Let’s look at the root of the problem first. Lenders lent too much too easily to too many people. Borrowers borrowed too much, with too little down, and without the means to pay it back. Investors bought these bad loans, without due diligence. Builders built too much, speculators speculated too much, and our entire economy became too reliant on this house of cards. Everyone thought the party would never end. Everyone either fed into, or bought into (o.k., I didn’t, but it seems everyone else did) the idea that housing prices could not go down.

Several years ago, I was told by an employee of a developer, who was then developing housing out in the middle of nowhere, outside of, Metro Detroit that there was no end to the demand. When I asked were everyone was coming from (knowing that Michigan, at the time, had one of the lowest rates of population growth), she replied, “they’re coming from older, closer in suburbs.” As if that could go on indefinitely. Who was buying their houses? Eventually, you need a growing population to fulfill the needs of a growing stock of housing developments. Without it, it’s unsustainable. An unrealistic, and decidedly Pollyannaish, view of the market, combined with a bad economy created Michigan’s housing disaster. Of course the market’s crashing everywhere, not just in Michigan. In other places the speculation got out of hand, prices were driven up to unaffordable rates, and people were sold, or bought (depends on your perspective) bad mortgages. Different cause, same result.

Nobody wants to bail out those who made foolish decisions, but it seems all parties involved made poor decisions. If I am a lender, and lend my money to too many, who, with bad credit, and meager income, have little realistic chance of paying back, I’m at fault, and I deserve to lose that money. Even more so if I’ve convinced borrowers, and purchasers of the loans I make, that it’s a good deal, there’s nothing, to worry about, and we’re all going to get rich doing it.

If I’m a borrower, and I borrow an amount I can’t afford, with the crazy assumption that the 25% annual gains will continue, and I’ll refinance my way out of my negative amortization loan, then I deserve to lose my house.

If I’m an investor, and I foolishly invest money in SIVs, without investigating them first, I deserve to lose my money.

If I’m a developer, and I develop in a community with high vacancy rates, an unstable economy, more housing units than residents, or other obvious signs of trouble, and I fail to head the warnings, I deserve to lose my money.

Unfortunately, we don’t just have one of these groups in trouble, we have all of them in trouble. And when they are all in trouble, we are all in trouble. So the question, is, as was asked at the top, who do we bail out. Right now the politicians are working on various bills for each of these groups, and of course we’ve already bailed out Bear Sterns. Just wait there’s more to come.

This is where the blame game starts. If you fit into one of the above categories, it’s not your fault. It’s the fault of parties in the other groups. Which ever group has the most money, and the best lobbyists wins (gets the bail out).

I don’t know what the answer is, I only know there’s going to be pain, and lots of it. One thing we do need, is to keep as many people in their houses as possible. I know that I don’t want vacant houses around my neighborhood. High numbers of vacant houses do no one any good. So why is it there is so much reporting about lending banks not responding to borrowers who are in over their heads? Why are so many houses being foreclosed on? What do the banks think they’re going to get for vacant, often vandalized homes in, largely, vacant areas of our nation’s cities? Who in their right mind is going to buy a house in an urban area of Detroit, in a market with declining values, when the houses around you look like this:

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We shouldn’t cut off our noses, to spite our faces. Forcing people out of their houses because they made bad choices only works if it’s just a few people. When the number about to lose their houses becomes large enough, it’s not just their problem anymore, it becomes our problem.

Abandoned house of the day…

An abandoned house in Detroit, Michigan.

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53 Places to go in 2008?

No this one is for real. I’m not making it up, and there’s been no Photoshop manipulation here. The New York Times says that Detroit’s one of the top places to visit in 2008.

Detroit’s a better place to visit in 2008 then San Diego, Australia, London, and New York! Wow, I guess my cynicism got in the way of realizing what a gem Detroit is! Yea, right… Who paid who, to get this listing? I agree that the new hotels are really nice, but if it’s about new hotels, why does Vegas rank lower? Hmm…perhaps the Times was trying to come up with some places that were a little out of the ordinary? Well, Detroit seems to be the only one out of the ordinary. Maybe one of us can’t see the forest for the trees…

I also do think the DIA is great, and the renovation is great. There’s more space, and it shows off the collections better. To bad the DIA doesn’t seem to be able to do for Detroit what the Guggenheim did for Bilbao, Spain.

I like to visit Detroit, but that’s because I like to take photos of abandoned and decaying spaces. What city could be better? That said here’s a few new photos:

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