Archive for April, 2009

The Abandoned House of the Week

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Michigan Central Station

When built in 1913, the Michigan Central Station was the world’s largest train station. The station was built fairly far from the downtown, with the hopes that it would anchor further development in the area. The station was used heavily through World War II, though the Great Depression slowed development in the city. Michigan Central Station saw declining usage shortly after. Unfortunately the station was never even filled to capacity with several upper floors never being used.

The station finally closed for good in 1988. It has stood empty ever since, and after years of neglect and deterioration, the Detroit City Council has voted to demolish the historic building, and bill the owner, Matty Moroun, for the costs.

The Abandoned House of the week, and the remaking of Detroit

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I saw the following in a Richard Florida article in the Atlantic Monthly, titled How The Crash Will Reshape America: “The great urbanist Jane Jacobs was among the first to identify cities’ diverse economic and social structures as the true engines of growth. Although the specialization identified by Adam Smith creates powerful efficiency gains, Jacobs argued that the jostling of many different professions and different types of people, all in a dense environment, is an essential spur to innovation—to the creation of things that are truly new. And innovation, in the long run, is what keeps cities vital and relevant.”

My experience has certainly led me to believe that this is true. I recently read this article about “job sprawl”, which is the condition that exists in Metro Detroit, where most of the jobs are far away from the city core. I once read an article in the Oakland Business Review, about a company located in Oxford, who was unable to find a qualified software engineer. My first thought was, “no shit?” If you are located over 40 miles from the nearest large city, you should probably expect it to be hard to fill technical positions that require a lot of training, and/or education. It looked like a good fit for me, but living in Berkley at the time it was still 30 miles away, and probably an hour or more drive in rush hour traffic. When living in Washington, D.C., I was bombarded with calls and emails from recruiters and head hunters, trying to fill web developer positions in the D.C. area. If the job was not located on the Metro line, or at least within walking distance of the line, I simply said I wasn’t interested.

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If you employ low skilled workers you can locate almost anywhere, but if you need highly skilled, and/or educated, you’re best bet is to be near an area with a relatively high population density. It’s fairly easy to find low skilled workers. Not so when it comes to skilled labor. I’ve had recruiters from around the country contact me because of my specific skill set. They are often having trouble filling these positions. I’ve now worked for multiple companies in densely populated areas that had trouble filling positions. In fact I am currently working for a company that has been trying to fill positions since before I began work there almost a year ago. They are located in an urban center where there is an active high tech community. If they were located 40+ miles from the city, their chances of filling the positions would be slim to none. It’s not that tech workers don’t like the country side; it’s just that in an urban setting you have a much higher concentration of such workers. Your chances of finding the person to fill your high tech role far from the city are not as likely. Someone is going to have a long drive…if they’re willing to do it at all.

Will this change in Detroit? I don’t know. I’m not all that optimistic about Metro Detroit’s outlook. Areas like Royal Oak, and Ann Arbor at least have, arguably, resources, infrastructure and population density to decent tech centers. Currently, Ann Arbor is the area most resembling a creative center, and has the advantage of one of the best public universities in the country. Detroit has the New Center Area, and the Central Business District, but both areas are fairly far from the areas with the highest concentrations of creative workers such as Ferndale, Royal Oak, and Ann Arbor. Detroit has a long way to go to even approach the level of safety, livability, and urban conveniences that the previously mentioned suburban areas already have. Detroit’s advantage at this point are the incredibly low costs of land and buildings. The fact that a start up could acquire large amounts of space and land for very little money should a selling point. The fact that the area is losing the very residents a start up often needs, along with a reputation of as one of the most dangerous cities in the country makes the few pluses at lot less valuable. Detroit will need both the grass roots enthusiasm it’s been seeing, along with large amounts of public, and private funding to even have a chance of becoming a reasonably desirable place to live or do business.

A new kind of crazy?

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I recently received a comment that stated, “What Detroit needs is a Free Zone with absolutely no taxation for at least a decsde in the worst part of the city. No city, no state or federal taxes of any kind.The hardest hit area of Detroit would become the most vibrant area of the country in no time.”

I sometimes wonder if people really think things through before making comments like this. I do agree that absolutely no taxes would be quite a draw to the area. But who would it attract and what would the area be like? Does this commenter believe that it will be all God fearing Christian Republicans? It’s not just conservatives that don’t like to pay taxes. Just like it’s not only liberals who like to break the law.

A completely tax free haven in the center of Detroit. Just think about it for a second… Detroit is one of poorest cities in the country with sky high crime rates, 22% unemployment, and rampant vandalism and arson. Let’s just plop a bunch of enthusiastic hippies, libertarians, and a smattering of curious liberals and conservatives in the middle of said city. And since there would be no taxes, there would be no services. No water, no sewer system, no garbage pickup. Where are you going to get a clean source of water from? Where is your human waste going to go? Are we going to have a third world city with human waste flowing through the streets? No taxes, no police. Who do you call when the roving bands of criminals come to your house. The libertarians will claim they’ll defend themselves. I’m sure the wild west would be a big draw for visitors and potential businesses. People come to this country to escape that, not to be part of it.

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What happens when the arsonists set your house on fire? Who will you call? The fire department. There won’t be one. No taxes, no fire department. Maybe you can get a bucket brigade going with the non-existent water from the non-existent water supply. I suppose you could start your own police and fire departments, build your own water and sewer infrastructure, but then you’d have to collect taxes to pay for them. If you’re going to collect taxes, you’ll have to form a government.

The fact of the matter is, the wild west makes for good stories and movies, but probably wouldn’t be enjoyable for more than a very small and very anti-social segment of the population. Think of the uni-bomber, Timothy McVeigh, and Terry Nichols. Sounds like good company. I bet the block parties would be fun. Which one of the neighbors would you let your kids play with?

Maybe I’m making assumptions though. Maybe the commenter meant that there should be no taxes but that services should still be provided. I certainly hope not though, since the commenter is dead set against wealth redistribution, which is, of course socialism, and making the surrounding population pay for his social experiment would certainly violate his own principals. It’s okay though. I know people make these types of comments because they know they’ll never happen.

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I only got on this topic because of my recent use of Twitter in which I can view a bizarre stream of consciousness in which I see things like:

“Liberals believe anyone with a gun might go crazy at any minute..”

” The law is never settled when liberals are involved”

“vermont legalizes the redefine marriage. liberals need there own country. lets start today to divide the nation into 2 or 3 nations.”

“Hey liberals, You didn’t win the 2008 elections, the GOP lost them; there’s a VERY BIG DIFFERENCE in the two!!!”

“Will the conservatives of this country ever band together? Obama is setting up this country to be destroyed by our enemies!”

“Conservatives have VALUES, MORALS, PRINCIPLES Lefties don’t. “EVERYTHING GOES” SOCIETY! Losers, complainers”

I tried to find tweets where liberals were bashing conservatives, but couldn’t find any. Oops…correction. One just popped up:

“Conservatives had 8 years to destroy civil liberties & legislate morality. Now it’s our turn”

Maybe the overwhelming number of bitter political tweets comes from conservatives (at least from my very short experience), because they’ve lost what they perceived  as control of the political direction of the country. I suppose if I’d used Twitter while George W. Bush was president, the bitter comments may have been overwhelmingly liberal. Who knows. It’s easier to relax, when your party is in power.

My point was going to be the absolute political division that our country faces today. Maybe it’s always been this bad  but has become more obvious due to modern day communication. Now you can berate your neighbor on Twitter and never have to say it to their face. You can hate “them” virtually, and act civil while you are around them physically. Pretty sad when so many think that all of the problems they, or their country face has been caused wholly by someone else. One tweeter actually supposed that the stock market went down because
Barack Obama came back to the country. Uh…that’s just dumb.

Update - I had to add links to two videos that relate to this post. Both are very good.

Baracknophobia - Very funny. Did Michelle Bachman wear her aluminum foil cap on the campaign trail, or did she only become paranoid/delusional after winning election?

Jonathan Haidt: The real difference between liberals and conservatives -  Very interesting, and to be serious, I could probably take a lesson away from this talk.

The abandoned house of the week

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How will Rick get his mojo back? - Anonymous letter sent to The Motor(less) City

Rumors have surfaced amidst speculation that Rick Wagoner, former General Motors Corp. Chairman and Chief Executive, is said to be “strongly considering” applying for a position as an unpaid intern with mo (www.lessismo.com), a marketing and creative services firm with offices in Oak Park, Michigan – a Detroit suburb.

An unconfirmed source close to Mr. Wagoner acknowledged earlier today: “Rick has admired the creative work of mo for years now, and he’s expressed very sincere interest in learning more about their internship programs - now that he is able to devote himself more fully to his creative and aesthetic impulses, he is anxious to explore the possibilities.”

That same undisclosed source continues: “Aside from their great work, Rick loves the companies’ name, mo – it reminds him of Motown; he fondly recalls the day when automobiles were made - right here - in Detroit! Cars that Americans coveted - bought and drove. He feels a strong connection with the ‘creative types’ as he calls them, and he now deeply regrets not having hired mo years ago. Wagoner believes that GM’s legacy of ill-conceived and poorly executed marketing programs and initiatives could have been avoided if mo had been on the job…” continues that same close source to the former CEO. “In retrospect, he [Rick] now believes that mo was the answer to GM’s prayers all along…and they were regrettably overlooked in lieu of larger institutional firms.”

A representative of mo issued this prepared statement: “We cannot comment on any conversations we may or may not have had to date with Mr. Wagoner about a position with mo. We adhere to a rigorous standard of excellence for all of our interns. Inclusion in our popular program is based solely on the merit of the individual’s application and the enthusiasm of each candidate, as well as any practical experience they may have in our industry. No exceptions will be made based on previous [CEO] status, race, gender, or ethnicity. Any candidate applying for an internship with us who does not meet our high expectations and standards will not be considered for inclusion, and Mr. Wagoner is no exception. We look forward to reviewing his completed application. And if indeed Mr. Wagoner is looking to get his mojo back, he has certainly come to the right place to find it.”

That same mo representative declined comment on the suggestion the small firm might have saved GM from financial ruin, but added:

“We all either drive Toyotas or we ride our bikes to work – everyone deserves reliable transportation.”

When asked about the recent developments with mo, an employee who asked to remain anonymous said that General Motors Corp. was preparing a statement indicating that it was ‘still reviewing’ the specifics of Wagoner’s compensation package with GM, but internal sources had suggested that an unpaid internship “may appear imprudent for Rick at this juncture given the devaluation of [his] severance package…”

Wagoner’s salary was rolled back in 2008 - his compensation was tied to the company’s stock performance, which has declined significantly since he took the helm of the floundering automotive company. He agreed to accept a salary of $1 for 2009 as part of the automaker’s restructuring plan. Wagner is rumored to be found regularly roaming the halls of the GM headquarters, quietly repeating to himself, “I need to learn a trade…some sort of skill. Maybe graphics. Maybe house painting.”

Rick Wagoner has served as CEO for almost nine of the 32-years he has been employed with General Motors.

Mr. Wagoner was not available for comment.