Archive for the 'cold' Category

Do you photograph the good parts?

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A minivan pulled up as I got back into my car after photographing this house. “Are you with the film industry”, she asked. “I’m a tailor and sometimes they need those people”, she continued. I told her I wasn’t involved with the movie industry, and she then asked me why I was taking photos of a burned out, abandoned house. My explanation that it’s part of a long term, personal project that I’m working on didn’t seem to satisfy her curiosity. That’s when she asked, “Do you photograph the good parts too, or just the bad parts?”

I really wanted to be able to say I photograph both. Over the years, I have photographed both the good and the bad, but the truth is, lately I primarily photograph the bad parts. Rarely do I focus on the good anymore. I know there are good things happening in the city, but I don’t show them. I suppose it’s easier to just drive downtown with my limited time, and photograph the things that I see along the way. Which is pretty much what I do. It’s partly convenience, but it’s also the reality of many people’s experiences with the city. It’s hard to enter the city from any direction, on any road or freeway, and not be blown away by the amount of abandonment and decay. After more than thirty years of living in the area, I know I am still shocked by what I see in the city.

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I don’t live in the area anymore, and I find the same uniqueness, and grittiness that supposedly makes Detroit so great is everywhere. Grittiness isn’t Detroit’s secret ingredient, it’s simply a nice way of saying it’s a hard place to live. Who needs that? I’m happy for those who love the area, and truly feel they belong here, but life can be a challenge without having to fight dysfunction every step of the way.

So, do I photograph the good parts too? No. Not right now. I’d really like to, but I think I still need more distance. I need to become even more of an outsider. Unfortunately coming back to the area still brings out bitterness. I like projects such as the “walk-in portrait studio” , The Power House, and the Russell Industrial Center, but some heralded establishments are only unique because they happen to be in Detroit. In any other city, it would just be one more good place to go.

The good, and interesting things in Detroit don’t make up for streets like Robinwood, where a resident said about his situation, “It would be Hell if I was dead, but I ain’t. So that just makes the place ugly. The most ugly thing that human beings can create.” Unfortunately, Robinwood, wasn’t, and certainly isn’t, the worst street in Detroit. In some places six families would be considered a high number for a street. While the woman who asked me if I photograph the good parts said that there were good things happening in Detroit, she also mentioned there were only a few houses left on her side of the street she lived on.

Holidays in Detroit

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Detroit Pheasant

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For years I’ve been spotting pheasants in the city of Detroit. This one was out in the late evening during a spring snowstorm. I’ve seen them in many parts of the city, and almost had one hit my windshield while driving down Chene near Mack.

Searching online I came across several articles about pheasants in the city. The Metro Times had this article, the Free Press had this one about pheasant hunters training their dogs in vacant lots in Detroit,   and of course, this Time article mentions pheasants in a piece on urban renewal.

Holidays in Detroit and the downside of home ownership

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The winter months in Michigan can be, and usually are, rather dreary. During our annual holiday visit to metro Detroit, along with the usual lack of sunshine, we had experienced the joy of pouring rain on Christmas day. Fun. Of course many can get used to such weather, and some will even claim to like it. For some reason many Michiganders complain all winter about snow.  Some even claim to prefer cold, damp weather to dry, cold weather. Many say, “well, at least it’s not snow!”, whenever it rains. Because soaking wet and cold is apparently so much better. Besides, snow is the only thing that covers up the brown grass, bushes, trees, and all of the mud that we get to experience a good four, or more, months of the year. But, if someone claims to like it, who am I to judge. Whatever makes you happy…

On the plus side, we enjoyed the usual things during our visit to metro Detroit. We spent time with family for holiday brunches, lunches, and dinners, as well as at a memorial for my grandmother who had recently passed away at the age of 98. We ate and drank at some of our favorite metro area restaurants and bars, and caught up with Friends. We also got to enjoy a Red Wing’s game, as we watched Detroit beat the Colorado Avalanche.

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In the weeks leading up to our trip back to Detroit, we scheduled some drywall work to be done prior to our arrival. Over the eight years we’ve owned the home we’ve gutted the bathroom and kitchen. And by gutting, I mean we ripped out absolutely everything. In the bathroom we had to stand on floor joists as we laid new sub-flooring. In the kitchen we spent days ripping out old underlayment covered with nasty, worn out linoleum made to look like bricks. In both rooms everything went. The bathroom got a new cast iron tub, all new plumbing, ceramic floors and tub surround, as well as new insulation and drywall. The kitchen received all new cabinets, appliances (other than the fridge), and new oak, hardwood flooring. We also replaced insulation and drywall in two bedrooms, refinished all of the old, existing hardwood floors, as well as the new kitchen flooring, after ripping out disgusting, rental house carpeting. We patched holes in the foundation leftover from the cement forms. All of this was done by us, with the rare helping hand of a professional plumber or electrician. The only thing we didn’t play a major role in installing was the new furnace and air conditioners.

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We did as much as possible ourselves because we didn’t want to take out a loan on our house. We didn’t believe that borrowing to fix up our rather modest ranch house was a smart move. Instead invested a lot of sweet equity, saved money in envelopes, and always paid all bills in full. The only exception was the twelve months, same as cash, credit card Ikea gave us. We did take advantage of a free year long loan. Of course we paid this off in full before the deadline. We had also purchased a house we could afford, even on one income should one of us lose our jobs. And this happened shortly after buying the house. My wife’s company was purchased by good ole’ Barry Diller, and was promptly laid off. I quit my job a few years later to try my hand at self-employment. We never had to stretch to afford the house. We were never house poor. We even paid extra on the measly $666 dollar mortgage each month in a effort to pay down the principal.

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While we did see hardship coming to the metro Detroit area, we didn’t have the renovations finished soon enough to sell when we new we should. And while we saw the writing on the wall, we certainly didn’t know it would get as bad as it did. Upon arriving home we worked hard on finishing the basement on our house, not really knowing the extent of the value lost in the previous six months. Sure we new it had lost value, but all told, it’s probably down 40% or more from it’s peak value. We were told by our real estate agent that we really needed to finish the basement, and so we were intent on it…until we realized what kind of shape we were in. Instead of throwing good money after bad, we began to think in terms of damage control. We may as well burn a pile of money on the driveway. Or perhaps put a pile of money on the driveway. At least that would generate some interest in the place.

Now I constantly read articles like:

Underwater Mortgages Hit 11.3 Million

Strategic Defaults

Debtor’s Dilemma: Pay the Mortgage or Walk Away

Strategic Non-Foreclosure Becomes Official Policy

Freddie Mac: “Potential Large Wave of Foreclosures”

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After learning that we were hopelessly under water, we dropped all tools and stopped work on the house. Strategic default, the new term for walking away even though you’re currently good on your payments, became a very appealing thought. We moved for work, and we can’t, and don’t want to, go back. Two years of paying the mortgage on even a cheap house (that we don’t live in) is a huge amount of money that is not saved for retirement (not that I ever expect to actually retire), or for the unthinkable potential need for a future debilitating illness, or for other future needs.  The money becomes locked away, in a sense, prevented from being used for more useful in the economy. Even though we bought way less than we could afford, never borrowed against it, and did all renovations ourselves, we are still faced with the possibility of owing $30,000, if we can even sell the house. This is perfectly plausible scenario even though we did everything “right”. And now the mortgage and banking industry wants me to think of my legal obligation as a moral obligation. The legal documents say it all. They state in the terms what we owe, what the collateral is, and what happens if we fail to pay. There’s no mention of heaven or hell, good or bad, right or wrong…only terms of agreement, and potential penalties should one side fail to uphold their end of the bargain.

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I don’t like the idea of walking away, and we’re doing what we can to avoid it. But at some point we need to, once again start saving the large sums of money needed for our future. The longer we hold off, the worse it becomes. Even the moral compass in my head is weak compared with pending problems of a future with too little saved. Which potential scenario is worse? The one were we walk away from a legal obligation with a bank? Or the moral obligation were we fail to take care of ourselves and our families, without relying on public handouts?

A man died here…

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Who understands how Detroit needs to change?

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After living and working for the past two years in D.C., and Denver, Colorado, coming back to the Detroit area is a real eye opener. What was once a maddening and frustrating place to live is now just plain depressing. With the real unemployment rate estimated to be near 20% for the state, and a ridiculously high 50% for the city of Detroit, still falling real estate values (down 40% in my area, and including our house), a crumbling infrastructure, financially strapped municipalities and school districts, and a apparent 50% commercial vacancy rate (just judging by what I can see..), the metro area seems to continually worsen. Each time I come back it seems that things couldn’t get worse (even though I don’t believe the area’s hit bottom yet), yet it always does.

Living in the area, one becomes accustomed to things residents in most other areas would never imagine. Roads that get complaints in other areas, metro Detroiters can only dream about. The public transit that others complain about being crowded or expensive, doesn’t even exist here. Same with the practically non-existent bike lanes. In Denver I ride my bike everywhere, only getting in the car to make longer distance trips. It’s something that I found to be unacceptably difficult here in southeastern Michigan. When I did make a trip by bicycle here, I was that strange person riding their bike on the road carrying grocery bags; presumably some poor sap who’d had his license taken away, or who didn’t have enough money for a car. In Denver, I’m just one of many using a bicycle for, believe it or not, transportation. Imagine that… Our neighbor here in metro Detroit would drive one block to buy cigarettes.

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Driving around metro Detroit, it’s rare to see more than one or two people out getting exercise of any kind. In Denver it would be rare to see less than a dozen people exercising on my two mile ride to work. The weekly Wednesday night cruiser ride in Denver attracted up to 850 riders on a single night this past summer. Of course one has considering how many other options there are for socializing, entertainment, and outdoor activities. On any given week there will be rides, runs, creative Meetups, art openings, and just about anything else an active person under the age of 95 might enjoy. I know some of these things exist in metro Detroit, but the often long distance between them isn’t just inconvenient, but a huge waste of time, and dangerous when you consider all of the different highways one would have to travel to get from, say, Royal Oak to Ann Arbor on a weekday evening.

I have a point, beyond yet one more rant about the area. And the point is this: does anyone, who hasn’t left, or doesn’t want to leave, understand what needs to change about the metro area? Everyone knows that Michigan needs jobs. But I get the feeling that many who remain believe that those who left were weak, or quitters, or don’t like hard work. Those “quitters” who left the state, left because they had other opportunities…better opportunities, and most likely a chance at a better lifestyle. They didn’t leave because they weren’t up for a challenge. If an area offers jobs, and “opportunities” rooted in the past, and another area is embracing the future, why would I choose that challenge? If you can be on a better team, who wouldn’t choose it? Sure, some would rather be a big fish in a small pond, but this particular pond keeps getting smaller, and dirtier.

The point is often made that the area needs to bring back manufacturing jobs. I wouldn’t argue that manufacturing jobs…heck any jobs, would be good for the area. But maybe what the area really needs is to face reality. Metro Detroiters need to adapt to changing times. An education may be a good place for many to start. The claim is often made that metro Detroiters are scrappy, gritty, and hard working survivors. What mid-west city doesn’t believe that? The question is, what do survivors do when there old way of doing things doesn’t work anymore? They change their way of doing things. What did metro Detroit do when it was obvious the ways of the past were going to end soon? Nothing. Detroit made pretty much all of the same mistakes Pittsburgh has made, but unfortunately, unlike Pittsburgh, Detroit’s had very little of the fortuitous investments in other industries.

The question that should be asked, that often isn’t, is why have our young and highly educated citizens been leaving for decades? If the question was asked of every one of them, that has left the state, one would get a variety of answers from jobs to lifestyle. If you were to ask what it would take to get them to come back to metro Detroit, the answers would be equally varied, but I doubt many want to come back for traditional manufacturing jobs. Nor did many of them leave because of a lack of traditional manufacturing jobs. As a friend said the other night, “the state is a storefront. Why would anyone want to come in?”

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When time Magazine offered advertising space for a campaign designed to draw this very demographic to southeastern Michigan, they asked five large agencies to answer the question, “If I’m young, talented and creative, and open to all kinds of opportunities, why Detroit?” Take a look at the ads… My personal opinion is that these ads do a better job of answering, “if I’m young, talented and creative, and open to all kinds of opportunities, why leave Detroit?” The ads do a great job of pointing out the disconnect that exists between those who have lived here a long time, and made lots of money here, and those of a younger more mobile generation. Outside of the suburbs of Detroit, who cares about Kid Rock? It really makes me wonder, if these people even understand what types of music the target demographic listens to? I can tell you, it’s not Kid Rock. Not a single one touched on any compelling reason for someone from outside of the area, to relocated here. Why are we even asking the old guard how to attract a new generation of creative, enthusiastic, and highly motivated entrepreneurs and creatives? L. Brooks Patterson still wants to stake metro Detroit’s future on the widening of I-75 from 8 Mile to M-59. MDOT and SEMCOG still seem to believe all transportation should be done in an automobile. No bikes, no trains, no walking…again that’s for the Third World poor, such as those in New York, Chicago, Atlanta, San Francisco, Portland, Denver, London, Brussels, and Toronto.

The morning after I arrived back in metro Detroit, we watched part of a round-table discussion on a local news show. The topic was, of course, about the area’s future. It appeared that not one of the participants was under the age of 60. Not that those over 60 have nothing to contribute. But asking only those who lived through a very different time period how we should proceed into the future misses the point entirely. We are in this situation because we (they) thought that what worked in the past would surely work in the future. If it was good enough then, it’s good enough now. Needless to say, watching did not make me feel very encouraged about the future of metro Detroit. Does anybody here, in any leadership position, with any power, or with money, get it yet? Do they understand the real issues? Do they know what it’s going to take to bring people back, or to make them stay?

Dollar Store

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The Abandoned House of the Week

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The abandoned house of the week

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Job opening in Detroit

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Looks like there’s a job opening at G.M. With Rick Wagoner gone General Motors is now leaderless. What will they do? They won’t know how to make cars or,  more importantly, how to make money…oh wait they already don’t know how to make money. In fact since they had industry insiders leading the charge towards irrelevance for decades maybe the could hire someone with no industry experience…like me, for instance. I have no idea how to manage an auto manufacturing company, neither did Rick Wagoner apparently. Rick Wagoner was paid lots of money. Oh sure, by Wall Street standards he was paid practically nothing, but compared to me, he was paid a lot. They could have paid me a lot less, and ended up in the same spot.

All kidding aside (ok, most),  Chrysler and G.M. appear to be in deep doo-doo. I wondered what Cerberus was thinking when they purchased Chrysler from Daimler-Benz. I know what Cerberus’ M.O. is, but I think they were overly optomistic, and I don’t think their plan worked out too well. Now Chrysler has to Merge with Fiat. Wonderful. So, now, two crappy car companies can make crappy cars together. Maybe, at least, the crappy cars will cost less. I know I’m bound to anger some with statements such as the one I just made, but let me make it clear, that I believe management is to blame. The Union played a role in Chrysler’s demise as well, but any time a company is poorly run, and Chrysler has been poorly run, management is to blame. Management’s job is to maker sure all parts of a company function in unison to achieve a goal. If the goal is wrong, or portions of the company are not performing, it’s always managements job to redress such issues. And, most likely what G.M. really needs is a leader who the skeptical public will believe feels as disgusted with the old ways as they do. Someone who isn’t part of the dysfunctional machine, and shows a desire for a complete overhaul.

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With two (here, and here) recent announcements by smaller companies, you have to wonder where the Big Three have had their collective heads lodged lately. Of course those cars aren’t out yet, and Tesla, and Detroit Electric have nothing to lose by making claims they may not be able to follow through on. Meanwhile the Big Three can’t afford to fall short of big claims. But that’s mainly because they’ve become the definition of over promising and under delivering. They’ve already used up their “get out of jail free” cards. Still, why did G.M. wait until the verge of bankruptcy to come up with a plan for a usable electric vehicle?

So the price to pay for such short-sightedness by the Big Three is partial socialization of a huge portion of our manufacturing industry. Anyone who’s angry about the state we are in should have spoken up long ago. It’s now a choice of pay to save the very ones at center of problem, or pay the price of doing nothing, and watching as an entire industry collapses around us. And actually there’s a third scenario as well. We may pay to save the industry, only to have it fail anyway.