Archive for the 'light rail' Category

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?

The abandoned house of the week…cheap houses, a smoking ban, and mass transit?

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I’ve just begun using Twitter. I’m really just kind of eavesdropping on other peoples conversations, or at least parts of conversations. According to my eavesdropping the hot topic regarding Detroit is cheap houses. With NPR, Anderson Cooper, The New York Times, CNN, and other news organizations reporting that houses are selling for as low as $1, artists are buying up neighborhoods, foreigners  are snapping up real estate for investment, and Detroit’s rebirth is right around the corner, it seems everyone wants to buy a house in Detroit.

Some of the Tweets I saw on the topic of cheap houses in Detroit included:

“They just said on NPR that you can buy a slightly run down house in Detroit for 100 bucks.”

“foreign investors flocking to detroit for cheap houses. me want in!”

“We should all move to Detroit. $100 houses. We could live off our savings for years.”

“Are you buying a house in Detroit? Are the $8000 houses habitable, and in safe neighborhoods?”

“I think I am going to start investing in Detroit too, and so should you. Houses for $12K, thats crazy!”

A few of the articles really make it sound like a great opportunity to get in on a creative revolution in the Motor City, but if you read more than a few of the articles, and listen to some of the reports, you quickly learn what most Metro Detroiters already know; that it’s not so simple.

Listening to the NPR report you find out that even as some are moving in to a neighborhood, others are desperate to get out. Even the two artists, who are the story’s focus, admit their house has been broken into three times, and one of them has been threatened.  Detroit’s poverty rate is about as high as it gets in the developed world, the unemployment rate is above 20%, and the crime rates are equally high. Furthermore getting a house up to code in Detroit is a test of anyone’s commitment, and insuring that house, and your car (which can’t get by without in Detroit)is ridiculously expensive.

And then of course there’s Detroit’s wonderful city services. Will your garbage get picked up? How long will it take to get power back after desperate thieves steal the transformer off the pole down the street? What happens if you’re robbed, shot, or otherwise injure…how long will it take to get police (when I was trapped by a pack of wild dogs, the police operator told me it would be a couple of hours), or EMS to arrive? Where do you go for groceries? Kids? …forget it.

I’d love to go down, and buy a cheap place, fix it up, and be a part of a renaissance, but unless a couple hundred of my friends decide to do the same thing, at the same time, I’m likely putting myself, and my family in a bad situation. Is it worth it to be an urban pioneer with all of the risks involved, simply to get dirt cheap housing? The thousands that leave Detroit each year would say no. Many have struggled for years, to make the situation workable, and most have failed. Not all of the areas in Detroit are not bad, but you won’t find $500 houses in those areas. The prices in the nicer areas aren’t that high compared to other urban areas in the U.S., but they’re much higher than the prices thrown around in the recent reports.

I hope this trend continues, and some creative oases arise from the urban rubble of Detroit. I feel there are some opportunities for some special people, and maybe someday, some areas will actually attract average people who don’t want to be burglarized on a regular basis, who don’t want to pay several thousand dollars per year for auto insurance, who don’t want to have to drive back out to the suburbs for groceries, and who actually want to feel somewhat safe in their homes.

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Warning: From this point down, large amounts of sarcasm will be used.

Other topics being mentioned on Twitter include Metro Detroit mass transit, and another attempt at passing a smoking ban in bars and restaurants. Mass transit is still a ways away from reality in Metro Detroit, but at least our regional politicians are getting on board. Less than eight years ago, L. Brookes Patterson, stated on Michigan Public Radio, that “we can’t afford to invest a dime in an experiment like mass transit.” Apparently after eight long years of testing around the world, he’s concluded that mass transit is no longer experimental. Whew…glad that’s been determined. Fortunately our leaders are only about 40 years late on making a decision that the are needs a comprehensive transit system. Maybe if they get it running in another 15 years, we can really attract that younger, highly educated demographic we’re looking for.

And bar and restaurant owners, against most widely available studies on the subject, are dead set against joining the rest of the country in banning smoking indoors in public eating and drinking establishments. Obviously the ban has been detrimental to the local economies in New York, California, Italy, Chicago, and many other major cities, and countries around the world. In fact the ban is probably the cause of this world wide recession. Smokers have just stopped going to bars and restaurants. Good thing Michigan dodged that bullet.

Preaching to the choir…

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A discussion with my sister-in-law, regarding the inevitability of change, facing change, and dealing with change, somehow made me think of Detroit. Detroit’s like some people I know who refuse to face up to the fact that change is inevitable. And not only that it’s inevitable, but that you’d better prepare for it, and make the most of it. Once change is accepted, it can become an opportunity. Anyone who knows me, is well aware of how irritated Michigan’s, and Metro Detroit’s, resistance to change makes me.

As an individual, I, like so many others, had to face up the reality that the opportunities that my previous career choice, and my location in Metro Detroit, offered were limited. I mourned the loss of what I once had, and moved on. I learned new skills, used my spare time to build up some experience in my new industry, and, along with a move to a new, more economically viable location, am making a good living in an industry with a lot more current and future potential.

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For Metro Detroit, it’s time to mourn and move on. The past is past. It’s time to look towards the future. Time to figure out how to become relevant in the 21st century. When I talk with friends,with similar sensibilities, I always realize how we are simply preaching to the choir. More and more, people are coming to the realization that we are in the midst of a dramatic shift away from our industrial past. When will a Critical Mass emerge, that will force the change upon the area, that is necessary Detroit’s survival? Talk is cheap, and as these articles suggest, there’s plenty of talk…plenty of preaching to the choir. How can we convince the skeptics that change is not only inevitable, but necessary, potentially the best thing that can happen to the area?

New Detroit: A Radical Vision of America’s Greenest City

Immigrants in the 313: This is where the future begins

Essay: Is mass transit in Metro Detroit for real this time?

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.