Archive for the 'Uncategorized' Category

Homeless

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I recently read this article in the ChronicleHerald, about the plight of the homeless in New Orleans. From the sounds of it, the problem of homelessness and abandonment in New Orleans is at least as bad as it is in Detroit.

And once more, I’ve come across an article exploring the propensity of Detroit supporters to lament “ruin porn”. I think it’s actually one of the better, more reasoned articles on why photographers love to photograph ruins, and in particular why they have spent so much time making images of Detroit’s ruins. It’s not that us photographers all hate Detroit, with a singular desire to help bring the city down by pointing out it’s many visible problems, but that we really like to tell stories, and like writers, a tragic story is often compelling. And what story of urban crises is more tragic than Detroit’s? Furthermore, many of the photographers, film makers, and writers that visit the city, really want to help start the discussion of how to rebuild, or at least change Detroit into something better.

The best quote from the article (in my opinion) is the last paragraph, that puts the onus, not only on the photographers (which is so easy to do), but on everyone, where it more rightly belongs.

“Photographs like Moore, Marchand, and Meffre’s succeed, at least, in compelling us to ask the questions necessary to put this story together—Detroit’s story, but also the increasingly-familiar story of urban America in an era of prolonged economic crisis. That they themselves fail to do so testifies not only to the limitations of any still image, but our collective failure to imagine what Detroit’s future—our collective urban future—holds for us all.”

Freelance Nation

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I recently got to thinking about freelancing, why I and others do it, and what it means for cities like Detroit. An article on Business Week’s website titled, Beware the Freelance Economy, discusses a recent trend in this country in which the share of business with no employees (freelance) has increased relative to traditional employee businesses. The author contends that freelance businesses do not increase employment, nor create wealth. Furthermore the author believes that, “…people would be more productive in this part-time work if they did it as employees who were part of a bigger organization that could achieve scale economies…” He finishes up with a bit of a warning, and a general question as to why this trend is occurring.

Having been a full time freelancer, or self-employed individual as I liked to call it, for almost five years, and now a part time freelancer, I feel like responding to some of the points made in the article. I also think I have a pretty good answer for why this trend, that the author finds so troubling, is occurring. Being a fairly typical Gen Xer, I saw the Boomer Generation as missing out on so many important parts of life. I lacked direction, and questioned everything. The answer, “because that’s life…” or whatever, didn’t quite cut it for me. I saw a lot of, unnecessary in my mind, stress, and anger in the generation ahead of me as they strove for middle and upper management positions at large corporations that ultimately failed to offer the promised stability or loyalty that their employees seemed to give them.

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This appeared to be the American Dream. Work 60 plus hours at a company that saw you as disposable, so you could own a couple of cars and a house in the suburbs. Along with that came dedicating your life to a corporate entity that often became more important than family, hours waiting in rush hour traffic, and generally mind numbing and unrewarding work. Like so many others though, as much as I despised the large corporate workplace, I found the need to make a decent living, have health insurance, and a desire to save some money for later in life. Working in bike shops, and the like wasn’t cutting it. After college graduation I bounced between “real” jobs like accounting, and fun jobs like working in bike shops. The real jobs left me feeling unfulfilled. I worked hard at them, and was often recognized by my employers as a top employee, yet they did little for my soul. Working in the bike shop, on the other hand, allowed me to introduce people to an activity that could become a meaningful part of their lives. Often times the relationship between customers and employees turned into long term friendships in ways they rarely did in my “real” jobs.

During the almost five years of self-employment, I experienced unprecedented self motivation, and dedication to my work. Ownership, it turned out, was very important to me, as was actually being interested in what I did all day…every day. Furthermore the feeling of control, and the escape of the high school mentality of my “real” jobs, where employers cared more about when I came and went and less about what I actually accomplished, was rather nice. Self employment comes with it’s own set of headaches, but what job or career doesn’t?

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Now, almost everyone I know is self-employed or a part time freelancer. We all do multiple things with our lives. Dedication to the big corporation isn’t as appealing, doesn’t seem to offer what it used to, and certainly isn’t the end all, be all of most people’s lives. Personal growth and satisfaction seem to be as important as money these days. And while a part time job at Starbucks may (this is arguable) contribute more to wealth and job creation than freelancing, it may not contribute more to self-fulfillment and personal growth. While the author, Scott Shane, may be a professor of entrepreneurial studies, most freelancers couldn’t care less about the National implications of their side businesses. They do it because they want to. They do it because they need to. And this is as it should be. As a country we should embrace this. If someone feels motivated enough to do work on the side, it should be encouraged. My freelancing earns me more money to me than a second job would, and employs me just as much. The additional money earned is put back into the economy when I go out to eat, go on vacation, or by a new bicycle. It’s money that wouldn’t have been spent with out the side work. And more importantly it’s fed my need for personally satisfying work, and has led to other career opportunities that I would not have had otherwise.

Finally, what does freelancing mean to cities like Detroit? And why should cities like Detroit embrace freelancing and self-employment? While most freelance work may never lead directly to larger, job producing companies, some will. Connections will be made, networks will grow, and the area can benefit directly from them. Portland, Oregon, is an example of a city that has, for many years, attracted freelancers, and many companies have been started by the self-employed joining together. Detroit currently has a low cost of living, allowing for freelancers to keep a low overhead while building their business. Most will never amount to more than that, but even if a few do, it will contribute to health of the economy and the reputation of the area. A good reputation for entrepreneurship, self-employment, and creativity will attract more of the same. The alternative is always relying on someone else to provide for employment opportunities. And as it stands right now, nobody seems to be stepping in to fill that need.

The truth hurts…

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I wrote this a while ago, so many of the links go to older (well, weeks old anyway) articles, but this one article made me think about actually publishing this post. A quote from the 25 year old report called “Path to Prosperity” that caught my attention: “‘We said we had to either get smart, get out’ of manufacturing ‘or get poor,’ Ross said. ‘We got poor.’” I was considering a new tone at The Motor(less) City, but what the hell; I guess it’ll have to wait.

Sometimes I get angry comments and emails about the content I put on my blog. Often times the comments are very defensive about the Metro Detroit area, and hence angry at me. In the past my rantings were really just the online equivalent of screaming into the wind. Now that some people actually read the blog, I’m confronted with the fact that not only do people not agree with me, but some are really mad at me. Not sure if I’m really comfortable with this, but I guess it’s a little late now. Yeah, the truth hurts.

Speaking of the truth hurting, it seems that people from the area, even the defensive ones are going to have to deal with some uncomfortable facts about the state, and city…and the region. Everyone (I hope) knows that Michigan’s unemployment rate is 12.6%, and Detroit’s is 22.8% (and future estimates even worse), but of course that’s not surprising. I think many in the area want to pretend that Metro Detroit is better than it is, and in fact often point out only moderately unique aspects of the area as proof of greatness. “We’re a great sports town”, people often say, or, “we’ve got great architecture.” There are two really good professional sports teams in Metro Detroit (and two pretty bad ones), and there are some very nice buildings in Detroit (the Penobscot, the Guardian, etc), but so what. What major city doesn’t have a couple of good sports teams, and some good architecture? And, really, neither of those things makes the area a good place to live.

I think this is becoming exceedingly obvious as people flee the state at a record pace. As the article clearly points out, the “young and college-educated” demographic that is leaving, is exactly the demographic that is needed to save Metro Detroit. As the population becomes older, the costs that will burden those that actually work will go up. The fight will continue over taxation, investment, and education, but it’ll all be for naught if we can’t figure out a way to attract people who create jobs instead of just those who need jobs. We aren’t going to be able to convince enough companies to come to the area to make up for all of the manufacturing jobs that have been lost, but we can make the environment more inviting to those who are the job creators.

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Some other painful truths:

The Big Three are mostly to blame for their problems. It is not just a symptom of the recent economic crisis, that no one could have seen coming. And the people in charge have not been the right ones either.

The problems in Detroit are very complex and deep rooted. Our past still haunts us. Lowering taxes isn’t a magic bullet.

The entire state is hurting, not just Metro Detroit. A quote from the article: “Michigan’s dependence on low-skill, high-paying manufacturing jobs is driving the state to the poorhouse, a new study shows.” I was a “bad” person for saying this recently.

It’s still one of the most dangerous cities in the country.

The citizens of Detroit constantly elect crooks. This one is not often disagreed with.

Good news? Well, there may be. It depends on your political persuasion.

There are some young entrepreneurial types that are doing their part to keep their own demographic from leaving the state.

The large tax incentives given to film productions in the state appear to be attracting larger and larger productions, bringing some jobs with them.

Immigrants could be the area’s future if we are open and inviting.

Stimulus dollars may help with high speed transit between Detroit and Chicago.

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.

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.

Post (auto) Industrial

An interesting look at what happens when industries collapse. Unless one plans for change, the results can be disastrous…

When Cars Go Away

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Two small churches

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Plus, a quote on the Economist blog, and a mention on The Bryant Part Project:

Quoted in the Economist.

Mentioned on the Bryant Park Project.

The Big 3 Bailout, or, is this the end of the road for Detroit

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It seems the Big Three, and consequently Detroit, doesn’t have too many friends these days. Public support for a bailout of financial companies had little public support, and the U.S. automotive industry has even less. The industry has been viewed by the average person as a slow moving, inefficient, and wasteful industry incapable of producing quality vehicles. The politicians see an industry that fought against requirements for producing more fuel efficient automobiles, lobbied for tariffs on light trucks and SUV’s, had out of control expenses,  and couldn’t see far enough down the road to be ready for a day when the public didn’t want Hummers or Excursions anymore. Unfortunately many who were too close to the industry didn’t, and maybe still don’t, see things this way.

Rick Wagoner testified in Washington on the need for a government bailout for the Big Three. In his statement Rick Wagoner made several good points, including, “General Motors directly employs approximately 96,000 people in the United States”, and “Last year, we purchased more than $30 billion of goods and services from more than 2,000 suppliers in 46 states.” He also made the claims that GM had made tremendous progress in recent years, by cutting costs, improved vehicle quality, and lowered legacy costs, and that the biggest problem was out of their hands. Rick Wagoner stated that it was the downturn in the economy and the automotive industry, and the current credit crisis that posed the greatest threat to GM’s survival.

I have no love for the Big Three. Over the past decade I’ve watched as CEO’s pushed off dealing with a broken business model, and walked away with fat payouts for their short-sited, and almost certainly, damaging business decisions. The lack of foresight that the American automotive industry has shown, seems to be almost unequaled. Sure other industries have failed to see what was right around the corner, but the ability of the Big Three to ignore the obvious, and insist on business as usual while the industry was cratering, was astounding.

All that said, we’re all on the hook for this one. So while I can still be angry that assembly line workers could make upwards of $140k (yes, I know someone who did…), and that CEOs could make millions while steering a once great industry straight down the drain, I have to remember that Detroit, Michigan, the Midwest, and the entire U.S. economy is still dependent on it. With out, not only do employees of the auto companies lose their jobs, but those of the suppliers, and those who sell meals to workers, and employers, and so on and so on.  The numbers who are indirectly connected to the industry are staggering. I am bitter and angry at how these companies have been run, but I’m not willing to cut off my nose to spite my face. Unfortunately I need the Big Three and so do you. What I want to know is why financial companies that made very poor business decisions and took dangerously large, and over leveraged risks, while paying managers and CEOs millions, get a bailout on my dime, but one of the largest industries in the country, seems to be so undeserving.

I think loans should be made, with conditions. The current management and board of directors are out, and long term plans of action must be in place. Management and the U.A.W. need to be on the same page (I was once told by the head of the U.A.W Chrysler that it was “a war between the U.A.W. and Chrysler.” Sorry, thought you were both trying to achieve the same goal…), and the public gets paid back with interest.

What’s really killing Detroit

Auto bailout: showdown

GM Failure: the

How to fix the Big Three

In Detroit, Failure’s a Done Deal

Detroit is going down — if not now, eventually

Saving Detroit from itself

G.O.P. Senators oppose bailout

Moore: Automakers never listened

Retirees Watching Anxiously: Will GM Be Saved

Dems want automakers to show bailout spending plan

No need for bailout, say diners near thriving car plant

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.