Archive for the 'urban living' 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.”

Fear over downsizing

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Some people can’t help themselves, some can’t accept the help of others, and some will never be happy. The latter category is apparently the camp some Detroiters fit into. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, a lot of residents fear what downsizing…I mean “right sizing” will mean for them and their neighborhoods. Because as things stand now, a plan to actually do something is more scary than the present plan, which is to allow the city to continue its long decline towards oblivion.

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Yes, some may have to move from the home they love. And no, the gestapo will not drag you from your house. But once the city consolidates services, your one house neighborhood may be, by all intents and purposes, abandoned (like it isn’t already?).  “Of course you don’t have to evict people to force them to move…” That statement is true of course. At some point some residents may have to move. Like it or not, the road ahead is going long and rough. Many will not be happy, but is anybody happy with the present circumstances?

More Detroit vs. The Media drama, and What Detroit has, what Detroit’s losing, and what Detroit needs

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This was supposed to have been posted a week, or so, ago. But thanks to my old job, four days out of town, jury duty, and a new job to start, none of what’s here is new. But, since I went to the trouble to write it, I’m posting it anyway.

Detroit vs The Media

The drama never ends for Detroit. NBC hates Detroit, and now ABC as well. ABC’s new crime drama set in Detroit has got some all bent out of shape once again. As always there were some interesting comments including:
“Why must the media prortray Detroit is such a bad light.” - Do we always have to ask this question? Seriously, is there any question as to why the media portrays the city the way that it does? Besides, did anyone complain about Law and Order making New York look bad, or CSI making Vegas look bad? Detroit deserves a break because it really is that bad? If only the media would give Detroit a break, surely things would improve. There were, as always, so interesting comments.

“Perhaps a chat with the directors of ABC would change their mind.” - Doubt it. Why do Detroiters always want to have a chat with the media about the way the city is portrayed? And, anyway how would that conversation go? Detroiter - “Will you to stop portraying Detroit in a negative light?” ABC exec - “No.”

“And I think the promo is wrong in saying that Detroit is the murder capital. I think we are up there, but more like number 3. New Orleans is #1″ - Yeah, take that ABC. They really ought to get their facts straight. Oh wait, according to ABC Detroit was the murder capital in 2008…hmm coincidence or conspiracy to paint Detroit badly?

“Was anything truthful said? Or is it Americas’ loss of integrity personified.” - Huh?

“I’m as sensitive to Detroit’s image as anyone, but I think that viewers will be able to decipher this as fiction.” - One might think so, but judging by reactions, that sentiment is not shared by many others.”

“So i can understand why ABC is doing a crime series set in Detroit.It’s about time. What took so long? I think I’ll send them some story ideas. I have many, too many, & these are all true, nothing make-believe.” - This one makes sense..

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What Detroit Has

What does Detroit have, beyond high unemployment, high crime rates, and bitter defenders? Well according to POP City, Detroit has a few things Pittsburgh ( and presumably, other Rust Belt cities ) could use. Of course POP City is owned by Issue Media Group, which also just happens to publish Model D and Metromode as well, booth of which ardent Detroit boosters. Nonetheless, perhaps there are some good things that Detroit has, that other places could use. According to POP City, Detroit has:

The Greening of Detroit:

I can imagine that almost no other city in the United States has an organization quite like the Greening of Detroit, of course no other city has the amount of abandoned land that Detroit has. I like the Greening of Detroit and what they do.

Tech Town:

Tech Town is a great idea, and I hope some great things come of it. Bringing smart, creative, and innovative people together is exactly what Detroit needs. Technology may make it possible to work in isolation in Bad Axe, but in reality innovation comes from people pushing the envelope, and building on one another’s successes. This doesn’t often happen in isolation. It’s the reason Silicon Valley, Boston, and NYC keep creating new companies, and why they get so much of the investment dollars.

The M-1 Rail Project:

Detroit doesn’t have this yet. It is hoped that construction will begin before the end of 2010. Unfortunately, it takes several years to complete a section of rail through an urban area, and in an area that continues to lose population, it’ll will be difficult to make it happen.

Art:

Detroit does have this, and some good stuff at that. But projects such as the Heidelberg Project are products of an extreme situation that nobody wants. I really like the Heidelberg Project, but I’d rather not have the massive amounts of blight and abandonment that has to go along with it.

A Food Scene:

I can’t comment on Pittsburgh’s food scene, but Detroit’s food scene is decent, but not incredible. I love Slow’s but, even cities with lower populations, such as Denver and Portland, have better food scenes than Detroit. Five or six places…even a dozen good places aren’t enough for an area the size of Detroit.

Regardless of whether or not I feel this list is a good example of what other areas need or not (I don’t), the metropolitan Detroit area does have somewhere in the neighborhood of 4.5 million residents. That’s a significant amount of people, who could be customers, and employees or employers. Whether or not the area can capitalize on that depends on the decisions the residents, businesses, and politicians make over the next decade or so. If we were to look to the decisions of the past 40 years the outlook would be rather grim. Perhaps though, the next generation of policy makers can make better decisions than the last.

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What Detroit’s Losing

Unfortunately this is an easy one. Detroit’s losing everything from people to money. What is really bad, is that metro Detroit is losing young college grads. I recently read this article about college education rates in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Scroll down to the section titled, “By the Numbers”. My guess is Detroit doesn’t compare very well, even considering Milwaukee’s meager numbers.

What Detroit Needs

What Detroit needs is pretty much the inverse of what it’s losing, including a young, educated workforce, immigrants, Innovation, and, well…pretty much everything. Recovery seems to be a tricky, chicken/egg situation. Hi tech businesses locate where the talent is. Talent locates where the jobs are. Jobs are found where the hi tech businesses are. With each being a prerequisite for the other, how do you attract either one to Detroit? This is one of the arguments many make against authors such as Richard Florida. Reading what urban theorists such as Florida have to say make many feel that the”in” places, such as Chicago, D.C., and Silicon Valley, have already won. There’s no possible way to beat them if you take Florida’s theories without actually reading far enough. And that’s true to a certain extent. Nobody was able to beat Detroit as the automotive capital for 75 years or so, even with such bad management decisions. However, that didn’t stop Chicago, D.C., or Silicon Valley, and many, many other places, from thriving. Detroit doesn’t have to be Chicago, but it does have to be something other than the same old Detroit we’ve all known for far too long.

The abandoned house of the week

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Detroit’s abandoned house of the week

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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?

Updated Map of Abandonment


View Detroit Photos in a larger map

Prayer Mission Baptist Church

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When the wall to your church collapses onto the sidewalk and street, there’s no need to stop holding services. With a pile of bricks and an i-beam laying across the sidewalk and into the street, the name of the church, the pastor, and the service schedule was simply painted on a once interior wall. As singing and sounds of “praise God…” blared from speakers of a church across the street, pedestrians walking along the sidewalk either climbed over the pile or walked into the street without so much as a pause to consider the somewhat strange  situation. It is a testament to what can be considered “normal” in the city of Detroit.

Health care can’t save Michigan, or I told you so part 3…Michigan’s future, and some photos

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In May of 2008, I read an article regarding the expansion of the area’s hospitals, and the growth of the health care industry in general.  At the same time, I also wrote about how I had viewed this as a potential problem for a long time. The idea, at the time, seemed to be that Michigan’s, and in particular, metro Detroit’s, economy could be saved by health care. And, so the growth of the local hospitals could put more people to work. Former automotive employees could be retrained to work in the health care industry. Best of all, the health care industry was largely immune to the ups and downs of the economy. People always need health care! And with our aging population, we’d have an ever increasing supply of patients.

What wasn’t often mentioned was that Michigan, and again, metro Detroit in particular, was losing population at the same time that the hospitals were expanding. The problem with the health care as savior plan, was no different than the belief that the housing market, or the commercial real estate markets would keep growing despite a declining population. From my conversations with industry “experts” and from reading and watching the local news, it was obvious that many people, whom I had generally assumed knew more than me, couldn’t imagine a Michigan any different from the one they were living in in 2005 or so. The real estate markets were booming, the health care industry was booming, and the Big Three seemed to be doing not to terribly bad (other than maybe Ford). If one only looked at the surface, things may have looked so-so in Michigan, but if you were to have looked a little deeper, things looked like they were going to become downright horrible. The population had been stagnant or declining for a while. Michigan was one of the few states in recent history with this distinction. We were far too heavily dependent on an ailing industry with a broken business model, whose employee’s pay rate was not based off of market forces in any way, and whose management teams couldn’t seem to see past the ends of their noses, or a least past the next quarterly profit report. And we kept on building, and moving further from Detroit, using used tax payer money to help build infrastructure for new developments, while our old infrastructure crumbled. It angered at least a few of us, that no one seemed to be able to (or at least didn’t want to) see that a declining population whose economy was based on one broken and declining industry, and whose current investments were being made on new, and largely unneeded infrastructure, was doomed to failure, and soon.

In my business, when I asked questions about the, seemingly huge, number of new housing developments being built in the middle of nowhere, I was constantly told things like,  “our projections show that we can build like this indefinitely”, and “as fast as we build them, people buy them”. Were are these people coming from, I would ask. The answer was usually something like, “a lot come from Detroit, or from older suburbs”. Apparently, no one thought to follow this logic to the end of the line. If Detroit has been losing population for 40 years, and people move from Detroit to Dexter, who is buying the house in Detroit so that the purchase in Dexter can be made? People were buying houses in Detroit at the time, but obviously less than were leaving Detroit. The problem was simple. You can not expand the number of houses if the number of people is going down, with out driving prices down. But what was such an obvious sign of trouble at the time, is that prices were rising, and people were sure they would keep rising.

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So Michigan had a declining population, dependent on a downsizing industry with a broken business model, that had already been laying off large numbers of employees for years, an over saturated residential and commercial real estate market, and of course a largely under educated work force. But, we need not fear because the health care industry was going to save us. We’d all become doctors, nurses, assistants, or administrators, and we could just all be at the hospital all the time, either taking care of someone, or being taken care of by someone else. It’s the logic that seemed to be used by the Big Three for a while. For quite some time, almost all television advertising was directed toward their own employees. Who advertises to themselves? I’ll pay you, and you can then give it back to me in exchange for the thing you just made, that I paid you for. Maybe if we just make a chain letter, and send it to all of our friends, we can all get rich!

Unfortunately, a market based economy requires more than one or two industries to work. And so, it was always obvious, that unless something fundamental changed in Michigan, that we couldn’t depend on the health care industry to save us. As it turns out, the health care industry isn’t immune to downturns in the economy after all. It should have been obvious all along. If you are out of a job, or have no insurance, do you put off medical care and procedures? Of course. And if there are less people in the state, are there less potential patients? Of course. Michigan, like any other state, can’t depend on any one industry to keep the economic engine running. It takes a progressive, and diversified economy to be successful. No one knows for sure what the next big industry will be. Who predicted Google? At the time, most people thought search engines couldn’t possibly make money, and yet online advertising, has been a growth industry for years. Trying to create a plan for the future, based on the past, is unlikely to work. Sure the past holds lessons to learn from, but the future remains unknown. What Michigan needs to do is to put a priority on education, entrepreneurship, and quality of life. Of course Michigan’s broke, so it’ll be very difficult for the government to do what is needed, but the real change needs to come from the citizens who live there. If Michigan becomes a holdout of stodgy, grumpy, and angry citizens, that resists any change at all costs, then the downhill slide will continue for decades more. But if the cheap living can attract a new younger and more progressive generation, then Michigan may have a chance.

Jay’s Storage Lot

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