Monthly Archives: January 2014

Empire strikes

January 19, 2014

There was nothing unusual afoot when the Quicken security car pulled up in front of Urban Bean Company, the eye-poppingly cheerful orange coffeeshop at the corner of Griswold and Grand River that is a favorite downtown rambling destination since its reopening last year. In addition to Dan Gilbert’s cameras, security patrols are a common sight during the workweek downtown these days. Rarely a dull moment around here, where Josh Greenwood, proprietor of Urban Bean Co. and longtime resident of Capitol Park, has seen it all, as far as I can tell. On the sunny afternoon I stopped in for coffee, a shiny black unmarked Magnum pulled up across the street, facing the wrong way on Grand River. Two plainclothes cops emerged outside a building recently acquired, Josh says, by Chinese investors. “They’re up to something big today,” Josh said, sounding kind of excited, and pulled out his phone to text with the cop. The car was soon joined by a sheriff’s SUV, followed by a Detroit Police cruiser.

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While, quaintly enough, these amicable interactions with authority seem to be the norm here, the atmosphere of friendliness sometimes clouds. On the occasion of this particular Quicken security visit, Josh said the security guard, a portly woman in uniform, came in and “bamboozled” him with questions over by the pastry display case. While she distracted him, a man smartly attired for business went over to the opposite door. Josh turned around in time to see the door closing as the guy finished peeling something off of it. Unsure at first what was missing but aware that something strange and sinister was happening, Josh ran after him, yelling to not mess with his property.

The man scrambled into the alley and Josh returned to his post in the coffeeshop, where the security guard flubbed through some story about having forgotten her wallet. She would have to come back later, she said. “She was lying! It was so weird. I knew something was up.” When she pulled a U-turn on Griswold, heading north away from the Quicken headquarters, he ran up the block and watched as the man exited the alley and dove into the marked security vehicle. She sped off, running a red light.

The sticker in question is a humble black and white thing, a gritty illustration of Dan Gilbert between text reading “FOR YOUR PROTECTION! DAN GILBERT IS WATCHING YOU”. Josh still has a couple, but they’re definitely not out on display with the menagerie of postcards and stickers and flyers arranged in front of the window. He digs through the drawer and sets one on the copper countertop.

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“I don’t know where they came from,” Josh claims. “Somebody just dropped them off. I didn’t even put that one on the door; somebody must have stuck it on in the night. I guess they didn’t like it,” he said, referring to the Quicken people. Looking at all the “approved” stickers still neatly lined up next to the door, it’s curious what flies — an Apple logo superimposed with the “SAVE DETROIT” sticker featuring actor Ryan Gosling’s face, a larger version of which is on view next door at d’Mongo’s. What do these messy hijinks convey about Empire Detroit’s agenda? At very least, it’s unclear now who is authorized to watch over or “save” Detroit.

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Josh still seems pretty indignant over the whole affair. “I saw her across the street a week later. I went up to her car and said, ‘So what was that all about?’ ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,'” she told him icily, denying what had taken place. She shrank away from her window as Josh, becoming more irate, tried to jog her memory of the incident.

Tampering with private property — or stealing, if you like — is not a good way to make friends with your neighbors, legalities aside. There’s no way of knowing from where the directive came to shape up the neighborhood image. Perhaps the sticker-peeler, who Josh doesn’t recall having seen before, was a customer somehow offended by the graphic and wanted to take some lunch break action. That a corporate getaway car was so readily available to him makes the situation undeniably sketchier.

As we celebrate the broader walkability improvements Dan Gilbert has made to downtown and bite our nails over some of its accompanying pitfalls, it’s worth noting the most liminal ways our landscape is changing as more of it falls into fewer hands. The thing with having money is, if you don’t like something, you can just buy it and morph it into what you do like. Let’s hope this is the first and last affront on the free speech and free existence of small businesses like Urban Bean Company that make Detroit the great city it is and will be.

It seems that a city with such financial troubles resulting from a single-industry livelihood would have learned some kind of lesson about having a Big Three in charge, whether of our local economy or our land. Monocultures are bad news for any ecosystem. Rambling back uptown past Cass Park, which the city appears poised to hand over to the Ilitches, the point is even clearer.

What will the “longest-enduring member of Detroit’s real estate plutocracy,” as Curbed called pizza emperor Mike Ilitch, do with our once-magnificent public greenspace? The park is reportedly to be preserved as a “park space,” which we hope won’t be later construed as a “parking lot space.” If, incredibly enough, the area is developed into something like what it once was, or like New Center Park, and the sculptures offend us, do we get to tear them down? In the case of such defacement, something hints that the only getaway ride for the public is in the back of a cop car.

Vitamins and minerals

January 17, 2014

As more people abandon their minty new resolutions and slip back into old habits, the fervor over the merits of movement increases. Walking is touted as a magic solution to making you happier, saving you money (also a very popular resolution), reducing anxiety, promoting better sleep, and pretty much any positive effect, probably even retroactively giving you that pony you wanted for Christmas as a kid. To add another gold star atop the seasonal hype, walking, when done properly, can also assist you in getting some of the vitamins and minerals you need.

Specifically, vitamin D is one necessary substance the body is able to produce in abundance, if given the opportunity. Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium, reduces inflammation, regulates cell growth, and supports neuromuscular and immune function. While plenty of it can be procured from foods or supplements, why not make it yourself? It’s fun and foolproof — a little bit of skin exposed to sunlight will do all the work. Even on these hibernal days, that’s not too tough.

It could be worse -- snowpeople, apparently, do not make vitamin D with sunshine.

It could be worse — snowpeople, apparently, do not make vitamin D with sunshine.

After all, what are our alternatives? In Pandora’s Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal, one of Edible Geography’s top books of 2013, Melanie Warner looks at the food-processing industry and spends a chapter tracing the manufacture of the vitamins that make our meals complete.

The path starts in a strange place. Following the course of a ship leaving Australia, filled with all the raw material goods “you’d expect to be exported out of Australia”, Warner accounts its landing weeks later in the ports of Shanghai. “There isn’t a lot of historical precedent for wool being transported along this route,” she says, but recently China has been importing about 50% more Australian wool than it did at the beginning of the century.

“This is about much more than the manufacture of sweaters. Much of the wool China buys is equally valued for the grease embedded in it as for the wool itself. As ducks secrete oil to make their feathers waterproof, sheep produce a similar fatty substance that helps protect them from harsh weather. Australia’s wool is particularly greasy, and this grease — or various derivatives of it — is useful for making a whole slew of industrial and consumer products. Some portions go to produce lubricants for machinery and waterproofing for boats. Others, like lanolin, become lip gloss, moisturizer, and sunscreens.

And there’s another end point for this grease — something hardly anyone would ever associate with wool. At a factory in Dongyang, a burgeoning industrial center on China’s eastern coast, the grease’s cholesterol component is used to make Vitamin D. Zhejiang Garden Biochemical is the world’s largest maker of this vitamin — one that goes into nearly all the milk Americans consume (including organic varieties), as well as many of our breakfast cereals, breads, bars, margarine, and other dairy products.”

Ironic, then, that the ability to shield ourselves from the sun and to make up what we miss from its light are both derived from the same animal product. Why ship your vitamins across the globe if you can get them just blocks from your home? Isn’t it preferable to ensure enough vitamin D in your body with some simple, outdoor steps? Sunlight, even on a cloudy day, and fresh air (don’t walk by the incinerator) will be more certain help than synthetic compounds of questionable purity and efficacy.

No healthy bones for this snowperson, who has not been eating its vegetables.

No healthy bones for this snowperson, who has not been eating its vegetables.

Miscellaneously, as Warner discusses in an adjacent chapter, the feuding Kellogg brothers, cofounders of the sugary-sweet, vitamin D-fortified cereal empire, both lived to the advanced age of 91. In the late 1890s, John Harvey Kellogg developed a healthy dried-grain breakfast for former patients of his sanitarium in Battle Creek. His younger brother, Will Keith Kellogg, came to work with him. While John was out of town on business, W. K. tweaked the recipe for cornflakes, their breakthrough after various wheat-based concoctions, to include a measure of sugar. Customers were delighted and sales attained unprecedented heights. The only person who wasn’t thrilled was John, who demanded that the sugar be removed. When Will refused to acquiesce, the two split, with John maintaining the sanitarium, becoming increasingly destitute after the Depression, while W. K. Kellogg raked in the fortune.

One can only infer that W. K. most likely indulged in these new and improved cornflakes, though as Seventh-Day Adventists, both brothers kept to a strict vegetarian diet and reportedly avoided other vices. The pinch of sugar doesn’t seem to have impoverished his life any, and sheep-grease supplements were not all the rage then as they apparently are now. The twin spans of their longevity seem as good evidence as any against the verity of health claims put forth by these manufacturers of wholesome products.

Resolutions

January 15, 2014

It’s hard to believe it’s the ides of January already, well past the holiday season judging by the number of evergreens thrown to the curb.

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Around the holidays, still in the thick of celebrations, the radio was already abuzz with ardent talk of resolutions for the new year. Shows about lush holiday entertaining were broadcast adjacent to those on which guests were interrogated about how they might resolve to become their better selves in a few days. As usual, a notable majority talked about being healthier. Women polled about their resolutions were more concerned with losing weight, while getting fit was how men envisioned their new year goal.

Since then, the media situation has not improved. Articles with instructions on sticking to these sometimes unrealistic expectations have proliferated, along with supporting materials. New York Times writer Jane Brody calls this the “Empty Diet Claim Season,” and reports being overwhelmed by 25 pounds of new cookbooks arriving at the office. Targeted to aid weight loss and wellbeing, titles such as Cavewomen Don’t Get Fat and Weight Loss for People Who Feel Too Much offer myriad ways to accomplish these aims.

Advice that can be easily assimilated from the comfort of a favorite couch or armchair means well, but the consensus is that neither diet nor exercise alone will cut it. Walking is an easy resolution target, too often seen as a compelling way to court fitness without breaking too great a sweat. While it might help maintain some level of fitness, walking isn’t going to get you in shape on its own, at least at the poky pace most of us move.

Some people vow to walk more; others to walk faster in response to recent research analyzing data from the National Walkers’ Health Study. Using data collected from almost 39,000 walkers, albeit a disproportionately female sample, researchers divided the walkers into four categories based on their typical speed as measured by a six-minute walk test. All four categories boasted suspiciously high speeds — the fastest group walking a mile in under 13.5 minutes and the slowest dawdling at almost 17 or more minutes per mile, which is still an above-average 3.57 mph.

In the slowest group, however, many walkers needed 20 minutes to finish their mile, the number of minutes by which Google times directions, and some took as many as 24 minutes. Comparing walking data with death records more than a decade after the study took place, the researchers discovered something not wholly surprising — the walkers in the fourth group were 18% more likely to have died, especially from heart disease or dementia.

The unexpected news from the study was that the death rate was still high for the slowest walkers even when adjusted for duration of their walk. Taking a longer walk, thereby expending as much total energy as a person walking “vigorously” for a half hour daily, did nothing to help the participants’ risk of dying. The very slowest walkers were actually 44 percent more likely to have died than others in the study, despite duration of walking or other exercise.

Who can tell, though, the researchers concluded, which problem came first — a lethargic walking speed or an underlying health condition, or whether the capacity for high intensity exercise is a characteristic independent of habitual physical activity. And although results were adjusted for other risk factors such as smoking, it’s worth noting that the fastest walkers also ate a lot more fruit, a lot less meat, and imbibed a shockingly higher quantity of alcohol than the slowest walkers.

All in all, whether such a study comes off as sound science or ableist propaganda, we’re still in favor of walks, long walks, and honoring the comfortable human pace at which we evolved to move. As avid New York walker Maggie Nesciur said, “I don’t walk fast; I don’t walk slow; I walk at my own speed,” her steady voice revealing a deep sense of integrity. It would be ideal if this pace happened to be the ultra-healthy 4.45 mph of the fastest walkers in the study, but as long as you can finish crossing the street without getting hit by a surge of traffic, it’s probably fine.

If not, one of the best parts of resolutions is how easily they can be changed, unlike the habits they are often meant to modify. Since many resolution-makers are already entirely off track by now, just two weeks into the new year, it’s about time to make some new resolutions anyway.

Empire Detroit

January 11, 2014

Walking through Corktown on a typical route southbound to the riverfront, the road is transformed into a slushy single lane that is the real estate of honking, unsympathetic taxis. Their tires kick up clods of grey sludge as they speed back to their headquarters. The conditions aren’t ideal — outside of densely residential or commercial areas, sidewalks are nonexistent, snowed into oblivion. Pedestrians are left to fend for themselves, dodging crumbling snowbanks and the vast ponds of murky snowmelt radiating from the curbs. Sharing the streets with impatient drivers, I navigate these gingerly and keep moving.

Where Vermont bends into Porter, it’s quiet as usual outside Ponyride. On the other end of the block, at the intersection of Rosa Parks, a pair of utility trucks is out, servicing who knows what. The two contractors, chatting, look at me suspiciously. I issue a generic Detroit greeting involving such pleasantries as hellos and how-you-doings. They kind of nod in return. Distracted by an incomprehensible sticker on the b-pillar of the leading truck, I consider taking a picture, but deem it weird and pointless. Looking back at the guys looking back at me, I carry on toward the river.

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The riverfront has changed significantly in the past year. Since we last rambled there, the trees, except for a few lonely willow specimens, have been cut down, and red emergency phones have been installed in their place. All of this is behind a chainlink fence dotted with “private property no trespassing” signs. It’s progress everywhere, except for the remaining accessible narrow nub at the end of Rosa Parks where people still fish as long as the river isn’t frozen.

By the afternoon, the media’s caught wind of a new expansion in Dan Gilbert’s empire, the Detroit billionaire darling lauded with catalyzing the most profound revitalization the city has seen in decades. His focus has been building a two square mile piece of the downtown business district into a workable, liveable, and, incredibly, walkable destination. But Crain’s calls Gilbert’s new Corktown warehouse, the building I had unknowingly ambled past hours before, “about as anti-Gilbert as it gets.”

The building at Rosa Parks and Porter was purchased in November from the owner of Boulevard & Trumbull Towing. The real estate office facilitating the deal said that they supposed Gilbert’s new acquisition would be used for “warehousing for the owner’s personal belongings.” Deadline Detroit posits that “we can only assume a Gilbert-owned industrial warehouse will be used to store all the small buildings he doesn’t want anymore.”

So what will he really do with this odd purchase? If only Curbed were correct in their glib suggestion on the motivation behind Gilbert’s strange new land use. “An indoor beach, perhaps?” they wonder. “There are two cryptic clues: The seller’s lawyer told Crain’s that the warehouse would be a great place to “run something that required a lot of electricity,” while CoStar added that “some kind of communication center” will be installed.”

Screen capture from WXYZ.

Screen capture from WXYZ.

Does this mean a communication center like the infamous state-of-the-art one currently housed downtown in the Chase building? It’s unlikely that there’s any plan to relocate the center to this decentralized spot, but it’s impossible to imagine a Gilbert building without its fair share of cameras.

According to WXYZ, as of October Gilbert had installed 300 cameras in his downtown stomping grounds. Let’s just say it’s doubtful the plan has ended there. Some downtown residents claim that the cameras now number as many as 600. With these cameras “[o]perators can zoom right in on individuals. All of the images are recorded,” ostensibly helping police identify suspects.

We can hope that the subjects of surveillance will be limited to criminals, but will they? What of the homeless, the rambling, the otherwise quirky individuals who don’t fit the whims of Gilbert and his 7,600 young professionals spiking demand in the downtown housing market? The evictions of longtime residents are taking place on camera. As one Detroit writer said of Gilbert, “He also just sent a notice to one of my ex-girlfriends, explaining he has purchased the apartment building she’s lived in for the last 16 years and his future plans don’t include her.” If not welcome to live their lives within the walls of their own homes downtown, how welcome will they be to visit their old streets?

Basically, these improvements downtown just mean that Fernando Palazuelo has to deal with more bodies snatched from high-surveillance areas getting dumped at his new house on E. Grand Boulevard, further dividing a city whose edges are already sagging under the weight of heavy segregation. Crimes will continue to be pushed to outlying areas where “nobody” lives, places actually inhabited by plenty of people who are not Gilbert’s new 1%.

No one can argue against the local benefits of increased security downtown, and Gilbert’s surveillance plan has made for neighborly partnerships with General Motors, the Ilitches, and Compuware, not to mention Detroit, Wayne County, and Wayne State police, which itself has a small empire of cameras. Detroit Police Chief James Craig optimistically said, “I’m hopeful that sometime in the very near future that the Detroit Police Department can replicate and even expand beyond the technology being used in Rock’s Ventures,” adding that it was very nice to be “invited in” to use the system during special events.

It seems that what Dan Gilbert wants, Dan Gilbert will get, with city officials paying gentle lip service to his empire, dubbed Opportunity Detroit. As previous mayor Dave Bing told the New York Times last year about his relationship with Gilbert, “My job is to knock down as many barriers as possible and get out of the way,” expediting permits while longtime Detroiters are left to abide by bureaucracy’s schedule.

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Rambling downtown last weekend, the cameras’ presence was palpable even through the veil of oncoming snowstorm. As a Detroiter who, like most, does not reside downtown, it’s been luxurious having my activities go uncharted by an omniscient eye, or at least only as much I let big data peek in. No more. Welcome to Corktown, cameras! Empire Detroit surveillance is now coming to a neighborhood near you.

Wambling

January 10, 2014

It goes without saying that it’s been cold this week. The polar vortex made a frosty, unwelcoming atmosphere that rendered any attempts to amble foolish, feeling not so much frigid as just deeply strange. Who can even remember the last time they took a walk at -11 degrees?

A likely species flourished in the elements, however. Snow creatures materialized with surprising force. Here are some of Detroit’s heartwarming efforts.

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Between Monday and Thursday, over a course of 9.67 miles, there were a total of 14 snow sculptures visible in the greater Midtown area. This makes for an unexpectedly dense 1.45 snowthings per mile, even despite bitter windchills. The tally was limited to snowthings accessible from sidewalks and alleys, but it appears that most residents had the altruism — or showmanship — to locate their creations in front yards for all to see.

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No small number of fire hydrants were masquerading as attempted snowthings, only to be revealed at a second glance as the imposters they were, sneering with the same metallic yellow grin underneath their white cap.

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Visiting places where there are often children playing in fairer seasons, it was surprising to find absolutely no snowthings. It seems that the brave creators of these large and sometimes elaborate sculptures were ‘kids’ of a different demographic. This one, especially, lacked sufficient modesty to be well-suited for a younger audience.

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In many cases, snowthings were left unfinished, as though the hands putting them together got too cold and went inside.

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Passing by corners memorable for their charming snowmen of yesteryear, it was a delight to find their progeny alive and well, like this friendly face at Second and Willis.

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At the end of the day, the award for best snowthing did not go to a rabbit, a buxom bear, a miniature igloo, a man, a woman (or both), but to the ingenious snow carrot-holder! Or is this a porcupine under all those quills?

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It’s fitting that the word of the day is ‘wamble,’ which sounds exactly like the kind of rambling that hapless sloppy snowmen might do this weekend as they melt their way back to where they came from.

Rambling report

January 6, 2014

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Thank you, intrepid ramblers! Snowpocalypse be damned; this weekend we walked right into the polar vortex. We met in the deserted Guardian Building lobby and traipsed through the drifts downtown, covering something like a 4.5 mile jaunt for which most ramblers were surprised to find themselves overdressed as temperatures graciously hovered near freezing.

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We cut through a number of buildings, exploring interior and exterior spaces connecting various destinations, following an excellent route planned with historic preservationist Timothy Boscarino and Joe Krause of Backseat Detroit tours, whose knowledge of the city may be as vast as the city itself. You can also catch up with Joe on select Saturday afternoons when he guides walking tours for D:hive.

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The elevated tubes at the Millender and Renaissance Centers gave us shelter and perspective as we made our way to the riverfront, an essential stop in any downtown sojourn. The only ship in our foggy field of vision was a motionless freighter, waiting out the storm. Ramblers worried about a lone family of ducks whose runty offspring were bravely surfing the icebergs.

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We squiggled through the deeper accumulations in Hart Plaza, untouched by buses and business as usual. Finding the snow imperfect for sculpting snowmen, a halfhearted snowball fight broke out.

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Aiming to traverse as many tunnels as possible, we were foiled by locked doors at Joe Louis Arena, which was just as well, judging by the scent making its way out of the window grates. Intentionally or otherwise, we made a fairly complete survey of every set of stairs in the area.

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After some alleys and a visit to Capitol Park, the ramble ended at dusk, with 50% of ramblers in favor of looping back to Lafayette for consolation coneys and pie, the whole group disappointed by the dearth of establishments open and ready to serve them hot coffee during the ramble. We were undoubtedly the snowiest patrons there this slow evening.

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Rambling home later in the night, I happened upon success where earlier we had failed — a snowman stood in the middle of a field, wearing an uncertain expression as the wind gusted mightily.

The lost glove

January 1, 2014

In A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit, author of the insightful and highly-quotable history of walking Wanderlust, recalls in a chapter on urban abandonment filming a movie set in a vacant, crumbling hospital. On the ribbon of a prop she was making, she embroidered an absurdist proverb from the Vladimir Nabokov novel Pale Fire that her aunt had given her a few birthdays before. It said, “The lost glove is happy.”

Around this time of year, signs of the human hand doing its work on the environment are plentiful. On these cold days when lone sodden gloves populate the streets, clustering gloomily near bus stops, the proverb is a heartwarming thing to keep in mind. As we look into the new year with optimism, making improbable wishes and resolutions, it’s an important reminder to look on some bright side of things, however strange. As Nabokov’s narrator comments in the Pale Fire foreword, “Now ‘happy’ is something extremely subjective.” Maybe the lost glove really is happy. It certainly is free.

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It’s uncertain what this implies for the lost hats and scarves, among other things, but we can hope they’re happy too. The glasses don’t have to be rose-colored.

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Happy New Year!