Monthly Archives: September 2014

#detroitstayclassy

September 28, 2014

Even a half-asleep pedestrian in Detroit would not fail to notice the new public art that materialized this week. Perched on streetlight bases and utility boxes, decorating windowsills and ledges, sunbathing on grassy patches, 3,000 small white signs stencilled with a simple black tie infiltrated the landscape seemingly overnight.

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Something special must be up, I concluded on seeing a seventh one in the short stretch of Woodward I was walking. But what? I asked some friends, asked some bystanders, asked the people working parking for the game downtown. Stationed directly across from a pair of the stencils propped up against stop sign posts, the guy flicked his neon flag, shrugged, and told me he had no idea.

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The black ties are the symbol of the positivity-fueled “Detroit Stay Classy” campaign, which seeks to redefine class, vaguely asserting that “class encompasses a lot of things but most importantly is defined by your character and personality.” Their sparse manifesto puts a momentary blind eye to history, and maybe reality, with its awkward truisms reminding Detroiters that “every person is born with what is needed to take that first step towards their success.” “You and your ideas are special and have to be pursued,” the site cheerleads. The idea that you have to be pursued is one all too familiar to Detroiters behind on their utility bills.

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Lacking either the curiosity or the entitlement, it never occurred to me to take any of the ties for myself, which was apparently the intent of the project. The back of each has scrawled on it “for you — from me. p.s. stay classy”, the website, and the tie’s production number. Some of the ties are now displayed proudly in store windows, some have gone home to the burbs, and a lot are decorating downtown offices, reminding their keepers to keep it classy at work, judging by elated comments.

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What percentage of Detroiters will never have any idea of the meaning behind these white boards? If they don’t know, then what is the point? It’s only more mysterious stuff placed in their environment by some well-meaning “other” for some other well-meaning “other.” Missing the transparency of other positive-thinking public art efforts, like Cheer Up! Detroit, where the message is accessible to any literate person wandering by, the ties bristle with exclusivity. In not addressing the people it was intended to encourage — people who are not middle or upper class, internet-literate, and nestling this cute tchotchke into their art collection — how can the project really be meaningful, something aside from more fluffy lighthearted Detroit Future boosterism?

In the depths of conversation with a very positive woman, flagging cars of Tigers fans into a small lot near the stadium, she told me about her 45 minute commutes on foot to work — a 2.5 hour job — “and that’s taking all the shortcuts,” she said, “through the fields and through people’s apartment complexes, everything.” Instead of relating happy messages about black ties painted on boards, she told me about being robbed last year on her solitary route home, the reason she will no longer work night games. “I wish I had a bike,” she sighed, looking at my rusty Peugeot.

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The ties are whimsical; I can seldom argue against whimsy. Inspiring something like a city-wide scavenger hunt — thankfully, the project succeeded in not limiting classiness to the 7.2 — is the kind of fun every metropolis needs. Yet it’s not really the most clever irony by which a project all about personality and character takes an article of clothing as its symbol — an article none other than the alienating tie that encircles white collars. Perhaps these boards and their surrogate neckwear are an apt talisman in a city known for its hard-working working class, but the undertone of exclusivity persists.

Detroit’s black tie makeover is part of a broader clash between understanding and respecting a space and its people, history, and culture, and understanding and respecting one’s personal needs and ambitions, and figuring where to interpolate oneself into that history and culture. This is a struggle every time I go out on a walk, thinking always of the millions of people before me who have walked the same route — the same sidewalk, the same street, the same path, the prairie and forest before the city. Where can the black tie fit into that?

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Timely reading:
“Is There Room for Black People in the New Detroit?” by Suzette Hackney, who asks, “Still a question looms: Is there room for low income residents to benefit from the dazzling reinvention of their city?” As one resident she interviews put it, Detroit’s new development “is for the white folks and tourists. It ain’t for us.”

Relative value of fields

September 22, 2014

This time of year means many changes afoot. Shifts in the landscape presently invisible will soon become material. This is not just seasonal stuff — the mounting of abscission cells in tree leaves or the rampantness of squirrels or the odd autumnal deficit of acorns — unless you consider the tax-foreclosed property auction a season. And why not? With all its expense and obsessive fervor, it’s about as festive.

Bidding on the first batch of properties in the September Wayne County auction ended last Wednesday. Having it out of the way may be a relief to some new and returning landowners, but the suspense is still on. Sales for the last of this month’s properties will climax on September 24, making way for the shitshow that is the October round. In past years, waiting for the October auction has been a popular option, when bidding starts at only $500, rather than the full amount of back taxes owed on the property. Not so this time. There is a new urgency to snap up properties in some areas that can’t wait a day, let alone a month.

What kind of shifts can we expect in the coming months as all this land changes hands? Amid such uncertainties, fewer of Detroit’s infamous fields is a given. Here’s a preliminary glance at the relative value of some of Detroit’s real estate.

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This former field along Woodward is part of the Pizza Empire’s new playground, served on a rent-free silver spoon by the Downtown Development Authority to the Ilitches for the new arena. (Hey guys — I hear gold spoons taste better. Try harder next time). While they Ilitches do not technically own this particular piece of land, they effectively control it in perpetuity, since the lease may be extend up to 95 years, at which point they’ll all be deceased. The city council controversially voted to sell the land, including this parcel and 38 others, for a mere $1 to the DDA earlier this year.

In its former life as game-day overflow parking, the lot had a couple trees facing Woodward but little else to offer; walking this void between Midtown and downtown was bland, windy, and unpleasant. Now, the area is increasingly disorienting to traverse on foot and is anticipated to become more so, until there is a new arena in the middle of it and it is yet another field — and streets — that can no longer be walked. How will the new arena area compare?

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The placement of 52 shipping containers is underway as this week’s groundbreaking event draws nearer; it basically looks like some people have been playing with large red Legos for the past week. A couple of the containers are being outfitted with murals by VIP painting crews allowed past the perimeter fencing.

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Compare that field to this on Trumbull, home to a scrubby Japanese maple and a sign reading “No City Cut,” which just sold for $11,000. Who owns this now? A neighbor living in one of the houses next door? More faceless Vinyl Village development entities? The suspense continues as the treasurer’s office slowly mails out deeds and new owners appear.

For perspective on that $11,000 field, also in this round of the auction was a parking space at the Park Shelton, which sold for $35,300. As hilariously noted in (and later removed from) the property description on the tax auction site, the winning bidder was ultimately foiled when the condo association told him the condo and its parking space could not be owned separately. City employees faced with this complaint just moved on, awarding the parking space to the next highest bidder.

As the air chills and more land gets grabbed, we’ll be looking at — and walking through — other vanishing fields, to see what is lost and what is gained in the rapid transformation of the cityscape, dictated by the handful of powers with its future wrapped around their finger.

Arenaland: if we keeps it 300%, we keeps it out of reach behind a fence, now.

Arenaland: if we keeps it 300%, we keeps it out of reach behind a fence, now.

Recommended reading for post-post-apocalyptic times:
Utterly poignant and timely Detroit artists’ conversation on creativity in the present and future city, from its residents to newcomers “taking the plunge,” and the history of it all.

End of summer and the return of blogging

September 7, 2014

Last week, the summer’s quiet campus was once again flush with students. Detroit Public Schools resumed session. It’s been a weird one — lots of news, lots of strife — but no matter how busy, it was like any summer vacation. Its quick months were a lacuna, a dip into the odd vacuous beach-bound calm between more challenging seasons.

As students return to school, bloggers are suddenly returning to blogs, according to Jason Kottke, veteran collector of great things on his eponymous site. Since the late aughts, the popularity of the humble custom-domain, single-author personal weblog has been dwindling. More bloggers let their individual sites lapse, too overwhelmed with high mandatory daily post counts at their journalism day jobs to share any leftover deep thoughts of their own.

These outlets were superseded by easier and faster ways to express oneself — and to stay in touch with people outside a blogroll or dedicated internet community. Status updates on Facebook, microblogging on Tumblr, and twittering without end allowed users to let all the people they sort of knew in high school see what they ate for lunch. Pictures of such things that once illustrated and beautified blog posts were diverted to Instagram, filtered to look like old polaroids. The context of those images, beyond maybe a brief caption or hashtag, was forfeited with no room for reflection. Of course tweets have to link somewhere sometimes, but for the average person, blogging no longer reigns as the publishing platform of choice, despite the stupid ease of creating one. How many businesses propagate just fine with little more than a Facebook page to announce their newest wares?

Even the subject matter of personal blogs, which had been as predictably diverse as the internet itself, seemed to undergo reduction. Bloggers dove into their niches as the variability in scope of personal, journal-like blogs focused neatly down to single topics that afforded their endeavors a previously unnecessary legitimacy and cohesion. This resulted in a seeming increase in the number of blogs relating to wholesome cookery, the writing life, natural wellness, free-range parenting, and organic gardening, in blogs celebrating other slow and deliberate lifestyles. Like, for goodness’ sake, the simple act of walking.

RSS readers that aggregated all the disparate blog content died, or were euthanized. Google ended the long run of its beloved Reader last summer, perhaps, some speculated, in an effort to direct more traffic toward Google+. While others rushed in to fill the gap, the gesture left naked a general perception of the blog’s outmodedness. Personal blogs were disconnected, narcissistic, self-absorbed — kind of how people felt about the vapid Facebook statuses and tweets that emerged from initial adoption of those services. Maintaining a personal blog has increasingly seemed to be an antiquated means of self-publishing content in hopes of having one’s writing appear on professionally-edited multi-user blogs, or of cataloging these articles published elsewhere.

What link can be found between walking and blogging? It almost comes off as an updated version of the classic question on the connection between walking and writing. In a rapid culture, both blogging and walking have fallen behind the times. Walking is too slow; bicycling is rallied around, romanticized, and even fetishized in bike porn. Blogs are too cumbersome and isolated; social media sharing is the way to make friends and influence people — not to mention gain a readership that pays the bills. Blogging parallels walking as something that is more about process and journey than about product and destination. Blogs provide something other than a static portfolio of finished work, about as interactive and interesting as driving through a neighborhood with the windows up — and just as common.

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As writers return to their individual blogs, they’re doing so in an adventurous manner that has for centuries lent walking some appeal. Without the map of familiar, permissible topics, the mind can meander. Instead of the “usual writerly purview” of tech, media, and finance, Elizabeth Spiers, journalist and founding editor of Gawker, grants herself freedom to write on “Anything I Care About” in a thirty-day experiment to see whether she even likes blogging anymore. As walking lets the mind rest and ramble and redefine neural pathways, this relaxation of publishing rules presages benefits beyond the blogosphere.

Both practices make room for deeper thinking and conveying those thoughts in influential ways. Facebook and Twitter can feel like sprinting through an eternal marathon — euphoric at times, but draining. A body can only refuel on so many half-bananas before it needs a substantial break. As Lockhart Steele, founder of Curbed and Eater, wrote in his return-to-blogging post, “Can blogging — Jesus fuck, blogging! — still open unseen doors? Seems highly unlikely.” But why not?

What’s exciting about this sudden enthusiasm for the return of self-hosted writers and their communities is its implications for the internet in the age of net neutrality. These personal domains will be part of the slow internet, while social media giants will have preferred status — faster to access, faster to use, and faster to consume.

A return to blogging, and to walking, looks less to the past than to the future. If not an intentional and meaningful gesture, breaking away from big media sites is still a timely vote in how we want the internet — and the world — to be. Full of people freely walking, and people freely writing on blogs.

Back-to-school walking reading from the New Yorker:
“Heaven’s Gaits — What we do when we walk” by Adam Gopnik
“Why Walking Helps Us Think” by Ferris Jabr