Tag Archives: borders

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.

Curb cuts

December 28, 2013

Looking back at 2013’s top news, Motor City Muckraker reminds us of their survey two years after the city’s installation of curb cuts allowing pedestrians with disabilities access to some of the infamous “sidewalks to nowhere” that truncate abruptly in weeds, unkempt trees, garbage, and rubble.

This is especially interesting in retrospect given the ongoing struggle over curb cuts, which included a wheelchair protest last month on the west side, where crucial intersections are lacking any kind of ramp for sidewalk access.

Photo by Steve Neavling for Motor City Muckraker

Photo by Steve Neavling for Motor City Muckraker

The curb cuts in question are the result of a 2005 lawsuit against the city by an Ann Arbor lawyer on behalf of Michigan Paralyzed Veterans of America and the Center for Community Access, the settlement of which stipulated that Detroit revamp its ramps. Detroit installed many curb cuts in the 1980s, before new Americans with Disabilities Act requirements were established in 1991. Specifically, the nubbly “detectable warning” surfaces on modern ramps are made of reddish rubber, while old ones sport concrete nubs or smooth surfaces making wheelchair traction a challenge. Never mind that the rubber ones tend to shear off and can sometimes be found decorating the gutters like cheerful Heidelberg dots.

In his article, Steve Neavling makes no mention of where the tax dollars came from, intimating that Detroiters should take umbrage at this, as if it were exclusively city money that financed these measures of questionable necessity. The headline alone, “Detroit spent $45 million on sidewalk ramps to nowhere while sinking into debt,” implies that Detroit had the option of spending the ADA sidewalk compliance funds on other city services, like streetlights, firefighters, or police, when this was not the case. While revenue from Detroit’s gas tax funded some of the ramps, the federal dollars that covered the rest of the bill were specifically earmarked for this purpose. Whatever the source, noncompliance with the court order is likely to have a higher price tag, both financially and socially.

“The law is clear as a bell that curb ramps have to be installed at every intersection,” attorney Mark Finnegan told the Free Press. This includes the mostly abandoned areas to which Neavling takes exception, failing to note that it’s often these places where higher concentrations of elderly people and people with disabilities live, those who are less upwardly mobile and unlikely find themselves using the ADA-approved ramps downtown. As one commenter put it, “They’re not going to write in the law… ‘Every city must comply, except Detroit, which is a lost cause.'”

The problem with Detroit’s ADA compliance is less that it is doing it citywide, but that it is doing it with no discernible order. Areas that receive a lot of traffic and might be prioritized, like Eastern Market, are still missing appropriate curb cuts in unexpected places. It seems that merely keeping track of which curbs have already been addressed would be a bigger job than it’s worth. The oversight feels spiteful. In explanation, Detroit Department of Public Works director Al Jordan told the Free Press in 2010 that installing curb cuts on main roads where pedestrian crossings are absent might communicate that it’s safe to cross the street at any point where there are ramps, assigning the blame to larger infrastructure issues.

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Neavling, responding to a comment, said that “[s]ome dense neighborhoods received [no curb cuts] while many desolate areas, some with no houses on a block, received installations.” No area is immune to this illogic, however. In some of Detroit’s higher-density, more walkable neighborhoods, curb cuts have been replaced as nonsensically as anywhere else. Creating ramps where there are no sidewalks in populous areas is as wasteful there as it is where sidewalks terminate in wilderness a few paces from the intersection, but hardly makes for a sensational headline.

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A block away from this corner, curb cuts have not been replaced despite being on a reasonably well-trafficked sidewalk running along a main road.

For once, Detroit isn’t alone in its dysfunctionality with regards to this issue. It’s happened everywhere there are attorneys trying to pay back their law school debt and everywhere stimulus plan dollars can stretch, like a small town in Oklahoma, where residents bemoaned a $90,000 sidewalk leading to a ditch that was replaced three times in a five-year period before finally arriving at ADA compliance. At least these curb cuts have only been replaced once that we know of.

And who’s to say that these curb cuts in largely vacant spaces such as the Packard Plant lead to nowhere — maybe the arrival of new neighbors will lead to development in these unlikely areas. This sidewalk will be perfect for Fernando Palazuelo’s morning stroll.

Photo by Steve Neavling for Motor City Muckraker

Photo by Steve Neavling for Motor City Muckraker

For a project already of such boggling duration, it seems a darn shame that such muckraking is still needed, and that we will likely be hearing lots more about Detroit’s sidewalk woes in 2014.

Cumulus of change

November 24, 2013

Everywhere you go around here, there are pennies on the ground. Doesn’t anybody stop to pick them up anymore? All reports indicate the answer is no, not usually.

The summer before last, a guy walked around taking inventory of some 13,000 trees on city property, providing data to the U.S. Forest Service about the species and their health. On foot, he noticed many small features that others miss. As he told the Environment Report, “I’ve actually been collecting pennies on the sides of the roads for, like four months. I cashed in 2,200 pennies yesterday. People just don’t pick them up anymore apparently.” This is really a small wonder when, for those without a bank account, many financial institutions refuse to cash them in, a population at a certain intersection with those who might be out collecting change in the first place.

What to do with these thousands of pennies?

The Heidelberg Project’s “Penny House” burned down a few mornings ago. Incredibly, ridiculously, it is the third Heidelberg house to be destroyed by arson this year, first the “Obstruction of Justice” house, followed by the “House of Soul” last week. Of course, this isn’t the first time the houses have been threatened, recalling the mayorally-sanctioned demolitions that have occurred twice in its history.

"Dotty-wotty House" and penny car.

“Dotty-wotty House” and penny car.

When Tyree Guyton was planning the “House that Makes Sense,” he aimed to collect 384,000 pennies, some sent in by kids all over the country, some collected by Guyton himself. Today, he was walking around the block in a jacket with an orange dot on the back, holding the most perfectly ordinary hammer in his hands. “You heard it here,” he said, “We will not not stop. We will rebuild this bigger and better. The hard work is ahead.” I asked if he was still collecting pennies. Yes, he replied, although he has no idea how many the Heidelberg Project possesses now. Fortunately, he said, with staff to handle the numbers, he is able to focus on creating. “I still pick them up, too, though,” he said. “And we’re about to put up some more pennies on the ‘Penny House’ right now.”

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As accustomed as we are to its presence, as much as we might scoff at its attractiveness to the 275,000 visitors who come to see it every year, garnering a revenue $3.4 million for Detroit, it’s a serious, meaningful piece of art that all who live in the city are lucky to have. If it’s a tourist trap, it’s the best around. The day after the arson, WDET producer Laura Weber Davis was talking with Bankole Thompson on the Craig Fahle show when she compared the cultural capital of the Heidelberg project to that of the DIA, asking, “Should people be more outraged?”

They should, he agreed. But as Guyton himself said today, “We’re over it. We’re moving on.” To help secure the project and continue construction of one of the most unique public art projects in the world, you can donate here. When you’re out walking, you can start picking up all the pennies you see dotting the ground.

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“Tyree took stake in his community, and as a result, not a single serious crime was reported within a two block radius of the project for over 26 years.” Who can object to such artful living? This is why we’re here, this network, to watch out for each other, to make our communities better by being present.

Don't let these candles burn out.

Don’t let these candles burn out.

Donate to the Heidelberg Project’s fundraising campaign here.

The rules

February 23, 2013

Walking into the world surrounding Harper High School in Chicago is entering a whole nother realm. A place it may be best not to walk into at all, actually, at least not without following the rules.

Rule number one, look at a map.
Rule number two, never walk by yourself.
Rule number three, never walk with someone else.

Confused yet? This American Life was too, so it sent three reporters to the school near which twenty-nine student shootings took place last year. Arriving at the school at the beginning of the academic year, they stayed for a full semester, and then they made this radio program. There is so much going on at Harper High School that the show was divided into halves; Part One aired last week, followed by another hour this week.

Rule number four, don’t use the sidewalk.
Every day at dismissal, kids drift out of Harper High School and walk along Wood Street– actually, right down the middle of Wood Street. It’s a strange scene. Cars drive slowly, waiting for students to move out of the way. One teacher told me that when she first arrived at Harper, she thought this was just plain hooliganism. The teenagers taking over. One afternoon, a girl named Alex explained, that’s not it at all.
“We feel safer like this. For some reason, we just feel safe like that. we never like to walk past trees and stuff, there’s too much stuff going on.”
“Too much stuff going on” is shorthand here for the shootings, the fights, the craziness. It’s better to walk down the middle of the street, where you can keep a broad view of things, and where you have a few more seconds to run if you need to.

"Too much stuff going on."

“Too much stuff going on.”

Some students in particularly compromising situations receive rides to and from school from administrators, and some choose not to leave the house except to go to school.

Chatting with a student named Deonte, the reporter asked, “Do you ever go out, just around the neighborhood?” Deonte insightfully replied, “Oh, no. No, not at all. And in a way, that can be bad as well. Because that’s when depression is easy to set in. That took a hold of me, because I’ve been in the house for about three years. I’ve been staying in the house a lot.”

What would you do?

Listen to Harper High School, Part One and Part Two and give it some thought.

“Slow journalism” and a seven-year walk

January 13, 2013

Like most individuals meriting news coverage, Paul Salopek is on a mission. And his, like many news-worthy missions, is admirable in scope, stretched vast over time and space. He is embarking on a seven-year walk across the continents, following humankind’s dispersal around the globe. Robin Banerji talks with Salopek as he plans his trip.

“I shall be retracing the pathways of the first human diaspora out of Africa, which occurred about 50 to 70,000 years ago, as authentically as possible, on foot,” he says.

“I’ll hop a boat across the Bering Straits and then ramble down the New World to Tierra del Fuego, the place where our ancestors arrived about 12,000 years ago, the last continental corner of the world to be colonised by our forebears.”

Salopek has many motivations for undertaking this long journey of such epic proportions it sounds more fairy tale than reality. He argues that this “slow journalism” will provide more accurate reporting, full of the missing colors, flavors, and textures that characterize the bleak “fast food journalism” he aims to avoid. Most of Salopek’s motivations are very grounded, however.

A biologist by training, Salopek argues that human beings evolved to understand the world at walking pace, after they developed the ability to walk on two feet three million years ago.

“There is an actual neurological basis to what I am talking about,” Salopek says.

“You can make a pretty good evolutionary argument that this was how we were designed to absorb information at about 5km an hour (3mph),” he says. That is an average walking speed.

But he also admits that the idea of a long-distance walk strikes him as fun.

Fun sidenote: “For 95% of human history, people walked on average 5,200km (3,200 miles) per year: “Like walking from Boston to Portland on the West Coast every single year of your adult life,” says Salopek.”

Read more at “Paul Salopek: Going for a seven-year walk” by Robin Banerji for BBC News.

Walk Score not toeing the international border line

December 15, 2012

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Walk Score, the website that rates ease of life as a pedestrian in communities across the country, is afflicted with a nasty bug. DARN rambler Timothy Boscarino reports on this quirk in a tool that has become “more than just a cartographic curiosity.”

I agree that downtown could use a few things (like a bookstore and a place to buy broccoli) but with numerous major employers, almost-affordable housing, parks, shopping, the Rosa Parks Transit Center, and a nifty elevated monorail, it definitely warrants something more than the “car-dependent” red splash seen on the above map.

And why are the (supposedly) least walkable parts of town shaped like perfect right angles? Surely, it must be a math thing!

M-bike blames it all on the Detroit River. Walk Score’s algorithm, according to the blog, “might be okay for swimscore.com but it doesn’t work for walking.”

But water isn’t the real problem.

Follow Boscarino as he explores this on Modeshift, and for more on the topic (including maps!), visit his post “Walk Score gives Detroit the Shaft.”