Tag Archives: security

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.

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.