Saturday, May 23, 2009

Is "Rust Belt" still relevant?

Conscious of the various connotations the term holds, the five of us have been sensitive in our use of the term “Rust Belt” throughout our journey. We became acutely aware of the inadequacy of the term when we used it to describe our project to a lifelong resident of Detroit, Janet Jones. Ms. Jones, the owner of Source Booksellers, immediately questioned our definition for “Rust Belt,” to which we responded “post-industrial cities.” We reciprocated her question, asking Ms. Jones how she might classify her city. She smiled, and told us that it was part of the “Great Lakes region.”

There are splintered perspectives regarding the phrase and its accurate description of the region. Perhaps the time has come to create a new identity for these cities, an identity that both arises from within the city limits as well as encapsulates the instances of hope that exist here.

Work Versus Labor

Today, CNN featured an article titled "Renewables: America's Next Heavy Industry" (http://money.cnn.com/2009/05/21/news/economy/midwest_renewables/index.htm?postversion=2009052309) about the possible job creation that could come from the renewable energy market. The story highlights Minster Machine Company in Ohio where skilled metal workers make hubs for wind turbines at a starting rate of $17.50 per hour. UC Berkeley has estimated that if we get 15-20% of our energy from renewable resources, the number of these types of jobs could climb to two to four million in the next fifteen years.

John Winch, the Chief Executive of Minster Machine Company said: "the renewable energy market could be akin to an industrial revolution-type event", and although job creation and economic development are much needed in this region, are traditional industrial jobs what we want to re-introduce to our cities?

A few days ago, our group had the incredible honor of meeting Grace Lee Boggs. Mrs. Boggs has been an activist, author, speaker and revolutionary thinker for the last 60 years and we were privileged to sit and speak with her about the challenges and opportunities that face Detroit. When addressing job creation, Mrs. Boggs said that we have romanticized the factory work of the past; work has robbed us of our humanity. She quoted Marx who said that labor makes a human being a "fragment of a man". Mrs. Boggs believes that we have to see a correlation between creative ideas and activity and we need to distinguish the difference between labor and work.

Yesterday, we met with educator and activist Nate Walker who wants to develop a new kind of school in Detroit. He wants to create a place where children are taught to think critically and creatively and are asked questions about what it means to be a human being. He said that we are currently educating children to find their use in the labor market and this industrial model of education doesn't value people or their amazing potential to be contributors to their community and to the world around them.

Is it helpful to the people of this region to put the fate of their economic future in another industrial revolution? Is our hope for the children of Detroit or Youngstown that they will grow up to work in a factory? To become the next generation of laborers? Or should they be nurtured to be inspired and critical thinkers allowed to live up to their potential? What kind of world are we trying to create?

People that we met in Detroit said that Detroiters make things. This is their past and I think it could be a part of their future but it is important to allow the residents of these cities to have a diversified economy. What would these new jobs look like and how can we turn the labor of the past into respectful work of the future? Mrs. Boggs husband, activist Jimmy Boggs said: "Change should happen not because you don't like what is going on but because what we're doing makes us less of a human every day".

Our group with Mrs. Boggs, at her home in Detroit.

Au Revoir Detroit

Greetings from Ohio!

Janice and I made the drive from Detroit to Cleveland this evening and just got settled in our hotel. Although we are incredibly excited to explore Cleveland in the next few days, Janice and I were so sad to leave Detroit!

We have been so moved, overwhelmed, inspired and brought to tears by the incredibly passionate, intelligent and devoted advocates of this city. It has been an honor to tour the city with them, learn more about their organizations and engage them in conversation about this dynamic and unique place.

We apologize for not keeping you up to date on all of our adventures (look for some new blogs this weekend!) but we thought we'd share a few photos with you from the first few days of our journey.... Enjoy!


Matt and Janice Road Trippin'.
Alex with some very tall asparagus at Earthworks Urban Farm.


Matt near an empty lot in Detroit.

A remnant of the past.

Go Tigers!

The old train Depot in Detroit. Should it stay or should it go?

Janice, Matt and Anusha at the Heidelberg Project.

Heidelberg.

A parking garage in the former Michigan Theater.
Beautiful Detroit.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Detroit's Urban Farms: A new economic strategy?

Earthworks; an urban farming initiative started by the Copuchin Soup Kitchen, is working to both feed and educate the local community in the area. Since its inception, the organization has helped convert vacant lots into productive urban farms complete with rows of vegetables, a green house, orchards and even apiaries. Harvested food is transported to the adjacent Soup Kitchen which provides fresh, healthy meals to those in need. Organizations such as Earthworks are reasserting the centrality of food back into the lives of the surrounding community. They are part of a larger food movement working to show the link between how our food choices drastically effect our environment. In the process, they're blurring the divide between the notion of rural and urban land uses.

Detroit's landscape is peppered with overgrown pockets of vacant land. Viewed through the eyes of those working towards food security, this unique landscape provides an opportunity for communities to fill these voids with the life sustaining and neighborhood rejuvenating benefits of the urban garden. A simple garden can transform the appearance of a neighborhood. It is a place where ideas are exchanged, bonds are formed and skills are transferred from one generation to the next. Most importantly, it is a sign of a community's commitment to self-reliance.

Since the early 90's, over 600 individual plots have flourished in various neighborhoods across the city. Detroit's farmers and gardeners are pioneering a working model of a post-industrial American city in which the well-being of citizens is the driving force. This differs from the project-based economic development schemes seen over the past decades in Detroit. They focus on bringing jobs and economic success but have done little to improve the well-being of the inner city residents. The urban gardens effects are certainly smaller than a new casino or stadium, however, they're undoubtedly more consistent and sustainable.

The conscience of a community that feels complete self-reliance, develops assurance in its ability to take control of various challenges. It appears that the increased prevalence of urban farming may just be the first step to creating a new local economy. The first challenge was to build a new food economy and Detroit's communities have responded. Who knows what the next could be?

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

What is ‘city’? A call to RESPOND!



As a planner, Detroit is challenging. I’m not talking about the challenge of coming up with solutions for a city riddled with meager infrastructure and social services, a shrinking population, little investment, and the skeletons of racism and numerous social injustices—though these are, without a doubt, urgent needs to address.

At its core, Detroit challenges our notion of what a city is. Mama Sandra from the Hush House posed this question to us on our first night in Detroit. She asked, “What is ‘city’?” What does it mean? What is it to you? To be honest, we were stumped. We are planners—students and lovers of the city—and yet, we could not easily articulate what our sense of ‘city’ is. Is it a human community of a certain size? Is it defined by the density of interactions it contains? Does it account for the ecological systems that support our human social and economic networks of survival?

Detroit is a city that, on the surface, contains elements of the non-city. Standing on a street corner with one or two lone homes in sight, the soft hush of grassy fields, and the quiet chirping of birds in the distance, Detroit often feels rural. Driving around Detroit, I constantly feel that I am approaching a city—I see the suburban indicators that a city is about to appear as I turn every corner. It rarely does. This is actually the most incomprehensible part of visiting Detroit: expecting to see the gaping holes in what was, I instead find it difficult to imagine what has been lost. Either way, my mind is blown not by visible and visceral signs of decay, but by the seeming incomprehensibility of contradictions. This may be because I am an outsider without a rich understanding of Detroit’s history, or it could be a wonderful tool of seeing what is as the fabric on which many possibilities can be built.

Why were we stumped?? Have we been so immersed in learning how to plan that we have forgotten—or forgotten how to articulate—just what we are planning for? Or, do we have a deeper understanding of what the city is, such that we can no longer use the flat and empty (academic) language we have been taught to describe the depth, complexity, and beauty of that which we recognize yet cannot name? Is defining less about the definition and more about the process of searching and reaching? If so, it is not important whether we agree or not. It is more significant that we can agree to engage in that process. This process of articulation—and the dialogue that accompanies it—is especially crucial in Detroit, whose future depends very much on how our notions of the city are stretched, pushed, defined, and unearthed. Only then can we understand what it means for a city to “die” or to “fail,” or even to “shrink,” all things commonly said about Detroit.

So, readers: What is your sense of ‘city’? How would you describe what it is, and what it isn’t? Post your comments here!

Systems of Love: A Counter-Approach to Punishment



Certain communities, both racial and class specific, are represented in much higher than average conviction rates. The common response to this is to increase punishment for these offenses. This repeated, frenzied approach at forced economic and social assimilation of certain populations has resulted in increased incarceration rates, all the while the ages of the convicted are decreasing. Recidivism is common and nationally, crime has not been greatly stymied by threat of fines, imprisonment and even death. Correctional facilities can hardly be said to correct the actions of the incarcerated; only through the use of fear of re-imprisonment can they reach any form of ‘success’.
Ironically, one of the connecting threads that link rustbelt cities is that their economic success has somewhat mirrored our country’s involvement in conflict: from producing cannons for the Civil War all the way to producing jeeps in Vietnam. A system of global reactionism abroad is merely a representation of the system of punishment and reactionism at home. It is also in these cities that some of our country’s most drastic social, economic and environmental issues have bubbled up to the surface of our national consciousness. Our cities’ hearts of industry are also our hearts of American values and idealism: a high quality of life, happiness, and the betterment for future generations.
Unfortunately, brash, omnipotent and broad generalizations are adjectives of our modern system of reaction to undesirable or threatening behavior. The repeated failure of this methodology over generations is evident in the communities around us. From something as seemingly benign as outdated zoning to dangerous zero-tolerance laws, this overzealous approach at punishment and control has been a failure. Instead, an understanding of an individual’s conflict with institutionalized inequity should be evaluated – and only this understanding and eventual change will result in effective, sustainable and adaptable equity.
After visiting with Sandra and Charles from Detroit’s Hush House, I understand that the underlying theme of their work is love. This love is their counterbalance to the aggressive reactionsim that surrounds us in our daily lives: the carrot versus stick. By putting blame and finger-pointing aside, love can be a tool to highlight the web of interrelationships that we experience. We all have our differences; from tastes in food, to political persuasions, to the shade of our skin. Love does not look for a melting pot, assimilation or diversity. What love looks for is where we agree and connect as human beings; the places where personal nodes of interrelationships connect. Community is love, not punishment, retribution or reactionism. How can we as humans build a community if we use a system of fear and control ? Love is passion, sacrifice and service, and our communities need its residents to be strong and willing participants.


“Approach a person with a popsicle”
-Mamma Sandra, Hush House

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Detroit - Day One


Welcome to Detroit!

Janice, Matt and I arrived in Detroit Monday morning. We decided to take public transportation into Downtown to the College of Creative Studies who graciously offered to host us during our stay. After we picked up our bags we spotted a Smart Bus which serves Wayne County and after an hour and a half, we arrived at our destination. The bus took us through commercial corridors of the outlying neighborhoods and although the ride was long, we made it into town for $1.50 per person. What a deal!

The College of Creative Studies is a gorgeous building located in what many people refer to as the "Cultural Center" of Detroit. Some of its neighbors include the Detroit Institute for the Arts, the Detroit Public Library, Wayne State University and the Detroit Historical Society.

We met up with our Road Trip counterparts Alex and Anusha and headed to Northwest Goldberg. Although Northwest Goldberg is three miles away from Downtown, its physical appearance is drastically different. Singular blocks of houses stand amid blocks of empty lots with tall grass and unpaved roads.

After stopping for Downtown dinner in an old train ticket office we met with "Baba" Charles and "Mama" Sandra Simmons who run Hush House. Hush House Black World Museum and Leadership Institute for Human Rights. is located in the Northwest Goldberg neighborhood and its a center for history, advocacy, education, community rights and empowerment. Charles and Sandra are life long educators and activists who have grown up in Detroit and witnessed the city and its best and worst. And although they share an intimate knowledge about the struggles Detroiters face, they remain fiercely optimistic about the city and its inhabitants.
Charles and Sandra believe that success, no matter how small is meaningful because it proves what a neighborhood can overcome. They also believe that the power of love is the most powerful tool we have and they have devoted their lives to this pursuit.

The Simmons' also value mutual learning environments so they began to ask us questions about why we had embarked upon this trip, what we hoped to accomplish and what are role was in the process. Their questions left us tongue-tied. We began the conversation hoping to learn about Sandra and Charles but I don't think any of us expected that we would learn so much about ourselves.

This conversation left an indelible mark and will be something that none of us will soon forget. We drove away from the Simmons' home full of wonder and inspiration, excited about everything that lay ahead.

Toledo to Detroit and the refineries in-between

A morning conversation with Wanda Wilson from Pittsburgh Partnership for Neighborhood Development gave us some insight into the inner-workings of some of Pittsburgh’s community and economic development initiatives. The overarching goal is to improve the city’s core – utilizing the example that “no successful city is shaped like a donut” as the impetus for downtown and adjacent neighborhood development initiatives. Our initial tour in Pittsburgh complete, we find ourselves leaving an extremely dynamic city with a promising future ahead of itself. A dedicated and selfless population and a secure stream of local foundation funding has provided a platform for an overall high quality of life, even during the depressed economic state of the last 30 years. Detroit here we come, but first a pit-stop in Toledo…


A quick stop for a nice Toledo skyline shot from across

the river turned into a small discussion about a project reusing an old power-plant. Talking with a couple folks fishing from an empty three-year old marina give us a snapshot of what is in store for the area: lofts. With more than a slight chuckle beneath their mid-western twang, they say that the power-plant is being renovated into fancy lofts, for what they say, a bewildering $1,000/month. The three fishers all adamantly call the project ridiculous. Would the marina developers disagree?


20 plus miles outside of Detroit, it begins. Slowly first with storage tanks and warehouses, than what look like refineries for miles in all directions, factories and massive industrial complexes in such a scale that I never could have imagined it. The clear blue skies make a surreal background for the towers of steel and concrete, some billowing pillars of smoke, reaching out and up with spindly industrial arms. A beautiful, hideous and incomprehensible site.


Detroit: no traffic, urban prairies, beautiful architecture, broken sidewalks, crumbling houses, shiny new buildings, signs for vacant lofts, gorgeous skyline, signs for vacant retail, signs for vacant offices, bridge to Canada, casinos, empty buildings, broken buildings, lonely buildings, wide flat roadways, graffiti, empty downtown, lots of microbrews, a dedicated population.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Explosive Transformation in East Liberty, Pittsburgh...

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Pittsburgh: Day 2


After driving through the Squirrel Hill Tunnel in eastern Pittsburgh, we found another example of the geographical isolation of Pittsburgh’s boroughs that was mentioned in yesterday’s conversations. The separation induced by rivers, steep terrain and highways has created numerous distinct communities that not only espouse distinctive cultures but also different perspectives of what Pittsburgh is and should become. The Squirrel Hill Tunnel opened up into gentle residential neighborhoods with small-scale commercial main streets that many urbanists would envy. Getting lost in the curving roadways that lead up and down the numerous hills, we eventually made it over a final set of railroad tracks and into the town of Braddock: a once thriving steel-mill community that now not only lacks jobs, but grocery stores, gas stations, restaurants or nearly any other amenity that many other places take for granted. Braddock Avenue, the main stretch in town, currently terminates at the massive Edgar Thomson Steel Works plant. The unmistakable metallic smell in the air, the consistent ground-rumble of machinery and swooshing of water coolers, sparks, flames, steam and the sheer size of the buildings elicits a fascinating sensation.
Making our way back through town, we are encouraged by an artistically modified trash-can and well maintained pedestrian path to get out of the car. As soon as we are on foot, a visual path of art pieces encourages us to continue walking, to the organic gardens, past murals, sculptures, and around behind buildings. We appear in front of a renovated church where an art show is taking place.
After interviewing a mayoral candidate, a community art leader and a bio-fuel manufacturing business owner, Braddock seems like an awkward place that is both attractive to the urban pioneer and an ugly hollow reminder of a one-industry-reliant community.
Are cheap rents good enough in themselves to encourage development?
Who will the new Braddock be?
Is Braddock symbolic of the larger metropolitan area of Pittsburgh?
Are Braddock and other outlying communities even a part of Pittsburgh?
Can places like Braddock encourage investment without relying on chain-store development or outside help?
Will underlying political tensions cripple the momentum of these small-town creative solutions?

Friday, May 15, 2009

Day One in the Rustbelt: PITTSBURGH!


It already feels like we’ve been on the road for a week. However, as soon as we emerged from the Fort Pitt tunnel into Pittsburgh’s sunshine-filled downtown we had a good feeling about our first full day of interviews and documentation. Though everything went smoothly, some expectations have already been flipped and we have gotten a full range of the opinions of Pittsburghians (Pittsburghers? mmm...). Here are some highlights and observations:

  • People can’t seem to agree on what Pittsburgh is. Is it corrupt? A “big small town”? An easy and comfortable place to live? A post-industrial city? A still-industrial city waiting to rebuild its industrial core? From our initial interviews with folks such as Eric Stern from Brillobox and Emil Lester at City Cafe, this became very clear.
  • Pittsburgh has a strange superiority/inferiority complex. It is constantly reaching for its former glory, yet is too proud to accept “outside” help. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh tries very hard to distinguish itself from its Midwestern neighbors.
  • We checked out the aptly themed exhibit "Pittsburgh: A History of Innovation" at the Heinz History Center, where we saw Mr. Roger’s shoes! AND HIS CARDIGAN!
  • Where did all these kids come from?! Pittsburgh seems to be teeming with young people—and the cafes, bars, and coffeeshops that accompany them. This was particularly noticeable when we drove through the Southside and climbed Mt. Washington (in the train) for the spectacular views.

Tomorrow, we’ll be checking out some of the industrial towns nearby, such as Braddock and Turtle Creek, that have not seen the rebirth that Pittsburgh has. I’m sure we’ll have some interesting urban-turned-rural decay to post tomorrow…