Tuesday, February 21st, 2012
My hometown of Detroit has been studied obsessively for years by writers and researchers of all types to gain insight into the Motor City’s decline. Indeed, it seems to have become a favorite pastime for urbanists of all stripes. How could such an economic powerhouse, a uniquely American city, so utterly collapse?
Most analysis tends to focus on the economic, social and political reasons for the downfall. One of my favorite treatises on Detroit is The Origins of the Urban Crisis by Thomas Sugrue, who argues that housing and racial discrimination practices put in place after World War II played a primary role in the decline of Motown. I’d argue that it’s closest to the truth of an explanation for Detroit today, but not quite there.
Everyone seems to know the shorthand narrative for Detroit’s fall. Industrial output declines; racial tensions rise. White residents leave; an unapologetic black leadership assumes control. And there’s quite a bit of truth to that narrative. Yes, the auto industry faced stiff competition, moved jobs to the suburbs, moved jobs down south, and later moved jobs out of the country. And all that happened with fewer jobs at each stop. Yes, Detroit does have a regrettably complex racial history and the legacy of two perception-forming riots since World War II (in 1943 and 1967). Yes, Detroit has had its share of political corruption, often tied to the tumultuous mayoral administrations of Coleman Young and Kwame Kilpatrick.
But here’s the thing. Buffalo and Cleveland have suffered the same kind of economic loss, but have not (quite) fallen to the same depths as Detroit. In fact, Pittsburgh suffered as much economically as Detroit, and is now poised for an amazing Rust Belt comeback. Any number of cities has had as troubled a racial legacy as Detroit, without being as adversely impacted. And Detroit certainly hasn’t cornered the market on political corruption, as long as Chicago exists.
So why has Detroit suffered unlike any other major city? Planning, or the lack thereof for more than a century, is why Detroit stands out. While cities like Chicago, Philadelphia and Los Angeles (don’t laugh – Detroit and LA essentially boomed at the same time) put a premium on creating pleasant built environments for their residents, Detroit was unique in putting all its eggs in the corporate caretaker basket. Once the auto industry became established in Detroit, political and business leaders abdicated their responsibility on sound urban planning and design, and elected to let the booming economy do the work for them.
Detroit’s decline has been going on far longer than most people realize, because of the city’s lack of attention to creating a pleasant built environment. Evidence? A Time Magazine article entitled “Decline in Detroit” from 1961 – yes, 1961 – had the following to say in its opening paragraph:
If ever a city stood as a symbol of the dynamic U.S. economy, it was Detroit. It was not pretty. It was, in fact, a combination of the grey and the garish: its downtown area was a warren of dingy, twisting streets; the used-car lots along Livernois Avenue raised an aurora of neon. But Detroit cared less about how it looked than about what it did—and it did plenty.
So what exactly did Detroit get wrong on the planning side of things? I outline nine direct and indirect planning and land use reasons for the Motor City’s current state. Here they are below.
1. Poor neighborhood identification. Ask a Chicagoan where they’re from, and they will likely give you a neighborhood name – Wrigleyville, Jefferson Park, Chatham. The same is true in other neighborhood-oriented cities like New York, Boston, even Washington, D.C. However, ask a Detroiter where they’re from, and they will likely tell you East Side or West Side; if pressed, they might note a key intersection. While the Motor City does have its share of traditional enclaves (Indian Village and English Village) and emerging hot spots (Midtown), Detroit is notable among large U.S. cities for having very poorly defined neighborhoods.
Neighborhood identification is important because ideally residents live in a neighborhood context. Schools, convenience shopping, social activities and recreational uses, all connected and shared by locals in a defined area, can provide a sense of community ownership. An argument can be made that’s been lacking in Detroit for decades.
2. Poor housing stock. Detroit may be well-known for its so-called ruins, but much of the city is relentlessly covered with small, Cape Cod-style, 3-bedroom and one-bath single family homes on slabs that are not in keeping with contemporary standards for size and quality.
The general national perception of Detroit’s housing might be of a city that resembles the South Bronx in the late 1970’s – long stretches of dense but abandoned walk-up apartment buildings with a smattering of deteriorated single-family homes. The truth, however, is that Detroit may have one of the greatest concentrations of post-World War II tract housing of any major U.S. city. Two random images from Google Earth effectively demonstrate this. Detroit’s residential areas look pretty much like this, from the city’s northeast side:
Or like this, from the northwest side:
Note that these images come from the more intact parts of the city, not the “returning-to-prairie” areas that have brought the city notoriety. True, Detroit has more than its share of abandoned ruins that negatively impact housing prices. But it also has many more homes that simply don’t generate the demand that higher quality housing would. That is a major contributor to the city’s abundance of very cheap housing.
3. A poor public realm. Detroit’s streetscape is unbearable in many places. Major corridors have long stretches of anonymous single-story commercial buildings, with few trees or other landscaping. Signs, banners, awnings and decorative lighting are noticeably lacking. Overhead electrical wires extend for miles, and streets have been rigidly engineered with road signs and markings. The city’s corridors are hardly pedestrian friendly. Again, images from Google Earth can demonstrate this. Here is an area just blocks from where I grew up:
And another corridor a short distance away:
And yet another from the opposite side of town:
Even in a strong economic environment with fully occupied structures the visual appeal would be jarring. But this is Detroit, a city that has lost so much of the income and tax base needed to support the commercial areas and supporting infrastructure. That means empty buildings, broken sidewalks, poor street conditions, and a continuing spiral of decline.
4. A downtown that was allowed to become weak. Detroit did not always have a relatively weak downtown. The city’s core was a strong retail and commercial center through much of the 20th century, with the advertising, legal and financial offices that supported the auto industry. At some point, Detroit’s downtown became secondary as an employment center to the factory locations scattered throughout the city and metro area. Just like homeowners, offices began relocating to the suburbs. By the ‘60s more and more people saw downtown as a retail center as opposed to an office center, and one that could not compete with suburban malls.
5. Freeway expansion. This is something a little more familiar to planners when explaining the decline of central cities, but it’s acutely relevant in Detroit. I have no documentation to support it, but I suspect Detroit has more freeway miles per land area than most cities in the nation. The auto-dominated economy wanted a landscape that supported its values.
6. Lack of/loss of a transit network. Detroit had an elaborate streetcar network that was in existence until the 1950’s, but was largely replaced by buses. The auto industry took special interest in the conversion of the streetcar network to buses. General Motors lobbied the city’s Department of Street Railways (DSR) throughout much of the ‘50s, stressing that diesel-fueled buses were an effective lower-cost alternative to streetcars (no more rail maintenance costs!) and could provide much greater flexibility to meet shifting travel demands. Coincidentally, GM produced exactly the kind of buses that would easily facilitate the transition. By 1953, the DSR began a three-year effort to convert streetcars to buses, and the last streetcar route was completed in April 1956.
The kind of lobbying (coercion?) exhibited by GM happened in many other cities across the country. However, Detroit had no other alternative in place, like subways and elevated systems, in the way that New York, Chicago, Philadelphia or Boston did. Also, Detroit had no history of commuter rail reaching from the outer portions of the metro area to the downtown core, also like the afore-mentioned cities. And lastly, as demonstrated earlier downtown Detroit was already beginning its decline and was unable to be the kind of “pull” that would have supported alternative transportation uses there.
7. Local government organization. Another unique, if indirectly related facet of Detroit is its current local government organization. Like most major American cities of the late 19th century, Detroit elected city council members from districts or wards across the city. And like most of those cities, Detroit experienced its share of graft and corruption in the political arena. But the Progressive Movement that pursued local government reform throughout the nation had perhaps its greatest achievement in Detroit. In 1918, a new city charter was established that led to the reorganization of local government to have Council members elected city-wide, instead of by wards. This governance system has been in place ever since, but is slated to end with the establishment of a new charter in 2013 that will now elect council members from seven districts and two at-large spots.
This has been a double-edged sword for Detroit. While it may have kept a lid on some of the possible corruption that could have happened, it likely created greater distance between residents and city government. I believe this led to two significant impacts. First, it allowed the influence of the auto industry to travel unfettered within local government through the first two-thirds of the 20th century, without the countervailing influence of local residents. Second, without representation and support, neighborhoods were unable to mature in Detroit as they had in other major cities. They never had champions at the local government level, as elected officials had to view the city in its entirety and abstractly, and not represent and develop a unique part of the city.
The seven reasons outlined above would be enough to hurt the future development prospects of most cities. However, the last two reasons I cite, which look at land use actions and policy decisions from more than 100 years ago, are what distinguishes Detroit from any other city in America.
8. An industrial landscape that constrained the city’s core. A unique aspect of land use in Detroit that’s often discussed but rarely explored fully is the huge amount of industrial and manufacturing land in the city. It’s not surprising, really, since the city did give itself over to the industrial gods. Detroit was not only the home of the auto industry, but all the suppliers that made assembly there viable – producing everything from windshields to exhaust pipes.
Most cities across the nation, even most other Rust Belt cities, concentrated industrial lands in certain districts or corridors, often in just one part of a city. Usually the industrial lands followed waterfronts or rail corridors and connected with downtowns, and other parts of the city were spared the negative externalities of industrial use. But Detroit circa 1905 was faced with a critical decision – how could the city expand its industrial lands to capitalize on its emerging role as the Automobile Capital of the World?
To see how Detroit arrived at its solution one must understand the primary transportation system for manufacturing at the time – the railroads. By 1900 a dense network of rail lines had developed around Detroit. The principal lines that moved products in and out of Detroit, the Michigan Central and Grand Trunk Western, entered the city from the southwest and exited to the northeast, all just beyond the growing city’s limits. While numerous other lines existed throughout the city, the MC and Grand Trunk lines were critical because they connected Detroit with the rest of the nation. An article I found from the Railway Age Gazette, from June 1914, stated that:
The unusually rapid growth in the number and size of industrial plants along the main lines of the railways entering the city has caused serious congestion in practically all of the area within the city limits suitable for such development. (M)any railway and business men who had given the subject careful consideration were of the opinion that the only permanent relief was to be secured by building a complete outer belt line outside of the city limits.
This is pretty well illustrated in the map below, with the Michigan Central and Grand Trunk Western lines highlighted in red. The city’s boundaries prior to 1915 are highlighted in green (please forgive my simple graphics):
Source: detroittransithistory.info website
Several railroad interests came together, including the Michigan Central and Grand Trunk lines, to address the issue of industrial expansion and congestion in Detroit. They elected to establish a new railroad – the Detroit Terminal Railroad. It was indeed an “outer belt line” that connected the Michigan Central Line with the Grand Trunk Western, arcing from the southwest side to the northeast, but also created a spur on the east side that would link to the Detroit River and allow for the development of additional industrial land. The DTR was constructed between 1904 and 1911. The line is illustrated on the following map with a dotted black line:
Source: detroittransithistory.info website
The land use dynamic changed when Henry Ford constructed his Highland Park assembly plant, which opened in 1908. In 1906 he bought 160 acres of land along Woodward Avenue in the small village north of Detroit, next to the crossing of the DTR at Woodward Avenue (the main roadway that extends through Highland Park in the above image). He was well aware of already-underway efforts to construct the “outer belt line” that industrialists had called for, and Ford put himself in position to benefit from it. Shortly after the opening of his new factory, an almost unbroken arc of industrial land lined the DTR – occasionally split by major arterial roadways that connected the city to its hinterlands, but largely occupied by the industrial supply and small assembly businesses that would serve each other. The DTR encircled and constrained the city’s dense urban core.
While it could not have been envisioned at the time, this led directly to another planning reason for the city’s decline:
9. Ill-timed and unfulfilled annexation policy. The two maps above show (in green) the city’s boundaries as of 1915. Bear in mind that Detroit’s population exploded from 205,000 in 1890 to almost 1 million by 1920, but not much new territory was added to the city during that time. In fact, between 1892 and 1905, the city did not annex any new land, all while rapid growth was happening. With the DTR now wrapped around the city with a wall of industrial land, city leaders began looking for new lands to annex to support the expanding population.
Huge annexations began occurring in the late 1910’s but accelerated during the ‘20s. This is purely my own speculation here, but my guess is that Detroit city leaders wanted to annex areas beyond the DTR arc to establish new neighborhoods for residents working in those very factories. That, I’m sure, was the plan.
Then the Great Depression and World War II hit.
Suddenly all the farmland that was supposed to be developed into new Detroit neighborhoods in the ‘30s and ‘40s was deferred by as much as twenty years. No new neighborhoods meant that the city core that existed in 1915 was essentially the same core that existed in 1945. Sure, a very strong demand for housing developed during that 30-year period, but tensions – race, management vs. union, among others – likely grew at an even faster pace.
The industrial wall and annexation policy had four impacts on Detroit. First, it created the push for suburbanization in Detroit, as residents sought to move away from the noisy, smelly and smoky factories that dotted the landscape. Secondly, the pressure to rapidly meet the pent-up housing demand in the ‘40s and ‘50s led to the vast spread of homes that today lack contemporary appeal. Thirdly, once industrial decline occurred it contributed mightily to the blight of the city as factories became abandoned – that’s largely how the city got its famed “ruins”. A pattern was established – industrial abandonment begat adjacent residential abandonment, which begat commercial abandonment, and begat even more residential abandonment. I would argue that the vast majority of vacant, “return-to-prairie” lands in Detroit are within a two-mile radius of the DTR. And lastly, the sheer amount of industrial land, with all associated cleanup concerns, made the decommission and consolidation of industrial land for other uses extremely difficult. Not that Detroit demonstrated the will to do so. There likely was a period during the ‘70s and ‘80s when the city could have effectively redeveloped industrial land to other uses, but again Detroit doubled down on the prospect of industrial jobs.
There’s an old saying that when you have a hammer, every problem is a nail. Granted, I am a planner, and I see planning problems as key to Detroit’s demise. While this point of view hasn’t been clearly articulated before, it’s clear that given this planning and land use legacy, it’s readily apparent how Detroit got to where it is today. Detroit’s problems began precisely with the rise of the auto industry during the 1900s and 1910s, not from the beginnings of its decline 50 years later or from ill-fated attempts to resuscitate it since. The seeds of Detroit’s decline had been sown long before suburbanization accelerated in the ‘50s, or racial tensions exploded in the ‘60s.
Detroit circa 1890 was a moderately-sized Great Lakes port whose economy revolved around shipbuilding and carriage-building. It was eerily similar in size, scale and character to Milwaukee at that time. But the work of Henry Ford, William C. Durant and the Dodge brothers altered that forever.
The rise of the automobile enriched the corporations and created the template for the expansion of the middle class around the country, but it transformed the city, to its astounding detriment. Left untreated, any improvement in Detroit’s economic, social or political fortunes would still leave the city with a troubled planning legacy.
Pete Saunders is a Detroit native who current works as an urban planner in Chicago.
Thursday, January 19th, 2012
If you look at the typical urban redevelopment efforts in any given city, they are heavy on capital expenditures. I’ve noticed quite a slew of articles on this of late related to Detroit: a light rail line on Woodward, a new bridge to Canada, a new transit station in suburban Troy, rebuilding and expanding I-94, $500 million in new hospital investment downtown.
But is this really the path back to success for a city like Detroit? Harvard economist Ed Glaeser noted in an episode of Smart City Radio, that “the hallmark of a declining city is that it has a lot of infrastructure relative to economic activity…it’s very strange to think that the right response is to build more structures in those places.” Challenged by host Carol Coletta about the need for certain new types of infrastructure or projects to attract educated people, Glaeser didn’t go for it, saying, “For every Bilbao that looks like a success, there are nine failures.” He didn’t say to always say No, but clearly favored low cost solutions like public art over big investments.
Anyone who’s been to Detroit knows that it’s vastly over-infrastructured and that the city and region can’t even afford to even to maintain what they have. Why then is so much of the civic effort put into new capex projects will only add new stuff that also can’t be maintained? Is this really the best use of funds? Keep in mind, the debt of the city alone is $20 billion. Even with private funds, there’s only so much money to go around.
Clearly, as things wear out, you need to repair and modernize them simply to serve the needs of local residents. The new terminals at Detroit’s airport fall into this category. Perhaps a road reconstruction would as well. So I’m not sure that a blanket “don’t build” is the right answer.
But I don’t sense that Detroit is thinking this way or coming to grips with the surplus infrastructure situation, excepting perhaps with abandoned housing. Rebuilding I-94 and improving interchange geometrics might be a good idea, but adding lanes strikes me as dubious. Detroit is probably over freewayed as it is, and with the city and regional population shrinking, I’m not sure building more roads is the answer.
Also, the focus on capital intensive transit like rail systems seems a bit crazy. Detroit is a highly decentralized metro area with greatly dispersed origins and destinations – exactly the type of place poorly served by rail. I’m not saying there’s anything intrinsically wrong with a rail line, but is that your best bang for the buck, and more importantly the best place to focus precious civic time and attention? Particularly when the city bus system is a shambles? Beyond which, Detroit’s strategies around things like rail and medical center investment are totally conventional wisdom, and don’t speak to the true character and needs of the city. Even if you get some people to sip lattes by the light rail on Woodward like they do in Portland, this isn’t going to change the civic trajectory.
The one thing that does strike me as strategic is the bridge crossing to Canada, as Detroit is the major trade gateway to Canada. But even this seems as much motivated, on both sides, by bad blood between local officials and Matty Moroun (owner of the existing bridge). And I’ve also heard that the real problem isn’t bridge congestion, but rather customs delays. A new bridge wouldn’t do anything about that.
I guess I’m a skeptic on Detroit trying to build its way back to prosperity. Particularly with the debt levels and the trouble the private sector has sustaining even existing amenities like the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. That’s especially true when it comes to “me too” strategies like light rail. I’m got getting a sense that much of this is in the service of anything that is uniquely Detroit or is rooted in the challenges of a shrinking city. Rather, it seems predicated on a “comeback” vision for Detroit seeking to recreate some semblance of former glory on the back of major capital investments. Has this worked anywhere?
However, the alternatives aren’t always that obvious. A lot of stuff really is run down and needs repair, replacement, or retirement. How to actually get rid of fixed assets is a tough challenge for a city. And new things do come along that can be important.
So I’m wondering what you think. How much should stagnant or declining cities focus on major capital investments? What types of investments, if any, should they make? What strategies would you suggest as a complement or alternate?
Wednesday, January 11th, 2012
Apparently this has been floating out there for a while, but architectural and cultural commentator Edward Lifson posted this fascinating 1965 Detroit promotional video called “A City on the Move.”
Update: Commenter Jim Meredith passed along a like to this Design Observer piece called The Forgetting Machine: A History of Detroit that you might find of interest too. And also a great photo essay of then and now photos called Detroit Re-Photography.
Part One (if the video doesn’t display for you, click here):
Part Two (if the video doesn’t display for you, click here):
I thought maybe I had posted this in this past, but couldn’t find it if I did. Apologies if this is a duplicate for you.
Tuesday, November 8th, 2011
Much has been made of the food desert phenomenon afflicting the industrial Midwest.
Detroit’s grocery stores, or food markets
This whole storyline reached a fever pitch earlier this year when it was widely circulated that the city of Detroit — all 140 miles of it — lacked a single grocery store. This was, of course, patently false. A quick Google search shows that there are dozens, even hundreds, of foodsellers populating Detroit’s neighborhoods.
What type of grocer does business in down-and-dirty Detroit? One example is the Honey Bee Market, a family-owned business that has been operating in the city for five decades. It carries a wide selection of Central American ingredients, in addition to plenty of fruits and vegetables. The store was voted “most fun” by Detroit’s Metro Times.
So how did the Wall Street Journal, Dateline and NBC get it so wrong about Detroit? I argue that it is all about semantics, along with a large dose of cultural relativism.
The argument about food deserts seems to be premised on the assumption that supermarkets — suburban-style, big-box, corporate chain stores with plenty o’ parking — are inherently superior to walkable, family owned food markets that serve low-income populations. The media portrays these corner markets as liquor stores or “discount” stores carrying little fresh produce and lots of Hostess cupcakes.
While there is certainly a class of convenience store that lacks healthy food options, many analyses have completely ignored the presence of small, family-owned food markets and their important role in feeding urban populations.
The USDA — which recently released its “food desert locator” to wide fanfare — admits to using “supermarkets and large grocery stores as a proxy for sources of healthy and available food.” Mary Reardon, a spokesperson for USDA said, “We define supermarkets and large grocery stores as food stores with at least $2 million in [annual] sales that contain all the major food departments found in a traditional supermarket.”
“We do not address smaller outlets that have fresh food,” she said. But she added that there are some local studies that have examined the issue. Here definitions are important. One of the two studies cited by the USDA [PDF] showed that depending on which definitions are employed, between 17 and 87 percent of New Orleans is a food desert.
To say that food sellers who do more than $2 million in business provide fresh food and those who sell less do not is a rough estimate to say the least. In fact, in my experience, it’s false. According to the locator, I live right on the border of a USDA-defined “food desert.” The thing is, I’ve never had better access to food in my life. The corner market by my house is exactly the type of place the USDA or CNN would ignore. The Deli, as it’s called, is kind of shabby looking from the outside and there’s no way it’s more than 10,000 square feet. But I love it.
The Deli in Cleveland is a small food seller, but it carries all the essentials. Photo: Angie Schmitt
It’s run by a family. They sell fresh-sliced cold cuts, fresh fruits and veggies. They have everything you’d need on a day-to-day basis, at prices I think are more than fair. I know because it’s helped me many times in a pinch. You can get eggs, potatoes, grapes, cheese (real cheese), sardines and even even pulpo (octopus) in a can. And of course you can also get essentials like band-aids, cheap beer, good beer, baby formula, toilet paper and macaroni and cheese. I have a recipe that calls for Jiffy corn bread mix and sour cream. They have them both.
It’s not the only market within a short walk from my house; there are literally half a dozen. There’s a Vietnamese market that I’ve grown to like for its unusual baked goods, selection of fish and exotic produce including escarole. There is Stockyard Meats, a family-owned butcher and general grocery, where you can order a whole pig for roasting. Right next door is a Save-A-Lot, which is a grocery in every other sense than the USDA/CNN definition. It’s no Whole Foods, but it has produce, meat, canned goods, frozen foods at prices that are appropriate for the neighborhood’s median household income ($25,000 at the last Census).
Just over a mile away is a “traditional” grocery store, by USDA definition, with a fish counter and a dairy aisle. It’s an easy trip by bike. But most of my neighbors, the low-income folks that that these types of studies are generally concerned with, don’t drive and don’t bother making the trek. And why would they? You can get everything you need in a short walk.
What the USDA fails to realize is that if food stores are located very close to your house, they needn’t be as large. You can pop in many times a week and pick up a light enough load to carry. That’s what many of my neighbors and I do. As a result, we don’t need SUVs. We don’t need acres of asphalt. Our neighborhoods are more livable thanks to corner markets.
What The Deli lacks in selection, it makes up for in accessibility. I’ll take walkability over 50 kinds of cereal and 14 kinds of peanut butter any day of the week.
Women haul groceries on foot in near west Cleveland. Photo: Angie Schmitt
As for the claim that that small food stores are unfairly exploiting their consumers, even the USDA’s analysis doesn’t support that conclusion. A 2009 study by the agency [PDF] found that those in the lowest income bracket (those that make between $8,000 and $30,000 annually) pay just 1.3 percent more than those in the next highest income bracket for food. Factor in the fact that many of these folks don’t need to pay for gas, car insurance and maintenance, and suddenly walkable food markets start to seem like a bargain.
Why does all this matter? The food desert problem, at least the way it’s been framed, seems to make a strong argument for cities to offer tax incentives for suburban-scale grocery stores to enter the city. Indeed the Obama Administration has offered $400 million to help expand food access in American food deserts. But if a big, corporate supermarket gets an unfair, taxpayer-funded boost, what will that mean for The Deli or Stockyard Meats?
There is a very logical, business explanation for why this hasn’t occurred already. The new grocery store would have to be within one-half mile to serve people who don’t drive, which is a significant part of the Cleveland market. The city simply doesn’t have the density to support so many large, walkable groceries. Instead, small markets fill that niche.
Without small markets like The Deli, food access and malnutrition would be a much bigger problem in Cleveland and many other cities throughout the United States. Rather than dismissing these businesses, the USDA should study these stores, how they make their stocking decisions and what room there is for improvement. Large grocery stores may offer a wide variety of fresh produce, but they come with a built-in deficit when it comes to accessibility for car-free people.
This post originally appeared in Streetsblog on May 10, 2011. Reprinted with permission of the author.
Tuesday, September 13th, 2011
[ You can read Part 1A of this series here. ]
It turns out that Milwaukee is not the most segregated metro area after all.
(Both graphics by Eric Fisher)
The landmark report on segregation by the U.S Census Bureau published five measure of segregation. As previously discussed, this report ranked metro areas with a sufficiently large black population on how racially segregated they were. Then, the U.S Census Bureau averaged these rankings, and used that average to conclude that Milwaukee was the most segregated metro area in the country.
After all of the sophisticated statistical analysis that went into the production of the five segregation measures, it is surprising that the U.S Census Bureau would produce an overall segregation rank by averaging the segregation measure ranks, and not the measures themselves. As the following example shows, this distorts things.
Imagine three people whose wealth is measured in three different ways. You want to rank them in overall wealth by averaging their wealth from each measurement. In parenthesis below is the rank of how wealthy each person is compared to the other two people.
If you’re just averaging the money in each measurement, Aaron is the wealthiest person and would rank number one. But if you average the rankings, Brett’s average ranking (the average of 1, 1, and 2) is better than Aaron’s average ranking (the average of 1, 2, and 2).
Detroit is like Aaron. It has the worst segregation measures, but not the worst average ranking. Milwaukee is like Brett. We do not have the worst segregation measures, but we do have the worst average ranking.
When the segregation measures are standardized and averaged, Detroit comes out as the most segregated metro area in the country. Milwaukee comes out at number two. Here are the top five segregated metro areas using this way to measure:
The U.S Census Bureau may have had a good reason for going with their method. And, none of this changes the fact that Milwaukee is highly segregated, and that this remains a central challenge to our future. There’s little excitement in knowing that Milwaukee is “second only to Detroit” in yet another measure of socioeconomic health. At the same time, the stigma of being the most segregated place in the country is a damaging one. As it turns out, it’s not necessarily legitimate.
Sometime next year, the 2010 Census should be completed and we will be able to see how Milwaukee stacks up in segregation and many other areas. In the meantime, it is still important to look at the impact that segregation has on our health and our future.
This article originally appeared in The Milwaukee Drum.
Tuesday, August 23rd, 2011
[ So a few months back I got an email from Miriam Fathalla. As crazy as this sounds, she was quitting her job as an urban planner in Melbourne (yes, Australia) not to move to back home to Portland, but to come spend a few months checking out the Midwest. She is now here, traveling to various parts of the region, and blogging about it over at Miriam in the Midwest, which I'd encourage you to check out. She also graciously agreed to talk about her project and some of what she's learned so far along the away. I hope you enjoy - Aaron. ]
Hi, I’m Miriam. I’m an American/Canadian citizen and an Australian permanent resident who has been living, researching and writing (www.MiriamintheMidwest.com) in Chicago since April, when I left my job as an Environmental Planning Officer at a Melbourne-area local government and moved myself, my curiosity, my Australian dollars and my post-graduate studies of Urban Planning and Community Development to an environment that would increase the value of these things: the American Midwest. I also kind of like run-on sentences. And fragments.
So why did I do all of this? Well, I’m intensely curious about people, their places and emerging and established social and economic structures in the American Midwest.
I have been following The Urbanophile for well over 2 years and the site’s analysis of the American Midwest coupled with stories about creative individuals and communities I found in Detroit Blog, Yes!, Ode, Good, New Internationalist, and New Geography inspired in me an increasingly strong attraction and curiosity about this thing called the Midwest, until it could no longer be ignored. As an American who hadn’t lived in the USA since 2004, I was curious to know what it meant to be an American anymore, I was frustrated by my fruitless attempts to turn my inspiration from reading these accounts into actions in my local area and I wasn’t entirely sure the Midwest existed (I kind of always thought it might be a Hollywood soundstage – like the moon landing). So, for these reasons I came to the Midwest to experience, research and write about emerging social and economic structures and discover what magic element was missing from my projects in Australia.
My broad, sweeping generalizing observations so far include:
People in the Midwest are young and fun.
As a 29 year old in Australia, I would go out with friends and often wonder where all of the people my own age were. But I have met many others in my age bracket with similar tastes and goals in Chicago and Detroit; even a handful that has also left professions to follow passions. This may be due to simply being in a larger urban environment or perhaps the stronger Australian economy and more conservative society is more conducive to twenty-somethings taking the house and husband path and American culture is more encouraging of independent and creative pursuits.
People in the Midwest are motivated.
The ambition, drive and energy of Chicago and Detroit are palatable. It’s not just willingness to work, it’s a desire to. Though this is likely connected to the elongated economic downturn of the area, especially compared to the currently surging Australian economy, this is none the less impressive. From Michael McDonald-themed dance parties to community learning structures to neighborhood parks to grassroots heat wave strategies (broken open fire hydrants), people are creating the elements of their society they wish existed. DIY isn’t just a scene here, a weekend pastime; it’s a way of life, the way of life of the Midwest.
This is likely due to the traditional middle-class nature of this society. I believe the proliferation of this mentality is a part of a wider social phenomenon that is being born out of shifting expectations of the government vs communities and I am excited to see this shift is not resulting in notions of competitive scarcity and increased social isolation but rather in creative and collaborative social initiatives and enterprises.
People in the Midwest can eat well.
Food is cheap. This may shock, offend or humor Midwestern residents, but compared to Australia food is definitely cheaper here. And I’m shopping and eating within the third largest American city – I’ve been told groceries are a lot cheaper in further outlying areas.
Stay with me, because this argument compounds.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits (SNAP, colloquially known as food stamps) provides qualifying low-income individuals and families with a monthly credit of a minimum of $200 that can only be spent on food items. In my opinion, Australia’s social welfare system is more generous overall than the USA’s, however this type of benefit does not exist in Australia. Rental assistance, unemployment, parenting payments and baby bonuses are available but nothing that directly ensures residents have access to food is part of the Australian system. I think the American SNAP system is gold.
Since February 2011, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s “Double Up Food Bucks” program doubles the value of SNAP benefits used at many farmers markets in Michigan and Ohio. So, provided they can get to a participating farmer’s market, low-income residents are guaranteed access not just to food, but healthy, fresh and local produce.
The program works by trading SNAP benefit credits for bonus tokens. This alternative currency can only be spent on produce from within the state, thus stretching consumer food dollars while supporting the local economy and local food producers. As an added bonus, the program provides experiential local food market education; participants can’t help but learn about what grows in their local environment and in what season as they seek out local growers and their goods.
Also, there is no good Mexican food in Australia* and I love burritos. I love them so much I almost stopped on my way from Australia to Chicago in San Francisco for a day just to get my fill. But then I realized that Chicago has a very high Hispanic population, and my love for my future city grew exponentially.
Yes, I approve of the culinary culture of Chicago.
And it’s true that, portion sizes are enormous compared to those in Australia.
*I purposefully say this, hoping that some will be offended and make it their mission to prove me wrong when I return.
People in the Midwest are nice.
Yes my Chicago neighborhood is a far cry from my Australian home town of 300,000 where I often wouldn’t close, let alone lock my back door. Living on the western side of Humboldt Park, most people make a face when I tell them where I live, while I lovingly refer to my neighborhood as ‘vibrant’.
I’m on a relatively quiet one-way street a mini-block away from a major intersection but there’s always noise in the street. I consider it a lively buzz, the heartbeat that lets me know that there are others here with me. Right now I hear sirens, dogs barking, cars arriving and kids playing hide and seek. Often it’s someone(s) yelling in Spanish, ghetto beats and Spanish radio stations. They say you’re not really in Chicago until your bike gets stolen; count me as ‘arrived’ then. I’ve learned the difference between the sound of gun shots or fireworks from a couple of blocks away (but wouldn’t be stressed by hearing either), I see my neighbor dealing drugs on the street daily and the police patrol my neighborhood, but I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.
Despite Chicago being the largest city I’ve ever experienced, I find the people here to be incredibly friendly. Not just polite, but actually ‘want to get to know you’, ‘help you with your groceries’ friendly. Chivalry is rife and I’m not complaining. I can truthfully say that every time I have gotten on a bus with others, men of all ages have stood back to let myself and other women board first.
I believe there are a number of compounding reasons for this:
- Americans are generally more extroverted than Australians. However people in the Midwest seem to be friendlier than Portlanders.
- In an undergraduate Urban Communication course, I discussed how Hispanic cultures can be found to be more extroverted than white groups (apologies, I’m having difficulty finding the exact reference). Chicago has a high Hispanic population. I’m not saying I’m only running into friendly Hispanic people, but that the strong influence of these cultures may affect how everyone acts here. (And I admit that I live in a predominantly Puerto Rican neighborhood so my experiences may have a certain bias.)
- People are inherently good, creative and social creatures. I’m happy to see frequent examples of people bonding together to withstand hardships and create positive responses to potentially stressful situations. I have found that the lack of law enforcement in Detroit actually makes way for must more creativity than violence.
People in the Midwest are proud.
Okay, first of all Americans in general are proud. This is sometimes perceived as arrogant or haughty by others.
One of the first things I noticed upon my arrival was just how long it took to order breakfast at Denny’s. White/wheat, how do you like your eggs, what sides… In Detroit I met a man who told me that he would purposefully ask for water with cucumber at bars just to prove that when asked what he would like, he should be able to be served whatever it is that he actually would like at that moment.
I believe this proliferation of choice and the belief that we should have an abundance of options is a direct derivative of promise of American liberty. Australia does not have a Bill of Rights (and I was terrified when I discovered this). Considering how often references are made to this document, The Constitution and the rights and responsibilities these articles describe, it is clear to me that this absence would affect the comparative culture of Australia. However which is ‘better’ is of course impossible to say. However a recent article in the New York Times is relevant to the discussion.
But Midwesterners are really proud. Proud of their country, their region, their state, their city, even their neighborhood and street. I’m not really sure what is behind this, but I’m enjoying the scenery of t shirts, stickers and business names that proclaim hometown pride. And I admit that I’m getting sucked into it too.
When I share my new found love for the Midwest with others, pride of place is often reflected back at me. However sometimes it has been met with raised eyebrows and “You haven’t been here in the winter yet, have you?”
I understand that the summers in Chicago are generally known for their magic, especially in relation to the city’s dastardly cold, bleak and isolating winters. Therefore it may be that the vitality of place I am currently experiencing is the annual aggregate energy of 8 million people condensed into a few hospitable months; however I won’t know for some time.
According to today’s travel bookings, I will leave the Midwest at the end of October. In the meantime, I am open to any suggestions regarding individuals, communities or organizations that are doing interesting things in the Midwest that lead to more connected, sustainable and healthy societies.
My goals are to document people’s stories and develop my understandings, while growing my network of community development, urban planning and design professionals and enthusiasts. I consider what I do ‘gonzo journalism and contemporary anthropology’ and my card says even says so.
My research so far included pieces on group dance phenomena, placemaking, the last company town in the USA, community signage, informal street-level governance and more while I have articles on alternative food structures, community composting, crowd sourced funding, hometown pride, an underground library, alternative grassroots health care schemes, alternative housing, Detroit blogs, sustainable fashion and the general magnificence of Detroit in the works.
I have gone on “field trips” to Portland, Oregon and Detroit, Michigan and have more planned for Iowa City, Omaha, Wyoming, Winnemucca, Nevada, Burning Man, Provo, Utah, Moab, Utah, Colorado Springs, Colorado, Kansas City, Missouri, St Louis, Missouri, New York City, Los Angeles, California, as well as a return to Detroit).
Please feel free to contact me via my blog at Miriam in the Midwest with any questions, comments contacts or suggestions for further research.
Wednesday, July 20th, 2011
[ If I had to pick just one blog in the world as the best, I would probably choose Detroitblog. The writer, who goes by the handle Detroitblogger John, captures the stories of the people of Detroit in a way that I've never seen in another place. His posts are always full of pictures, because if you couldn't see it for yourself, you'd never believe it.
Someone once insightfully said that one of the key distinguishing features of Detroitblog is that it resolutely refuses to treat the people of Detroit as hopeless victims, no matter their circumstances. Last year I was pleased to be able to share an example of this in a repost of Solitary Man, about someone who decided to face the challenges of his life and city head on by going "off the grid." Today I'm delighted to be able to share another example of what you'll find over at Detroitblog - Aaron. ]
They stagger in one by one — each with a story, each with a life of problems.
First comes the prostitute. Then comes a drinker. Every swing of the door brings another desperate person from the street outside.
People with addictions, with diseases, people living on the street. And people who suffer from none of those things but who are just drawn to this strange place.
Some talk to each other; one or two are talking to themselves, or the air, or whatever demons they hear in their heads.
It’s Sunday morning. It’s time for church.
At Peacemakers International on Chene Street, a little storefront ministry not far south of I-94, the congregation doesn’t just help people who are addicts or poor or homeless. Those people are the congregation.
They come here because this place has taken in dozens of people fighting years of addiction and, somehow, they say, it has helped them get off drugs.
People like Tony Cusmano, 52, who gradually stole a quarter-million dollars from his family business to feed a cocaine habit before ending up behind bars. Like Shirley Robinson, 53, who gave up a career and a house for a coke habit, which became a crack habit that left her selling herself on this street for a few years. Like Coy Welch, 39, a longtime drinker who was found living under a bridge a couple months ago and was invited to come here.
And from this ragged crowd, the preacher emerges.
At first it’s hard to distinguish him from his flock. Steve Upshur is 62, and wears jeans and cowboy boots and a leather Harley jacket. His hair is long. So is his scraggly mustache. He’s a biker and looks like a biker.
He used to be an addict, so desperate he once puked up his methadone at a clinic and then got down on the ground to lap up the drug-soaked vomit. He’s been a dealer. He’s been jailed. He even got caught up in a bank robbery once.
His flock relates to him because he’s been where they are, because he’s done as much wrong in his life as they have in theirs, but more importantly because he’s someone who found a way out of that hell. He’s walked the walk. And because of that, he’s earned their trust, earned his post as father of the wayward.
“When you get into crack and prostitution, anything goes,” Upshur says. “A lot of these people will stuff people in trunks, kill people. I’ve had people confess murders in here. I’ve heard it all.”
More people arrive. A homeless man. A woman one misstep away from being there. An old lady with a scowling face, muttering to herself.
The services begin right on time. But there’s no prayer to start things off. No reading of the Bible. No sermon.
Instead, a high-tempo, old-time gospel song — “I Believe” by John P. Kee — blares from the stereo. And as the beat kicks in, everyone in the pews who had been sitting quietly suddenly gets up and starts clapping along. A few even dance.
Then the pastor says a few short words, but right away another song bursts out of the stereo, and the congregation is behaving like it’s some kind of dance party. People who were living on the street or still are, people selling themselves there, people crippled by drug and drinking problems, are all dancing together, looking like they haven’t had this kind of fun in years. It’s an astonishing sight.
And just when it seems this can’t possibly be the actual service, it turns out that’s this is indeed how it goes at Peacemakers. Down here on Chene, going to Sunday service is almost like going to a party where, for a couple hours, the weight of everyone’s troubled past falls away.
“It’s just upbeat, you know?” Upshur says. “This isn’t a dead place where everybody’s sitting there. That ain’t the way a church is supposed to be.”
Chene Street is a disaster. The rows of burned-out storefronts between the empty blocks are reminders of how bustling it once was. But after the riot, after the freeway and an auto plant split the neighborhood in half, after everyone packed up and moved away, almost everything just died off.
Pouring into the void left behind were outcasts and cast-asides — junkies and drunks, hookers and drug dealers, the mentally ill and the physically disabled. Like a few other areas of the city, it became a refuge of the underclass, a home for everyone with nowhere else to go, where they can wander freely without being chased away by store owners, or told to move along by the cops.
“It’s like the devil’s playground,” says John Simon, a minister here. “I mean, you got sexual acts in the middle of the day, shooting dope, smoking dope. Everything you can imagine is going on down here.”
This is the world in which Peacemakers established itself in 1994. In many ways it’s a typical inner-city, grass-roots church. The services are nondenominational and loose. And like any Christian ministry, the place seeks to create believers and followers in Jesus, though they give food and clothing to anyone who comes here, whether they profess a belief in God or not.
But something’s happening here that draws the people who work or live on the streets outside. Just about every member swears that sometime after they came here, there was a moment when everything changed for them, when their addictions simply vanished. Whether what took place for them was spiritual or psychological, whether the catalyst was from inside or out, the simple program offered here, they say, helped alter their lives. It’s not a 12-step program, more a strict combination of work, prayer and study that uses religious belief to shield against the temptation for an addict to return to their old life.
Maybe Peacemakers gives a template to people who’ve never had a code of behavior to guide them. Maybe some people just need a strict system of rules to follow. Either way, its members insist that this place works.
A whole system has evolved to support them, a virtual safety net in a neighborhood that never really had one. The church operates halfway houses for ex-cons and ex-prostitutes, set up gardens for flowers and vegetables, and keeps a chicken coop for eggs. It all goes to the neighborhood. And every day they give out food and clothes.
This place is often the last resort for neighborhood people whose choices or circumstances left them living on the lowest rungs. The program offered here is powerful and appealing because it’s so simple.
“The main thing is a sincere desire to find God and get your life together, and a willingness to stick to the rules,” says Jeremiah Upshur, the pastor’s 32-year-old son.
Those rules require members to be sober, to pray together and to participate in helping the poor by feeding, clothing and working to get them off the streets. But a stated belief in Jesus is not enough to stay here. They have to demonstrate those convictions with the people of Chene Street.
“It’s a hard ministry. The hardest thing that I’ve ever done in my entire life is to be a Christian,” Simon says of the work involved. “But it’s the most fulfilling.”
After Peacemakers opened, the street people out front saw their old friends suddenly sober, talking about this crazy church that’s feeding and clothing them and helping them get clean, even if sometimes it doesn’t last, and they began showing up out of curiosity. Soon, its reputation took on a life of its own, and strange things started happening.
“We would have fires in this giant fire pit back there, and people would be coming in, throwing their syringes in, throwing their crack pipes in, just giving it all up,” Simon says. “It was mind-blowing.”
The pastor got here the long, hard way. He was a juvenile delinquent who became a teenage heroin addict. Petty crimes grew into bigger ones until he found himself nodding off at the wheel of a bank robbery getaway car one afternoon in the early ’70s in Detroit’s suburbs, just as the cops swarmed in. He barely escaped lengthy prison time for it.
He fled Detroit but kept his lifestyle. While in an Oklahoma jail in the early ’70s for some minor offense, an inmate told him these born-again Christians had a place nearby, and they could be easily suckered into giving you food and shelter. “So I’m thinking, ‘Well, go get me a sandwich; I’ll go hustle them for a sandwich,’” Upshur says.
But he was drawn in by their approach. “These people are talking to Jesus like he’s their buddy, and I grew up you’d have to probably be a priest or a nun to be talking firsthand to the main man,” says Upshur, who was raised Catholic. “I’m thinking this is deep. All of a sudden — boom! — this spiritual world opens up. I’m like, ‘You gotta be kidding me.’”
He was so inspired, he came back to Detroit at 25 years old, determined to stay clean, and started holding informal prayer meetings at a house next to his parents’ home to talk about spirituality or God or whatever anyone wanted.
At the first gathering, his audience was a bunch of teenagers who came less to hear another born-again and more to see the crazy bank robber. A week later, he had 35 kids there. Soon after, adults started showing up too.
The group kept growing and went from a house to an old, unused church in Detroit, and eventually to a church in St. Clair Shores with three pastors and a large middle-class congregation. Upshur preached out there for 16 years.
But he felt the pull of skid row. “That’s always where my heart was, ’cause I come out of that,” he says. “I grew up in the inner city, I’ve been homeless many of the years of my life, been in and out of jail all my life, a very rough life. Those were my main people that I grew up with. So when I got, quote, ‘saved,’ I knew I’d be back working with people that come out of my environment.”
A woman in the suburban church offered him a small old building on Chene that she owned, and he began his ministry in one of the city’s most miserable, drug-addled neighborhoods. “We take people who everybody else has given up on,” Bob Kaczmarek says. He’s a board member of the church, 64, a Catholic, a well-dressed attorney. He attends services elsewhere, but was so impressed by Peacemakers and its ragged flock he became involved.
“This is it,” he says. “For some of the people who are in the in-house programs, this is their last chance. And if they don’t make it here, then you find out they’re found dead somewhere.”
There have to be at least 100 stuffed animals inside the bedrooms at the Mercy House.
Several women stay here right now, at the Peacemakers’ halfway house for those trying to escape a life of prostitution and drugs, or battered women trying to escape a violent man. Blocks away, there’s a halfway house for men out of prison, off the streets, just off drugs.
What’s striking about the women’s house are the delicate, feminine, almost child-like touches. Though the women here have led hard lives, there’s pink and softness everywhere — on the stuffed animals, in the decorations on the walls, on the clothes inside the closets. It’s as if the women here are trying to reclaim an innocence they lost years ago. Denise Benn walks into her bedroom, bounces onto her bed and grabs a blue stuffed dog. “I got this puppy I took care of right before I came in here, and it made me feel young again, ’cause I could take care of something,” the 43-year-old says, hugging it.
Benn’s history is written on her face. Her story is like one many of the women here tell. Her life collapsed at 12, she says, when she was gang raped by six men on the way to school. Soon after, she started doing drugs to bury the trauma, hanging out with the dropouts and the druggies because they were nicer to her than anyone else.
“I liked getting high,” she says. “People accepted me. I wasn’t part of my family because I didn’t get along with my family. But now I was part of something.”
By 16, she was pole dancing in Detroit strip clubs, strung out on heroin, and within a couple years she went from turning tricks in VIP rooms to doing so in cars.
Her life as a street prostitute was one harrowing night after another.
“Every day something horrific was happening to me,” she says. “I was either getting thrown out of moving cars or waking up with people’s hands on my throat, and I had a heroin addiction and I couldn’t stop. I mean, you should see the scars on my body. I’m not lying to you. I’ve had some horrific stuff happen to me.”
The women here — five right now — watch out for each other, keep each other’s spirits up when things look bleak and the street outside begins appearing appealing again. They travel in twos when they walk the neighborhood, and eat group dinners, and help out at the church together.
“I got a new way of life,” Benn says. “I’m productive here and I’m of use here. I’ve got a place here.”
But there are relapses here too.
Last spring she violated the rules against dating someone at a nearby halfway house for men, and, forced to leave, wound up back on the streets, living in an abandoned building.
“The first night I went there, I just cried, because I knew what was going to happen,” Benn says. She fell right back into drugs and prostitution. “I didn’t have nowhere to go. I didn’t have no resources. I didn’t have a dime in my pocket.”
Jeremiah Upshur, the pastor’s son, came looking for her and asked her to come back. Now she works for the church and tries to figure out how to build a new life. She has no money, can’t even get past a minimum-wage job interview because of the long gap in her work history, and has few skills other than the ones she picked up on the streets. It makes it tough to stay hopeful, challenging to remain on the path she’s trying to follow.
“It’s hard,” Benn says, dragging on a cigarette. “It’s really hard.”
It all comes down to a single moment, they say. A line between their old life and their new one. And they all say it like they still half can’t believe it actually happened.
It happened to Simon too. He tells his story as he wanders the aisles at Joseph’s Storehouse, the church’s resale shop in Warren that he runs. This is where the church gets what little money it has — selling cheap things one or two at a time.
Simon, at left, is one of Peacemakers’ biggest proponents because he’s one of its biggest successes.
He’d already spent half a life on heroin, a habit he began at 15, when he first came here.
“I must’ve did $400, $500 worth of heroin every day, ’cause that was my daily do,” he says. “My lottery habit was a hundred and something a day, the cocaine I used to give out for free was hundreds a day. I literally had tons of weed. I was hooked up with these Cubans and Colombians in Florida. And I was the dope man, so I had some of the finest women God put breath in. I was out of my mind. It was just a big party continuously.”
He got conned into coming to Peacemakers by a concerned sister who’d heard this place seems to work when everything else fails.
Simon walked in, thinking he’d bail after a minute, but he found a remarkable scene that had him transfixed.
“First time I went down there, I just felt something,” he says. “Jeremiah, the pastor’s son, was standing in the middle of the kitchen with all these dope fiends and prostitutes just standing in a circle around him. And I knew these people ’cause I used to be down on Chene.”
Simon started attending services, but kept showing up wasted. He had to take $100 worth of heroin just to get into the door without being sick. He was listening to the spiritual messages but not the sobriety ones.
“I always heard you get saved and the ground’s gonna shake and lightning bolts, and I didn’t feel nothing. I shook his hand, went out in the car and got high,” he says, laughing.
One day, much to Simon’s discomfort, Upshur called him to the floor in the middle of the service. Simon had three bottles of methadone in his pocket. He was able to get them even while he was on heroin because the lady who ran the clinic would, for $5, give addicts a cup of her teenage daughter’s urine so they could pass the drug test and get their fix. That was her hustle on the side. She kept them addicted for $5 here and there.
The pastor asked Simon if he wanted to finally be free of drugs. Simon nervously said yes, pulled out the bottles and set them on the pulpit in an act of renouncement. The addicts in the audience started drooling over them.
“You know the crowd on Chene,” he says. “I heard, ‘Don’t do it, John! I’ll buy it!’ People were serious. These are drug addicts in the crowd. Each bottle could be $50 or more on the street. There’s people literally hollering like it’s an auction. They want my drugs.”
Like so many others here, from the pastor on down, he insists the spirit entered into him that day and his addiction vanished right then and there. No withdrawals, no cravings. That was 12 years ago.
“I went to meetings, NA, AA, methadone clinics, whatever they have. Nothing worked for me,” he says. Now he’s a minister here trying to do the same for others who come in. “God set me free that day. Everything stopped that day.”
Jada Fields sits alone in a pew on a Sunday morning, staring forward without an expression. And tears are streaming down her face.
She was a crack-smoking prostitute working Chene down the street from the church, waiting for johns to pick her up one day, and Upshur called her over. She told him flat-out what she was doing. He offered her money to instead come inside. “I’ve been here ever since,” Fields says. She has nine children, seven grandchildren. She’s 39.
That was eight years ago, eight years of relapses, of going back to the streets and then being welcomed back to Peacemakers. This time she’s lasted a year here.
Behind her, a man stands there alone, and he too is crying to himself. Across the room, moments later, a man has his face buried in his hands, in tears or in shame.
This happens early in their newfound sobriety, some here will say, when the remorse of a wasted life sinks in. There’s joy in starting over, but there’s deep sadness too over all the time that’s been lost forever. Sometimes the realization is overwhelming.
But now a song interrupts their sorrow as the service begins. Once again the song is gospel, so raw it has no music backing it at all, only a quick beat driven by foot stomps and a tambourine, and carried by the raspy voice of its impassioned singer.
Everyone rises and starts clapping along. Some dance or jump up and down in place. An elderly man shadowboxes the air for lack of another way to express his emotions. A few people come to the front and start dancing in tandem, like they’re doing the Hustle. The party’s on.
As each song fades away, Upshur says a few things into a microphone. They’re not so much religious exhortations, more like a pep talk. “Now we know we all come out of different backgrounds, all kinds of craziness, we all got a story to tell,” he tells them. They shout in agreement. His manner is gentle, his tone is soothing. No yelling, no fiery eyes. “But we’re gonna help one another cross that finish line, whatever it takes. We’re draggin’ one another through them pearly gates!”
Though the Gospels will be read aloud toward the end, though there’s no doubt this is a religious gathering, the services here are more like a celebration of everyone’s escape from their own hell, whether they’ve done it yet or are still trying. It’s a sing- and dance-along that, more than anything, is meant to cheer up people who’ve had little to smile about.
“Let’s have a knock-down, drag-out for Jesus!” Upshur shouts excitedly as everyone starts dancing to another song. “Let it all hang out!”
Every week, the service stops midway through for a hug break, of all things. But it’s actually more striking than corny. Few who come here have families, most have few real friends. So prostitutes turn to hug alcoholics with tremors, and the mentally ill embrace the homeless. Five minutes of everyone melting into each other’s arms.
Kaczmarek thinks back to something he saw recently at one of the services. “One fellow got up and said he was thankful because, for the first time in his memory, he feels that he has a family, that he is loved, that he is able to love others who will receive it. From my perspective, that was the best moment of the evening to hear something like that.”
These troubled people, holding onto each other in this little room in the ghetto, have created their own, safe protected world here, where they can have friends who won’t pull drugs out of their pocket or have liquor on their breath. They’re convinced something miraculous can happen to them here, even if it takes a bank-robbing preacher and a flock of addicts and hookers to help them do it.
“It all works somehow,” Kaczmarek says, smiling. “Isn’t that amazing?”
Tuesday, March 29th, 2011
[ I'm extremely delighted to be able to begin sharing today a series of posts that previously appeared in the Where blog. This blog, which ran from 2007 to 2010, was one of the single most inspiring urbanist sites on the web. Originally a project of Brendan Crain, it grew into a very popular group site before going the way of all blogs. I've previously shared some material from Where contributor Drew Austin, and I'm stoked that Brendan himself has allowed me to re-post some of his pieces as well. They certainly deserve to be read far and wide. Brendan himself is not blogging at the moment that I'm aware of, but some of his old Where contributors are still going over at Polis, which is definitely worth checking out for an international take on cities. Thanks so much to Brendan and I hope you all enjoy these posts that will appear in the coming weeks and months. - Aaron ]
As the city that has fallen on the hardest times (in America, at least), Detroit has the most potential as a proving ground for new solutions. The city is a massive laboratory for urban theorists, developers, and boosters alike. How, many wonder, can Detroit be saved? Or can it be saved at all? Certainly one of the more interesting answers to these questions has come from Tyree Guyton, the man behind the Heidelberg Project, which has appropriated several blocks of the city’s near east side into a spectacularly off-the-wall community art project/revitalization effort.
It’s certainly not what you’d traditionally refer to as “revitalization,” but that’s kind of the point. On its website, the Heidelberg Project explains its vision thusly: “The Heidelberg Project envisions neighborhood residents using art to come together to rebuild the structure and fabric of under-resourced communities and to create a way of living that is economically viable, enriches lives, and welcomes all people.” What this translates to in the physical environment of Heidelberg Street is a collection of abandoned houses — and their surroundings — covered in murals, knick-knacks, mannequins, coins, pie tins, pieces of repurposed trash, stuffed animals, and (literally) just about anything else you could think up. It’s like the Watts Towers, but even more organic.
The Heidelberg Project teaches people who live and have grown up in desolate surroundings how they can change the public spaces that make up their neighborhood and how this change can affect them. It serves as an inspiration and a source of hope. So, of course, the city government has tried to kill the project several times. It has demolished a number of homes that were a part of the project on several different occasions, even though Heidelberg Street is an internationally-recognized project that attracts 275,000 visitors each year. As the project’s Executive Director, Jenenne Whitman, observes, the fact that the city tried so hard to “squash the project … shows how powerful art can be.” Indeed.
In contemporary society, public places themselves are not often thought of as art; actually, they are more often viewed as containers for art. The design of high-end contemporary places is sometimes considered artistically merited, it’s true. But the more interesting and subtle artistic expression in the public realm is community usage. The creation of great places, after all, absolutely requires heavy human interaction. This is usually considered a confirmation of the artistic integrity of the place’s design, but is it not an art form in and of itself? After all, don’t communities transform unplanned spaces into vibrant public places as frequently if not moreso than they do planned places?
The bustle of urban streets and other public spaces in the city is sometimes refered to, quite poetically, as a great pedestrian ballet. And if this is true, it can be logically assumed that, while policy and planning choreograph parts of this ballet, each individual person moving through the city takes part in its choreography by making their own independent choices. People go to parks and plazas and promenades for so many reasons: to eat, to play, to run, to chat, to meet, to dance, to stroll. And by doing so, each person becomes an artist, taking part in the endless urban ballet. Simply to use the city, to exist within it, is a work of art. It’s a lovely idea, no?
The Heidelberg Project is a very concrete visual manifestation of this ballet. It teaches the disenfranchised and the isolated how to shape the world around them into something beautiful. In a way, it is the most public kind of public place: the kind where the planned social infrastructure failed, and the people moved in, did what they do, and created something really useful.
This post originally appeared in The Where Blog on August 27, 2007.
Tuesday, February 15th, 2011
But there’s a lot to dislike here: the fact that a major bailout recipient is dishing beaucoup bucks for a one-off ad to boost its image; the cynical racism (or at least colonialism) of positioning Chrysler as a tough, gritty, 8 Mile-style brand that’s perfect for what marketers call the “urban core” demographic; and using Detroit poverty porn to hawk your product while simultaneously trying to deride the media’s recent Detroit poverty porn.
The charge of exploiting “poverty porn” is reminiscent of the scathing rebuke of the Levi’s campaign that sells jeans using Braddock’s ruin porn. That’s an important connection to make. The Associated Press offers a watered-down version of the concern:
“Detroit’s ascendancy mirrors Eminem’s own struggles and accomplishments,” Chrysler brand CEO and President Olivier Francois said in an e-mail to the AP. “This is not simply yet another celebrity in a TV spot. It has meaning. Like his music and story, the new Chrysler is ‘Imported from Detroit’ with pride.”
Of course, the tagline is not without some irony: Italian automaker Fiat Group SpA now owns 25 percent of Chrysler, and the ad was produced by Wieden + Kennedy, a Portland, Ore.-based agency known for its work with Nike. Chrysler switched after its previous advertising agency, a famous firm called BBDO, closed its Detroit office.
Does Wieden + Kennedy ring a bell? Mother Jones went after the Nike connection. I immediately thought of the “Ready to Work” campaign that featured Braddock. In fact, the Chrysler ad seems similar in its use of Rust Belt Chic. The agency is located in Portland, OR and has its finger on the pulse of the urban frontier. The swipe at the emerald cities in the definition of Detroit cool is ironic.
The other thread running through the negative reaction to the Chrysler ad is Fiat’s ownership stake and the US government bailout of the American auto company. Why are taxpayers propping up a foreign company?
The [Nike] shoe waiting to drop is Chrysler abandoning Detroit for Turin, Italy. We bail you out and then you spit in our face, raking in corporate profits. Detroit is left with only a sleek ad, 15-minutes of fame.
Sergio Marchionne, chief executive of Fiat and Chrysler, has been forced on the defensive after causing a political firestorm in Italy by suggesting he could move the Italian company’s headquarters from Turin to the US and saying Chrysler’s bail-out loans from the US government carried “shyster rates”.
His comments come just a month after he won tough labour concessions at Fiat’s flagship Turin plant on a pledge that he would not move production to cheaper sites in North America or eastern Europe.
Fiat is a symbol of Italy’s industrial might, and business leaders say any decision by Mr Marchionne to reduce its presence there would have a disastrous effect on the country’s already weak image as a place for foreign investment. Pierluigi Bersani, leader of the opposition Democratic party, demanding an explanation from Mr Marchionne said it was unacceptable for “Turin and the country to become a suburb of Detroit”.
The above is from yesterday’s news cycle. After all is said and done, Turin might be the city left high-and-dry. Detroit will be the one stealing jobs from abroad. Of all the pontificating (good and bad) about the Super Bowl spot, not a single blog post or article mentions the shitstorm rising from Marchionne’s comments. There is no consideration of the bigger picture.
“When I was elected, I thought I knew what was going on, but I got here and found out [that] in the short term, things were way worse than I ever imagined,” Bing said. “Financially. Ethically. From a policy standpoint. We were on the brink of a financial calamity.”
Twenty-one months into the job, that’s where the city remains. With no salvation in sight, Bing, 67, has embarked on a mission few in his position have ever had to take on: dramatically shrinking a major American metropolis. To do so, Bing has issued an open invitation: anyone with a proposal, plan, theory – a notion, even – is welcome to try to save his crumbling city.
The people trying to save the city tended to respond positively to the Chrysler ad. Maybe poverty porn sells a few cars. But it can also rally many to the cause. The Mother Jones invective is what is postcolonial, exploitative. I’m from the Rust Belt. Don’t tell me what the score is. I’m not being seduced by ruin porn and I’m not buying your lefty propaganda.
A crumbling Detroit is supposed to teach us how capitalism is evil. Those wielding Marxist theory want Detroit to fail. It is supposed to fail. The idea that nothing good can come from the promotion of consumerism is oppressive ideological thinking. I’m not interested in Mother Jones telling me what the ad means. I can decide for myself. I can be inspired and still point a damning finger at Chrysler. Doing so doesn’t make me a hypocrite. It means I’m an active consumer of media. That cuts both ways as far as Mother Jones is concerned.
This post originally appeared in Burgh Diaspora.
Thursday, February 10th, 2011
Unless you are one of my overseas readers, you’ve doubtless seen the $9 million “Imported from Detroit” Chrysler ad featuring Detroit grit and Eminem that ran during the Superbowl. It was a huge crowd favorite and I really thought it was done well. I’ve never had anything that generated as many “did you see this?” type emails as this one did. Here’s the ad (if the video doesn’t display, click here).
I suppose it was inevitable that this would generate blowback, but even I was surprised to see such strange bedfellows as Mother Jones and Mark Steyn united in their distaste of the commercial. It’s notable that most of the criticism seems not to be from Detroit or the Rust Belt itself, which liked the ad and doesn’t feel patronized by it. The critics seem to be mostly those who are incensed that the auto industry and Detroit have the temerity to dare to fight back rather than meekly accepting due recompense for their unholy bailout-Democrat-autodependent-consumerist-capitalist sins.
But to me that’s not the interesting part. What this really shows once again is the power of brand Detroit. Is there another city in America an ad like that could have been created about? Even in a radically different style, it’s hard to imagine someone using the power of a city’s brand to sell a product in that way other than perhaps a tourist town or in a totally facile way (“We brew our beer in Milwaukee”). If someone tried, it certainly wouldn’t be nearly as effective. There are lots of cities that have “been to hell and back,” but I can only think of two where you could pull off something like this: Detroit and New Orleans. Not even Chicago has the brand power to resonate like this, showing at least one way in which Detroit actually exceeds the Windy City.
Detroit may be facing a very tough road ahead, but if nothing else, it remains a place that has the power to command the world’s attention in a manner few other American cities could ever aspire to achieve.