Archive for the ‘Detroit’ Category


This essay will appear in Grace Lee Boggs’ Living For Change column of the Michigan Citizen.

Manufacturing can save our cities.  We should not view it only as dying.   Instead, we must rethink it within a “community-scaled” framework that produces products, jobs, skills, relationships, and stronger neighborhoods.

The familiar narrative about manufacturing in the U.S. begins at the turn of the 20th century.  Manufacturing gave us prosperity.It gave us global economic power. It created a robust middle class.  It ramped up at unprecedented scales to meet the demands of mass consumption, particularly in the automobile industry.  Cities like Detroit (“Arsenal of Democracy”) and Philadelphia (“Workshop of the World”) were hailed as success stories of the Industrial Revolution.

This revolution did not last forever.  Deindustrialization began in the post World War II years.  With automation the number of workers required on the line declined significantly.  As the labor movement grew in strength, companies left for the suburbs. Today corporate urban flight extends overseas, and the bastions of American industry struggle with the devastating effects of disinvestment and rising unemployment rates.

Economic development solutions for de-industrialized cities often fall into two categories.  The first looks at the physical conditions of thousands of derelict buildings sitting idly across the landscape and devises programs that rehabilitate neglected industrial buildings for commercial or residential uses.  E.g.  former factories are converted into luxury condos. The second approach focuses on job creation by building a “knowledge-based” economy. Advances in digital technologies have sped up globalization, placing a premium on jobs in this sector. To become a “knowledge city”, cities invest in research institutions that develop technological innovations in science and engineering. Advocates believe that cities with a strong knowledge economy will increase their global competitive edge.

These prevailing approaches do not leave much room for viewing  manufacturing as part of the equation for urban revitalization .  Should every abandoned factory become high-end residential lofts? Is the knowledge economy the panacea for all de-industrialized cities?  Instead,  manufacturing is caricatured as an industry encumbered with union lobbyists or associated with a dying era, one that should step aside for the Information Age.

A Brooklyn-based non-profit is demonstrating the viability of community-scaled manufacturing.  Through the acquisition, rehabilitation, and management of neglected industrial spaces, Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center has transformed six properties into top-rate facilities.  These buildings mainly house custom-made artisanal operations, like woodworkers, upholsterers, and fabricators.  Over 100 businesses reside in GMDC’s buildings, supporting over 500 workers. The majority of employees are residents from the surrounding neighborhood, showing that community-scaled manufacturing can deter fears of gentrification and displacement.

Economist E.F. Schumacher said, “If you get too many useful machines , you will get too many useless people”. By encouraging  the reuse of supposedly obsolete industrial infrastructure, community-scaled manufacturing is a place-based strategy that  roots manufacturers in their local areas. It addresses workforce development concerns about the lack of skilled workers. The apprentice-style education provides a way for people to discover and develop their own abilities.

Thus manufacturing becomes a step towards broadening  hands-on opportunities for many people. Jobs in trade and craft are good skills;  community-scaled manufacturing recovers the societal value of jobs in which people make things.  Its inherent small-scale demands a localized economy and has the capacity to advance craftsmanship, promote education, and build stronger communities.

Manufacturing can, should, and is taking place in our cities.  More communities are recognizing the need to localize  goods and services.  The local food security movement reflects this understanding.  Community-scaled manufacturing can realize similar outcomes. It has the ability to bring the consumer closer to the producer, decrease the ecological footprint of manufacturing, improve local economies, and encourage self-sufficiency. We can let go of the old way of manufacturing – its polluting factories and menial labor — and embrace the future of community-scaled manufacturing.

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Detroit’s abandoned Chin Tiki restaurant has been razed.  This New York Times article alludes to rumors about a new hockey arena planned by the Ilitches. Yikes. The last thing that area needs is another big development. The Cass Corridor, once home to Detroit Chinatown, is a portal to downtown Detroit and imposing a large sports stadium will further hurt the already-damage the urban fabric of the neighborhood.  There’s no doubt that Chin Tiki participated in the exoticism of Asian cultures yet there seems to be a loss of historical significance  and cultural memory resulting from its absence.

…the loss of Chin Tiki is an example of bad city planning…with the right people behind it, Chin Tiki could have been a downtown success story, like the once-mothballed Cliff Bell’s, the deco-style jazz club nearby that reopened recently.

More urgently, Detroit should steer away from relying on big box entertainment venues placed in the heart of the city, where a tangle of freeways already intersect once-intact neighborhoods. What Detroit needs is to find a new direction for the economy, one that could foster small local businesses, less auto-dependent infrastructure, and even promote urban agriculture/community gardens.

The Philly Chinatown community is once again fighting to maintain their survival.  Threats to Chinatown’s future began as early as the projects that brought the Vine St. Expressway (I-676), Market East and the convention center  during the urban renewal period.  Because of the fast-track nature of the casino proposal, the community and its allies are put in a tough position to respond quickly, and the op-ed sums up the questionable package put forth by the mayor. Perhaps Philly activists can take a cue from Detroit’s anti-casinos struggle. Detroit former mayor Coleman A. Young challenged the anti-gambling activists to go beyond merely protesting the construction of casinos and to answer the question: if not casinos, what kind of development could save our city?

Thanks to Joanie for sharing this op-ed with me.

IT’S HARD TO imagine how answering a call to revitalize American cities could go wrong for Philadelphia, but somehow it happened.Last month, the Nutter administration submitted a $2.6 billion wish list for President-elect Obama’s economic stimulus package. Out of 400 cities, Philadelphia ranked No. 2 in the amount of money requested. And second on the city’s list (in dollars) was $125 million for the redevelopment of Market East in anticipation of a proposed casino.

Never mind that city officials rushed through a rezoning process saying the casino itself would be the catalyst for development in the area. Never mind that four months later, there isn’t even a plan in place. Continue Reading »

It’s been a long time since I’ve read something that’s motivated me enough to start a new blog post.  Attending design school has been one of the most consuming and exhausting endeavors I’ve undertaken. But today I read an explosive speech by Jeff Chang, and it has helped me re-orient myself back to the first reason I decided to become a landscape architect/urban planner.

I’m starting to piece together and articulate how the policies that the past 40 years, which Jeff summarizes in his speech, also encompass the physical and spatial disenfranchisement of communities of color. When Jeff describes hip-hop as a response to the “story of the rise of the politics of abandonment and the politics of containment”, it is not just that these policies have socially disenfranchised communities, but that there is a a physical displacement and exclusion of communities that has resulted.  The urban renewal policies of the 1950s, combined with the drug economy, destroyed our Paradise Valleys and Hill Districts around the country, p

In school, this sense of urgency is mostly absent among students.  Too bad most of us are caught up perfecting our renderings and drawings, clicking away in front of computer screens (and here I sit blogging).  We need more conscious, justice-oriented designers to join the fight to restore our communities and take up the questions that Jeff posed at the end of his speech.

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Reflections from recent trips across Southeastern Pennsylvania:

Communities are increasingly forced to deal with the long-term impacts of industrialization, where the veneer of economic prosperity ultimately gives away to reveal damaged communities and impaired ecological processes. We visited two sites that are deploying strategies to deal with such post-industrial conditions. One location was Palmerton, Pennsylvania; a Superfund town nestled in the bucolic backdrop of the Kitatinny Mountains. The other was Philadelphia’s Mill Creek, which is currently encapsulated within enormous sewer pipes underneath the city. The sustainable practices at Palmerton and Mill Creek provide some insight on how to design strategies that restore the ecological functions of highly impaired environments.

Palmerton Superfund Site

In 1898, Palmerton was founded as a factory town, nestled between two ridgelines, to conduct zinc smeltering during the height of industrialization in the United States. After decades of constant smeltering, the forest ecosystem collapsed, affecting an expanse of nearly 2,000 acres. Due to deposition of zinc, lead and cadmium from the furnaces, microorganisms in the soil substrate were killed off, and an integral component of the forest lifecycle ended. Without decomposers, nutrients in the soil were eliminated, leading a domino effect that decimated the forest. To date, it is the largest Superfund site east of the Mississippi River.

On site, I was struck by the eerie landscape of windswept, bleached trees amongst barren grounds of dry dirt. Abandoned, rusted factory facitilies stood like sentinels to remind residents and visitors of a foregone era. Amazingly, some plant and wildlife species are returning to the environment; numerous sprouts of sassafras and sourgum were seen emerging from gnarled trunks.

Due to the immensity of the contaminated area, removing the toxic substrate was out of the question. We learned about two strategies to rebuild the soil nutrients, with the goal of creating a capping layer of substrate above the contaminated soils. The first attempt to “green” the decimated slopes entailed terracing the mountain to establish over 60 miles of roadways. These costly roads provided access for trucks to spray “ecoloam” along the slopes. Ecoloam was an engineered growing medium composed of sludge and schlag material from city waste. From afar, this method successfully “greened” the mountainside. However, some critics of this method blame the pervasive amount of invasive species on the applied slopes, due to the unpredictability of the seed composition of the ecoloam mixture. Additionally, trees could not establish beyond the depth of the ecoloam because the roots would hit the contaminated substrate beneath.

The land now belongs to telecommunications monolith known as Viacom, as a side acquisition through various transactions. To its credit, Viacom is funding the implementation of the second strategy, which relies on the hardiness of warm season native grass species to restore and stabilize the mountain slopes. Based on a serpentine barren-type ecology, this strategy aims to mimic the type of succession that had occurred in the site’s geological glaciation context. To establish the grasses, a growing medium composed of limestone, commercial fertilizer, grass seeds and compost was sprayed from the air, or hand-dropped along the slopes. This method appears to be less disruptive of the mountain slope because roads are not necessary, and the warm season grasses seem to be growing quite successfully.

In addition to the warm-season grasses, the predominant plant species we observed included the gray birch, sassafras, poplar, aspen and chestnut oak trees. Furthermore, some rare plant species were thriving quite well in these extreme conditions, such as wild bleeding heart and sandwort. Despite the calculated efforts to establish native plants, invasive species continue to pose a threat to the restoration efforts. As such, the staff work hard to eradicate the butterfly bush and ailanthus tree that they find along the slopes.

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Last December, Michigan took a step towards justice when Governor Granholm finally signed an executive directive calling for the recognition and incorporation of environmental justice in state policy.  This victory came after launching a three-year long campaign involving a coalition of community groups, businesses, public health organizations and environmental non-profits in Detroit.  Other states, like California, New York and New Mexico have already established such policy precedents.

As the former coordinator of this campaign, I had left Michigan to attend graduate school, but I’m thrilled that the coalition’s hard work has finally paid off.  Significantly, the campaign has brought a wider coalition of environmental justice advocates around the state, highlighting major groundwork in Saginaw, Michigan, particularly Saginaw’s urban neighborhoods that have been poisoned by dioxin and other contaminants from Dow Chemical.

Perhaps Michigan is coming back on track on the environmental justice front.  Having been a major player in the beginnings of the EJ movement, this executive directive could signify the opportunity for a new wave of energy to create more livable, sustainable and just communities.

Another significant victory in the environmental justice movement took place today at the announcement of WR Grace’s announcement to pay $250 million to clean up their asbestos scandal in Libby, Montana.

I was disappointed to hear that Detroit’s Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick announced the sale of 92 city parks last month. Many of these parks are probably small, abandoned and surrounded by other empty lots. Reportedly, the city wants to generate some revenue and spark development by selling these pocket parks.

There are enough vacant properties to stimulate development in Detroit, and I don’t see why the city can’t examine other approaches to revitalizing areas that are not designated parkland. Turning to parkland reveals a sense of desperation. It’s probably true that many of these parks are eye-sores and hardly ever used (what child would want to play on rusted, broken swings?), but selling off a city’s parks, no matter how small, is a short-sighted approach to city planning.

Whether it’s due to poor leadership, too much bureaucracy, or lack of resources, it’s unfortunate that the city is unable to improve these neighborhood parks. With the elimination of these neighborhood parks, the city cannot bank on the larger city parks (Belle Isle, Palmer Park, Rouge Park) to attract more residents, especially without an adequate public transportation system. During my experience working with youth who lived in northeast Detroit, few, if any, had even been to Belle Isle, which is considered one of the most well-known parks of Detroit.

Coincidentally, I’ve been researching the history of Detroit parks and greenspaces for my landscape theory class. As cities grew with Industrialization in the late 19th century, pioneering planners, such as Frederick L. Olmsted, advocated for the integration of public park space, in order to promote the public and environmental health of urban centers. In 1921, Detroit had become a national leader in park and recreational activities and hosted the annual convention for the National Association of Park Administrators. Hundeds of park administrators from around the country flocked to Detroit to learn how its park system accommodated a growing populace, and to view Belle Isle’s spectacular architecture and park design. (Though Belle Isle has been stripped to its bare essentials, with the closing of the zoo, aquarium and other attractions within the last 10 years).

I’m not necessarily arguing for the city to seek a return to the early 1900s because we clearly live in a different social and urban context today. But I do support innovative and visionary leadership to city planning and repairing the fabric of our urban communities. What would it look like if the city partnered with the local community to identify the needs of their neighborhoods? How can communities self-strategize to bring and maintain resources in the city? What does the city value, and how do those values manifest the kind of development we are encouraging in the city? Can we invite city designers and planners to rethink Detroit?

Click below for the list of neighborhood parks for sale: Continue Reading »

Earlier this week, an article in the Detroit News broke a story about Ilitch Holdings purchasing the Detroit Masonic Temple in the Cass Corridor neighborhood. For those unfamiliar with Detroit power names, the Ilitches own pretty much all the major entertainment and sports real estate in the city, as well as the Little Caeser’s pizza business. It’s no doubt that when the Ilitches put in money in an area, the neighborhood will transform.

The Cass Corridor (not to be mistaken, or replaced by, “Midtown”) definitely needs some major uplift.  Perhaps the Ilitches will bring enough resources to bring the beautiful Masonic Temple to its fullest grandeur. Question for me is, how is the neighborhood going to change with the Ilitches as its newest resident?  I used to live in the Cass Corridor, and the news gives me mixed feelings. I don’t mind big developers who want to put resources in a cash poor area, but this kind of transformation usually comes with the heavy, unrelentless hand of gentrification. Since leaving Detroit, I have been given the opportunity to observe how various paces of gentrification is playing out in urban communities like Brooklyn, DC and Philadelphia. At times it is very quiet, taking its time over a span of 15 years, like the neighborhood I stayed in Brooklyn. Or, it takes place in the jolting changes  in areas of northeast DC, where people (non-residents) wouldn’t even give it a second’s thought to go to those neighborhoods three years ago.

The Cass Corridor can’t remain what it is currently, where vacant lots and abandoned buildings remain and where the police dump homeless folks, drug addicts and other people falling through the system’s cracks. Nor do I advocate for the presence of the Ilitches, whose impact may repeat the kind of gentrification that occurred under the shadows of Detroit Tiger’s Comerica Park stadium, erasing historic Brush Park, a once-predominately black neighborhood now largely replaced with cookie cutter new urbanism architecture.

It would be shameful if we can’t recognize the neighborhood in five years. The kind of “gentrification” the Cass Corridor needs is the kind that we have few models of, and the closest thing I can point to is the type of development that Avalon Bakery has brought into the Cass Corridor.  The owners set up shop on a blighted city block, fostering five more local businesses to open their doors on the same street. Today, there are people walking, bustling, biking, taking care of each other on the block.

The Cass Corridor is also hotbed of amazing community initiatives that are doing more than just transforming the way the neigborhood looks. The Cass Corridor is home to Detroit Summer, Back Alley Bikes, the Cass Corridor Neighborhood Development Corporation, a slew of community gardens, and the historic Detroit Chinatown. I hope that these community entities will get together to put some stakes in the ground, and secure a strong community structure.

More for full text of article: Continue Reading »

This weekend, my spirit goes out to those who have been busting their asses to make the Allied Media Conference happen and all who are attending this weekend. This former Detroiter didn’t make it back to see our city shine its brightest, but I’m thrilled to see the live coverage that’s already taking place over the web. Gotta love the blogging community and a big shout out to the WoC blogging caucus! I’ve really been enjoying My Ecdysis’s coverage of it. I’m excited to see how the conference will impact the way we organize in our various communities over the next year.

A moment of silence to reflect on the legacy of Vincent Chin (6.19.82).