Friday, November 30, 2012

Note on Hantz

The City of Detroit is considering a very poor proposal for public land disposition. I wrote about it on the Huffington Post website.


Friday, November 16, 2012

The Beginning: Friends of Spaulding Court

In mid-2009, the community development capacity in Corktown was in shambles. GCDC, the local community development organization, was just months shy of bankruptcy and its democratic spin off, the Corktown Residents Council, was unable to find solid legal footing. A simmering tension between the two made institutional progress in the neighborhood excruciatingly difficult.

Meanwhile, the Wayne County Nuisance Abatement Program was in the process of seizing Spaulding Court from its absentee landlord. By December, with the property seizure nearly finalized and both the Residents Council and the Development Corporation foundering, a fresh organization was proposed that could steward Spaulding Court through a redevelopment effort. The entity was envisioned as a vehicle for local control. Its founding board had ten members; two from GCDC (Tim McKay and Matt Bode), two from Residents Council (Jon Koller and Emily Doerr) and six established residents who lived around Spaulding Court (Jim Brunell, Doug Bennett, George Alexander, Angie Johnson, Greg Willerer and Kristyn Koth). More on the founding board coming in later posts. The mission set upon by those 10 members was “to redevelop Spaulding Court in a way that promotes the strength and diversity of the Corktown community”. Within a week of incorporation, Friends of Spaulding Court had purchased the 20 unit complex from Wayne County for $1000 and assumed roughly $15,000 in cash liabilities. At Spaulding, two existing tenants—strong community members to this day—were facing leaking roofs, exploding water pipes and red hot electrical hookups in addition to the general atmosphere of danger created by years of high traffic dealing. The president of the nascent organization—that's me—proposed that the group follow a model he had recently observed at the nascent Green Garage that called first for stabilization to be followed by planning and then finally construction. The board agreed and set out a three prong approach to stabilization—physical, social and financial—that has taken nearly three years to actualize.

This coming January, for the first time, the rent coming from tenants will exceed bare bones operating costs (taxes, insurance and debt payments). Power and water now flow smoothly. A new roof keeps the south building dry and the remaining vacant units are all closed up. Meanwhile, the Soup at Spaulding program has helped fund over 30 small projects around the city. The wider community comes together at Spaulding Court for potlucks, parties, workshops and concerts.

Through all this stabilization work, Friends of Spaulding Court has not bound itself to a single grant agreement, federal contract or mortgage. Instead, the effort delved into fascinating territory with slow money, efficient quality of life, carfree discounts and reverse sweat equity.

These stabilization practices may be helpful models going forward at Spaulding Court and perhaps around Detroit—though it’s important to note that each was borne out of a specific situation, formed with limited experience, and encouraged by dire necessity. In short, they should be seen as valuable reflections of the stabilization phase but not binding commitments to the future. The process of collective visioning, strategic planning and detailing has yet to begin.

Posts about the founding board, carfree discounts, reverse sweat equity, efficient quality of life and slow money are coming up.


Sunday, November 11, 2012

Fall, 2017

**This is a forward looking entry, a 5 year vision of sorts. Entries looking back, delving into specific issues and recalling challenges faced will be rolling out over the next month or so.**

The air is crisp with anticipation.

In the court, tables and benches are crowded with neighbors and allies. They have come together at Spaulding Court from across Detroit and North Corktown to chart a collective course, to ratify or reject the planning that consumed the summer.

First up is a proposal to link several household greywater systems to a small water tower with a solar powered pump. After a brief presentation, it is overwhelmingly approved. Also approved are upgrades to a mulched path that leads from a cluster of homes to the main hub of the North Corktown Carshare. It will be paved with recycled highway concrete and lit with solar lights.

In all, eight proposals are approved and two are sent back to the drawing board. Work on some will begin Monday morning, others will wait on the shelf until funding can be arranged.

Next up is contract ratification. Approved are a number of multi-generational land leases, a land grant to an educational institution, the spinning-off of the North Corktown Carshare, and the transfer of the North building of Spaulding Court to the North Side Cooperative.

With the sun setting, the meeting finally breaks up and neighbors filter back to their homes. All around them, the inner harmony of the world is bursting forth; a sliver of a city where it's easy to be good to one another is growing.

By any measure, Detroit has had an astonishing five years. The local press gushes about new developments downtown, the "hotbed of young talent" and the booming auto industry. But travelers flock to Detroit to see Detroit's other success story.

The longtime community members, the radicals, the unionists and all the other malcontents haven't just watched from the sidelines. Through collaboration, careful stewardship and effective political mobilization, communities across Detroit--even the most marginalized--have seized control of their destinies.

The combination of new-found local control and long standing relationships has unleashed an explosion of positive creativity across the city. Small organizations have spread their knowledge and resources far from their incubating neighborhoods. The innovations built up in insulated bubbles through decades of isolation from the dominant economic system--in work, education, financing, collective decision making--have finally broken out into the greater community.

Together, these small groups have successfully resisted the forces of displacement and value extraction. They have directed infrastructure investments that have slashed the city's ecological footprint and set the stage for sustainable growth.


Friday, November 2, 2012

Introducing Spaulding Court

Around the time I stopped keeping this blog, I had begun to organize a grassroots organization called Friends of Spaulding Court. Its mission was to redevelop Spaulding Court in a way that promotes the strength and diversity of the Corktown community. Its lever was Spaulding Court itself, a 100 year old, stone faced, 20 unit townhouse complex bought off the county for $1,000.

In the coming days and weeks, I'll be posting about Spaulding Court, a brief history of the organization, challenges we face, fond memories and visions of the future. Please feel free to comment on this or any posts or write me at


Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Back to blogging

I'm going to start writing again. I've been doing city work in Detroit since the last time I wrote here and I'm looking forward to decompressing a bit. I also realized today that Pretty Good City has been putting up some solid numbers over the years. I hope that the past posts did some good.


Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Space Shift: The Basis of Good Space

-Part III of a series-
Click here for Part I: A Historical Perspective
Click here for Part II: Technology and Social Change

We've gone through some history of our built space--the how we got to where we are--and the technological drivers that are pushing our society. The question becomes, where are we headed? I would like to start by laying out a series of six benchmarks that any good city should aspire to.

A city should not infringe on the potential for future generations to exist. As a species of individuals that greatly value opportunity for their offspring, it seems obvious that we try to avoid conflicts of interest between opportunity for present individuals future ones. If a child wishes to attend a university several thousand miles away, or if a promotion is offered on the other side of town, the transportation costs to the present individuals are substantial, but they are nothing compared to the costs imposed on future generations through climate change and resource depletion. Our built space should encourage sustainable behavior.

Good built space promotes equality. What can I say about this? We live in America, the country that (claims to have) invented the idea of equality. While I think the rationale for this point is self-evident, any objectors to equality should consider the animosity and conflict that inequality breeds.

Cities are always places of opportunity. Good built space must maintain that opportunity and provide it especially for those working towards the common good. Those looking to take and not give (economically, culturally...etc) should be discouraged by the very built space of a city.

Good built space is pleasant. It looks nice, it smells nice, it sounds nice and it feels nice. How many of the paintings hanging on your walls do you consider ugly? How often do you linger by the tailpipe of an old school bus? Do you consider it a treat to be waken by the banging of pots and pans? Does anyone in downtown Chicago actually appreciate the 50 mph winds that throw grit and garbage into their faces? If unpleasantries can be avoided, they should.

Good built space takes investment, but money is only part of the puzzle. A good city encourages it's citizens to be personally invested in their built space. Money and the people that move it around are a distortion in the system. They have no interest other than an increase in the number of dollars at their disposal. Only the involvement of people just as--or more--interested in the quality of the space than the financial bottom line will result in good built space and the continual improving of it.

Lastly, good built space should encourage individual health, both physical and mental. Our interactions with our build space have an enormous and well documented effect on our physical health. As the last couple generations of social commentators can tell you, our mental health is not immune to the the dehabilitating effects of poor built space. There's no reason that our built space should hurt us.

I highly doubt if any built space has fully attained all of these characteristics, and I doubt if any space ever will. In the next installment, I'll discuss some of the implications that these six targets have for cities.

Update[7/22/09]: I should add that if you take issue with any of these, or feel some additions are required, the comments are wide open.


Thursday, July 9, 2009

Space Shift: Technology and Social Change

-Part II of a series-
Click here for Part I: A Historical Perspective
Click here for Part III: The Basis of Good Space

I'd love to be writing about a new generation of Americans that are shrugging off the allure of material goods and making communal decisions that promote the common good--but I'm not that delusional. I tend to believe that while people's mental tendencies change very slowly (generations), the expression of those tendencies can be altered quite rapidly by new technology.

Americans aren't lining up for the Model T or the new washing machine or the house in the suburbs with the white picket fence--they're lining up for the iPhone. They spend their time following each others social interactions on facebook and Myspace and interact in an increasingly cluttered world through tiny snippets on Twitter. The internet has brought the world to our fingertips and we've realized that it (the world) is larger than we could have possibly realized.

The internet is incredibly important to understand in the context of the problem it solves and the other solutions that it will displace.

As transportation capacity increased and societies became more mobile around 150 years ago, it became apparent that world was far too complicated for people to be able to make fully informed decisions. Simplifications were seen as increasingly desirable.

Where as before, a single butcher may have served a neighborhood on the basis of personal contact and trust, now, that population had access to a dozen different butchers and judging their relative merit was no easy task. The butchers that advertised the merits of their brand (reality notwithstanding) grew their client base and eventually drove others out of business.

Customers became consumers and personalities became demographics. Instead of a dozen small butcher shops catering to their customers needs, a handful of conglomerates extracted the maximum economic value out of each consumer. Though these conglomerates became increasingly complex to operate, to the consumer, they were a godsend. No more asking neighbors for advise, or buying dubious guides. Instead, wherever you go, that comfortable brand is waiting for you.

Though it's certainly not the only way (see Zagat), the internet casts away the need for extensive sleuthing when it comes to making consumptive decisions. Sites like Yelp cover the entire country with reviews and online product guides like Good Guide will soon be adding features that allow a consumer to scan any product with their phone to bring up detailed information. You certainly don't have time to learn about every single ingredient in the sunscreen you're buying, but someone else does. The internet can tell you all you want to know--without simplification.

The reason I bring all this up is because the re-customerization of consumers is exerting a pressure on society as the technology pushing it moves faster than our society seems willing to move. While one reason for the foot dragging seems financial (I think it will also be solved through the internet) another--arguably more important--is built right into our environment.

Most of our built space was designed for a top down approach to the economy, while the internet is ushering in a new era of massively distributed enterprise. Those places that are currently prospering are those whose built space supports a bottom up sort of economy. More than just offering low barriers to entry, these places bring throngs of people into close contact with one another to stimulate creativity and the growth of culture.

And though the modal choice folks might not yet realize it, the next guiding mantra is: "Bring people together."