January 2011: I am preparing for my first real visit to Detroit, the city of my birth. I am a Californian, where I have been since age one when my parents packed me into a car to seek fame and fortune in LA. It is strange to be defined by something unknown but when asked if I am a "native" Californian, I answer, "No, I was born in Detroit." It seems time to investigate what that means. So I have come "home" on my birthday to photograph Detroit.

This blog is part of an accompanying journal about the project.

Friday, October 3, 2014

September in Detroit, Part II Thursday 18 September

"September in Detroit" is a multi-part post, part of the continuing series of musings on Detroit as I sit here, absorbing my own experience in the city combined with others' tales.  This particular 4-part series is best read from Part I below and then upward, if you can make it through...  I call it a "musing" as I attempt to make sense of what I see and experience each visit, part of my in-progress photo exhibition/book exploration of my birth city.

Ready to get to work: the Detroit Homecoming shuttle is picking us up at 7:30 am for an intensive, pragmatic look at Detroit in today's sessions.  Still on my west coast time schedule and wondering how, for so many years in the music industry when the red eye to New York was an almost monthly occurrence, I could still get up the next morning to meet people at the equivalence of 4:30 am PDT.   Nevertheless, the day begins and with it, eye-opening conversations about the current status and future of Detroit.

On the Shuttle to the College of Creative Studies outpost in the Taubman Center Building/a former GM building near Grand Avenue where the Corvette was first designed: a running commentary by Jeanette Pierce, Detroit native and founder of  DXF/WeKnowDetroit, part of the D-Hive cooperative downtown offering business and information services to connect people with Detroit in varying opportunities and experiences.  Among her tidbits of Detroit:

1.  99% occupancy now in the downtown area.
2.  The Book Cadillac required 27 layers of financing to bring it back from the ruined hulk it was six years ago when you could absolutely see through it to the landscape surrounding it.

I haven't driven up Woodward for over a year now and the change is dramatic, from the cleansing of broken down buildings in preparation for the - controversial - new hockey stadium and related development of midtown, to new retail, coffee shops and buildings, and of course, the many construction detours engendered by the M-1 Rail construction that is also inspiring clean-up and renovation into New Center, north of the I-94 as well.

The A. Alfred Taubman Center for Design Education, the former Argonaut Building in New Center designed by Albert Kahn in 1928, was gifted to CCF by GM in 2007 and in addition to CCF studios, classes and auditorium space houses a variety of creative enterprise and foundations including the The Detroit Creative Corridor Center (DC3), "an economic development organization with a targeted purpose: providing support to Detroit’s creative industries in the form of resources, exposure, and advocacy in order to grow Detroit’s creative economy and recognize Detroit as a global center for design." and is also the home of one of Detroit's new and stellar manufacturers, Shinola Watch.

Beginning the sessions.  In the audience, one present and two past Mayors of the city, all with straightforward news about what Detroit really needs - people and the return of safe neighborhoods - and what is being done about it.

The population facts: 1.8 million residents in 1950.  Under 700,000 today.  That tax base is gone and the sense of neighborhood in this suburban city is dire. What brings them in - business investment and jobs - and what helps those already here and struggling to regain their city and their livelihoods?

1. Lights - Mayor Duggan's pledge and active work already to bring street lighting back to all of Detroit, putting up more than 1,000 streetlights per week now.  The resultant lighting of Detroit's streets has direct correlation to the decrease in crime in the city.
2. Maintaining the neighborhood parks, a place for community.  Last year, 25 out of 275 were maintained.  This year already: with the help of churches, business and neighborhoods, 256 out of the 275 are being maintained.
3. Vacant lots and vacant houses lead to squatters, trash and the devaluation in price and living standards of a neighborhood.  Today there are over 50,000 abandoned houses in Detroit and they range from upper middle class neighborhoods such as Boston Edison to the icon of Detroit, the modest suburban home.  The new civic philosophy: "Demolish the burned out houses in order to save the good ones."  The Mayor's office is accomplishing this by suing non-resident owners who have allowed their homes, lots and landscaping to decay, opening them up to squatters or scrappers.  A decision is made whether the building is capable of renovation or is sold at auction for nominal prices WITH the provision that the new owner must regularly pay its taxes and keep it up.  The same for vacant lots that, if not maintained, are made available for purchase to neighbors at $100 per lot, subject to the same conditions of payment and maintenance.

A good article about this and about Reclaim Detroit, the non-profit dedicated to reducing the blight, reconstruction and re-purposing of materials taken from deconstruction;  http://www.hourdetroit.com/Hour-Detroit/May-2014/Deconstructing-Detroit/#.VDGWjudYtXA

Below: a collapsed house on the Eastside, 2011 & in Highland Park (a separate city, encircled by Detroit), a Habitat for Humanity House, 2014

On the positive: The Henry Jolly Memorial Pinehurst Block, a stellar example of the neighborhood taking charge, this one ongoing for years now another sign has been added on the western side of the block.

Ok.... not all is pretty yet.  Mortgages are unobtainable in Detroit and a major effort by the city is to make lenders aware that there is value in Detroit, the issue even more critical than the credit records of its potential resident home purchasers.

Water in this water-rich city is also an issue, not so much in terms of its availability as a resource - our issue in parched California - but in terms of civic maintenance.  Detroit suffered over 5,000 water main breaks in the last three years.  Just this past week, a regional water board was approved by Detroit's City Council to help manage the finances and undertakings to resolve the maintenance and use issues.  http://www.myfoxdetroit.com/story/26577870/detroit-city-council-approves-regional-water-authority

The rest of the day was intensive; so many speakers, so little breaks, so much to acknowledge/learn and so much to inspire.  Civic leaders and doers!  Entrepreneurs!  Social Activists! Athletes! Eli Broad (a Detroit native and philanthropist to education  there)! Warren Buffet!!!!!

While many participants - invited expats as well as speakers - represented investment interests, much of the focus continued to return to those who are already there, doing well and not so well, and how we can join together to support community, education, employment, and culture to restore as well as remake Detroit.  Well-reported by the press and by the Detroit Homecoming site itself, my post here is more about the images of Detroit for I am a photographer and it is in my imagery that my summary primarily lies.

That said, as part of Detroit Homecoming's amazing program, afternoon intensive tours of targeted development in Detroit - manufacturing, real estate development, innovation/entrepreneurship, and the arts & culture - were offered and I chose manufacturing, seeking to follow the current state of Detroit's traditional work resources.

Shinola was first, a company that made a choice to come to Detroit.  On one large floor of the Taubman Center, clean large dust free rooms were filled with new watch assembly, watchband creation and packaging, providing new jobs and success models for Detroit.  Collaboration is happening with major fashion designers, extending the outreach of this innovative company even further.  The products of Shinola extend now to bicycles, other luxury products with retail stores in Detroit and elsewhere.

Homegrown business is opening/thriving again as well, exemplified on our tour by the new plans of American Axle & Manufacturing/AAM, one of the major GM suppliers in driveline and drivetrain systems that followed GM down to Mexico during Detroit's downturn but is now re-developing its primary building and adjajcent acreage, just at the Detroit/Hamtramck boundary to meet the new demands of a returning auto parts manufacturing industry.

So too, the McClure brothers represent growing success in Detroit, transitioning a family recipe into a marketable commodity.  They are native Detroiter's who, along with their parents, are readying to purchase two more machine lines/ldispensers/canners to make their truly tasty McClure's Pickles, relishes and potato chips that are presently being distributed via upscale markets and retail outlets throughout the States. They have re-purposed an older auto manufacturing building, hired and are retraining auto workers and unskilled labor, and are using locally sourced or known sources (when the harsher Detroit winters prevent locally sourced) for their ingredient streams.  Love their "story" video, a charming example of the ingenuity that characterizes so many startups/businesses in Detroit.  http://www.mcclurespickles.com/pages/from-the-jar

Foreign investment is also returning to Detroit and our tour brought us to one grand example: Sakthi Automotive Group USA, located in Del Ray/Southwest Detroit and part of the multi-national (headquartered in South India) The Sakthi Group/Automotive Components division.  http://www.sakthiauto.com/  Already manufacturing a variety of auto components, Sakthi has made major land investments surrounding its present manufacturing site, in close proximity to the proposed new US/Canada bridge, that will result in the creation of additional manufacturing facilities, a training school for personnel and best, a day care and kitchen center for many of its employees to provide affordable day care for their workers' children and inexpensive healthy meals to take home to their families after long workdays.

Sundown over on  Belle Isle and its historic Casino. GM was out there offering us driving opportunities in their new cars although the driverless car unfortunately developed a "hitch" and wasn't available.  Instead I drove the new Corvette - I learned to drive a stick shift on my father's Corvette so long ago - although driving a Corvette at 25 mph around the island was nice but hardly my "speed."   

The day ended with dinner with our continually welcoming hosts, Detroit sponsors/doers all, at the newly opened Globe Building by the DeQuindre Cut, followed by honors to Berry Gordy who flew in for this event and with rhythmic musical tributes by Detroit youth to the Motor City sounds that Gordy and Motown gave us all.

Long day, sounding a bit like a travelogue but it will take time to truly understand what was presented to us and what to do with it, but wow what a re-introduction to what is making Detroit run for today and for the future.

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