Tag Archives: college towns

“The Island of Misfit Toys”

Supergay Detroit debriefs us on Motor City Pride, which returned to Detroit for the first time in decades earlier this month:

The most incredible thing about this Pride was that for the first time since I moved to Detroit, I actually really felt like being gay here was totally normal.  I mean as completely normal as it would be in Chicago or Washington, DC or Boston or anywhere else I’ve lived.  Everywhere you went there were gay people or rainbow flags or just people asking how Pride was going.

In my email to business owners for the Pride Project I said that Motor City Pride moving downtown had the potential to change perceptions about Detroit in a way that hasn’t happened since the Superbowl was here in 2006.  In the way Pride exceeded every expectation, I really believe that was the case.  What I didn’t expect was that it was going to change the way *I* thought about Detroit.

The whole weekend left me feeling a little feisty, like maybe it’s OK to say that something can just be GAY for its own sake without people getting defensive or worrying that people will feel left out.  (It’s Detroit, for God’s sake. The Island of Misfit Toys.  Everybody belongs.)

I LOVE his characterization of Detroit here, since it is so apt.  It reminds me of when John Waters was on Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me!  earlier this year and he talked at length about how living in Baltimore has influenced his film-making.  I totally knew what he was talking about, because Detroit also has a very John Waters feel in a lot of ways, from the ripped-from-the-tabloids city politics, to the endless Youtube videos of ordinary Detroiters behaving badly, the seemingly limitless tolerance of Detroiters for chaos and messiness and squalor.  Remember Edith Massey?  She would have fit right in.  Detroit is just a John Waters kind of town.

(Speaking of which, Waters apparently addressed the U.S. Conference of Mayors last week when they met in Baltimore, which, I don’t even know where to begin, that is so perfect and surprising and hilarious at the same time.   I will have to try to hunt down a transcript.)

Spending a lot of time in Detroit literally alters your vision.  Out of towners tend to react with polite horror when they drive through town after a long absence, nervously eyeing their surroundings and trying to mask their disapproval.  I was the same way — when I first moved to Detroit I was secretly fascinated that there were white people living there still and wondered what their lives were like.  Now that I’ve been coming and going regularly for several years the blight, the poverty, all the things good and bad that make Detroit so exotic for small-town or suburban white people, seem kind of normal to me.

I wasn’t around in the 1970s, but I wonder if that’s kind of how gay ghettoes in our country started out too.  Gay culture started to emerge from the closet at the time when violent crime was peaking.  The gayborhoods often popped up in neighborhoods that were declining, in cities that themselves seemed to be dying.   To your average American, homosexuality was shocking, gay people were dissolute and criminal and dangerous, and you certainly wouldn’t take your kids for a drive through a neighborhood where those kinds of people congregrated.   Now the country’s great gayborhoods are thriving, prosperous and high-density places (though I’m pretty sure most parents still might think twice about taking young kids for a walk through, say, Boystown or the Castro).   I’m not saying that Detroit, even its best neighborhoods, will ever be fortunate enough to enjoy anything near that kind of a turnaround.  But those places had the same naughty, scary, Wild West kind of feel.  Gay people are used to seeking out grimy bars in  questionable neighborhoods, just like rave kids or music scenesters.  We’re used to feeling different and wary of our surroundings.  Frankly, I feel safer in a lot of parts of Detroit than I did in East Lansing on a Saturday night when I was an undergraduate, ignoring drunk fratboys yelling “faggot” or dodging a beer bottle aimed for my skull.

I think I know what Supergay was talking about when he writes about how Motor City Pride felt normal.  You had a lot of random people show up who may or may not have been gay — they just wanted to come check things out.  Lots of moms bringing their young kids, lots of younger teens, way more than I recall ever seeing at Pride when it was in Ferndale.  You had people of all  ages hanging out on the riverwalk, fishing, selling things, Detroit police officers peacefully mingling with the crowd.  And the behavior of attendees certainly seemed better than what you get from white suburban kids a lot of the time after major sports events or, say, the Downtown Hoedown.

I agree with Supergay that press coverage was pretty meager.  I’m not surprised that the Detroit News pretty much ignored it, but I would have expected a little better from the Free Press.

Supergay also pleas, “Someone open a downtown neighborhood gay bar NOW.”   I’ll second that.  We need a second gay bar in Washtenaw County too (Aut Bar could use the competition).   Preferably with a patio, but I’d happily take even a shitty dive bar.  I’ve decided Depot Town in Ypsilanti would be a perfect site.  In the meantime, word on the street is that Necto is making Tuesday its second gay night of the week starting tomorrow.  I’m going to try to sneak over & investigate.   There is also a queer dance party at Live one Saturday each month which I need to check out sooner or later.

New infill developments, higher density in Ann Arbor

While I complained a couple of weeks ago about NIMBYism stalling high-density development in Ann Arbor, I have to admit that Ann Arbor seems to be buzzing with construction plans right now.  There’s the student high-rise currently under construction at 601 Forest, at the edge of the South University corridor.  Another apartment complex is slated for a space that looks to be right behind or next to the Panera on Plymouth west of Murfin:

(Existing) loft-style apartments (at the site) filled up quickly when they became available last spring, and currently maintain 100 percent occupancy at rates from $900 to $2,200 per unit…

“(I)t’s quite feasible that we could start construction between August and October,” says (architect Damian) Farrell.

“With a 10- to 12-month construction period, it could be available to rent sometime mid- to late summer next year.”

This is good infill development along a major bus line, adjacent to a lot of restaurants, and most importantly, right across the street from UM’s North Campus.

Finally, there’s the Packard Square development proposed in the former Georgetown Mall which I discussed in a post a couple of months ago.  According to the Ann Arbor Chronicle, the developer Craig Schubiner’s “ideal construction timeline will be… to start in August and finish by the end of 2012 or early 2013.”  The city planning board peppered him with complaints, including this bit that caught my eye:

Schubiner acknowledged the size of the plaza was a compromise based on the need to include adequate parking spaces for the retail aspects of the project.

Minimum parking requirements strike again!  was my initial reaction.  In fact, however,  it seems the planning commissioners sensibly pushed the developer to minimize or avoid free parking.  One would think it would be possible to coordinate with AATA to increase service on the Packard route that runs by the proposed development.  (Packard is also one of the more bikable roads in the city.)

Add in Zaragon Place II downtown on William St., also under construction, and you have at least four large new multi-unit developments on the market, all either downtown or located on major bus lines, set to significantly boost Ann Arbor’s density within the next two years.  Most encouraging is that each of these are infill projects, planted in already-developed parts relatively close to the city’s core, rather than sprawl spilling over into the cornfields and forests on the city’s edges.

SXSWi Day 3

I am writing this from a patch of lawn across from the Austin Convention Center.  The little scrap of free wireless connectivity is failing me as I finish my Thai iced tea (you can’t bring outside food or drink into the ACC).  Once I’m done, I’m going to check out the SXSWi trade show, where my alma mater, University of Michigan’s School of Information, is tabling supposedly.

The Thai iced tea was from a Thai/Vietnamese restaurant on 6th street called Mekong River.  For lunch I had what are called ?? Mermaids and these wonderful yam-and-corn fritters.  VERY tasty and highly recommended.  These SoBe reps are hawking free “HTML5-in-a-cup” on the sidewalk in front of me, and I just overheard a young woman explaining a party trick she does using Grindr (a gay hookup mobile app, for those unfamiliar).

We had breakfast in the lobby of the Driskill, this fabulous Italianate hotel dating from 1885.  The lobby was stunning with exquisite hushed lighting, though the breakfast itself was ridiculously overpriced.  I proceeded to a pretty helpful conversation session called “Your Web Developer Thinks You’re An Idiot.”

The porn industry panel last night was pretty interesting too, by the way, and not surprisingly attended by about 90% men.  There was one young woman on the panel, Alison Vivas, who was an executive in the industry and who seemed remarkably poised, canny and professional.  You could have picked her up and plunked her down in any other industry sector without significantly altering her presentation.  Very impressive.

Last night, after free drinks at a CNET live podcast party, we crossed off another bar, Rain, on our “Gay Pub Crawl of Austin” checklist.  The bar was huge — three or four separate spaces, including a dance floor and an outdoor deck —  and was very well-attended for a Sunday night, with plenty of reasonably attractive guys from a range of ages.

I caught myself feeling a little weird about posting so much about Austin and SXSW on a blog that is ostensibly about a couple of Rust Belt cities, but I think it’s really important and valuable to share my experiences here.  People who care about their communities need to get out in the world and see what’s happening elsewhere, to see what’s working and try to figure out why, and to bring some of the magic they see in other cities back to their own.  It’s one thing to read about Austin and all the supposed reasons it has been such a success story over the past several decades, while our own cities in the Great Lakes have withered on the vine; it’s another to experience first hand the good — the food carts and the student-powered pedicabs and the gay bars and the seemingly miraculous March weather — as well as the lousy — the too-narrow sidewalks, too-wide streets, and the lack of bike lances that impair the pedestrian experience, as I pointed out in yesterday’s post.  Getting out and reporting back for readers in Michigan and other cold, shattered places helps us set the bar higher for what we expect from the cities and the regions we live in.

Day 2, SXSW

I’m writing this from the ballroom of our hotel in Austin where they were streaming 4chan founder Christopher Poole’s keynote; I’ve stayed in the room for some automated stock trading panel in the hopes Felix Salmon shows up and gives me my first celebrity spotting of the week.

I mentioned in my post yesterday how new Austin seemed.  History buff that I am, a big part of my appraisal of a city comes from how old a city’s core is and how well-preserved that core is, so these things are important to me.  Last night we walked up Congress to the Capitol and saw the older, nineteenth century part of downtown; then today, my cousin drove me through the older student-dominated neighborhoods northwest of UT, which is crowded with adorable little one-story wooden bungalows, estimated vintage 1920s-40s, in various levels of disrepair.  I hypothesize that they built these homes slung low to the ground, prior to air conditioning, because of the summer heat.  He also took me through the Hill Country, which is considerably more rugged and scenic than I had expected.

Drinks here are cheaper than expected, too — at two different bars last night (OilCan Harry’s and Charlie’s, both very nice) we got 2 cocktails for about $11.  The atmosphere last night, crowds of people and music spilling all over the street, was reminiscent of a better-behaved,  better-educated, and generally less trashy Bourbon Street.  We scored free ice cream sandwiches from another truck on the way home, courtesy of Mozilla, which is hawking its new mobile Firefox app.

I don’t see Felix Salmon so I think I’ll split, head over to the Hilton and try to stake out a spot at this invitingly naughty-sounding 5pm panel.

Day 1 @ SXSW

The thing that has surprised me most about Austin — the little sliver of downtown Austin I’ve experienced since we arrived last night — is how new everything, the built environment, is; probably half.  And they are not afraid to build high; the mostly low-slung skyline is interrupted by numerous, shiny and really quite pretty residential glass skyscrapers, plus the remarkably beautiful Frost Bank Tower.

It is not especially pedestrian-friendly, my boyfriend notes; sidewalks are frequently missing and the streets are typically several lanes wide.  My perception of the city is inevitably going to be skewed by SXSW — there are throngs of Interactive geeks crowding the sidewalks, so the city seems quite lively with heavy foot traffic.

This morning I saw what appeared to be a demonstration by teachers’ unions.  I ate at this terrific Korean fusion truck called ChiLantro — I had a very tasty tofu burger with kimchee — and there were several other trucks on that same block(Congress & 2nd) that looked equally delicious.  I am hoping some restauranteurs steps up to the plate and brings some food trucks to Ann Arbor and Detroit.

I am typing this from a panel discussion called “Web Mashup Platforms for Future Programmable Cities.”  It is very abstract and unclear to me what this means, so I am going to try to listen up and pay attention.  Basically it sounds like it’s about collecting data from tech apps contributed by users for the purposes of helping cities allocate resources.  It strikes me as a possible complement to the types of data gathered by agencies like the Census Bureau or the National Bureau of Economic Research.

The panel is very European-dominated, with the exception of Rachel Sterne, the new Digital Officer for the city of New York who seems remarkably young for such a position.  She asks, how can we look at cities as platforms the way Facebook is a platform?

The conversation is interesting enough that I’ll look these folks up later, but right now I’m going to head over to join my man at another panel.   Stay tuned for more updates from what is probably, at least for the next few days, the geekiest place on Earth.

Brownfield redevelopment in Ann Arbor & Ypsi

(Apology in advance:  My references in this post are pretty much all from AnnArbor.com.  I try to cite a wider range of sources most of the time but the Ann Arbor Chronicle and other outlets don’t seem to have got around to reporting much on the stories in this post yet.  Just wanted to make clear I recognized I’m not exactly adhering to best practices in the following.)

Yes, Virginia, there IS blight in Ann Arbor.

Of course, there’s a vast and very prominent swath of it concentrated immediately south of University of Michigan’s Central Campus, known and loved by UM students and alumni as their very own housing ghetto.  In most Midwestern cities, the oldest housing stock is reserved for the poorest and generally allowed to go to hell.  In cities like Saginaw, Flint, Lansing, and of course Detroit these mostly nineteenth century homes are the epicenter of an ever-widening circle of blight, and eventually most are abandoned and razed.

There are exceptions to this rule:  Grand Rapids has generally done very well by its historic neighborhoods, most notably in Heritage Hill, where the gays and their fellow travelers have lavished love and attention on the neighborhood’s historic mansions.  My hometown, Bay City, has what I consider the next best preserved stock of nineteenth century housing in the entire state, and at fire sale prices might I add.

In Ann Arbor, a constant churn of students have filled the demand for the decrepit hulks that fill the student ghetto.  This demand has both helped to preserve the battered structures and to keep the price of real estate of any kind in the area head and shoulders beyond most any in the Midwest outside of Chicago, let alone Michigan.

Further out from the old core of the city, though, Ann Arbor has pockets of blight just like any other community:  parcels that, for whatever reason, the owners have allowed it to decline and to sit vacant.  One of the more notorious cases over the past decade has been the Georgetown Mall off Packard Road south of Stadium Blvd., where among an otherwise prosperous and stable single-family neighborhood sprawls a vacant shopping center, formerly anchored by a Kroger supermarket.

So it was big news when reports began surfacing that Georgetown’s owner was planning to redevelop the site.  Lazy blogger that I am, I’ll direct you to Ryan Stanton’s most recent update on the situation.

I often find the comments on AnnArbor.com’s posts valuable in gleaning popular sentiment and highlighting points of controversy, and those responding to Stanton’s update are no exception.  First let me emphasize that the type of Ann Arbor residents who make themselves heard on redevelopment proposals are NIMBY to the extreme.  Whether it be preserving an old building, holding on to every last inch of the city’s massive parkland, or ensuring a three-story building is not overshadowed by a five-story one, there will be a shrill pocket of citizens who will find a reason to oppose ANY project, no matter how shambolic the condition of the property to be redeveloped.  This has had the virtue of helping to maintain that price premium over its neighbors that I cited earlier;  it has kept the city’s population well below what it otherwise would have been; and it has contributed to the growth of surrounding communities like Dexter and Saline, while keeping Ypsilanti’s population from declining as rapidly as it might otherwise have.

Consequently, the response to the Georgetown situation is noteworthy:  cautious optimism and support from residents and other commenters, qualified by no small measure of scepticism.   One commenter captures why:

As the article points out, (Bloomfield Hills developer) Craig Schubiner is the owner of this mall. He has repeatedly announced plans for redevelopment, only to have something go awry. Why is this plan different? And for how many years have the taxes gone unpaid? Have there been any payments? How can we feel confident he will pay the back taxes?… The developer owned this property *while* it was becoming blighted and the parking lot was deteriorating. This was happening when Georgetown Mall still had active tenants. So, the developer himself caused all this blight by not maintaining his own property. And now it qualifies for redevelopment credits because it is blighted?

AnnArbor.com’s editorial today provides a bit more detail on Schubiner’s ‘checkered background with this particular property and others':

In 2008, Schubiner proposed to revive the mall with a project called Georgetown Commons, a concept that would have included a 45,000-square-foot Kroger, a number of other retail shops and 150 apartments. Noting came of that plan. Meanwhile, his $2 billion Bloomfield Park project in Oakland County went belly-up in 2008 and is often pointed to as a poster child of failed real estate development in Michigan.

But the editorial board ultimately seems willing to give him more credit:

We recognize the severe hardships that many developers like Schubiner faced in the economic meltdown of 2008, and we would be glad to see him succeed with this new concept for the Georgetown Mall… Schubiner has demonstrated a willingness to listen to homeowners’ concerns about deterioration of the former strip mall after the Kroger store closed. Blighting conditions have been addressed as neighbors have pointed them out.

They also offer Schubiner some advice:

While city and state officials consider his proposal, Schubiner can help his own cause by listening to the input of neighbors and incorporating their concerns into his final designs. Their primary concerns seems to be whether the number of apartment units being proposed is appropriate, or too dense for the property. Planning standards can help answer that question…

(T)here also is the matter of $277,000 in back taxes owed on the property. New development of the land can’t begin until those taxes are paid. If the developer wants to demonstrate his good faith, as well as his financial ability to undertake a project of this scope, resolving the delinquent taxes would be an opportunity to do both.

Meanwhile, AnnArbor.com’s terrific business reporter Paula Gardner reports on more redevelopment news several miles to the east in Ypsilanti, on West Cross near Eastern Michigan University’s campus.  Gardner offers her personal take on why she thinks the purchase is a ‘game-changer':

The buyer is O’Neal Inc., the Ann Arbor construction company that also redeveloped Kerrytown, creating a retail hub for that interesting, historical district on the north edge of Ann Arbor’s downtown…
The plan… suits the market: With so many students nearby, the updated apartments will elevate its portion of the student housing stock.
And giving retailers new, high-profile space to find their niche adjacent to the campus-oriented area adds a new element to the city’s commercial real estate market.
Lastly, the O’Neal company has both the capital and experience to make the project valuable and viable to their portfolio and the community. That can’t always be said about new projects…
Now, with O’Neal’s purchase in the mix, the building at 735 E. Cross stands ready to tip the entire corridor toward improvement.
That’s no small order for a street that for years has functioned well under its potential, considering its place next to one of the state’s largest universities.

Ann Arborites are a gimlet-eyed bunch when it comes to development and redevelopment, so the general optimism greeting both these projects makes them stand out. (It’s a refreshing contrast to the rather desperate exuberance Detroiters exhibit with the slightest mention of any kind of development in their city, which more often than not fizzles before anything actually is brought to fruition.)

I’m especially heartened by the West Cross news, as I am whenever I hear about investment in Ypsi.  Gardner’s remark about functioning below its potential could just as well be applied to Ypsi in general, which in my view is by far the weakest of Michigan’s major college towns.  (As with Wayne State until very recently, Eastern was just a commuter school, its failure to boost its community compounded by poor management under some of its past presidents, and an underprivileged student population with lousy graduation rates).  It’s especially disappointing to me that Ypsi has so far failed to capitalize on one of its biggest assets, its building stock.  The heart of Ypsi is filled with some of the oldest surviving buildings in any Michigan city; you just don’t find that density of Greek and Gothic Revival homes north of the Ohio border.

I conjecture that the already high cost of housing in Ann Arbor has been held in check by Michigan’s depression since 2000, and as the rest of the region recovers in the 2010s that cost is going to spiral to new levels.  If that does happen, it could catalyze long-delayed gentrification in Ypsi, which is well-connected by bus service to central Ann Arbor and offers housing at a fraction of the rents.  It’s a city with a lot of troubles but excellent bones underneath it all, and if Ann Arbor’s prosperity eventually manages to spill over to the east, it could really begin to shine.

The lure of small cities

I enjoyed the excerpt from Witold Rybczynski’s new book on Wednesday’s Slate, titled ‘The Cities We Want':

(T)he age-old desire for human contact, crowds, variety, and expanded individual choices… has breathed new life into many small cities, especially college towns, which, with their attendant research facilities, office parks, university hospitals, and cultural amenities, have blossomed and are among the fastest-growing and most attractive places to live and work. Part of this blossoming is the result of technology. Cable television, regional airlines, catalog shopping, and the Internet have brought big-city conveniences to small cities. But when college towns succeed as attractive and vital places to live—and by no means all do—the result is a potent synergy between higher education, information-age industries, and people’s preferences for smaller, more intimate communities…

Rybczynski seems to have his hand on the pulse of the Midwest, in particular the Great Lakes region, where more than anywhere else the metros of college towns are becoming economic and cultural anchors.   Our largest cities in this part of the country were developed for and around heavy manufacturing, and catastrophically handicapped by racial segregration and low rates of college attainment.  Thus far, Chicago is the only one of this cohort of the classic old industrial cities to have overcome that legacy.  The energy in the Great Lakes has shifted to college towns and state capitals more than in any other part of the country:  Madison, Indianapolis, my Ann Arbor, the Lansing region, and of course Columbus, the leader of this newer generation of smaller but nimbler metros.

Rybczynski continues:

(S)ince 1970 the proportion of the urban population living in large cities has steadily declined, while the percentage living in small cities has grown, suggesting that what Americans don’t want is to live in large metropolitan areas… In 2007, the fastest-appreciating residential real estate values in the nation were not in San Francisco, Boston, and New York City but in Corvallis, Ore. (population 53,000); Grand Junction, Colo. (population 46,000); and Wenatchee, Wash. (population 28,000). These small cities are examples of what Joel Garreau has christened the Santa Fe effect… ‘There isn’t a single answer to the question “What kind of cities do we want?” because different people want so many different things. While the majority of us appear to prefer dispersed small cities, a significant minority want to live in concentrated big cities, and a tiny fraction is prepared to pay the price of living in the very center of things. Most of us want lively downtowns, at least to visit if not to live in. Nor is it simply a question of individual preferences; we want different things at different times… Since American cities are shaped by popular demand, one can expect them to exhibit a variety that is no less rich and diverse than the variety of Americans themselves.

I wonder if it is also partly this impulse for smaller towns that scattered Metro Detroit over dozens (hundreds?) of tiny municipalities in Southeast Michigan.

My own great-grandparents arrived in Highland Park when they immigrated from Canada in the 1920s, but quickly moved on to Royal Oak, which was then still a village that had sprung up around a railroad stop, far from the edge of urbanization.  This is very typical of old Detroit, where the only thing that kept people in the city were jobs with the Big 3.   Detroit’s population exploded in the course of two generations (roughly 1900-1945), which was simply not long enough to convert the country folk who had migrated there into city-lovers.  Even before the freeways were constructed and FHA programs unleashed in the 1950s, families left the city as soon as they had enough money to buy their way out.  (Of course, for Jewish people and especially for blacks, the price of homeownership in the suburbs was much dearer, certainly impossible even for Jews til at least the 1960s.)

Unlike Chicago, San Francisco, and the other long-established northern cities Jacobs wrote about in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, most Detroiters simply did not have the rich experience of urban living, the acceptance of smaller lots and acquaintance with public transportation and living cheek by jowl with people who were different.   They came from Appalachia or the Polish countryside or, in the case of my ancestors, rural Ontario, and rushed back to the countryside at the earliest possible opportunity.

For most of its supposed “Golden Age,”  Detroit was inhabited by people who fundamentally did not understand city living and did not care for it — and consequently did not care for the city itself.  When things got tough in other U.S. cities in the mid-to-late twentieth centuries, other cities were eventually stabilized by the love of the people who lived there.  Detroit, despite all of its assets a place to make your fortune and get out as quickly as possible, simply didn’t have the love of enough of its own citizens.  And that, more than anything I think, explains why Detroit’s outcome has been so different.

So the impulse for small towns Rybczynski describes is also, I think, at least part of the explanation for the exodus to the suburbs that has continued to this day.  I think a lot of the people who ended up swelling our largest cities in the first half of the twentieth century did so only for economic reasons; they went where the high-paying jobs were; but their natural inclination remained for small town life, which they then tried, and failed, to find in suburbs.

In the last couple of decades, the opportunity costs of leaving a major urban area have decreased substantially, thanks to the Internet and many other factors, like increasing tolerance of gays.  You just don’t have to sacrifice as many urban amenities when you move to a smaller metro as you used to.