Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Making the grid feel lived in: a conversation with Placement about 'Thanks For the View, Mr. Mies'

(originally published 11/28/12 in Bad At Sports)

The new book Thanks for the View, Mr. Mies: Lafayette Park, Detroit is something unexpected: an architecture book that’s as much about people as it is about buildings. In the case of Lafayette Park, the buildings tend to hog the spotlight, as most of them were designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. (The neighborhood contains the largest collection of his work in the world.)

Built between 1958 and 1965, Lafayette Park, just east of downtown Detroit, is both a local and national anomaly: an urban renewal project that was actually, by most measures, successful, it has remained racially diverse and economically stable since the beginning. The Mies-designed portion of the development includes 186 cooperatively-owned townhouse and courthouse units made of glass, steel, and brick, as well as three aluminum and glass high-rise apartment buildings: the monolithic Pavilion and the twin Lafayette Towers. Over the years, as designed, the neighborhood has remained both affordable and economically mixed. The townhouses are largely inhabited by middle-class homeowners, while the glass-walled towers provide an unparalleled urban living experience for working class Detroiters and young professionals.

Thanks for the View, published last month by Metropolis Books, has been a hit in Detroit (and elsewhere). Its humanism is refreshing, as is the unassuming way it approaches its subject — namely, what it’s like to live here, and how people actually inhabit these idealized spaces over time. It contains interviews with and essays by current and former residents, abundant photos (including a series by Corine Vermeulen, previewed in the New York Times in 2010, of residents posing in their distinctively decorated homes), and a host of surprising, digressive features, like several illustrated pages depicting the few dozen bird species that call the park home. It’s at times funny, poignant, obsessive, revelatory, and beautiful. The experience of reading it is a singular pleasure, and, as I enthused last month, I’d recommend it to anybody.

The book’s editors are Danielle Aubert, Lana Cavar, and Natasha Chandani, who call themselves Placement. They are all graphic designers who met in grad school at Yale. Aubert lives in Lafayette Park, originally in Lafayette Towers and now in a townhouse. Cavar is based in Zagreb, Croatia; Chandani’s in Brooklyn. Thanks for the View, Mr. Miesis their first professional collaboration.

I live in Lafayette Towers, and when Thanks For the View came out locally in mid-October, Aubert, Cavar and Chandani were all in Detroit and came up to my apartment for a conversation about making it. Diana Murphy, their publisher from Metropolis, also joined us, and was generous in providing some valuable context for the project.

It was a rainy, cloudy morning, so I was able to keep all the blinds open and show off the view of the skyline and the wind-whipped Detroit River. (I do in fact thank Mr. Mies for the view, in all seasons, daily.) We drank tea, laughed a lot, and chatted about the book and the neighborhood for about an hour. An edited transcript of our conversation follows, divided into three sections: Content, Design and Printing/Publishing.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Green City Diaries: good food, the new frontier

Photo by Marvin Shaouni
(originally published 11/27/12 in Model D)

In his 2008 bestseller In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan makes a number of salient points about what we eat. For one, he reminds us that food is, in fact, about much more than eating. It's also "about pleasure, about community, about family and spirituality, about our relationship to the natural world, and about expressing our identity."

Pollan goes on, memorably, to define food by contrasting it with the "edible food-like substances" (Twinkie, anyone?) that constitute the contemporary Western diet: "lots of processed foods and meat, lots of added fat and sugar, lots of everything -- except vegetables, fruits, and whole grains...I contend that most of what we're consuming today is no longer, strictly speaking, food at all, and how we're consuming it -- in the car, in front of the TV, and, increasingly, alone -- is not really eating, at least not in the sense that civilization has long understood the term." But, he continues, "We are entering a postindustrial era of food; for the first time in a generation it is possible to leave behind the Western diet without having to leave behind civilization."

For this month's diary entry, we're considering how these various truths play out in Detroit, where gardeners, farmers, activists and socially conscious entrepreneurs battle daily against the alluring ease and convenience of fast food and liquor store fare. According to the comprehensive City of Detroit Policy on Food Security, prepared by the Detroit Food Policy Council (that's essential reading if you're interested in this subject), "In the city of Detroit, the most accessible food-related establishments are party stores, dollar stores, fast-food restaurants and gas stations. Although most neighborhoods may have a grocery store within a 'reasonable' distance, the quality and selection of food items is exceedingly lacking."

The policy, officially adopted by City Council in 2009, goes on to elaborate how this problem is exacerbated by lack of access to transportation, and how it results in malnutrition and chronic health conditions among the population. There is further discussion of the troubling lack of black control over the food system in a majority black city, as well as a vigorous defense of urban agriculture, an old tradition here, as a vital component of the quest for food security.

The Food Security policy points the way toward a future in which all residents in Detroit have access, "in close proximity, to adequate amounts of nutritious, culturally appropriate food at all times, from sources that are environmentally sound and just." An in-depth investigation into how Detroiters are working toward that goal would be a book-length subject in itself. As usual, I'll hone in on one or two developments.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Pop goes the West Village

Photo by Marvin Shaouni
(originally published 11/13/12 in Model D)

It's an exciting time in West Village. The cozy, dense, architecturally rich neighborhood just west of Indian Village is seeing a much-needed retail boom at the same time it's getting some attention as an urban gem, glittering with character, history, and potential.

Following the massively successful pop-up Tashmoo Biergarten, which opened last fall and continues to introduce the neighborhood's distinct charms to vast numbers of craft beer enthusiasts (and the people who love them), two more pop-ups made their mark last month: cafe and bakery Coffee and (______) and locally-designed clothing boutique PRAMU. Both opened in the Parkstone, a solid, 11-story brick building built in 1925 with apartments on top and (previously vacant) retail space on the ground floor. Next Spring, four new (permanent) establishments will be opening in the same building, and each offers a different reason to celebrate: Detroit Vegan Soul, Red Hook, Tarot and Tea, and Craft Work. (Read all about them here, and take a look at the spaces they'll be occupying here.)

For residents, these new neighborhood destinations, made possible by a partnership between the Villages Community Development Corporation and the REVOLVE program of the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, will be more than just places to eat, drink, or have your cards read. As PRAMU and Coffee and (______) demonstrated, they'll be valuable gathering places, places to get to know your neighbors, and reasons for friends from other parts of town to visit. They'll also be places to get to by foot, and in a neighborhood that residents commonly refer to as "walkable without anywhere to walk to," that's a big deal.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Green City Diaries: Sustainability, the next generation

Photo by Marvin Shaouni
(originally published 10/30/12 in Model D)

When I ask 8-year-old Detroiter Taneesha Fashion what sustainability means to her, she answers, after a brief pause, "to do things that can keep going on, and they work, and they're productive, and they help the Earth." When I ask her how she practices sustainability in her daily life, she tells me, "I recycle plastic and cardboard, I eat fruit in the mornings, and I take care of my baby sister."

There's something remarkably clear and direct in what young Detroiters have to say about sustainable living. They have a knack for cutting to the chase, for simplifying what grown-ups easily overcomplicate: Sustainability means thinking long-term. It means caring for yourself, caring for others, caring for the planet. It means taking personal responsibility.

You've heard the old story about kids in Detroit. Reduced to one essential and frequently repeated narrative, it goes something like: they're not all right. The truth, of course, is much more complex. Here's one huge, but criminally underreported, part of the story about Detroit kids and teenagers: under the guidance of some heroic adults, many of them are busy transforming their city into a greener one. In school, after school, and at home, they're growing and selling food, taking ownership of their neighborhoods, and learning how to conserve natural resources.

They're learning about alternative energy and energy reduction, landscape design, neighborhood mapping, and, of course, the classic three R hierarchy that bears repeating, because it remains so clear-cut and essential to a better shared future: Reduce consumption first, reuse materials second, and then, finally, recycle what you can't reuse.

Ten or twelve middle schoolers are discussing the practical application of this hierarchy when I visit Palmer Park Preparatory Academy to observe an after school science club there.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Mr. Mies' neighborhood

Photo by Marvin Shaouni
(originally published 10/16/12 in Model D)

If you're unfamiliar with Detroit's Lafayette Park, the singular, mid-century modern neighborhood just east of Greektown, you're not alone. Thanks for the View, Mr. Mies: Lafayette Park, Detroit, an indispensable new book about what it means to live there, includes an elegant essay by resident Marsha Music in which she describes the neighborhood as "hidden in plain sight."

That's partly a nod to the abundant glass that helps define the architecture of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. He designed 162 rectilinear, two-story townhouses, 24 one-story courthouses, and three high rises built there between 1958 and 1963, all of which feature his trademark window walls. From Lafayette Blvd., it's easy to overlook the glass, brick, and steel houses, nestled unassumingly in mature greenery. Even the soaring, skeletal, 21 and 22 story high rises can be pretty inconspicuous, thanks to the subsequent proliferation of the International Style. (Minimalist glass towers may still catch the watchful eyes of architecture buffs, but the years have somewhat dulled the striking, "Behold: The Future!" quality they once possessed.)

Music's phrase is also a reference to Lafayette Park's relatively low profile in architectural and design circles worldwide. Though it isn't mentioned much, much about the development is notable. There are Mies' buildings, of course, the largest single collection in the world (take that, Lakeshore Drive!). Then there's the work by the other members of the design dream team who were brought to Detroit from IIT in Chicago to execute the park: planner Ludwig Hilberseimer, who oriented the entire development around the 19-acre, prairie style Lafayette Plaisance, and landscape architect Alfred Caldwell, whose contributions, including the park, have grown over the years into a lush, "absurdly bucolic" urban environment. Lafayette Park is, in fact, the most fully realized "settlement unit" mutually envisioned by these three designer-philosophers in the world.

There's also the fact that, depending on who tells it, Lafayette Park is either one of the only successful urban renewal projects in the county, or the sole example. It was intended to keep the middle class in the city, and for one neighborhood, anyway, it did (at the terrible expense, it should never be forgotten, of Black Bottom, the densely populated black neighborhood that was razed to make room for it). It also realizes a great dream of modernism: in addition to being racially integrated from the very beginning, the houses have remained affordable for middle class buyers for decades. The rental apartments, meanwhile, are a steal, giving working-class people and young professionals the opportunity to live in buildings whose pedigree -- not to mention floor to ceiling windows -- would make them off-limits in any other city. (Except maybe Newark.) I've been a high rise resident for more than four years, and I still sometimes feel like the Mies Police are going to show up any day now, check my tax bracket, and tell me to start packing.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Green City Diaries: reclaiming the built environment

Photo by Marvin Shaouni
(originally published 8/28/12 in Model D)

The last six decades haven't been easy on Detroit's old buildings. The large-scale flight of people and capital from the city has left dishearteningly few paths for much of our widely varied historic architecture to take. Anyone visiting the city for the first time can easily apprehend two of them: abandonment and decay, on one hand, demolition on the other.

Historic preservation, emerging in the late 1960s, created a third option: the use of legal and financial tools to designate and preserve sites of architectural and historic significance. The efforts of preservationists have certainly made a meaningful difference here, but historic designation and preservation are not panaceas; they can be defensive, rigid and, at times, ineffective. (The Albert Kahn-designed American Beauty Building, being torn down by order of Wayne State University as I write this, is on the National Register of Historic Places, but that largely symbolic designation won't prevent it from coming down.) Perhaps more importantly, preservation is not as widely feasible in Detroit as it is in other US cities; the staggering level of disinvestment and neglect here has left too many of our buildings too damaged to preserve.

This is a grim and painful situation, and it will persist. "We're going to lose a lot more buildings in this struggle," Susan McBride of the Detroit Historic Commision told me bluntly. Just last week, as if on cue, the Free Press reported that the Toronto-based owner of the Beaux Arts State Savings Bank, built downtown in 1900, is considering demolishing it to make room for, you guessed it, another parking garage. (Let's all sigh together. Or would it be more satisfying to scream?)

There is, however, reason to hope for the future. A host of recent decisions by small business owners, artisans and craftspeople, and even the administrators of large institutions suggests that, slowly and imperfectly, a fourth way of thinking about our historic buildings is burgeoning here. This diary entry is dedicated to sussing out and tentatively exploring this new ethic, which finds many expressions but is rooted in a commitment to finding sustainable solutions to the questions our old buildings persistently pose.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Green City Diaries: this land is our land, part 2

Photo by Marvin Shaouni
(originally published 7/17/12 in Model D)

When we began our discussion last week about Detroiters rejuvenating public space, we concentrated on the development and maintenance of one extraordinary park in the North End. This week, we’ll consider the revitalization of another greenspace, Palmer Park in near Northwest Detroit. But we’ll also look at a successful effort to transform a different kind of "public space" with plenty of potential for regional sustainable redevelopment: vacant lots.

Brad Dick, the director of Detroit’s General Services Department (which maintains parks, other greenspaces, and city facilities) told me that of the city’s 300 or so parks, it can currently afford to regularly maintain only 160. When the city announced the closure of 77 parks in 2010, the General Service Department’s maintenance staff had been reduced from 200 to 50 people, its full time staff from 50 to 20. (These are the staffing levels at which it remains, making attentive care to each city park impossible.)

Palmer Park, an historic, sprawling, 296 acre greenspace, was on that list. But in the wake of its official closure, a community of more than 70 supporters has coalesced around it, taking responsibility for its maintenance and programming themselves.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Green City Diaries: This land is our land, part 1

Photo by Marvin Shaouni
(originally published 7/10/12 in Model D)

I found myself thinking about public space in Detroit a few months ago while mowing a sizable swath of Lafayette Park with a borrowed push mower.

A few dozen picnic guests were set to arrive in a matter of hours, and after several days of heavy rain, the grass in the park was calf-high. I’d been willing the city to mow all week. "Please mow by Sunday" became a mantra, repeated each morning after I woke up and looked down from my apartment at the park below.

But the grass cutters, with their efficient, industrial riding mowers, never came. (It must have been near the end of the park’s 12-day mowing schedule.) Picturing itchy picnic guests politely pretending to have a good time, I decided to take matters into my own hands.

Detroiters, I thought while trudging behind the lawnmower, make this kind of decision all the time. Living as we do, 700,000 or so in a city intended for 2 million, we take ownership of public space that has been otherwise neglected, tending to it, rejuvenating it, and encouraging its active use.

We do this because we want a better quality of life. We do it because the city can’t always afford to. And we do it in different ways, from simply mowing the grass every once in a while to cleaning up vacant lots or trash-strewn alleys (sometimes planting food or flowers in them afterward), or adopting and maintaining officially closed parks.

When we think about a more sustainable Detroit, which must include our continued social and economic health in addition to environmental concerns, this practice is key. It’s clear that the city is not going to experience a sudden population boom to help fund the maintenance of our public spaces anytime soon, yet these spaces remain. Under such circumstances, they require our care to reach their full potential. Viable public spaces are where we meet and talk with our neighbors. They’re where we play and get fit together, where we share skills and learn from one another. They provide us with the opportunity to pass on our neighborhoods' stories, and to create safer environments for all who use them.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Green City Diaries: Motorless meditations

Photo by Marvin Shaouni
(originally published 6/12/12 in Model D)

There’s something about cycling in this city.

Getting around Detroit by bike isn’t exactly new; it started, in fact, in the late 19th century, and has remained an affordable transportation option for resourceful Detroiters for decades. But as in other US cities reimagining themselves with sustainability in mind, the current moment feels, well, momentous. More widespread adoption, greater visibility, and tentative infrastructural developments have all aligned in recent years to suggest that in Detroit, cycling is on the rise and here to stay.

In our previous diary entry, we focused on people who choose to get around Detroit on foot or by bus. Some of the reasons they mentioned included getting to know their city better, the fact that these modes of transit are more social and humanizing than driving, and the regular exercise they provide. Those reasons all apply to cycling too. But urban cycling is a unique transportation experience, and with its apparent local boom, we thought it deserved an entry all to itself. Our subjects this month are three Detroiters who choose to bike the Motor City. Their stories and perspectives are distinct, but united by the shared conviction that when it comes to getting around Detroit, bicycling is often best.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Allied Media Projects: Creative communications for the future

Photo by Marvin Shaouni
(originally published 5/8/12 in Model D)

It’s almost that time again: every summer since 2007, media makers (and reformers), social justice activists, radical educators and librarians, technologists, youth organizers, artists, and musicians from around the country gather in Detroit for the Allied Media Conference (AMC).

Their mission is to explore how participatory media are (and yet could be) used to create a more just and creative world. Members of this diverse and expanding "network of networks" come together to organize and strategize, and to share stories, information, and tools. They envision a future in which greater numbers of people can access and use empowering technologies to tell their own stories, and to start meaningful conversations about issues relevant to their communities.

The AMC originated in 1999 in Bowling Green, OH as the Midwest 'Zine Conference. It’s currently coordinated by Allied Media Projects (AMP), an organization that emerged out of the conference in Bowling Green and later moved it to Detroit (in part because of the city’s long history of community organizing and grassroots media production).

AMP’s small staff works out of the Furniture Factory in the Cass Corridor, in a vibrant space designed to foster interaction and collaboration. (Think pods, not cubicles.) Hosting the annual conference is the most visible work they do, but their other, lesser known and locally focused projects, Detroit Future Media (DFM) and Detroit Future Schools (DFS), are remarkable, and well worth a closer look.

Both projects are about fundamentally changing the city: "One of our goals is to transform Detroit’s economy into a media based one," Operations and Outreach Manager Adriel Thornton says. "One way to do that is through Detroit Future Media. We’re also concerned with transforming education in the city. That’s Detroit Future Schools."
Read the rest at Model D.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Green City Diaries: Walk the walk

(originally published 4/24/12 in Model D)

Francis Grunow, a northwest Detroiter who moved to New York for school and stayed a few years for work, describes a transformational moment he experienced there after college: the realization that he could get anywhere in the city he wanted to without a car. He felt, in that moment, "the distinct sense of being freer than (he’d) ever been before."

Francis is back in Detroit these days, working out of the Green Garage with New Solutions Group, a public policy consulting firm that’s concerned, in part, with improving transit in Detroit. (Read his recent Model D piece about Detroit’s transit history and potential future here.) His daily commute is a 200 or so foot walk from his home in the Canfield Lofts through the Green Alley adjacent to the Green Garage. He meets most of his clients by bicycle. While he doesn’t feel anything close to the expansive sense of transit freedom he did in New York, he does feel that "within a fairly defined area of greater downtown, I can get anywhere I want to most of the time with walking, biking, or the bus, and it’s pretty reliable."

Francis isn’t alone, and this phenomenon is worth a closer look: every day, in a city built resolutely by and for cars, people to choose to walk, take the bus, or ride a bike as a viable way of getting from here to there. As Detroit develops into a greener and more sustainable place, where cars play a smaller part in a more balanced and humanizing transit ecosystem, what can others learn from their stories?

That’s the question we’re exploring in this two-part diary entry. This month we’ll talk about taking the bus and walking, and next month we’ll look more closely at cycling.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Green City Diaries: March is for scheming

Photo by Marvin Shaouni
(originally published 3/20/12 in Model D)

It’s almost growing season in Detroit.

Across the city, hundreds of farmers and gardeners who grow food in their backyard, community, market, or porch gardens are collecting seeds, turning and adding compost to their soil, and getting together to talk about what they’re planning to plant, and how, in all their varied plots.

For this month’s diary, we’ve been skimming the deep well of wisdom that exists in Detroit’s gardening and farming communities to learn more about their work. These interconnected communities have grown here for decades, and their numbers continue to multiply as more and more city dwellers come to understand and embrace the transformative power and practical value of participating in a sustainable local urban food system.

The benefits of growing one’s own food are legion. To name a few: In a country where most food travels between 1500 to 2000 miles to reach our plate, choosing to grow fruits and vegetables can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions resulting from industrial agricultural practices and long-distance transportation. Fresh produce is more nutritious, and it tastes better. And community gardening, more and more, is being understood as a powerful generator of social capital.

We talked to a small but diverse handful of gardeners and farmers to learn the reasons why they do what they do, their insights into the local resources available to support new growers, and the specific preparations they’re making for the season.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Green City Diaries: Consume, compost, recycle, repeat

Photo by Marvin Shaouni
(originally published 2/14/12 in Model D)

It’s been a little over a year since Avalon International Breads started encouraging its customers to compost most of their waste, rather than throw it away. "Garbage is sooo 2010," reads the big, bold sign painted on what used to be the garbage can and what has been transformed into a jaunty compost bin. Simple but detailed instructions also adorn the large, colorful receptacle: "Compost Here: Food, Cups, Lids, Utensils, Salad & Dressing Containers, Paper, Soup Cups & Lids, Paper Bags, Deli Wraps." And then, in characteristic Avalon fashion, a big "Thank You!" and a heart.

Next to the compost bin are the recycling bins, housed in a metal and wood frame that’s been there since the bakery opened in 1997. And garbage? Well, if you really need to throw something away, there’s the "itty bitty garbage can," which sits on top of the much bigger compost bin in an arrangement that makes clear to anyone who walks in the door what Avalon’s eco-conscious values are.

The remarkable truth is that there’s hardly anything you can buy at Avalon these days that you can’t consume, compost, or recycle. According to the sign on the itty bitty garbage can, it is reserved for plastic bags, milk cartons, and the window bags that some loaves of bread come in. Co-owner Ann Perrault told me that plastic bottle tops are one other item that could be added to that list.

The folks at Avalon really don’t want you to throw their products away. They know, as environmentalists have been saying for decades, that there really is no "away," and they’re more committed than ever to minimizing their contributions to local landfills (or the incinerator).

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Green City Diaries: The journey begins now

Photo by Marvin Shaouni
(originally published 1/10/12 in Model D)

Detroit: green city?

It’s a little counter-intuitive, I know. We are, after all, the ignoble home of the most polluted zip code in the state and the largest trash incinerator in the country. We’re the only major city in the nation to lack city-wide curbside recycling. We unleashed the automobile and its attendant environmental woes to the world, of course, and our historic inability to build and sustain effective public transit is legendary (and continues).

I could go on, but I won’t, because we all know this story. It’s an old one.

Instead, why don’t we consider a new story? This one is about how we’re changing -- how we’re learning, day by day, to be sustainable. In some cases, this change is the result of organized efforts by committed groups with visionary leadership, producing such remarkable things as the new bike lanes in Corktown and Southwest, the Dequindre Cut, and Lafayette Greens.

But in most cases, this change is small, localized, and individualized, and it’s been happening far longer than we’ve had bike lanes. And people are noticing, as this article listing Detroit as one of the 10 emerging sustainable cities to watch makes clear. More and more, people here are choosing to live differently. They’re buying locally grown produce from farmers’ markets, for instance, and skipping the drive to the supermarket. They’re biking to work. They’re planting gardens and composting their scraps. They’re making a point to do all their holiday shopping exclusively at small businesses in the city. And, in the absence of curbside, they’re taking their recyclables to Recycle Here (and meeting like-minded neighbors in the process).