So You Want to Save a House?

I am speaking on this panel today. I am talking about how you can collaborate with a land bank to market historic houses in your neighborhood that they were going to either demolish or let languish.

Lose sleep! Work hard! Eventually get neighbors! It’s great.

The details: So You Want to Save a House?
Published in: on January 27, 2016 at 10:52 am  Leave a Comment  
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“We know the name of the architect of Grand Central, but who swept the floors?”

–Studs Terkel

I heard this quote on a StoryCorps podcast this morning, and spent a moment hovering on the brink of crying in my car. Yes, yes, a thousand times YES. This is why old buildings matter, because they belong to all of us. Because you can point to it and say I lived there, I worked there, I went to school there. It is built, physical proof that you exist, that your life story is true. I thought about a kid (now in his early 20s but I still think of him as a kid–ed.) I know on the North Side of St. Louis…. Many of the buildings he’s lived in have been torn down. A mutual friend remarked, “It’s like the carpet of his life is rolling up behind him.”

So yeah, this is why I sometimes lose sleep over a humble house. This is why my favorite building is a two-story storefront (ILY, 4831 Fountain). This is why I say we need to talk about the stories of buildings’ lives and what they meant to people, not just which catalog the architect Dead Q. Whiteguy ordered the terracotta from (as much as YOU KNOW I love that info too). This is why I talk about the neighborhoods we lost for the freeways and the ones we are still losing to sketchy banks and Paul McKee.

The Guardian Building matters because it is so goddamn beautiful but also because it was built by many sets of hands, also because so many people have worked there and walked through the doors. The Guardian Building also matters because we all love it, visit it, show it off, take it as a proud symbol of our identity as Detroiters, photograph it, run our fingers over the carved stone. Standing in the Guardian Building’s lobby fills me with emotion but I am moved just as strongly (if in a different way) by standing in the front yard of the burnt house that was my mother’s childhood home.

Places matter, and they matter because of *all* of their people.


Yesterday I learned a gross and fascinating fact of the “Old buildings are something, aren’t they?” variety.

It is possible for a century-old storefront to get the meatsweats.

Some friends told me about how their building, which was a meat business until a few years ago, has a big dark area in its hardwood floor. When it gets hot out, it turns white–the wood exudes a thin coating of animal fat. Past lives of the building come out of the floor.

Published in: on January 9, 2016 at 3:48 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Why the Jefferson Lake idea on the Rally Saint Louis page needs to be removed

This evening, a friend brought to my attention a proposal someone made for North St. Louis on the Rally STL website, entitled Jefferson Lake, posted by user cooperpriess. It is a proposal to replace substantial parts of the St. Louis Place and Jeff Vander Lou neighborhoods with a giant urban lake.

The pitch for the idea describes the area as “kind of a blank slate,” a phrase that people actually wince at here in Detroit. Simply put, we are used to it being used by white not-from-here people to describe plans for black neighborhoods, that do not include the residents of those neighborhoods.

The footprint of the proposed lake includes:

-Occupied nice 19th century housing (including a house where my friend’s family has lived for 51 years)

-Occupied new housing

-At least one entire school (The way the rendering is done, the road clips a corner of another SLPS school which I attended, which was built less than 20 years ago)

-The Griot Museum, as pointed out by @PubPolWonk on twitter

-The St. Louis firefighters’ training center

-Numerous churches

-Numerous businesses, including a large pigment factory, a sponge company, a medical laundry company, a granite countertop company, an operating ironworks, and small shops owned by people of color

This is a partial list, dashed off quickly from the top of my head.

Suggesting that a big hole in the ground would be better than black homes and businesses is not okay. Suggesting that my friends’ homes should just be wiped away is not okay. This idea would literally erase these places and resources if implemented, and the suggestion of it erases them in the metaphorical sense. Do Rally STL and cooperpriess not see how harmful it is for white people to suggest the wholesale removal of black neighborhoods in a city as hurting and divided as St. Louis? Do they not understand that this would be a continuation of the city’s history of urban renewal, including the Mill Creek Valley project that intentionally wiped out the black business district of its time?

The St. Louis Place community has been through a lot. They have survived urban renewal, redlining, the under-provision of basic quality of life services at Pruitt-Igoe, the implosion of Pruitt-Igoe, fallout from the savings and loan crisis, massive under-servicing from the City of St. Louis (one summer the grass was person height), and Paul McKee. The US Army tested toxic chemicals on the community from sprayers atop Pruitt-Igoe, something that was known about by the neighborhood for a long time but only officially acknowledged in 2012.

And yet, people stay. They live, they work, they have cute puppies and amazing block parties. The people who can make it through all of that are the heartiest, most resilient residents, the kind of people a city struggling with population decline should want to hang on to. They deserve reparations. At the least, they deserve the same availability of capital, insurance, and public services that home and business owners elsewhere in the city get, something resembling a fair playing field. They deserve respect, not urbanist spins on Paul McKee’s shtick. This is a new face on old racist planning.

And how would this idea be implemented, anyway? Would the budget for the lake include relocation costs for households, resources for them to build roots in their new spots? How would it account for the fact that people of color in St. Louis, including many in this footprint, have already survived relocations before this one? Would it support businesses as they found new buildings, and make sure they stayed open years down the line? Working ironworks can’t exactly shut down at night and then have all their equipment installed elsewhere by the next morning, and they are legally obligated to fulfill their contracts. Where does this plan propose that the firefighter training center be rebuilt, and how would that get paid for? How would it account for the loss of regal 19th century historic buildings, including some of the last stone facade homes on the North Side?

I understand that the person who suggested this was probably well-meaning. But as someone who lived on the Near North Side for five years, I have a hard time distinguishing it from any of the other myriad proposals of things-that-will-never-be-built for that same footprint. Others that have not happened have included a golf course, a subdivision, a warehouse hub tied to shipping from China, a subdivision again, and now the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency. None of it has been built. But every addition to the list is insulting and hurtful. It’s as if the region is fumbling for any excuse, now including a big wet hole in the ground, to replace black communities. They would rather have a pit than to simply leave St. Louis Place residents’ homes alone.

Black neighborhoods are not problems, and they are especially not problems to be solved by clear-cutting with a bulldozer. They simply are neighborhoods, as valid and deserving of resources and continued existence as white ones.

The Jefferson Lake proposal describes the area as “vacant” and “dilapidated,” which is not true for the entire area. Again, there are residents, institutions, and value, something anyone who has spent quality time there would know. The vacancy and dilapidation that exists is due very significantly to the efforts of intentionally destructive property owner Paul McKee, who has used every trick in the 1950s blockbusting handbook to pressure people out of their property, and torn blocks asunder for his own gain. The proposal does not mention this elephant in the room once, and that’s because it is not actually interested in addressing the causes of neighborhood decline, but rather in a false, silver-bullet notion of urban planning.

The proposal also notes that the area is “lacking access to services.” As a former resident, no quibble here! But the solution to an area being underserved isn’t to drop a bomb on that area, it’s to serve the area. Want to kickstart development, the stated goal of this project? Great, put good quality grocery stores in several locations, and hire North Side residents at good wages in the stores. Implement a project that collects data on the quality and timeliness of city service provision in both black and white neighborhoods, and then use the findings to press for fairness. Talk to people giving small business loans and training in other cities and bring their ideas to help existing and new businesses in North City. Create an informational resource on funds for home repair and home insurance, and help people apply for those things. Teach a GED class or mentor a teenager. Serve the area, and the improved quality of life will help it flourish.

I have tried to be patient with this idea, but it’s hard to be charitable when someone looks at your community and suggests that nothingness would be better. This is that McRee Town eminent domain logic, the thought that white eyes should be relieved from having to look at black neighborhoods, and that that relief should be the focus of urban policy and resources. This logic does not care for black homes or black lives. It does not care what happens to anyone in their new community, once their old community has been replaced with something visibly new and twee.

In closing, Rally St. Louis, I call on you to pull Jefferson Lake from your site. Take it down. No, it’s not going to get built, but leaving a proposal to eliminate black neighborhoods up reinforces that this kind of thinking is not only acceptable, but somehow positive. It is also a harmful thing to do read for those who live in such neighborhoods–A friend who lives there once remarked, “Do people think we don’t have the Internet?” Rally Saint Louis’s own site says that you “[ask] that you do not submit ideas that contain or revolve around” a list of things, including “racism.” Eliminating entire black neighborhoods and (as twitter user @PubPolWonk notes) St. Louis’s only black history museum seems like it ought to meet that guideline.

Published in: on April 15, 2015 at 12:49 am  Comments (3)  
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I kept thinking someone was coming up the driveway, with the weird white light at the end of it. People often use our driveway to turn around, or… was it my landlord coming home? I stopped twice, and then hesitated again at the end of the drive, but there was no car coming. I backed all the way out of the driveway and sat there in my car, dumbfounded, in the pool of light. Looked at my hands in the light, looked at the steering wheel in the light. Backed down the street a few feet, rolled down the window, stuck my head out and discovered that NEW STREETLIGHTS HAVE REPLACED THE LONG TERM BROKEN ONES ON MY DETROIT BLOCK.

Published in: on November 3, 2014 at 9:11 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Late notice: Why save old buildings in Detroit? Preservation Detroit on Who We Are and What We Do


Preservation Detroit President Amy Elliott Bragg and I will be talking about old buildings in Detroit and why they matter, later today. If you can make it, we’d love to see you and answer your questions.

Published in: on October 15, 2014 at 11:06 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Weekend vignettes

Walking in a Hamtramck alley yesterday, we crossed paths with a woman carrying crutches but not using them. She asked, “Making pictures?”


“Do you work for the historical society?”

“Actually, yes.”


As we were leaving the historic Jewish cemetery we visited today, he pointed out the water pump.

“Oh, you wash your hands when you leave,” I explained, “so death doesn’t follow you home.”

“Do you want to?”

“I’m pretty sure it’s broken. It didn’t work last time.”

So he got his water bottle out and we washed our hands there in the parking lot.

Published in: on September 21, 2014 at 4:25 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Last Service: A memorial for First Unitarian Church

The Last Service: A memorial for First Unitarian Church


On Sunday,  Preservation Detroit will host a memorial for First Unitarian Church, at the site. The abrupt burning and demolition of this 1890 building has been a shock for many of us. Join us for readings, remembrance, and solidarity.

Published in: on May 15, 2014 at 1:20 pm  Leave a Comment  
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neighbor = comrade

When I’m in a good mood and it’s a sunny day, my idea of what constitutes my neighborhood grows. My neighborhood is all the neighborhoods within a couple mile radius of my house. My neighborhood is the entire Northeast Side. My neighborhood is all of Detroit (and Hamtramck and Highland Park). My neighborhood stretches all the way to your neighborhood, and it’s full of fascinating little surprises.

Published in: on May 4, 2014 at 4:37 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Community working session on pollution in Delray

A friend passed this info along. The EPA is holding a community working session to figure out how to redress the harm that Severstal Steel has done/will continue to do with pollution in Southwest and Dearborn.

Community Working Session

May 6th 4-6:30 PM

Delray Community Center, 420 Leigh Street Detroit MI

The  US Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA), Department of Justice (DOJ) and Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ)  will be hosting a working session to solicit ideas for supplemental environmental projects (SEP) related to a possible settlement of alleged Clean Air Act violations asserted against Severstal Dearborn’s steel manufacturing plant in the future. 

A supplemental environmental project is an environmentally beneficial project that a defendant agrees to undertake to settle an enforcement action, but which it is not otherwise legally required to perform.  The ultimate decision to participate in the SEP process and the project proposal will come from Severstal Dearborn. US EPA, MDEQ and DOJ will gather ideas to pass along to Severstal. These agencies will have to approve any project proposal prior to its inclusion in a settlement.  All such projects must comply with the SEP policy*, including the requirement to have an adequate “nexus” to the violation. This means that there must be a specific connection between the proposed project and the violation.

In this case, EPA and MDEQ have issued violation notices to Severstal, alleging, among other things, that it has violated state and federal rules limiting particulate matter emissions from Severstal’s iron and steel-making operations. 

We are looking for projects that relate to the violations and can be scaled to different project sizes. We will collect comments limited to five minutes in length and will collect any other ideas in writing after the meeting.


Questions?  Contact:

Kasey Barton, Associate Regional Counsel

US EPA Region 5         Ph: 312-886-7163