Sunday, October 9, 2011

Mind the Gap

I had a lot of fun curating "Mind the Gap," my little design ideas competition for in-between spaces in Detroit. Totally brought me back to my days at Van Alen Institute: Projects in Public Architecture in New York where we hosted competitions, exhibitions and lectures on design in the public realm.

Ever since I left Van Alen in 2002 to move to Detroit, I've been itching for more design competitions here to generate creative ideas and solutions for public space. When my friends at the Detroit Creative Corridor Center announced the first-ever Detroit Design Festival, I jumped at the chance to coordinate a small project about the "missing teeth" in our urban fabric. DC3 was kind to support the project with a micro-grant, and Detroiters were awesome to share their ideas.

I posted the top 21 submissions on the website, displayed them in an exhibit at Bureau of Urban Living, and reviewed some of them in an article for Model D. Last week we announced the winner -- Wyatt Gage, an 8th grade student at the School for Creative Studies. Here's Wyatt sharing his proposal for a railroad garden on the abandoned tracks behind Michigan Central Station in Corktown:

Big thanks to Vanessa Miller for covering the competition for the Knight Foundation, and Travis Wright for the Metro Times. Moving forward, I think I'll continue to use the Facebook page to share creative examples of urban design and public art, both around the world and in our own backyard.

It should be noted, "Mind the Gap" was inspired by many people and projects I've been following for a long time. Thanks to James Howard Kunstler for calling attention to the missing teeth in our cities, Candy Chang and the Civic Center in New Orleans for their many creative projects, and the Green Garage for showing that an urban alley need not be a forlorn pathway of trash and puddles.

Finally, many thanks to the Institute for Urban Design's "By the City/For the City" campaign for reminding me that any conversation about how to make our cities more livable and beautiful ought to begin with its residents.

The Next Big Thing

I'm excited to be working with Model D on an event later this month we're calling "The Next Big Thing" -- as in, "The next big thing is a million little things." It's a celebration of all the great small stuff that is transforming our city -- one lot, one block, one story at a time.

First and foremost, I'm thrilled about the location -- the spectacular rotunda of the David Whitney Building in downtown Detroit. The building, designed by renowned architect Daniel Burnham (most famous for the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago), has been sitting empty for a decade, awaiting redevelopment. I can't wait to bring the building to life for one night with local food, music, art and people.

I mean, c'mon. Check out this space. They don't build 'em like this anymore:

Incidentally, Daniel Burnham is best known for saying: "Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men's blood."  So it's really a perfect place to celebrate the big power of small ideas in the unfolding story of our city.

It's been a lot of work (and also a lot of fun) collaborating with Brian Boyle, Walter Wasacz and Melinda Anderson to make this event happen. It feels like a coming-together of many of my favorite things in Detroit right now -- a kind of showcase of the small-scale creativity and chutzpa that defies the tired old narrative.

It's also an anniversary party for Model D, which is celebrating six years and 300+ issues. Ever since they launched their weekly e-zine, it has been a sort of extended family for me. So it's fun to reflect on a half-decade of urban advocacy and storytelling here. So much has changed -- more local indie businesses, more voices for smart development and urban investment. We still have a long way to go, but it's good to stop and recognize how far we've come.

This also reminds me that it has been a year since I sat for Erik Proulx's documentary, Lemonade: Detroit. Boy, how time flies. During that interview, Erik caught me saying something along the same lines: "Lots of little things, that's the future."

I credit people like Brian Boyle and Colin Hubbell for helping me articulate this sense of possibility and opportunity in Detroit. While we wait for bigger initiatives like a mass transit system or a regional governing authority, it's still the small stuff that gets me up everyday.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

On Standing

I've already posted here about how much I adore David Simon. If he announced he was running for Mayor or President of anywhere, I would drop everything to help get him elected.

(To be fair, I say that knowing he will probably never be on a ballot. He has a much better job as a storyteller.)

This talk he gave in New Orleans really resonated for me. So much of the same stuff in Detroit right now. Suspicion of outsiders and newcomers. Insensitivity to external realities and commonalities. Criticism of ideas not on merit, but on some measure of "authenticity" or tenure or geography of the author.

And all this from folks who call themselves "progressive." It's a damn shame.

I think this quote sums it up pretty well:

"Everyone uses 'standing' as a shield. And it hides the fact that there are a lot of bad ideas that get credence, and a lot of good ideas that get ignored."

His anecdote about development in New Orleans and Baltimore hit especially close to home. If only we could think differently about what "progress" really means.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011


Photos courtesy of rogue HAA

I really enjoyed being a part of this design conversation hosted by rogueHAA on August 16 at 2:1 Gallery. We were asked to think about what "motivations" (and ulterior motives) inspire us to do our work in the city, so it was a nice chance to revisit my mission and inspiration from Jane Jacobs, James Howard Kunstler, Jaime Lerner and others. It also gave me the opportunity to reflect on some of the things I've learned in my last decade here in Detroit.

Thanks to Melissa Dittmer and Jamie Witherspoon from Hamilton Anderson for including me in the discussion. Thanks also to Milton Curry, Kate Daughdrill and Stephen Vogel for sharing their ideas and experience.

All Together Now

"Government is the name we give to the things we choose to do together." 
-Congressman Barney Frank

Speaking of government, I love this new poster from the Civic Center in New Orleans...

...and the description posted with it:

"This limited edition silkscreen poster commemorates the idea that government can compromise, collaborate and do grown-up things -- or at the very least, not scare the hell out of us. For now, it's time to do these things ourselves. Let's work together to make our cities nicer, manage our resources wisely, and teach our kids about science."

The Civic Center is awesome. Support their work by buying the poster here.

Privilege & Duty

Not sure where this photo was taken, but I love it. (via Josh McManus, Create Here)

Another Lovely Canfield Street Market

Canfield Street Market
Design by Claire Nelson (2011)

This is the li'l poster I made for our fourth Canfield Street Market hosted by City Bird and Bureau of Urban Living. The event was loads of fun, with dozens of local vendors and a surprise visit from the Detroit Party Marching Band. For some lovely snapshots of their street performance, check out Vanessa Miller's Flickr site here.

Mind the Gap

Mind the Gap
Design by Claire Nelson (2011)

I've been dying to organize a design ideas competition in Detroit for a very long time. When the Detroit Design Festival put out their call for projects, I submitted a proposal and put together a simple website. Inspired by many, many other competitions for public spaces (including, most recently, the Institute for Urban Design's "By the City / For the City" project), I thought it would be interesting to solicit ideas for "in-between" spaces in our city -- alleys, surface parking lots, that sort of thing. The hope is to generate simple, creative solutions to address the "missing teeth" in our gap-toothed streetscapes and help stitch our urban fabric back together.

"Mind the Gap" seemed to be a good name, and this image of a chain-link fence represents all the underutilized surface parking lots around here that make me crazy.

More info about the project here.

DIA Invitation

Detroit Institute of Arts Invitation
Design by Claire Nelson (2011)

This was an invitation for a special event to celebrate the Detroit Institute of Art's "Be a Part of the Art" program. A quickie design job for my friend Peter Van Dyke. Because I'll do pretty much anything Peter asks me to. Pretty much.

Monday, August 1, 2011

A Very Detroit Week

Green Alley Dinner Party. Photo by Lisa Meshew.

A few months back, my friend Claire Nowak-Boyd posted a comment about how Detroit was "Detroiting" really hard that day. I loved her use of Detroit as a verb.

I can't speak for Claire, but I've experienced my own version of this a handful of times. It's like the city is on-stage, showing off for the audience, playing comedy and tragedy all at once. The best of times and the worst of times in one big, soul-stirring performance.

That's how I felt this week. Detroit was Detroiting hard.

First, there were lots of big announcements -- the Live Downtown incentive program, the Mayor's selection of neighborhoods for the Detroit Works Project, and the official word that Whole Foods is coming to Detroit (which might not seem like such a big deal in another city, but was a VERY big deal here).

Add to that a handful of new retail openings -- Astro Coffee in Corktown, 71 POP in Midtown Detroit, even Somerset Collection's first downtown retail experiment on lower Woodward -- and Detroit was buzzing with the thrill of the new.

There was the 313 Party at the Detroit Historical Museum, which brought together lots of friends old and new, followed by a gathering of more friends for the debut of "Motor City Pride," a lovely new video about gay life produced by Team Detroit.

A few days later, we hosted our little Canfield Street Market at City Bird and Bureau of Urban Living, with dozens of local vendors and a surprise visit from the Detroit Party Marching Band. The night ended with an outdoor movie screening in the Green Alley to celebrate its first birthday.

Detroit Marching Band, Canfield Street Market. Photo by Vanessa Miller.

All of this was put in perspective by the sad and untimely passing of Detroit poet D. Blair, which brought forth countless videos of his words and music. Blair was much loved around here, and the tributes flowed all week. Hundreds gathered for a community march and service to celebrate his life.

All of these events and milestones together heightened my awareness of a city in transition. While some folks bristled at the news of new corporate interest (Somerset, Whole Foods), others rejoiced in new urban investment. While most celebrated the opening of new indie businesses, a few rolled their eyes at the rise of "hipster" culture and warned against gentrification.

Oh, and while all of this was going on, the beautiful old historical Cass Tech high school building not far from here was in its last days of demolition. A total waste of great architecture and a real loss for the community, if you ask me. Watching it fall (by our very own hands, no less) was a sobering reminder that even with all of our good "progress" around here to build stronger neighborhoods and public spaces, Detroit is still far behind in the sustainability department.

Historic Cass Technical High School. Photo by Dan Austin.

On a brighter note, the highlight of the week for me was a neighborhood dinner we hosted in the Green Alley -- a summer al fresco potluck with fifty friends and neighbors.

Salvaged wood table settings and fresh flower arrangements were created by the lovely & talented Melinda Anderson, with all biodegradable dishware & utensils from Matt Naimi's Michigan Green Safe Products. I picked up an assortment of Michigan wines from our local Harbortown Market, and Motor City Brewing Works rolled over a keg of beer. We all enjoyed delicious food from the kitchens of our guests -- most of whom live within just a few blocks from the alley.

It was a magical evening. A dream come true, really. I walk this alley every day, and I've been imagining a dinner party here for a year now. When I pitched the idea to Tom at the Green Garage and John & Dan at MCBW, they gave me the green light and asked how they could help. This is why I love my neighbors.

Once again -- for the millionth time -- I was reminded how much I love my Detroit family, and how lucky I am to be a Detroiter at this moment in its history.

It's exciting, it's heartbreaking. It's hopeful, it's uncomfortable. It's Detroit in the Summer of 2011.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

On Equality

It's Bastille Day, so I'm thinking about my favorite French things. Baguettes, fromage, and the classic French tripartite motto -- "LibertéÉgalité, Fraternité!"

Yeah, we're not doing so good with that second one on this side of the Atlantic.

I went back to re-read that Mother Jones piece from earlier this year ("It's the Inequality, Stupid") with eleven charts explaining "everything that's wrong with America." The infographics confirmed the disturbing disparity between rich and poor we see and feel everyday throughout the U.S.

The charts were decidely depressing. But one stuck out as a glimmer of hope:

For this study, over 5,000 Americans were asked how they thought wealth is distributed in the United States. Most thought it was more balanced than it actually is. 

The actual distribution is troubling, but this is not:

When asked to choose our IDEAL distribution of wealth, 92% picked a FAR more equitable spread.

I think this is huge. This says there might be hope for us after all. Look at that bottom line of the chart & memorize it. This is what we WANT our country to look like. It's so rare that 92% of America agrees on anything. Let's make this happen, people.

(p.s. Here is another great article on this topic -- from Vanity Fair of all places.)

Friday, July 1, 2011

You're Welcome

"Gay Detroit" Speaker Series. Photo by Marvin Shaouni for Model D.

Living in Detroit often feels like getting a Ph.D. in life. The city is my classroom, and thanks to an always-interesting mix of extra-curricular projects, I get to dive into all kinds of different topics and learn about what makes places work.

In June, I was lucky to spend a lot of time exploring the state of gay culture & community in Detroit. I didn't plan this exactly, it just kind of unfolded this way.

After lending a hand with Supergay Detroit's "Detroit Pride Project" for Motor City Pride, I had a lot of fun coordinating the Model D Speaker Series on "Gay Detroit" with WDET and Unity Michigan. It was a great night at the Park Bar, especially when our event overlapped with an after-party for the Detroit City Futbol League. The place was packed, and I left that night feeling better about the future of this town than I had in a long time.

"You're Welcome." Photo by Marvin Shaouni for Model D.

After that, I interviewed four new LGBT residents of Willy's Overland Lofts in Midtown Detroit for a feature article called "You're Welcome" in Model D. Jeff, Elliott, Melissa & Patricia were super generous to share their impressions and invite photographers into their homes -- and then do it all again for this awesome video produced by Team Detroit:

I believe with all my heart that for Detroit to truly thrive, it needs to be more open and welcoming. When we drafted the Detroit Declaration, we made this the first principle for a very good reason:

"Principle 1: Be welcoming and embrace our diversity. Move beyond mere tolerance of our differences to a true commitment to openness, understanding and cooperation, and the inclusion of multiple perspectives both in our neighborhoods and at the highest decision-making realms."

At our Model D Speaker Series, Detroit's first openly gay City Council President Charles Pugh intimated that he would be running for Mayor in the not-so-distant future. That's about as high as you can get on the decision-making ladder around here. And then Mayor Bing was quoted saying: "People are people. Just because we have different kinds of lifestyles doesn't mean something's wrong."

Okay, maybe not so radical. But this is progress in a city where the church community still holds a lot of political power. 

Anyway, it's better than our last mayor who openly opposed gay marriage. I'll never forget listening to a radio interview years ago with Mayor Richard Daley saying he would totally support gay marriage in Chicago, and then cutting to Mayor Kilpatrick in Detroit who was notsomuch a big fan of that. 

I remember thinking, "Well, there ya go. Their city is rolling out the welcome mat, and ours is rolling it up. How's that workin' for us, Detroit?"

Note to City Mayors: Never underestimate the power of a welcome mat. When I think about all the lovely people who brought me into the fold when I moved here a decade ago and schooled me on what makes Detroit great, many of them were gay. They supported the shop, they commissioned design work. And they kept me well fed (and drunk) even when I wasn't sure how long I'd stay. Some of my dearest Detroit friendships trace back to Indian Village dinner parties and historic preservation events and Doggystyle Tuesdays at the Park Bar. This is really a huge part of why I'm still here. 

I can't pretend to know what it feels like to be gay in a city that hasn't always been so gay-friendly. But I do know what it's like to be a newcomer in a place that can be wary of outsiders. Even if you're the kind of person who thrives on creating change or challenging the status quo, we all need places where we feel safe and wanted.

At the end of Pride month, I finally got around to ordering a rainbow sticker to put in my window. Thanks to Kirsten Ussery for reminding me that sometimes small symbols can be meaningful. 

It's not gonna change the world -- it's just a little sticker. And honestly, it should have been there when I opened. But alas, it's there now.