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This is More Like It…

February 14, 2011

Design Observer has just posted a new essay, “This is Flint, Michigan,” from Wes Janz.  Janz is a landscape architect and professor at Ball State University in Indianapolis who has been working with his students and locals for a number of years on projects in the City of Flint.

The honest, thoughtful, and optimistic look at the city and his experiences is an essential read for students and professional designers, residents, and the curious alike and leads to some seriously powerful questions about how we design and create space in places like Flint.

Many thanks go to Josh Wallaert, assistant editor of DO’s “Places” journal, for the heads up.


Rust-ploitation: Imported from Detroit…

February 7, 2011

Exported to the world

It’s been a while.  Been a might busy with my return to graduate school.

However, just as I was taking the first evening off in quite some time, Facebook, various blogs, and the internet in general seemed to be lighting on fire with the buzz about one of the ads aired during the game.  “A lovely commercial that pays tribute to a beautiful city,” one person notes on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Facebook page.  On Flint Expatriates, another says, “Yes, it’s time we stopped apologizing.”  (What, exactly, ‘we’ should stop apologizing for, is not mentioned.)  In general, the consensus was this was the best ad of the whole evening, it was about Detroit, was making lots of people cry (in the good way it was suggested), had Eminem in it, and was (I’m approximating/paraphrasing here because I didn’t get to see it ‘live’) about two or three cases full of awesomesauce.

I’ve been so utterly and impossibly moved by this commercial though–I’m literally shaking as I type this–that I simply have to post about it.  I’m a little  embarrassed that it’s taken a COMMERCIAL to get me going when I’ve been reading and seeing and engaged in so a broad range of interesting things, but c’est la vie!

Having returned home and seen the video on Youtube, I must say, as an interested follower/observer of marketing/branding design, commercials, and my down-trodden Rust Belt home, this is probably one of the most finely crafted and well-executed advertisements I have EVER seen, contemporary or otherwise.  The wave of aplomb from those back home and elsewhere is partial proof of that, and with campaigns like “Pure Michigan,” we’ve gotten used to seriously well done advertising.  Emotionally, it’s as evocative, skillful, and compelling as Apple’s infamous “1984” and as honest, pragmatic, and candid about its subject as the Ministry of Information’s unneeded (thankfully) “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster was about its own in 1939.

In the two-minute commercial, a first in the Super Bowl’s history at such a length (and expense), we see cuts and quick edits of steaming smoke stacks of Marathon’s oil refinery, Detroit road-way infrastructure, Diego Rivera’s “Detroit Industry,” a cute skater in Campus Martius, Marshall Fredericks’ “Spirit of Detroit,” young professionals walking to work, traffic cops directing traffic, and lots of shots of some pretty great architecture–historic to Modern–that’s still standing and in some cases still occupied, set against the gleams and curves of a new car and to the familiar and quintessential Detroit tune of “Lose Yourself” by Eminem.  Marshal Mathers stars in the commercial and utters the final, powerful line which speaks to the city’s resilience, strength, hard work, knowledge, conviction:

“This is the Motor City, and this is what we do.”

So, is this brilliantly executed bit of marketing a new direction for the “Pure Michigan” campaign, to craft the State of Michigan’s tremendous potential in a profoundly honest, industrial-roots sort of way?  Is it the first step from the City of Detroit, no longer satisfied to be reported on, standing up, and taking a proactive leap forward?  Was it the beleaguered auto manufacturers taking responsibility for the part they played in leading Detroit and cities like it straight down Good Intentions Blvd. and into Hell in the first place? Was this the sign of a renewed and optimistic pledge committing themselves to the sort of localized, placed-based, craftsman-oriented, civic-minded and engaged companies they once were? Is it the inspiring collaboration of the creative and entrepreneurial scene that’s being grown by locals and new residents alike in the region?

No.  It’s none of these things.  The estimated $9 million dollar commercial (that’s $75,000 a second, if you’re keeping track of that stuff) is part of Chrysler Group LLC’s latest marketing campaign and slogan, “Imported from Detroit.”  The company famous for being run into the ground and getting a government bailout in 1979 is now a private company (it’s owned by Cerberus Capital Management, the U.S. government, and Fiat SpA and is not a public stock offering like Ford or GM), currently governed in great part by Fiat SpA, which owns 25% of Chrysler and, if financial news is accurate, will likely be 51% foreign-owned by the time the company goes goes public again, when and if it exits bankruptcy reorganization. One could have an interesting conversation about which bailout, exactly, it’s recovering from, since the first bailout and subsequent billions in government loans to keep the company afloat, were lost as part of the government restructuring process. (I’m admittedly out of my league when it comes to keeping tabs on the details and financial aspects of the bailout and Chrysler’s tumultuous history of management, bailouts, and poor economics and I apologize in advance for any errors.)

And the car itself?  From what I can see on the website, it’s less the scrappy, “hell-and-back”-forged luxury car suggested by the commercial, and more the cheapest entry in the midsize car market (think Chevy Malibu, Toyota Camry, Nissan Altima, and Ford Fusion) that you would expect from the re-branding of the old and tired Sebring Sedan. While the new engine is quietly praised within the industry, the car also gets the worst gas mileage and has the least interior and cargo room of all the others to accommodate this performance and price point.  I find it nearly impossible to believe that it’s the sort of car Eminem would ever be caught dead in (outside of a commercially paid endorsement, that is).

So, at the end of the day, this commercial is, as great commercials do, exploiting the raw, visceral connection we Michiganders and Rust Beltians have to the tough, no-nonsense, take-it-or-leave-it, rise up from the ashes mentality and emotional power that is born of routinely being the butt of every hard-knock, stats quoting, economic, demographic, and cultural bad news story for the last half century.  I can respect that.  My family worked those lines, and many others.  I grew up and lived in the shadows and bright points of light around Flint, MI.  I traveled all over and truly believe that few places have as much potential as the former engines of war and production that once drove the entire U.S. economy.

But I’m disgusted by this ad.  What I can’t respect is the continued exploitation–now extended to the point of being rust-ploitation–of our communities to make a few more bucks.  Coming from one of the companies that took us by the hand and helped lead places like Detroit to become the broken, troubled, and abandoned shells they now are now is a level of hypocritical, self-serving aggrandizement of what’s great about these cities and their people that’s so unspeakably insulting and unforgivable that I would never be able to fully express how this ad makes me really feel. That’s not to say these corporations were the only reason for the city’s decline. Far from it.  But no business with an impact like that, especially not Chrysler or GM, deserves the praise so many are placing upon them.

No company that so deliberately and exactingly exploits the strengths and resources of places like Detroit or Flint or anywhere else, for the purpose of selling anything less than the very people and their power deserves any praise, flippant or otherwise.  The one thing that moderates my academicly influenced rage is the fact that none of you will be going out and buying a Chrysler 200 anyway.  For the vast majority of you, this is nothing but a passing note on your facebook page as you go about your day as physical embodiments of the strength, passion, and work ethic noted in the message, too busy with too many great things to give it, to say nothing of the product, much thought at all.

THAT is the Motor/Vehicle City and that is what you do.

Flint is…

July 12, 2010

Ms. Strachan, columnist and features coordinator with the Flint Journal, has posted a new story about her recent speaking engagement with the Flint Club’s, 4th Friday Lecture Series.

Stemming from one of the final take-aways of her nervously energetic stream-of-conciousness styled presentation, her article asks an important question that few take the time to ask these days, “What do we want Flint to be known by?” and touches on the importance that reputation, identity and branding have in announcing and promoting our city.  It recalls recent attempts, some intriguing (like the “Flint is…” stickers you occasionally see from an independent artist’s efforts a few years ago–please correct me if I’m wrong) and some a failure before they even start (like the current administration’s city seal/logo blunder where not only did they request spec work from Flint students, but doomed the whole effort because they didn’t realize it would violate city charter until after their grand announcement, advertised with a poorly designed and written flyer,  and never announced the results) but none that really stuck.

These efforts, of course, wither in the continuing onslaught of bad press, from sources like Forbes and The Flint Journal.

Answering the question of what Flint should be known as is what The Silver City blog is all about, and as I work to make updates a regular part of my weekly routine, I hope you all take the time to provide your own thoughts or feedback as well.  There are also a number of other efforts that are building mass and maturing a better perspective of Flint and the region.  Check out the “Changing Perceptions of Flint” email that the Flint Area Convention & Visitors Bureau puts out, Ms. Strachan’s ongoing features, any of the ‘Flint Blogs’ I’ve got listed–please let me know of others if they’re out there–Flint Club’s 4th Friday Lecture Series, 2nd Friday Art Walk, and the list goes on.

Flint is nothing if we sit back and wait for someone else to do all the work.

Genesee Tower a Key to a Sustainable 21st Century City*

June 13, 2010

Shown here in late summer, 2007 (c) Shaun Smakal

To briefly summarize, the story of Genesee County’s tallest building is as unfortunate, disappointing and ugly as the building’s current state.  At present, the City of Flint is in the process of appealing a court decision over the appraised value of the building and regardless of the final verdict, will become the owner of the property.  

There is a broad array of rumors, opinion and confusion about the building floating around the general public but from what I’ve been able to determine, the building is neither structurally deficient nor in danger of failure.  Much of the controversy over its condition is based on the character and function of the building’s façade, its long-term vacancy and maintenance, aesthetic style, impending legal costs to the city and a lack of information and discussion about its future.  

Because there’s been no public discourse on the buildings true potential or a genuine exploration of any alternatives, the general public believes that the best way to handle Genesee Towers is to demolish it.  This position is reinforced by the City of Flint’s intent to pursue demolition, the rationale being that it’s the cheapest and easiest thing for the city to do.  

I wish to challenge that mind-set.  

 I have to ask:  What is to be gained by tearing down Genesee Towers?  A vacant, ugly building is torn down.  So what?  The building doesn’t have to be vacant or ugly.  Under city ownership, it represents a potential source of revenue, but not as a vacant lot.  

If the structure is in imminent threat of collapse and causing significant damage to adjacent buildings and loss of life, then tear it down.  

If the city has an exciting development opportunity to replace the building with a structure that is grander in scale, program, urban vibrancy and sustainability that can’t be placed anywhere else, then tear it down and build it anew.  

But if the answer is because it’s cheap and easy, then we need to reexamine our priorities.  Our Mayor has made a commitment to making Flint a “sustainable 21st century city.”  It’s time we start taking the risks and doing the work needed to make this a reality and transforming Genesee Towers into an innovative, sustainable, exciting and beautiful addition to the downtown is a great place to start.   

 If it will take a $20-30 million investment to turn Genesee Towers into a great building that the people and businesses of this city are proud of and helps attract new opportunities, I would say that’s a much more worthwhile investment than spending $8-10 million to turn it into another vacant lot that still detracts from the vitality of our downtown, no one is proud of and will likely never see comparable development for over 100 years, if ever.  Even if a $10-12 million dollar development were to be found and built on the demo site it would never match the impact of refurbishing, reprogramming and redeveloping the existing structure.

This doesn’t include the substantial energy, carbon and material costs that would be lost by demolishing an existing building.

We all know the city can’t afford to turn Genesee Towers into an amazing LEED Platinum building that shows our commitment to an innovative, brighter future for our city.

We can’t afford anything that highlights a marvelous new way to invest in and grow a proactive approach to sustainable urbanism that not only works for us, but establishes a model for others to follow. 

But we can’t let our fears and concerns about whom is going to do the work for us or how we’re going to pay for it hold our city, its leadership or citizenry back from investing in our future.  If we were determined and passionate about making it happen, about making this vision a reality, we wouldn’t have to worry about the cost. 

We can find a way to make it happen, but only if we work for it. 

Will it be easy or cheap?  No. 

But nothing worth doing ever is. 

Will someone come to our rescue at the 11th hour?  No.  And expecting someone else to fix it for us will get us nowhere. 

We’ve got a lot of work do and we need to get started. 

*Note:  This article was submitted to The Flint Journal’s Letter-to-the-Editor on May 21st, 2010 and was never printed.  An “Our Voice” op-ed by Flint Journal staff was posted online June 11th and published June 13th 2010, that is similar to my original letter, but advocates for the same old “we should let someone else do it” attitude that continues to fail this city.  Please note that some changes to spelling and format have been made to my letter to accomodate this blog post.

What Flint needs…

September 22, 2009

“The Community Development Advocates of Detroit (CDAD), Detroit’s trade association of community development organizations, has released a statement outlining eight essential principles for the revitalization of Detroit and its neighborhoods.  The eight-point statement is a product of the on-going work of CDAD’s Community Development Futures Task Force, and a precursor to the full written report expected in December 2009.” See the statement here.

It reflects the needs of the City of Flint very well.  To put it in my own simple terms Flint needs:

  2. A bold, new vision of revitalization FOR THE WHOLE CITY!
  3. A bold, new vision of revitalization for the whole city IN THE LONG TERM!
  4. Stabilization and enhancement of existing, viable neighborhoods.
  5. Crazy new ideas for vacant land and increased density everywhere else.
  6. Collaboration.
  7. Involve neighborhoods/community organizations in developing strategies to achieve this vision.
  8. A comprehensive, transparent and public process for the whole thing, from beginning to end.

Developing Developments

September 20, 2009
Downtown Flint from the Stevenson Street Bridge.

Downtown Flint from the Stevenson Street Bridge taken in March of 2005. © Shaun Smakal

Pardon the rambling, train-of-thought styling of this post, but the topic could, literally, be edited into dozens of different topics…  Kristin Longley at The Flint Journal has posted a couple of interesting article to MLive.  One deals with Chevy in the Hole and the other with Buick City.

It would seem that they’re going to be forging ahead with one of the student-designed options developed by Masters of Landscape Architecture students from the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.  The work they did can be found here on the Genesee County Land Bank’s website under “Reimagining Chevy in the Hole.”

The students’ work fell into two categories:  an ‘urban’ option and a ‘state park’ option, both based in-part on the Sasaki Associates, Inc. plan for the same location.  Sasaki has done a good deal of master planning (not to be confused with any city-wide master planning efforts) in Flint, covering plans for the Cultural Center, UM-Flint, downtown and the Flint River District (all of these can be found on the same Genesee County Land Bank page I referenced above) and much of it is complete crap.  The rest is some of the most monotonous, unimaginative, and insipid planning and design work I’ve ever seen—and I can assure you, I’ve seen a lot—with very little evidence of how these unique places influenced the generic, cookie-cutter results.  To their credit, Sasaki is very capable of producing some great work and have a considerable depth of experience in planning and design, we just don’t see any of that in what they’ve done here, and they’re fantastic at marketing themselves and their experience, because the Ruth Mott Foundation and others keeps going back to them with all this work.

One good thing that’s come out of Sasaki’s work is that they’ve at least established a base level of sorts in terms of information, presentation and design that others can take up and run with in their own way.  The students did a fantastic job of doing just that.  It was also one of the most transparent and engaging planning and design processes the City of Flint has ever seen and it was a pleasure being a part of it.

One of the points I made to Mr. Kildee and the students at their final presentation was that their illustrations of “urban” and “park” highlighted a limited notion of what those two things mean.  Their “urban” design, in keeping with what you see in Sasaki’s plan, was really more suburban in style, form and configuration than what I would consider to be an urban development and would both figuratively and literally spread the already anemic economic and residential development (this was long before the crash, mind you) even thinner.  What I suggested was that it was the “park” idea (which included not only ecological rehabilitation for the site and river, but also folded in notions of green infrastructure and sustainability which while not comprehensive, were very interesting threads to be followed) was much more urban because, like a Central Park in New York or a Forest Park in Portland, it would establish a huge asset to further economic development, giving Flint some well-defined edges, vision and infrastructure to support new ideas, development and investment in existing neighborhoods like Carriage Town, downtown, Mott Park, Grand Traverse, the Kettering campus, and others.

This topic is a huge one for the city, and I could spend weeks talking about Chevy in the Hole and the enormous potential it has for transforming the city and the many design and planning related tangents to it, so I hope that the city doesn’t blow this opportunity by rushing ahead with some cheap and quick option that does more for short-term political aspirations than it does for the long-term viability of the city, the site and it’s future.

Only knowing what I’ve read about Mayor Walling’s idea and having a general notion of where it’s coming from, I’m not really excited about the idea at all and not prepared to say much about it aside from thinking it’s better than a drag strip.

However, if that’s the qualification we’re going to start using for judging the redevelopment and future direction of the city, then we’re all doomed.

Park(ing) Day!!

September 17, 2009

Don’t forget to come out tomorrow and check out the folks who will be setting up mini-parks along Saginaw Street!