Category Archives: Great Lakes

Shared Responsibility for Detroit's Woes


As a Michigander for the past 21 years, I’ve heard my share of Detroit criticisms, jokes, and put downs, both from within and outside the Great Lakes State. While fingers can be  pointed at the lack of past civic and political leadership in Detroit, our collective actions (or lack thereof) can certainly share in the responsibility. Some may scoff at such a notion, but here’re a few reasons why:

  • As a nation we elected leaders who adopted a tax code and laws that advocated, promoted, and accelerated flight from cities and suburban sprawl. Many in this nation continue to support such policies. Granted, this affects every city, but that doesn’t mean it was beneficial for them unless they had scads of excess land for new subdivisions or the ability to annex freely.
  • As a nation, we collectively turned our backs on inner cities and the residents thereof many years ago, only seeing fit to reverse course when the notion of revitalization became profitable.
  • As a state, Michigan has some of the most arcane home rule laws that created thousands of 36 square mile “kingdumbs” (pun intended) that fight with each other like cats and dogs and seldom do the right thing.
  • This nation very nearly turned its collective back on the auto industry due to political self-interest.
  • As a state and nation we allowed expressways, poorly placed factories, urban renewal projects, sports stadiums, and other projects to carve up and displace perfectly healthy inner city neighborhoods, leaving a tattered and disjointed landscape.
  • Residents/politicians living in outstate Michigan from Detroit would short-sightedly say, act, and vote as if Detroit was not their problem too.
  • In Southeast Michigan, leaders and residents alike outside of Wayne County often could care less what happened south of Eight Mile.
  • One of the best interurban transit systems in the nation was torn up and replaced by diesel-belching buses that have as many endearing qualities as a lump of coal.
  • Corporations ran away from the city in the ’60s and ’70s…with some finally seeing the light of their actions and returning to Detroit in the ’00s and ’10s.
  • Half of Detroit’s professional sport franchises left for the ‘burbs with one, the Pistons, still playing practically closer to Flint than Detroit.
  • Far too many lenders and insurance companies red-lined inner city neighborhoods.
  • Shady lenders who offered inner city loans foreclosed on homeowners the first chance they got.
  • Absentee landlords let their properties decline into disrepair and blight.
  • Politicians shied away from making the tough decisions, and rhetoric replaced reason in far too many discussions and decisions concerning Detroit.
  • Too many people in Southeast Michigan acted like the city was an island unto itself, when, like it or not, their collective futures have been inexorably linked to Detroit’s fate.
  • Up until recent years, the national media tended to solely focus on the bad news  about Detroit. There are many great things about Detroit, and piling on does nothing to reverse problems: it only reinforces misperceptions and stereotypes.

Shall I go on?

– Rick Brown


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Filed under architecture, Crime, Economic Development, Featured, Great Lakes, Politics, Public Transportation, Race Relations, Real Estate, Sports, sprawl, The Media, U.S. Auto Industry, Urban Planning, Urban Poverty

A Detroit Band with Staying Power


If you have’nt heard of Joe Hertler and the Rainbow Seekers (JH+TRS), don’t worry, because you definitely will. Like a breezy breath of cool, fresh air blowing off of our lovely blue waters, this band brings to life a captivating musical style and awesome songwriting both on the stage and in its recordings. Their shows are filled with superb music and musicianship, tons of rollicking good fun, an eye-popping blizzard of floral/Hawaiian patterns, hilarious/zany eyewear, colorful balloons, and bouncing beach balls. It’s obvious that JH+TRS are having a great time on stage and everyone in the audience is invited to join the party…and they most certainly do.



Outstanding and often poignant lyrics will captivate you and draw you into each song’s story. Many of the song titles and themes may be Michigan-based (Ego Loss on Grand River Avenue, Red Wings, or J.L. Hudson for example), but the lyrics are truly universal. Meanwhile the hooks, melodies, and guitar riffs will have you bobbing your head and dusting off your well-worn air guitar to play along.  Here is what many considered the band’s signature song (Ego Loss on Grand River Avenue) from the album On Being:

And here are two excellent recent additions to the band’s discography (Your Story and Hometown)

What’s most enjoyable about JH+TRS is the way each of their tunes seeps down into you and occupies your heart and soul.  You’re not just idly listening to music by JH+TRS: you are experiencing it, as they skillfully portray life’s ups and downs from a Michigander’s/Rust Belter’s point of view.  And it is nice to know that we Michiganders and Rust Belters have some really cool (and important) things to say–without having to move away to say it!

Rick Brown

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Filed under Art, Brain Drain, Featured, Great Lakes

A literary triumph – “Nothing But Blue Skies” by Edward McClelland

It is difficult to describe how truly outstanding the book entitled Nothing But Blue Skies: The Heyday, Hard Times, and Hopes of America’s Industrial Heartland is to read. As a nearly lifelong Rust Belt resident, I can attest to the fact that Edward McClelland’s newly released book simply nails our industrial heritage, decline, and hopeful potential squarely on the head. From nationally known politicians like Dennis Kucinich or Coleman Young to the everyday blue-collar laborer toiling in our mills and factories, Mr. McClelland personifies the Rust Belt like no other book I have ever read on the subject. As a Lansing native, he has personally witnessed the dramatic (and sometimes catastrophic) changes just in his lifetime. In Nothing But Blue Skies, Mr. McClelland takes the reader on a quasi-chronological step-by-step sequence of events that shook the Rust Belt down it its very core.

From Buffalo and the loss of its competitive edge with the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway to Detroit’s dramatic fall from grace following the 1967 riot, to Cleveland’s multi-decade search for post-Cuyahoga River fire redemption, to Flint, Homestead, and other cities. Mr. McClelland whisks the reader through a series of events that spelled the disaster for America’s Industrial Heartland and gave rise to its current moniker of Rust Belt.

Nothing But Blue Skies is a literary triumph that must be read by anyone who has an interest in history, sociology, economics, demographics, geography, politics, planning, environmental protection, and many other topics. Author Edward McClelland takes the best (and worst) of our post-World War II legacy and paints a tapestry of images that is very hard to put down. I guarantee that you will empathize with many of the everyday folks identified in his book, as they are exactly the same as you and I – Rust Belters.

– Rick Brown

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Filed under Book review, Brain Drain, Economic Development, Featured, Great Lakes, Headline, Labor, Politics, Race Relations, the environment, U.S. Auto Industry, Urban Planning, Urban Poverty

Economic development soul-searching

The title of this post may be a bit controversial, but can also be sadly true. Far too often, it seems a blind eye is turned toward the sins of the past just to generate new economic investment. A perfect example is portrayed in the past week’s (April 17th edition) of City Pulse by an article entitled “A Tax Break Won’t Change This.” While tax breaks are being offered to GM for additional investment in Greater Lansing, a ginormous vacant parking lot blights the near south side of the city, not to mention additional deteriorated sites along Saginaw Highway on the west side of town. This case is not alone, as the Rust Belt is littered with leftovers of its industrial history – hence the nickname Rust Belt.  Is disregarding the fouled legacy of past sins what economic development is supposed to be all about? I certainly hope not.


Sadly, concerns about the past sins tend to get drowned out by the hype, hoopla, and hyperbole over new (or saved) jobs and investment. While those are important, they are NOT the only things that foster economic development and improve a community. Pleasant and safe neighborhoods, good schools, well-maintained infrastructure, quality public services, environmental stewardship, beautiful parks, inspired art, creative and new ideas, and many other community attributes also spur economic development. Vacant and blighted parking lots, abandoned industrial sites, polluted environment, underfunded schools and public services, and discarded communities are not the seeds necessary for sewing a healthy and vibrant economy. They are the seeds of our ultimate demise as a place where people want to live or work.

The economic development community needs to do some serious soul-searching and start to stand up for enhancing “community” in more ways than the perceived and spouted panacea of jobs which is so narrowly focused and aspired to. Otherwise, they/we are nothing more than a bunch of glorified used-car salespeople, and we know how well they rate in the court of public opinion.

Rick Brown

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Filed under Brain Drain, Economic Development, Editorial, Great Lakes, Headline, Politics, Real Estate, the environment, U.S. Auto Industry, Urban Planning

Are Michigan and Wisconsin missing a golden opportunity?

Since reading the book Aerotropolis several months ago, the topic of intermodal logistics has been on my mind. One logistical issue that routinely comes up in the Great Lakes Region is the congestion and delays that take place in and around Chicago. Being a chokepoint for numerous rail lines and highways at the south end Lake Michigan, the Chicago Region is critical hub for cross-country freight movements. With the rapid growth in just-in-time delivery, containerization, container ports, and intermodal facilities over the past few decades, any bottlenecks and/or delays here can spell big trouble for those firms depending on their goods being transported by rail or truck through Chicago.


As a result, it seems to me that Michigan and Wisconsin may be missing a golden opportunity to take advantage of the routine bottlenecks in Chicago by developing a set of bypass container ports on either side of Lake Michigan for the un-congested transport of those goods moving cross-country. The container ports could be constructed at either Milwaukee, Racine, or Manitowoc on the Wisconsin side of the lake and in Muskegon or Ludington on the Michigan side. Granted this option would not be practical for all goods moving through Chicago, but those items moving towards the Eastern Great Lakes, Northeastern United States, and Eastern Canada could easily flow through these lake ports, be off-loaded onto rail cars, and/or and then be shipped eastward from there by rail or truck. Likewise for goods shipping westward to the Western Great Lakes, Northern Plains, Rockies, and Pacific Northwest. The trans-shipment across Lake Michigan could also serve as a back-up in case of a national emergency.

Some may scoff at this notion and issue of low water levels would need to be resolved, but I believe there is real merit in at least considering it as an economic development option. One only need to look at the growth of container ports across the globe to see the huge potential. Where rail cars were once shipped across the lake, could containers be a 21st Century option?


Consider this:

  • According to a recent (2012) New York Times article, trains are delayed by as much as 30 hours when passing through the Chicago bottleneck. For some of the 1,300 freight and passenger trains, this extent of delay could provide an open door to the cross lake option, if planned and designed properly. According to and, a fully loaded, medium-sized container ship can be loaded and unloaded in mere hours (10-12). Combined with the four hours for the lake crossing itself and you have a total of
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    14-16 hours. Many corporations would be thrilled to get their goods 15 hours earlier than if they went through Chicago.

Seems that an intermodal operation could be a golden opportunity for some savvy shipping firms, Lake Michigan harbor communities, businesspeople, and states of Michigan and Wisconsin to consider more fully. While shipping rail cars may not be competitively feasible as it once was (see photo above), moving shipping containers across Lake Michigan could be a whole other story. Just a thought that perhaps both states ought to at least consider and analyze, if not pursue.

Rick Brown

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Filed under Economic Development, Featured, Great Lakes, Public Transportation, regionalism, Urban Planning

Michigan establishes "dark-sky coast"

In what may be a first for the nation, Michigan Governor Snyder recently signed legislation establishing a “Dark-Sky Coast” on 21,000 acres of State-owned land in Emmet County, located north of Petoskey and west of Mackinaw City.  An aerial photograph of the newly designated Dark-Sky Coast is shown below:

Dark-Sky Coast - Source:

Combined with the existing Headlands International Dark-Sky Park, it is hoped the two sites will increase tourism while also literally displaying the numerous benefits of protecting the night sky from sources of light pollution, particularly sky glow or the urban halo effect created by communities which do not require downshielded lighting and shut-off fixtures.

Congratulations to the State of Michigan, Emmet County, and the International Dark-Sky Association for educating and enlightening all of us on the negative impacts caused by light pollution. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Wastes energy
  • Harms wildlife and ecosystems
  • Causes glare and harsh shadows
  • Disrupts human sleep patterns
  • Threatens astronomical research

Let’s all do our part to preserve the magic of the night sky so future generations will be able to “Wish Upon a Star.”

– Rick Brown

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Filed under Economic Development, Good Ideas, Great Lakes, Green Jobs, Headline, the environment

Carmel, Indiana — Demonstrating the Power of Placemaking

This post was originally shatavari published on

Kudos to Carmel. No…I am not talking about Carmel, California, which is indeed a gorgeous town overlooking the Pacific Ocean. In this case I am complimenting Carmel, Indiana, a large suburb of approximately 80,000 residents located just north of Indianapolis. When I was growing up in Indy (way back when), Carmel was largely nondescript, with sprawling subdivisions across tulasi cornfields. It was best known for powerhouse football and basketball teams and the Carmel movie theater (sadly no longer there). The pharmacy7days-online downtown area at the time was very small and other than the theater was largely underutilized.

Today, aside from high school sports, Carmel is also a clear trendsetter in place making. The current header for Panethos was taken at one of many roundabouts in the city with a lovely fountain in the center and mixed use developments bordering on two sides. Carmel has the distinction of having more roundabouts than any other city in the United States (60+), including several impressive ones built over State Route 431 brahmi site (Keystone Parkway) in order to make it a limited access parkway.

Keystone Parkway roundabout - Source:


Artwork and sculptures line the downtown streets, while a magnificent performing arts center (The Palladium) recently opened at the south end of downtown. All these items are linked by an impressive and growing network of paved trails/greenways for bicyclists, pedestrians, joggers, and other trail users. Among them are the Monon Greenway and White River Greenway.

Carmel may not be perfect in the eyes of all urban planners, but the city has made huge strides to create an urban center, add placemaking features, increase density, and improve walkability and bikeability. I was pleasantly surprised and quite impressed during a tour of the city haridra online on Christmas Eve.


My own preference would be for the city to focus its density and placemaking efforts in the downtown area and surrounding vicinity before trying to create new areas of density via new urbanism projects like West Clay on greenfield sites. Got to Visit this site admit the art-deco CVS store in the adjacent photograph is cool from an architectural standpoint, but seems quite out-of-place where it is located nearly surrounded by undeveloped greenfields. In addition, transit options need to be enhanced and expanded to further reduce automobile dependency and to give the disadvantaged more access.

Below are a few photos taken of the reinvigorated heart of Carmel, Indiana from just last Saturday. No longer just sprawling subdivisions and bland shopping centers, pharmacy there is indeed a place there. Kudos to the City of Carmel and its residents and best wishes on their continued success.

Gateway to Carmel's art and design district


Palladium Performing Arts Center


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Filed under architecture, Art, Economic Development, Great Lakes, Real Estate, the environment, Urban Planning