Category Archives: Race Relations

Video: Detroit’s Transit Situation Increasingly Desperate

We write about transit on this blog a lot because we think it is essential to turning around our cities. The city of Detroit, more than others, has been undergoing a transit crisis. There are calls to finally develop a decent, sustainable system. We are hoping that they do.

In the meantime, here’s a taste of what Detroit’s transit dependent deal with on a day to

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Faces of Transportation 11-30-11 from Project S.N.A.P. on Vimeo.


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“The Wire” Tour of Baltimore

A Preface

I love TV’s The Wire. When I heard about this self-guided, Wire-themed tour of Baltimore, I thought, “That’s the self-guided tour of Baltimore I’ve been waiting for.” But I read something a few days later that paralyzed my ambitions. Christian Lander, author of the blog and book “Stuff White People Like,” explained in an interview:

When and how did you get the idea for the site?

January 18th. A friend and I were having an IM conversation about The Wire. He said, “Not enough white people watch The Wire.” I said, “Don’t worry, they do.” We started talking about what they’re doing instead of watching The Wire : therapy, getting divorced, going to plays…

Thus The Wire is not only Stuff White People Like but the inspiration for the whole series.  Since I’m a white person, this discovery made me uneasy about my Wire tour, the way a Pakistani person must feel about a genuinely promising opportunity in the convenience store industry. And shortly thereafter, The Wire was parodied on Disney’s iCarly.

In the end, I just decided that Americans of all colors and creeds would love The Wire, if they saw it. The Wire transcends boundaries. Norman Rockwell has beaten me to the punch here with a painting I really think captures the sentiment:

In summary, don’t let your friends’ rolled eyes inhibit your pilgrimage to the greatest city in America to celebrate The Greatest TV Show in America.

The Tour

I arrived in Baltimore at about 1PM with three friends in the car. From the Interstate, Baltimore looks like scattered red legos. It was my first time in Baltimore, and I have never seen more red brick buildings. We pulled off at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd exit, which is a reliable exit to take for a tour of the ghetto in most American cities. Up close, Baltimore resembles both the Birmingham, Alabama where I grew up and the Pittsburgh where I live now. Baltimore has Birmingham’s African American majority, boarded-up buildings and ubiquitous vegetation. It has Pittsburgh’s pedestrian presence and row houses. I really liked seeing Baltimore’s famous benches.

The tour divides Baltimore into seven districts. We started out on the west side, thinking it would contain the most shooting locations. That was wrong. As the guide explains, “The directors found East Baltimore’s relatively treeless streets much easier to film in, as they could film throughout at least three of the seasons without losing seasonal continuity.”

It was most fascinating to circle the McCulloh Homes housing project, the location of the “low rises” that DeAngelo presides over in season one. We peered between two buildings from the car and discerned “The Pit,” where DeAngelo, Wallace, Poot and Bodie hung out. Housing projects were prevalent throughout West Baltimore, and they seemed very clean and new from outside. I hope someone can help me understand a question that occurred to me: “Why did cities build housing projects rather than supplementing the Section 8 program?” Questions like this one will ignite in your head throughout the tour.

Outside the McCulloh Homes, we passed several women and children picking through an overturned garbage dumpster. I stared, wondering if a kid had thrown away his retainer. In my retainer days, I picked through many a trash bin. A lady glared back and started waving her hands at me, pointing at the garbage angrily as if to say, “If you’re gonna stare, why don’t you come down here in this garbage?” She triggered a sobering transition—one second I related to the little kids; the next second I remembered my childhood had about 3% in common with theirs, and they probably do not see an orthodontist.

I realized then how strange our Wire tour must seem to locals: three white guys and one African African American girl (a 6’3”Nigerian), pointing at empty corners excitedly, cruising very slowly, snapping pictures. Unfortunately, I think there is no cure for your glaring touristness. You had better embrace it. The only thing worse than four suburbanites pointing at everything in the ghetto is four suburbanites acting like they belong in the ghetto. I wondered constantly whether the locals knew we were on a Wire tour…how often people came through taking pictures and talking loudly.

Then we headed to North Central Baltimore. Here we saw Bubble’s Garage, Bodie’s Corner, Greenmount Cemetary, and North Ave Motel and other attractions.

One difficulty of The Wire tour is that the sites are so mundane that it can be hard to tell if you’re on the right spot. As a matter of fact, here I am at a corner cattycorner to Bodie’s corner. I was so sure this was the right corner that I pointed out where the guy who shot Bodie was definitely hiding.

Above: the corner that Bodie would have ostensibly stared at

At the North Ave Motel, we pulled into a narrow parking lot, and I correctly identified the general area of the room where Omar shot brother Mouzone. As I posed for pictures, a bewildered guy on the upper balcony smoked two cigarettes while watching me. A woman dressed characteristically like a prostitute entered a room with a man.

There was a Mercedes Benz parked in front of Bubbles’ garage. This invited speculation.

Then we headed to East Baltimore, where the standout attractions were Marlo’s Hangout and Hamsterdam. The guide made a cautious suggestion: “Look immediately on the right for Marlo’s Hangout. Hop out of the car and into the square (Faith Ln) to take some pictures if you like, but bear in mind that this is a legitimately rough neighborhood.”

We parked and crossed a small patch of grass to access the concrete space where Marlo dispatched Chris and Snoop to dispatch people. The space’s former use is ambiguous. It looks like the ruins of a skate park/dolphin show. Across the street, a group of young men motioned for me to approach but I declined. This was the closest I came to the drug trade, and I’m only speculating.

There were no corner boys anywhere in Baltimore that Saturday afternoon. I would guess that the show exaggerated the daytime drug trade because it’s easier to film in the day. The light is cheaper. And you can’t film fictional drug dealers at times when real drug dealers need to use the very same corners.

As the day passed, we saw many other sites until wrapping up at the abandoned building that is Major Crimes HQ, located down by the port in southeast Baltimore. Every season of The Wire ends with a retrospective montage. In my own head, the projector played a retrospective montage of our day—shot on 8mm film, because that’s how people remember things. In the quiet peace of the empty port, we said goodbye to Major Crimes HQ and headed out.

Editor’s note: This post come from Lewis Lehe, maker of the famous congestion pricing video. If you’d like to take the same tour as he describes in this post, it is online here.  Lewis will soon be heading to the University of Leeds for graduate studies in the economics of transportation. We wish him well!-KG

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Filed under Crime, Good Ideas, Race Relations, The Media, Urban Poverty

Rust Belt Hero Mansfield Frazier Talks Cleveland, Race Relations and the New Welcome Center

One of the good things about having a blog is that you can use it as an excuse to meet people you admire. That is how I met Mansfield Frazier recently.

Mansfield is sort of a Cleveland celebrity, but unlike some of the regular suspects, he’s actually really interesting and smart. He is a regular contributor at the blog The Daily Beast, the Cleveland Free Times, the Cleveland Leader and also at Cool Cleveland. In addition, he is the tending to a new vineyard on formerly vacant land in inner-city Hough. He’s also an author and national expert on prisoner reentry. Oh, and he served five sentences in prison for counterfeiting, before turning his life around and becoming a successful entrepreneur and businessman.

Beyond all that, Mansfield Frazier is a thinking man — a thinking man who doesn’t hold his tongue. That’s a rarity in Cleveland. (Plus, we both despise the Plain Dealer’s Phillip Morris.)

Anyway, Mansfield was nice enough to let me interview him. I was most curious to hear his appraisal of race relations in Cleveland. The city has always been kind of notorious for racial tension, but it’s not something that gets a lot of thoughtful play in our local media, unless police brutality, bad politics, or some sensational crime brings it briefly to the forefront.

First a little background: Mansfield grew up not far from the Hough neighborhood where he now lives on Cleveland’s East Side. His father owned an after-hours joint and ran numbers. He was a respected and successful entrepreneur in the black community.

Mansfield was working his way up the career ladder at the Illuminating Company (Cleveland) as a young man, when he was denied a promotion based on his race. That’s when he dropped out of the system and started operating as an “outlaw.”

“I just wanted nothing to do with this racist system,” he said. “I lived life on my own terms.”

His last term in prison is where he authored his book: “From Behind the Wall: Commentary on Crime,Punishment, Race,” which reminds me a little bit of the Autobiography of Malcolm X. He has since become an advocate for a saner penal system. He edits the national magazine Reentry Advocate.

His more recent foray into agriculture using Cleveland’s stimulus-backed land reuse program, Reimagining Cleveland, has received so much press already, I feel like it would duplicative to dwell on that too much.

Ok, we’re going to do this Q&A style. Here goes:

AS: What is your appraisal of the current state of race relations in Cleveland?

MF: Race relations in Cleveland are reflective of race relations in America. But Cleveland’s worse, by far. I’ve lived all over the United States when I was a counterfeiter. One of the reasons that we’re losing here is because of race relations.

AS: Losing population?

MF: Losing everything. Young people like you look at the situation and think, ‘Why would I want to be there with those knuckleheads?’ Most young people, white or black, are not racist. Older white and black people are stuck in the old way of thinking. Young people say, ‘I don’t want to be bothered with that. I’m not homophobic. I don’t want to be bother with those ‘isms’: sexism, racism.’ You gotta drop those isms. And we’re very slow to do that because we’re so poor [in Cleveland]. We’re afraid if we drop that, you’re going to do as well as me or better.

The area that solves that problem in the Rust Belt will be the one that rises up.

AS: How could Cleveland get a handle on this? Do you see a couple of steps?

MF: Where does democracy start? It doesn’t start with that piece of paper. It doesn’t start with the Supreme Court. Democracy starts right there on the curb when a cop pulls you over. If you don’t get treated fairly there, the rest of it doesn’t work.

AS: Do you think that’s a big problem here in Cleveland — racist behavior by police officers?

Oh my God, huge problem. Huge problem. Huge. Edward Henderson, those four cops are under indictment in Cleveland. The civil rights attorneys called me because they know I have the courage to write about it. The reason those videos are sealed is because they’re so brutal.

We live in this velvet-hand police state. There’s an iron fist and there’s a velvet hand. Police patrol too much of this town and set the tone for what happens. Just like down on West 6th [Street]. Police don’t care if the businesses survive, they just want to be where the action is.

A friend of mine, Robert Smith, he went down to Beale Street [Memphis], what they did is have the police stand down. They’re not aloud on Beale Street unless they’re called. We have our own security because we know you will act out. You don’t want to be in some place, when the bar closes ‘Get out of here, young lady.’ That’s what they’ll do to you. The cities that can solve that first. That’s the most controlling factor.

We have an old west mentality.

Continuing with suggestions …

We’ve got the Welcoming Center coming to Cleveland. So you got someone from India or China, then you’ve got this big red Chief Wahoo. And you say, ‘Welcome.’ So why don’t you get rid of Wahoo? And we say we’re a welcoming people? We’re disrespecting a whole nation of people.

AS: What is going on in Hough? (Hough was the scene of Cleveland’s race riots in the 1970s. It was once the center of Cleveland’s black social upper-crust.)

Hough is strategically placed between University Circle and Downtown. There are more upscale homes that have been built in Hough. If you go that way, you can see two new homes that just got finished. There’s probably been more homes built in the last 15 years than anywhere else in the city. The housing stock is stable.

But I don’t think that Hough can do any better than the rest of the city can. You look down there at that lot [vacant lot, high weeds]. The city can’t afford to cut it. But Hough is probably, there’s probably more green projects in Hough than anywhere else. There’s a lot of people that believe in the process.

I could have built a house anywhere. I picked Hough. I could have picked Westlake or Solon. But I have no political power in Westlake. It will be years before they have a black mayor or city councilmember in Westlake. I’d whether be somewhere where I have clout.

AS: Why you decide to come back to Cleveland?

This is the only place the feds would allow me to go. I was on federal parole. I wasn’t allowed to go back to Miami. There wasn’t no counterfeiting going on in Cleveland. They tend to send you back where the came from. I have family here.

AS: At this point I kinda stopped asking questions because Mansfield was on a roll. But there’s a few other details I wanted to include.

We have to come to this moral awakening. We’ve never done reparations. And I don’t want any money. I want you to solve the problem with the kid that’s dropping out of school. And until we solve that problem, we’re not going to be successful.

These other nations are ready to eat our lunch and they’ve got more people. Instead of universities what are we building? Prisons. But we don’t see it because it’s race based. We’re blinded by this racism. If you wanna keep me on the ground, you’ve gotta stay down here with me.


Many, many thanks to Mr. Frazier for taking time out of his say to speak with us at Rust Wire. Cleveland would be a lot better off if there were a dozen more like him.


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Suspicious Lack of Diversity in Cleveland Magazine’s “Top Suburb”

It’s that time of year again, guys! That time of year where I have an uncontrolled aneurysm as the result of the stupidity of Cleveland Magazine’s anticipated “Rating the Suburbs” issue.

Every year this plastic-surgeon-supported pamphlet makes a list of the most car-centric, culturally vapid,  tract-housing, white-people ghettos in Northeast Ohio. Whichever suburb is the whitest, with the most big-box stores, is generally the runaway favorite for top prize.

Case in point is this year’s winner: Richfield Village. Does anyone want to guess what the racial makeup of this community is? Come on, guess! At the last Census, the village of Richfield was 96% white and 2% African American. You’d be hard pressed to find a whiter place in the region.

With as consistently pale as the magazine’s “top suburbs” are, you’d almost think that was exactly what this “study” was designed to measure. But that would be so cynical!

Of course the Cleveland Magazine article waxes poetic about the “friendliness” of this lily white bastion in a recently rural corner of Summit County a good 20 miles from the city of Cleveland.

“I get a real sense of friendliness and community,” said Denna Coburn, a white person was profiled by the magazine for living in Richfield. Hmm, of course I imagine that friendliness only applies to a certain demographic of people.

Cleveland Magazine measures the region’s communities based on education, taxes, safety, housing and walkability. To their credit, it even has a “City Style” rating (this year’s winner was Cleveland Heights), where they basically throw a bone to communities that aren’t morally and environmentally bankrupt.

I am trying to imagine an alternative rating system we could develop, that would be equally legitimate, that would have exactly the opposite result. What if instead of prioritizing taxes and schools, we prioritized commuting ease and cultural amenities? (Attention Cleveland Magazine: Transportation costs represent American families’ No. 2 household expense, so it might legitimately be a more important factor than local taxes.) Also, let’s say we made diversity a category and called that a good thing. Let’s face it, diversity enriches our communities and our lives. Let’s say, for good measure, we also added architectural quality to the list.

What do you want to bet, Cleveland would be coming out on the top of the list every year? But hey, what real estate agent wants to advertise in a publication like that? (If there are any out there, we are selling advertising now, by the way. We’ll be holding our breaths!)


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The Term “Urban Pioneer” and Media Portrayals of the City

A reporter from a local radio station recently interviewed me for a story about “urban pioneers.”

I didn’t think much of it, until I started reading this amazing book called Missing Women, Missing News. Turns out, this term is based on some pretty suspect assumptions about cities and the people who inhabit them.

Author David Hugill points out that the term “pioneer” symbolizes a “frontier,” or sharp physical or social divide, between competing constituencies. In the case he explores in his book, the competing constituencies are the wealthy gentrifiers of Vancouver and the poor residents of the city’s Downtown Eastside neighborhood.

What's behind our tendancy to describe places like this as a "frontier"?

“Gentrification efforts produced a new manifestation of the courageous pioneer charged with penetrating the dark places of disordered chaos and establishing the first bulwarks of civility.” This helps paint the city as “an urban wilderness [of] savagery and chaos, awaiting the urban homesteaders who can forge a renaissance of hope.”

Hugill’s book examines media portrayals of a serial killer case in Vancouver to illuminate how “journalism unwittingly upholds structures of power and domination,” particularly with respect to the issues of race, gender and class. In the case of Downtown Eastside Vancouver, 26 street-level prostitutes, many of them of native origin, were murdered before the media and law enforcement took notice. Contrast that with Missing White Woman Syndrome, a la Natalie Halloway.

Anyway, we see this bias all the time in our local newspapers. That was the point I was trying to make when I criticized the Plain Dealer’s coverage of Cleveland’s serial killer case. But really, I could go on and on. In a particularly egregious example, just a few weeks ago, on the eve of receiving a finalist ranking for the Pulitzer Prize, Plain Dealer columnist Philip Morris wrote a column that compared black children to “a pack of dogs.” And that’s from the PD’s token black columnist.

Day after day we’re subtly told that cities are dangerous, their inhabitants ruthless and that no sensible person would chose to live in such a place. Hence the newsworthiness of the “urban pioneer” narrative.

After living in the city of Cleveland for a while, however, I have to say that narrative just doesn’t hold up. The thing about my neighborhood is, it’s a really nice place to live. It’s not scary. Poor people and rich people, black people and white people live in harmony.

Am I an “urban poineer” because I live in the city? It’s true I grew up in the suburbs, but I haven’t lived in a truly suburban setting for more than 10 years. Many of my white, middle-class neighbors have lived in the neighborhood for 20+ years. In fact, when I first moved to the neighborhood, one such family from across the street told me it was “the closest thing they’ve found to paradise.”

It’s true that the neighborhood is still very poor (median household income $25,500 last census) and struggles with issues like vacancy and crime. But vacancy and crime aren’t solely urban issues. It’d be nice to see some recognition of that from the local media.

The idea of branding me as an urban pioneer, even though it is a positive story about my neighborhood, makes some negative assumptions about my neighbors. Assumptions that are very closely tied to issues of race. And I am not comfortable with that. We as a culture should not be comfortable with that.

I keep hoping we can have a more measured, less sensational discussion about our urban communities in Cleveland. Meanwhile, as newsrooms shrink, the television stations are still chasing ambulances and the newspaper reporters are working courtrooms, with the same old zeal.


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Will Cupcakes Save Cleveland/Detroit/Youngstown?

I wrote on Twitter recently that cupcakes are a metaphor for everything that’s happening in modern cities. I was only half serious, but it still sorta worries me.

I have to admit, I love cupcakes. The cake in a cup store in Tremont is like my personal version of the siren singers. Just the same, I can’t help but feel a twinge of middle-class guilt every time I step inside.

Of course, there are many reasons to love cupcakes. They are delicious. They are sold by local small business people in walkable, urban locations. They add vibrancy to once downtrodden neighborhoods. In that sense, these stores have a psychic significance in the community that goes beyond its (no doubt minuscule) economic impact.

A $4 cupcake is a luxury and a small one. People like to treat themselves. And I am no different. It’s not really the expense or the calories that get me.

I think it has a lot to do location of these stores and how they have become inseparable from the issue of class. Recently, an undergraduate at UC Berkeley plotted the location of cupcake stores in San Francisco against the location of gang shootings. Wouldn’t you know it? It was a match.

That’s because cupcake stores were being located in rough “gentrifying” neighborhoods. I want to be very clear that I don’t think gentrification is really a problem in Cleveland or Detroit or Youngstown. The problem in these cities is concentrated poverty and vacancy. And middle-class people and their dollars should be welcomed in these cities unconditionally.

Still, I feel a little guilty. It seems the go-to recipe for neighborhood revitalization in so many of our cities is these types of enterprises: boutiques, food trucks, fancy restaurants. These types of businesses have the effect of making very poor neighborhoods the sites of very conspicuous consumption.

So while I’m having a $15 brunch (which I don’t do very often) in Tremont, I see kids walking by from the neighborhood and I can’t help but wonder if they have enough to eat at all. Meanwhile, everyone inside the restaurant sweats over whether every ingredient is locally grown and organic. Again, I think the business is important. Then again, I have to ask myself, when’s the last time I donated $15 to charity? Or spent my Sunday morning doing something to help people less fortunate than me?

My other concern is that these types of “yuppie-serving” businesses don’t hire people from the neighborhood. And as a result, have a limited impact in ameliorating the neighborhood’s troubles. These neighborhoods need businesses that will hire young, black men, whose unemployment rate is inexcusably high in Cleveland and Detroit and Youngstown. But they almost never do hire black men. You know who does? McDonalds, Rite Aid, Family Dollar. The very businesses that many in the community development world might oppose (not without good reason, of course).

Also, one of the things I sort of like about the Rust Belt is that there is still some authenticity to the cities. Some grit. I don’t really want to live in a city that’s all places you can get a $65 hair cut and mimosas on Sundays. That’s why I don’t live in Williamsburg.

Anyway, the whole cupcake situation, I guess just illustrates how divided our cities remain, even as they get more economically diverse. Sometimes I wish there was the same level of enthusiasm for businesses that would contribute more to economic and social inclusion. For some sad reason, I’m having a hard time even imaging what that business would look like.



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Pro-Sprawl, Anti-Transit Policies Help Make Milwaukee the Most Segregated

Via Streetsblog:

Among the myriad insights from the new Census is another blow to Milwaukee. The metro region was once again rated the most segregated in the country, beating out notoriously divided metros like Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago and LA.

We’ve written before about how metro Milwaukee’s development policies encourage sprawl, isolating people of color and the poor in the city (while degrading the environment in the suburbs). In its analysis, Salon takes another tack. Anti-transit policies, like the ones endorsed by former Milwaukee County executive and current governor Scott Walker, serve to further isolate the region’s disenfranchised populations. Salon elaborates on the local atmosphere:

Suburban whites are notably hostile to building any form of public transit to connect city people to suburban jobs, further exacerbating segregation’s ill effects. If you’re wondering if this can somehow, some way, be blamed on union-busting Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, the answer is yes. Walker took the lead in a campaign against public transit to connect the suburbs to the city during his time as county executive. He thought the funds would be better spent on highways.

James Rowen at Network blog The Political Environment points the finger squarely at local leadership:

As I’ve said before about our region’s appalling segregation, well done, Milwaukee suburbs, regional planners — and, as this new article quoting UW-M development specialist Marc Levine notes — Scott Walker, too.

Rowen adds that the region’s continuing segregation problem is another argument against allowing suburban Waukesha to build a pipeline to pump water from Lake Michigan, which would allow for further sprawling development. Waukesha County, incidentally, is facing charges of housing discrimination:

Why should the City of Milwaukee sell one teaspoon of water to the City of Waukesha – – largest community in Waukesha County – – when official policies throughout the county reinforce these regional population and economic disparities?

The situation in Milwaukee goes to show runaway sprawl and transit disinvestment don’t affect everyone equally. Scott Walker is aggravating the already egregious problem in Milwaukee by pushing through $1.7 billion in suburban highway expansions, while decimating transit budgets.



Filed under Featured, Race Relations, sprawl