Category Archives: The Media

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

Gaming the Economic Development System

Once again, it appears that “build it and celebrate it” no matter the past sins (or future consequences) reigns supreme among economic developers. While hyping an announcement of more jobs and new construction in Greater Lansing, the fact that the insurance company in question challenged its property taxes using the “functionally obsolete building” scheme in 2010 was conveniently overlooked (see article in City Pulse).


If you are not familiar with the “functionally obsolete” tax game that is being employed most often by big box retailers, the claim that is made is their building is “functionally obsolete”  because it was specifically designed and built for their purpose and no other entity could possible adapt it. Needless to say, the whole argument is rather sketchy, but unfortunately, state tax tribunals have been swallowing it hook, line, and sinker. This argument might be plausible or reasonable if the structure was 20+ years old, but it is also being made for newly/recently constructed buildings. The story in the May 8, 2013 edition of City Pulse is an example of the same scheme being used for an office building. Exactly how hard is it to move cubicles, desks, and partitions?

The professional planning community needs to address this issue and fast. If a building is to become so dysfunctional (or functionally obsolete) so quickly, should it be approving for construction in the first place? And if it means the local property taxes are going to soon take a backhanded hit in the process, even more reason to deny the project unless the applicant certifies the building will be erected In an manner that is not dysfunctional (a.k.a. functionally obsolete).

Most special use (or conditional use) permit approvals require a community to determine whether the use “will not be detrimental to the economic welfare of neighboring properties or the surrounding community.” If the proposed building is to become “functionally obsolete” within ten years, no realistic or reasonable decision maker should approve its construction. Otherwise, all they are doing is losing badly at a zero sum game.

– Rick Brown

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Filed under architecture, Economic Development, Editorial, Featured, Headline, Politics, Real Estate, The Media, Urban Planning

White Entreprenuerial Guy Meme

So, okay. On one hand, I’m sorta hesitant to share this because, of course, stereotyping people by class and race — whether they’re rich or poor, black or white — is kind of a crappy thing to do.

But this White Entrepreneurial Guy meme out of Detroit — in addition to stereotyping people by race and class — also raises some pretty important points about privilege in post industrial cities.

I’m going to share a few of my favorites that remind me of different situations recently in Cleveland. There are like a million of these things, which shows it really touched a nerve. Some of them are pretty spot on, I think, while others, I think, are garbage.

Yeah. Depressing.


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Filed under Featured, The Media

Burned: A Photo Essay on Arson in Toledo

Above photo by Sam Ricker

Editor’s note: The following photo essay come from Lori King’s photojournalism students at Owens Community College. Click here to view their photo essay.


Above photo by Lynn Redding

Burned: The Rust Belt on fire

A photo story by the Intro to Photojournalism class at Owens Community College
By Lynn Redding and Miranda Molyet

Arson is the leading cause of fires in the United States, according to the U.S. Fire Administration. Of these fires, 30 percent are in structures, including homes. Fire officials estimate that 50 percent of all fires may be intentionally set, yet it is difficult to determine the actual number of arson fires because many of them go unreported.

The FBI estimates that four out of the top 10 cities in the United States for arson crimes reported are in Ohio. The fourth spot on the list is right here, in Toledo. The Office of the Illinois State Fire Marshal reported that the six common motives for arson are: excitement, vandalism, crime concealment, revenge, extremist/terrorist and profit.

For our team community service photo story project, the Introduction to Photojournalism class at Owens Community College visited a few arson fire sites in the Central Toledo area.

Why should we, as a community, care about arson and its impact on the Rust Belt?

Arson is a felony crime. It is a crime against people, and every year firefighters are killed in responding to open-air fires. Then there is the cost of the fires, including the cost of supplies to fight the fires, the value of the property destroyed, the loss of tax revenue, and the fact that firefighters must be paid. In spite of the fact that arson is a crime, the real reason we should care about the growing arson problem in the Rust Belt is the fact that while firefighters are away battling an intentional and needless fire, they cannot respond in the event a real emergency should arise. The cost of arson is more than money; it is putting lives at risk.

To learn more about  Lori’s class and their work, check out the class blog here.

Above photo by Paula Taylor

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Filed under Crime, Economic Development, Featured, The Big Urban Photography Project, The Media, Urban Poverty

Pittsburgh's Evolving Identity

The European cultural channel ARTE recently zoomed in on the city of Pittsburgh as part of a look at a sort of everyman’s America in the days leading up to the 2012 presidential election. You should check out the whole project here. It was inspired

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by the work of photojournalist W.E. Smith. In the series, modern Pittsburgh is contrasted with Smith’s iconic photos from Pittsburgh’s heyday as a steel boom town.

This is just one video that shows how the city has transformed, examining the city’s northside Mexican War Streets neighborhood through the eyes of a resident and local teacher. The city, he says, has been transformed from a working class city into kind of an intellectual place, and that has raised the question of identity.

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"Saving" the Plain Dealer

There’s a campaign going on right now in Cleveland to preserve the seven-day-a-week print version of the Plain Dealer. It is led by reporters at the paper with support from their union. The paper’s owner, Advance Publications, has hinted that there are big changes coming, and reporters apparently suspect that the company is planning what they did to their New Orleans Times Picayune — which is go to a three-day-a-week print schedule and focus more on the online product. The reporters have good reason to be concerned about their jobs; Advance laid off about half its staff in the transition.

The result of this campaign has been a fair amount of civic hand-wringing, and a petition. Without the print edition of the newspaper, reporters say, many poorer people won’t have access to the news. There will be less political coverage, less scandals uncovered, less civic dialogue. But I don’t think it will be as bad as all that and I say that as a former newspaper reporter who got laid off four years ago this month.

As for poor people, I am skeptical that there are a lot of people that can’t afford computers paying the PD’s $20+ per month subscription fee to read the paper seven days a week. Obviously, I can’t provide any numbers. I live in a poor neighborhood though and when I go to the library, people aren’t lined up to read print newspapers. In fact, there seems to be little to no interest in any printed materials whatsoever. People are lined up to use the computers.

Meanwhile, any great community work that the Plain Dealer is doing can just as easily be done online. In fact, it would be better. It would be better because it would be more timely. It could contain links and videos. It would allow discussion in a comments section. It would be available to anyone in the world.

Print as a medium, I truly believe, is dying. Although I know there are some people that disagree loudly, I think this is based mostly on nostalgia (I admit, I find these folks to be awfully sanctimonious). Anyway, there certainly aren’t enough of them anymore to warrant chopping down trees and printing news on them and then driving around to individual people’s houses and throw on their doorsteps in 2012, just so the pages can announce 12 hours after anyone who cares already heard, who won last night’s baseball game.

Now I don’t necessarily think Plain Dealer reporters are out there arguing that print is inherently better than web publishing. I think they are more concerned about the staff losses that they expect to accompany the transition. And I am sympathetic to that because no one wants to see anyone lose their job and there are some very talented, hard working people at the Plain Dealer. (I also think there’s some bad ones, but they are a distinct minority.)

But job losses are nothing new at the Plain Dealer. As long as the paper is reliant on a dying medium as its breadwinner, there will be job losses until there are no more jobs to lose. The only way to really “save the Plain Dealer,” it seems to me, is to focus on the side of its business that has any chance of growth: and that’s the web.

Obviously, that would be a difficult transition. But difficult transitions are coming for newspapers one way or another. The longer the Plain Dealer delays building a web presence that is responsive to the emerging market for it — the worse it will ultimately be for the news organization.

Now, pretty much everyone agrees, I think, that it’s not the newsprint itself that is valuable, but the reporting. But of course, not all the reporting the Plain Dealer currently does is particularly valuable, at least to the public interest. The fashion page, which I am just totally mystified every time I see they still bother with, is a good example. Who goes to the Plain Dealer for fashion advice in 2012? As a 30-year-old, single woman, I certainly wouldn’t dream of it. But of course, it is clearly not targeted at women like me. That is another problem with print. The PD is still behaving like a monopoly, where people would read whatever you put in front of them because they didn’t have any other alternatives.

Of course, the Plain Dealer’s important work, as is being emphasized in this campaign, is their government reporting, their efforts to ferret out corruption. I heard a PD reporter say that the PD is going out and demanding public records and that other people can’t do that. But that of course is not true. Public records are available to anyone. She may have misspoke, on that point, but the suggestion was that web reporters couldn’t/wouldn’t do serious reporting. But I think they are wrong about that. The idea that web journalists and start ups can’t do the kind of work Plain Dealer reporters do is only true to the extent that there is no market for the kind of work Plain Dealer reporters are doing.

Right now, there are huge opportunities in the web media market in Cleveland. It is absolutely miraculous, in my opinion, that a web competitor to the Plain Dealer has not yet established itself. When I lived in Toledo, four years ago, Glass City Jungle was nipping at the City Hall reporters’ heels. Columbus Underground, begun more than 10 years ago by a college student, now has five full-time employees — and they mostly only write for people in their 20s who live in the city proper.

I was talking with a guy in Seattle not that long ago. He was eeking out a living running two blogs: one about bicycling and one about a specific neighborhood. He told me almost every neighborhood in Seattle had a local news blog devoted to it that was providing someone with a full or part-time living.

Plunderbund, who covers statehouse politics from a progressive stance, is a great example of a start up that is doing amazing journalism and building something potentially lasting. They have 6,000 Facebook followers. They just broke a corruption story that the Dayton Daily News then followed up on.

I myself, since making the transition from a print journalist to a web journalist, have broken government corruption stories that newspapers never would have — just because the more niche publication I now work for allows me to delve more deeply into the topic I cover than a general newspaper could.

My point is, if this community really wants to “save the Plain Dealer” it will focus on transitioning to the web as quickly as possible. That seems to be Advance’s goal, and they have plenty of financial justification for doing so.

I’m not going to sit here and say their methods are necessarily right: they haven’t even explained them yet and someone told me they made a lot of mistakes in New Orleans. But doing nothing — not changing — in the face of such a profound transition in the industry is not good for journalism in Cleveland. And if the Plain Dealer, or its reporters acting individually, don’t get out there and seize those markets, other people, like Plunderbund, will sooner or later. It takes time to build a brand on the web and right now the Plain Dealer has a huge head start.

One of the things that frustrates me about Cleveland is sort of a resistance to change, or fear of the future. But the future could be better and brighter. It has been for me.


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"Imported from Detroit"-Style Ad Showcases Buffalo's Dignity in Tough Times

This commercial aired during the last Super Bowl. It seems to borrow from the “Imported from Detroit” ads by Chrysler in highlighting the strength and endurance of hard-luck Rust Belt cities. Its focused us Buffalo and it’s an ad for a local television station, I believe.

Chrysler wasn’t the first company to seize on the blend of nostalgia and sympathy for Rust Belt cities in an attempt to move products. As we’ve reported, Levi’s famously used Braddock, Pennsylvania to sell jeans, and Pallidium boots used Detroit’s industrial ruins to sell boots.

As self-serving as these groups are–the television station maybe less so–America is a capitalist county and if moving products is what it takes to bring these cities into national focus, so be it, I say.


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