Saturday, March 27, 2010

Whatever happened to the concept of homesteading in reality?

Debbie Besanson shared a concern in her comment to the post a couple below this one regarding keeping young people in Saginaw. The standing-but-delapidated buildings in Saginaw and keeping the young here are indirectly linked. But they are linked. I read an article in a Detroit publication recently that profiled a young couple who were using the incredibly low home prices in their Detroit neighborhood (All below $1,000) to attract other artists into their district to build an enclave of working artists. Together they have also taken over the working of an empty house and lot to make a working experiment in urban gardening and studio space.

If we want young people - artistic or not - to stay here there must be an incentive to do so in spite of the current economy.

The city has possession of a powerful bargaining chip to boost young population here in the form of buildings it sees as expendable.

In all of the articles and interviews on urban blight I have heard and read in Saginaw, I have yet to hear one that seriously explored solutions that made an attempt to actively attract residents. Efforts so far seem geared toward not scaring away possible residents; what seems to be consistantly missed is that current young residents must be retained in order to see real population growth in the city.

I am not in the market for a house, but I would be terribly keen on seeing (and helping promote) some kind of homesteading program in certain neighborhoods of inner-city Saginaw that helped attract young couples and artists into putting sweat equity into properties that are currently borderline to being uninhabitable and that are currently not marketable.

It would cost the city less to place a building/home in the hands of an interested party for a very nominal sum of money and see a new resident move there or an existing resident not leave Saginaw than it would to tear said building/home down. Would the now inhabited structure not bring tax revenue to the city over time as it is improved? Just a thought.

[Rich Life]

when i lived in houston
i thought vacation meant leaving the country
for two weeks
asking the natives
where they ate
because they knew where to find the best food

living in saginaw
vacation means going to detroit for the day
asking bag ladies
and that guy who pees all over Woodward
where they sleep at night
because they know
where to find the most amazing buildings.

brush park, detroit, michigan

Monday, March 22, 2010

Empty Lots or Empty Houses: Assets or Liabilities?

A recent article in the Saginaw News (Red Tape Delays Using a Back Hoe to Make Historic Saginaw Houses History, 3/20/2010) discussed challenges in the demolition of abandoned 19th century homes on N. Jefferson (Saginaw’s Northeast Side) in order to make way for a “Green Zone.”

As a resident of the city of Saginaw who lives amongst abandoned buildings, I want to know: How is the proposed “Green Zone” any different than the multitude of empty lots already in existence in Saginaw? How will such a zone positively impact perceptions of our community? How will such a zone attract much-coveted new residents into the city? More importantly, has the future impact of extensive demolition of possibly historical structures been thoroughly looked at, or is this just a temporary fix?

I want to know – I think anyone living in the city has a right to know – what city leaders see such activity achieving in the next two decades (as opposed to the possible short-term changes in perception within the community that will only impact the next local elections).

How will more empty lots be useful in revitalizing the city’s challenged neighborhoods?

Senior citizens who own the homes they have lived much of their lives in are now in danger of losing said homes to foreclosure due to back taxes. These senior citizens are vital heads to be counted in the census this year and they have been productive residents of this city in their prime earning (and taxpaying) years. How will widespread demolition boost the quality of their lives?

Monies at the city’s disposal for neighborhood revitalization are only available to individuals with a household income of less than $19,000 on the stipulation that they own their home, the home is properly insured and all taxes and water bills are up to date. If one’s income is above $19,000, there is a good chance one does not need assistance in repairing one’s home. If one’s income is below $19,000 and one’s house is in desperate disrepair then it is highly unlikely that such things as keeping the house properly insured or the taxes current are even a blip on the family’s radar. At that point food and heat in the winter are much bigger issues.

Another concern with the above mentioned funds is that they might possibly only be available if the homeowner agrees to have his or her house re-sided, original windows replaced, original banisters replaced to meet current code and the removal or covering of lead-bearing elements (which could include original woodwork that has been painted or varnished). What is left of the historic aesthetic of a once intact house is then difficult to find. The charm and personality that attracts so many to live in an old home have now been removed making the property less appealing inside as well as from the street.

It would seem that the way in which grant/stimulus monies are being governed and property taxes are being levied in some cases are going to lead to more properties on the city’s dangerous building list. So it would seem the demolition of structures currently on the dangerous buildings list will only make way for more structures to be added to this same list as the elderly are forced to move elsewhere and those who desire to live in the city’s historic neighborhoods cannot get access to funds required to keep their homes from falling into decay. When will this cycle end? What will happen to Saginaw’s inner city neighborhoods over the next decade? What will happen to the city if these neighborhoods do not recover viability as residential districts?

It is possible that any city official or resident could reverse the questions I have asked to demand how empty structures could be any more of an asset than empty lots. The individual turning those questions back would likely win a prize at a high school debate meet. But this is not high school. This is not a debate meet. This is the community we live in and it is time that any inhabitant – official or resident – in any of the city’s challenged neighborhoods needs to look seriously across the street or over the back fence before making decisions that are irreversible.

Much of Saginaw was built up from a wealthy economy that will never be seen in this region again. What has been bequeathed to us from that era is all we have to leverage our community into its next cycle of life. These buildings are only here until they are demolished. The wealth will never again exist in this region to build such structures as the home of the Castle Museum, the former Bancroft Hotel, the Potter Street Station (second only in size to the great central station in Detroit) or the homes on N. Jefferson referenced in the recent Saginaw News article.

Detroit is pitted with areas that were once bustling residential and business districts which might now – after years of systematic demolition – fall under the description of “Green Zones.” These former neighborhoods aren’t terribly green; rather, they appear barren, desolate and depressing with absolutely nothing to recommend them to new residents or business owners.

It is worth looking again at our possibly dangerous buildings and considering whether it might not be worth removing front steps and boarding windows and doors to make structures less of a risk and provide time (and city cooperation) for/with residents to attempt to provide solutions for the structures within sight of their own front doors. Demolishing these structures now and thinking about the future of the districts they once stood in at a later date seems irresponsibly irreversible.

There is no easy fix for neighborhoods whose hearts, for one reason or another, have stopped beating, but one thing is indisputable: Empty buildings have a greater chance of attracting new businesses and residents than do empty lots.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

"Could I have a side of decaying opulance with that, please?"

Sarah and Paolo like things that are a little urban, so it was time for them to get a tuck-and-roll daytrip to Detroit under their belts. In taking this trip with them, I was reminded again of some of the things I love about the gritty, grungy, slightly tarnished beauty of Detroit.

We began in the morning heading south in I-75 allllllll the way down to 9 Mile Road to exit there into Ferndale to look at the bustling few blocks of business street that intersect Woodward and remind me of what I think Hamilton Street in Saginaw could be in another twenty years with the right people keeping busy there.

Then we headed south on Woodward pointing out the ramshackle remains of the old Ford plant and the bright specks of craft tile that pop from every other facade in Detroit. We turned right on Warren to go to the Architectural Salvage Warehouse and looked at piles of flaking, splintering design possibilities.

Next came Showcase Collectables in what was once China Town, then we headed downtown to Bagley and the Michigan Building.

I had driven past and - once-upon-a-time - had peeked inside what is now a parking structure as a child and wanted to take Sarah and Paolo to see the repurposed space. After driving around the buildign without recognizing it four or five times we finally parked near the blown-out remains of some one's car windows. We were let into the back of the building by a friendly security guard in the lobby.

Ten or so steps through a narrow, twisted little hall and out a steel door and we stood under what was left of something incredible:

Barely 8-9 feet above our heads were baroque wreathes, faces whose expresions had long ago flaked away, crumbling egg-and-dart patterns and fragments of marble veneer. Walking forward toward light pouring in from the side of the building we were suddenly in a space that soared four stories upward to an amazingly ornate cieling that seemed to have columns hanging from it instead of supporting it; the cieling seemed to float like an art installation over what was now a parking garage. Visible through the steel eye beams and seemingly-too-slender poured concrete columns holding up three levels of parking was the cieling of what had once been the auditorium of the old Michigan Theater. Even after having been closed since the mid-1970's and converted to a parking garage it cannot help but be impressive in a way that inspires goose bumps.

Friday, March 12, 2010


This Lent thing is officially over at my house. I can totally appreciate the idea, have tried it since...well, whenever it started, but the headaches, and (so Roderick finally told me last night) the irritability coupled with always feeling tired are gettgin in the way of work and that can't happen now that it's possible to get around, lol. Ah well. I suppose it was worth the try, anyway.