Monday, November 24, 2014

Tree Lighting Ceremony

Friday night Danny and I went to Campus Martius for the tree lighting ceremony.  I went a couple years ago with Granny and like everything else in this town, the changes were impressive.  There was more activity and definitely more people.  Seeing crowds in the city never gets old.  As much as I love Detroit, New York City is truly the pinnacle of metropolitan greatness. Consequently, I relish these moments of big city crowds.  I like to think of it as watching the ball drop in Times Square but with the convenience of easy bathroom accessibility and limited traffic on the way home.

A big change from a couple years ago was the food.  There were food trucks outside, including my favorite Beignet truck, that tempted me.  Cadillac Square was equipped with a large tent that had offerings from the best restaurants in town.  Danny and I immediately regretted going out to dinner because there were so many delicious treats.  Stuffed or not, I couldn't pass up a lobster dog from Coach Insignia!  It was AMAZING and I want another one. The other fun part about the tent was the ample seating and fun dance music.

To be a bit hypocritical, as much as I love the busyness of New York, the crowded sidewalks are a hassle.  I fully expect Detroit to have crowded streets on a regular basis one day; therefore, I can't help but enjoy the freedom of casually strolling Woodward Avenue on a Friday night.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Happy Friday!

The Little Seed Farm is a blog I started reading a few years ago.  Now it's a business and the blog is only updated on occasion.  James and Eileen (formerly known as Scrapple and Sweetbreads) are living the new American dream.  A few years ago they were working in Manhattan with successful but unsatisfying careers.  They took time to create a life plan that would be sustainable for their family and the planet.  The result: A goat farm in Tennessee that produces cheese, soap and lip balm. I admire their socially conscious, entrepreneurial spirit and like to believe it is a signature trait of this generation. 

I'm really excited for the weekend.  I have a big interview today and welcome all positive vibes.  To unwind we'll be hitting the town tonight at an undetermined dinner location and the tree lighting ceremony at Campus Martius.  Tomorrow I'm meeting all four of my sister-in-laws for breakfast.  It's my first time ever being alone with them and I'm excited to see them outside of a family gathering.  I'll be booking it from there home because Tash is coming over for his first lesson in BSG the boardgame.  It will be a mini office reunion since Gina and Garrett will be over too.  Sunday, we'll watch the Lions lose to the charming Tom Brady at Mr. B's and Gina will come over to watch Once Upon A Time.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

My Blog Roll

An early winter and a broken car disrupted my plans for the week. C'est la vie - at least I'm not in Buffalo. Since it appears we'll be hunkering down and spending a lot of time indoors for the next few months I thought I'd share some of my favorite blogs.

The Essentials:
A Cup of Jo: One of the first blogs I ever read, JoAnna's insight on New York sparked my interest in reading about life in other cities. Her blog is more than a lifestyle site, it's thought provoking and introduces me to new ideas. She also does great home tours and interviews.  My favorite series is Motherhood Around the World and I look forward to it every year.  I'm fascinated by how others live and always learn interesting things.  The concept of writing about life in Detroit for this blog was greatly influenced by JoAnna.  Fun fact: She grew up in Michigan! Small world.

Cupcakes & Cashmere: Emily is a real-life Carrie Bradshaw (if Carrie lived in LA). She transformed her blog into an industry but remains true to her pre-fame concept. The blog world has gotten intense and many sites have started to rely heavily on sponsored posts. I don't begrudge these writers but Emily stands out as someone who provides regular (twice a day!), original and authentic content. C&C is a fashion, food and lifestyle website that really sets the standard for other blogs.

Little Baby Garvin: A 'mommy blog' in the best ways, Jessica is living my dream: a gorgeous house, creative ideas and two beautiful daughters. She loves to celebrate all occasions and gives me great ideas for the holidays. She also inspired the chalkboard I put up in the dining room.  I appreciate her honesty about parenting and regularly pin her baby must-have lists.

The Minimalists:
Reading My Tea Leaves: I recently found this Brooklyn blogger site. Erin is a self proclaimed minimalist and since it's a lifestyle I'm attracted to, I enjoy reading her tips.  She also shares thoughts about life in a tiny apartment with pictures and stories that help satisfy my love for New York.

Happy Yolks: Another recent find, this site leaves me feeling peaceful and hungry.  Beautiful pictures and delicious recipes.

The Content Sites:
The Every Girl: Technically a blog but really an online magazine, The Every Girl covers every topic imaginable: current events, personal finance, food, and amazing home tours. Multiple posts are shared throughout the day and I can always find something that captures my attention.

Just Us Gals: A trio of Boston friends manage this blog and it's fun to read. My favorite part is the book club. January's selection is The Power Of One, it takes place in South Africa and will fit into the on-going lit project.

Hither & Tither: Since we don't travel like we'd like, I'm choosing to live vicariously through Ashley.  I'm not sure I would even want to travel as often as she appears to but I enjoy reading about her trips and seeing the pictures.  Providing content for her city travel posts was on my 2015 accomplishments list but, unfortunately, another blogger beat me to it.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Life in Detroit: Chris & Emily

Detroit New Center Commons

The current lore of Detroit includes the story that you can buy a house for a dollar (or close to it).  While the housing prices in the city are significantly below other areas, there is a big difference between buying a house and finding a home. My friends Chris and Emily spent a long time searching for the latter.

After over a year of searching they recently closed on a house in their dream location. I couldn't be happier for them and am excited to learn more about what life is really like in Detroit. Since we have a 5 ½ year working relationship, I don’t feel shy about asking Chris anything; this includes, the uncomfortable subject of cost-of-living and crime. When Danny and I purchase a home we hope it’s in the city and I'm intrigued by their neighborhood. New Center is a name but not exactly a destination.  It’s the only neighborhood in the city’s core with a decent selection of (affordable) residential single family homes*; however, it does not attract the same development as other areas. That said, the M-1 rail is scheduled to be complete in a couple years and the line ends in New Center. With any luck the creation of public transit will stimulate more investment in the neighborhood.
Chris and Emily are in the midst of home renovation but took time last week to give me a before look and talk about their Detroit experience.

You guys were on the verge of packing your bags and skipping town a few times through this process.  What kept you from jumping ship?
Chris: Lack of job prospects in other cities. [laughs] What kept us from jumping ship? I guess the simple answer is we like it here.
Emily: It’s where we’re from.
Chris: We’re family people and we have a good community of friends. I think that also encourages us to giveback. It’s exciting, this idea of fixing up an old house and making something better.
Emily: I would add that we couldn’t take on a project like this in any other major U.S. city. The buy in in New York or even Baltimore or New Orleans will be much higher. In Detroit we can try to live the dream.

During the search you considered other neighborhoods but never felt the same connection you feel to New Center. What’s drawing you to the neighborhood?
Emily: There is a really strong community in this three block area. A homeowners association that seems to be more than a homeowners association.  I think it's a network of people in similarly sized houses with similar problems, so if you need a radiator repair man you have a lot of people who can give you suggestions.
Chris: Back to Emily’s point of other cities - we wanted to live in an urban environment. A neighborhood like the University District or Grandmont Rosedale has beautiful neighborhoods with the style of homes we like but we’d still be driving wherever we wanted to go, we still would have felt removed from our friends. This area gave us that unique opportunity to live in a single family home right next to the Fisher Building, right by the Woodward corridor where they’re building the M-1 street car where hopefully one day we can take it to a Tiger’s game or to the DIA and feel very much a part of downtown in a way the other neighborhoods don’t offer.
Emily: And Woodward will be the first bus rapid transit line in the region so we could theoretically get to where our parents live in Royal Oak and Birmingham by using a bus.
Chris: Our dream is a one car household and we couldn’t have been able to achieve that in the University District.

I know you’re not thrilled with the security needs that are expected of life in Detroit.  At the same time there are security concerns you didn’t have before that you’ve mentioned, such as walking Tio at night or needing a club for the car.  How are you reconciling the conflict and where do you stand now?  Are you concerned about safety issues or do you think it’s hype?
Emily: I’d like to suggest that it’s hype but I don’t feel like I’ve lived in the city long enough to make that claim. I’m disappointed that we will have a security system. Having studied history, it’s been suggested that our fear of crime in this country has really increased since the 50's and 60's when in reality, violent crime has gone down. I do think there is a lot of hype and I struggle with that because I don't want to buy in so I’m taking my cues from everyone I know that has a home in Detroit and I’m caving and getting a security system.  If in two years we haven’t had any problems I think we would revisit it. For now if even Pat Carey [friend/lifelong Detroit resident] suggests getting a security system - I’ll cave.
Chris: On the whole I feel comfortable in this neighborhood. I think the hard part with Detroit is that I feel really comfortable with these three blocks but if I went up to the fourth block I’d feel a lot less comfortable. But if I went south I feel pretty comfortable for quite awhile. The hard part is I feel comfortable here but it’s a small area.
Emily: To be fair we’d never walk our dog at midnight [even in Ferndale].
Chris: Like any other city you want to be aware of your surrounding and you don’t want to be a victim but I feel very comfortable. I want to emphasize that I’m not frightened.

You know my biggest city living concern is the costs.  How do you expect your budget to change now that you’re living in Detroit?  
Emily: I think most people think it’s going to be more affordable and it is if you look at similarly sized properties but we upgraded. This is almost 1000 square feet more than our Ferndale house. We anticipate the cost of heating, electricity, doing work around the house - all those costs will go up because the house is bigger. We’re also going to pay more for property taxes. Taxes in Detroit are 12 mills higher than Ferndale - that’s about $1,000 more a year.
Chris: Our income tax will go up.
Emily: Our car insurance has gone up. Our homeowners insurance has gone up. The increased cost are there.  For us they are relatively nominal because we are getting more house.
Chris: One thing that surprised me is homeowners insurance actually didn’t go up all that much. Sure it went up but our house is older and bigger.
Emily: It also didn’t go up that much because we had a relationship with our insurance company. It seems that that’s a worthwhile relationship to build if you’re thinking about moving to the city.  AAA’s quote was thousands of dollars less per year and they basically told us it’s because we have a  relationship with them and we’ve been good clients. They were also really honest and said don’t make a claim unless somebody steals your car or your house burns down.  
Chris: Inevitably our cost-of-living went up when we moved here but you get what you pay for.

The strength of Detroit living is the strong neighborhood organizations. How do you plan to connect with the community?
Chris: The Facebook group really made us feel comfortable about moving here because there was a sense of community.  Not just, ‘hey, who do I call when my radiator is broken’ - which is actually extremely helpful - but it was ‘hey, we’re carving pumpkins’ or ‘someone left their sweatshirt at the park’. It can be as important as I’m working with the city to make sure the lights in our alleyway stay on to relatively minor as a sweatshirt and that really encouraged us that this was a place people were looking out for each other.
Emily: Facebook is a nice way to start a connection. When we moved to the neighborhood somebody made the announcement and looped us in. It’s a starting point and we look forward to meeting everyone in person.
Chris: We are fortunate too because we already knew people who lived in this neighborhood. We were able to make connections so that when we moved in there were friendly faces.

Now that you live in the city you have lost the ability to excuse yourself from activity because of the ‘drive home’. How will city life change you?
Chris: We’ll be a lot more fun.
Emily: We’re looking forward to exploring what we have in New Center.
Chris: I’m excited Cafe Con Leche is coming. What I’m hoping we’ll do more of is the impulsive people hanging out. Just the other day friends of ours stopped by because they were getting brunch and wanted to see the house so they just stopped by.
Emily: I’m also a little nervous about that.  I look forward to having people over but we enjoy our downtime. Everyday being a night out, followed by brunch, followed by tv watching… I’m a little tired for that these days.
Chris: I don’t want to sound naive but I’m excited to be a true community participant and go to meetings and discuss the problems the city is facing as someone who lives here and not just someone who cares about it. Again, I don’t want to be naive because I just got here and I don’t want to pretend that I know what the problems really are. There are problems on the Eastside that aren’t in New Center so I don’t want it to sound like I’m here and I’m the solution but I am excited to be part of the conversation in a way before I felt I couldn’t be. I get to feel that I’m putting my money where my mouth is and even if that only makes me feel better - at least I feel better.

We have witnessed a lot of change in five years. What change do you want to see happen in one year?
Emily: I was going to say improve public transit but that will be a tough sell in a year.
Chris: In one year the changes are very micro: I want new paint on my house, I want a patio in the backyard, I’m looking forward to Cafe Con Leche.
Emily: I’d like to see occupancy rates go up. Our block is almost fully occupied but a few blocks up that’s not the case. I’d love to see improvement between the New Center Commons area and the North End. It’d be great to see more people move to the city. More houses occupied and houses that aren’t occupied or salvageable, deconstructed.
Chris: It’d also be interesting to see how retail develops downtown. Bedrock is taking a measured approach to the create districts and make sure businesses compliment each other. I’m thinking maybe we’re finally at the beginning of that and it will be interesting to see how that matures because it would be fun to go downtown and wander to go shopping on a variety of blocks.
Emily: And it will be fun to see how things develop on Grand and Woodward in advance of the M-1. To see if there is development up this far.
Detroit New Center Commons

*Corktown has single family homes; however, they are mostly occupied and quite expensive.

Monday, November 17, 2014

United Community Housing Coalition

united community housing coalition detroit

Last week I attended the 40th Anniversary Membership Dinner for the United Community Housing Coalition (UCHC).  It's an organization I've been familiar with for a number of years, but the evening really emphasized to me the significance of the UCHC's work.  The UCHC is a premier non-profit organization helping Detroit residents (homeowners and renters) remain in their homes.  The housing crisis has tempered in most areas of the country but it continues to be a significant challenge in Detroit.  Tens of thousands of individuals are expected to be foreclosed on next year and the UCHC works tirelessly to stem the disaster.

I think it's easy to mistake the housing crisis in Detroit as a singular issue confronting a 'failing city' and impacting people who 'don't work or work hard enough' to avoid it.  Three issues were addressed during the dinner that highlight the widespread impact housing issues have on society as a whole.  It's easy to dismiss the problems of an individual or family but it's important to remember that these challenges are like a pebble tossed in a pond, there are repercussions and many pebbles mean unsettled water abounds.

Tax Foreclosure: One thing that is important to note is that the city of Detroit offers property tax exemptions to low income families. Unfortunately, this is unpublicized and many families lose their homes for a reason that could have easily been avoided.  There are expected to be over 60,000 foreclosures in Detroit next year.  For perspective, when Wayne County had 40,000 foreclosures it was 10x higher than any county in the United States.  Half of the homes are owner or tenant occupied.
How the UCHC Helps: In addition to counseling services that help homeowners and renters complete paperwork and negotiate agreements with government entities, the Coalition purchased 326 owner occupied homes for a total of $250,000 and sold them to the residents with a no-interest loan.

Water Shut-off: The water crisis in Detroit has become an international issue.  I won't get into all the details but there have been approximately 3,000 water shut-offs in Detroit every week for months.  Our early winter has postponed further shut-offs because the water department won't turn off water when temperatures are at 32F.  Regardless of the weather, homes without water are unhabitable. Families are forced to live in life threatening conditions (a conclusion drawn by the courts) or vacate their homes to have them be stripped and blighted.
How the UCHC Helps: Unpaid water bills are transferred to taxes and contribute to the foreclosure crisis. The UCHC works with residents to address this issue and often find that the water department has made errors in billing.  These errors, when corrected, don't often address the large penalties and fees associated with the bills.

Displacement of Low-Income Families: Another controversial issue facing Detroit (and most large cities) is gentrification.  Everyone wants the city to attract new residents but at what cost?  Often times long time residents suffer because they don't fit the profile developers want to attract and can't afford to lobby against displacement.
How the UCHC Helps: Developers often receive millions of dollars in tax credits to do business in the city.  They generally get years to work on a project but give residents living in their project areas weeks (or less) to relocate.  The UCHC may not be able to keep families in their home but they have negotiated relocation assistance paid by developers to help individuals afford moving costs (e.g. security deposits for a new apartment). 

united community housing coalition detroit

The holiday season is here and if you're looking for a quality organization to support, I highly recommend the United Community Housing Coalition.  Last year the organization assisted over 11,000 individuals resolve housing problems. The staff and volunteers are beyond dedicated.  They are working a triage operation as a labor of love and commitment to social justice.  They are always in need of volunteers, particularly individuals to answer phones.  Consequently, if you call to inquire you may need to try a few times to reach someone at (313) 963-3310.  You can also email  If you are interested in making a financial contribution, it can be sent to:

United Community Housing Coalition
220 Bagley, Suite 224
Detroit, MI 48226