Saturday, August 29, 2009

Detroit: a leisurely disaster

The people who publish Forbes must think exclusively in list form. Top 10 cars that are hard to find at dealers, The Top 10 majors for college students, Top 12 foods you shouldn't be eating...
As we mark the anniversary of a year of economic despair I keep being bombarded with lists of cities down on their luck. I take issue with these lists because they're low on substance, basic data ranked in a simple method that consistently make the front pages of Yahoo news. I'm shocked people get legitimate paychecks for such shoddy journalism. These list makers shouldn't even get paid for all 10 of the most depressed metro areas because...
You'd be hard pressed to find a city in the US that has had such a consistent run of bad luck. New Orleans has had a rough spell, but because it's steeped in culture and a tourism hot spot I am confident they'll make a full recovery. The obvious choice for #1 Detroit, is worse than I expected. In late Summer of 2008 I passed through on business and it was really rough. A year later I pass through to find things have gone from worse to the absolute worst.
The building above was a train station that had been fully restored in the mid-1980s. Today not a single window remains intact. If this happened all at once by way of a natural disaster it would be front page news. Below is what remains from the old Tigers stadium, surrounded by bars full of history but overwhelmingly empty on game days.
What happened to Detroit was a leisurely disaster. A slow moving decay that began in the 1960's, as residents fled the city bad times crept on in. This is a city that wasn't destroyed by a hurricane, fire or earthquake. It was destroyed over time as the rest of the world changed and it didn't. I've run across people, assuredly not from Detroit and likely never to have visited, who suggest letting it die, accuse it of digging its own grave and assessing the damage as not worth fixing. How would these armchair economists go about telling the man below walking past the former Hotel Eddystone that his town is not worth saving.
Detroit has fallen from being the 4th largest city in the United States to being the 11th. Despite the decades of crime, drugs and poverty there's still nearly a million people left. I hope the worst is behind Detroit. What was once a prime example of the American Dream is too big to fail, but after spending a few days on its crumbling streets it could be argued that it already has.

How can this be a good idea?

Sunday, August 9, 2009

The rural Ohio random find of the week

On a random drive across Ohio's countryside I turned a corner and learned all I ever wanted to know about where the Goodyear Blimp is kept. Since 1917 this has been the headquarters for Airship Operations. One of the random perks of driving down roads aimlessly when somebody else is paying for the gas.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Onions of Wrath

I've gained a newfound respect for the onions I discard from the endless number of over processed and under priced meals that fuel life on the road. From Portland, Oregon to Providence, Rhode Island I have sent unwanted onion slices flying out of sunroofs, into trash cans and bouncing off walls of hotel rooms I'll never have to clean.
In rural Ohio I came across a community of migrant workers and surveyed the modest shacks they lived in. These are easily the most basic of housing units I've encountered in over 2 years of traveling. Just enough room for a cot, a bedside table, and a chair. The lucky ones have a shower and public restroom to share, others have a outhouse and water from a hose. Hanging out to dry are the uncomfortable looking yellow protective suits to keep the pesticides from getting into the workers skin.
The farm grew a variety of vegetables and relied heavily on a combination of manual labor and aging red trucks. It's humbling to see the lengths people will go to have a unforgiving and dirty job. The farm went on for miles, retired school buses shuttled hundreds of workers and the basic hand tools they were using from field to field. As my own unemployment looms in the distance I've found that a look into the lives of these workers makes the last 2.5 years not appear so bad. As rough as the work looked to be, there have been more books written about migrant workers than traveling market research surveyors.
My inner nerd environmental-economist was glad to see this type of farming still done in the United States and done in a environment that actually gets rainfall. Arizona and Southern California drain rivers to farm the desert. My inner human rights activist was more than a little uncomfortable seeing people that live in the modern day equivalent of a slave cabin.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Co-op City = Futureville... cira 1968

The West Bronx is home to Co-op City, an experiment in ideal living. Unlike most Co-op arrangements this is not a farmhouse in rural Vermont where Phish is the soundtrack to organic farming and aging VW Vanagons are used as storage sheds while children are allowed to name themselves.
What Co-op City is? What happens when you try to cram 55,000 people into under 65 acres of land. The entire complex is around 320 acres but just 20% of that land houses enough people to be the 10th biggest city in New York. It seems like a viable solution for middle class families to live and work in the city. On paper, the sheer number of bodies occupying these towers seems like a disaster waiting to happen. In person, a livable and comfortable neighborhood that resembles a college campus more than a the worlds largest housing complex.

It works because of the walkable nature of the complex, everything you'd need on a regular basis is within a block or two. It also works because they don't allow convicted felons in. Aside from bankruptcy issues that crop up about once a decade, this urban utopia seems to be a success. Which is surprising because when I read about it... on paper it looks like somebody trying to cram 10 pounds of shit into a 5 pound bag.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Search for North Brother Island

While mapping out the weeks work in the South Bronx I noticed a few islands on Google maps. I decided to take the time to fully investigate these islands and so began the search for North Brother Island.
Southwest of Hunts Point and Northwest of Rikers Island lies North Brother Island, a sprawling abandoned hospital island for quarantining the sick and undesirable from the rest of the city. As I've explained in previous blog posts, I enjoy creepy abandoned places. In a historic and not goth way though, the most I'll do is take pictures and consult Wikipedia, no ghost hunting, emo-cutting or meth smoking here.
Unfortunately there are no good ways to reach the shore across from the Island, the first step is driving South. My travels led me to Hunt's Point, known for its widespread prostitution and one of the largest food distribution centers in the US. I got a view of Rikers Island.. and a variety of other things... But I wasn't hunting for strange, I was searching for North Island.
West of the point was a Coke bottling plant and some sort of refinery, its as close as I could get. All that is visible now is a rusting dock and what is left of the power plant.
It'll be interesting to see how much longer the island remains in its current state. A Discovery Channel special featured the island as an example of what happens when humans leave an area for a extended period of time. In the city with land at a premium this has been sitting for over 40 years. Rikers Island isn't the most desirable neighbor, that may play a factor as well. Google Earth and Wikipedia do a much better job explaining the history, it doesn't appear I'll be getting a chance at a closer look.