Pretty much, this sounds like us…

From today’s Ann Arbor News, “Ann Arbor area homeowners – like those across the country – struggle with “underwater” mortgages.” The short version is that we too probably owe more than our house is actually worth. Now, I guess we’re lucky/fortunate in the sense that we aren’t that underwater (some of the people in this article are more like $80K upside-down, and we’re nowhere near that) and short of some unforeseen disaster, we have secure jobs and will be able to keep making our payments.

Still, it’s frustrating, and it is especially frustrating when you do everything you’re supposed to do as a responsible citizen and the only people who seem to be catching a break in terms of refinancing houses and negotiating deals with banks are people who were always way in over their heads. I mean, if we had had one of these goofy balloon mortgages and were telling the bank that we couldn’t afford to pay anymore, we might get some help. But since we are homeowners who just want some kind of break to be able to refinance, we’re getting nothing. Oddly, I wonder if we’d have a better chance of getting a banker’s attention if we just stopped paying our mortgage. Which, of course, we aren’t going to do.

Anyway, we’ll see what happens. Annette has grown weary of being on hold for an hour at a time only to be told by the bankers that we are SOL; I might give it a whirl next week.

Detroit: Science Fictional City, Land of Opportunity, Doughnut Hole

I don’t tend to think a lot about Detroit, but I stumbled across a couple blog posts/articles yesterday that made me ponder:

First, there is “The travails of Detroit” from the Financial Times of London— or more accurately, Cory Doctorow’s post on boing-boing about this article. In that post, Doctorow wrote this:

I was at Confusion, a science fiction convention in the Detroit area recently, and I got to thinking that Detroit may be the most science fictional city in the world — if sf is about the way that technology changes society (and vice-versa), then Detroit, the first New World, world-class city built around a high-tech industry that collapsed, is about as science fictional as it gets.

I am assuming– especially based on this Financial Times article– that Doctorow doesn’t mean a “science fictional city” like the “Futureworld” in his beloved Disneyland; I assume he’s talking Mad Max, Blade Runner, etc.

Conversely, on Mark Maynard’s blog, I came across this glass half-full article, “For Sale: The $100 House,” which is about how the collapse of the real estate market in Detroit is presenting itself as an opportunity for artists and other hipster/urban pioneers. Here’s a quote:

A local couple, Mitch Cope and Gina Reichert, started the ball rolling. An artist and an architect, they recently became the proud owners of a one-bedroom house in East Detroit for just $1,900. Buying it wasn’t the craziest idea. The neighborhood is almost, sort of, half-decent. Yes, the occasional crack addict still commutes in from the suburbs but a large, stable Bangladeshi community has also been moving in.

So what did $1,900 buy? The run-down bungalow had already been stripped of its appliances and wiring by the city’s voracious scrappers. But for Mitch that only added to its appeal, because he now had the opportunity to renovate it with solar heating, solar electricity and low-cost, high-efficiency appliances.

Buying that first house had a snowball effect. Almost immediately, Mitch and Gina bought two adjacent lots for even less and, with the help of friends and local youngsters, dug in a garden. Then they bought the house next door for $500, reselling it to a pair of local artists for a $50 profit. When they heard about the $100 place down the street, they called their friends Jon and Sarah.

The truth is that Detroit has been “suddenly” transforming into a former shell of itself for about 40 years, and the comments on Doctorow’s post on boing-boing point this out. True, the slow decline of Detroit is about the failures of the auto industry, but it is also about race, about the rise of the suburbs, about a general population shift in the U.S. back to the south, etc. Besides, I’ve never quite gotten this dark/sci-fi/noir aesthetic of artsy photos of dilapidated and abandoned buildings of the kind featured in the Financial Times story or on the site“The Fabulous Ruins of Detroit.”

The idea of turning a house that costs about the same as a souped-up desktop computer into an inner-city, eco-friendly, artists colony is appealing and even perhaps a little more realistic and unique than the idea of turning it into a dystopian movie set. It is interesting that the kind of forces that originally encouraged migration to the west– cheap land and few rules– are driving them now into the inner-city. Urban pioneers indeed. But it still probably isn’t going to improve the schools, bring a grocery store to town, raise the tax base, reform local government, etc.

In the the almost dozen years I’ve lived in Ypsilanti, I’ve been into Detroit-city about a dozen times tops– well, not counting the Computers and Writing Conference in 2007 at Wayne State, which is the only conference I’ve ever commuted to from my house. Ypsilanti is between Detroit and Ann Arbor and sometimes feels like a bit of a buffer-zone, but I never really think of myself as living in a suburb of Detroit, or even particularly close to Detroit. Granted, downtown Detroit is just 40 or so minutes away by car, but it seems a lot further than that.

Anyway, I don’t think Detroit is a sci-fi prototype and I’m not sure its cheapness alone means it is the next great investment for artists or others. I think it’s a bit of a doughnut hole, meaning the city of Detroit is a whole lot of “nothing” with a lot around it. I’ve been in downtown Detroit before on a Friday or Saturday early evening where it was a complete ghost town, while simultaneously, downtown Ann Arbor is packed with all kinds of folks. All the “good stuff” of Detroit is around it in the suburbs. The hole of Detroit is a blank.

Don’t get me wrong– Detroit-city is not without its many charms (DIA, Commerica Park, Ford Field, WSU, the Fischer Theater, Greektown, etc., etc.), and it’s not like Detroit is that unique. In fact, I would wager to say that most major cities in this country are more like doughnuts than not. Who goes downtown in Cleveland? Baltimore? St. Louis? Even a lot of Chicago? This is what suburbanization has done almost everywhere in this country. Though I will grant you that the nothingness of the hole of Detroit is more pronounced, perhaps because of the pronounced size and general goodness of the doughnut that surrounds this particular hole. There aren’t many urban areas in this country where the towns around that area are as known or more known than the main city itself.

In any event, I’m leery of signaling out Detroit’s state in the face of “high technology,” and I’m rooting for the the artists and other urban pioneers. But I have a feeling that the holeness of Detroit is remaining with us for a while.

Ave Maria, Florida: A brief photo tour

We had a little “down-time” one afternoon in Naples, so Annette and Will and I decided to take a little road-trip that is probably more interesting to the folks back in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti than it is down here: we went out to Tom Monaghan’s Ave Maria University. Ypsi-Arbor folks are undoubtedly already familiar with the story: Monaghan, who founded Domino’s Pizza in Ypsilanti way back when, is now an ultra-conservative Catholic philanthropist. I don’t know exactly how conservative, but my sense is that he’s kind of in the same camp as the “bad guys” in The Da Vinci Code.

Anyway, Monaghan started up Ave Maria University in Ypsilanti in an old elementary school building near EMU’s campus, and the Ave Maria Law School over in Ann Arbor. He wanted to build a much more elaborate campus and, as I recall it, he also wanted to build a 300+ foot cross on or near the property where Domino Farms is located. Ann Arbor said there was no way they would allow those zoning changes. So Monaghan picked up and went to Florida, where there are no zoning laws for all practical purposes. As this 2006 article in The Independent put it, “if all goes to plan, the first of its 11,000 brand new homes will be ready for residents late next year. So too, at the city’s heart, will be a new university, which hopes to become home to 5,000 fresh-faced – and hopefully devout – undergraduates.”

Many controversies and a bad economy has made this not come to pass, at least as far as we could tell.

Our journey began first with the drive; here’s a map (and all these images are available via this Flickr set):

Ave Maria on the map

I think this map illustrates something that Annette and Will and I learned early in our travels out to Ave Maria: it is in the middle of nowhere, and that’s saying something for southern Florida where there is quite a bit of “middle of nowhere.” Around Ave Maria, which is down Oil Well Road, are a combination of produce farms and Everglades scrub.

After passing through the front gate (pictured above), we drove a while through wetlands being reclaimed by the Ave Maria folks and lots of pretty much empty (possibly future) neighborhood developments. Then we came to the “Park of Commerce:”

The empty park o' comerce

Not a lot happening there. We did something that looked like a gas station/convenience store under construction.

A little more driving and we came across this:

Santa and baby Jesus

Annette immediately recognized this Santa w/ Jesus from the light show they used to have at Domino Farms; I guess they shipped this light display south. Sadly, it wasn’t lit for us.

A little more driving, and finally we got to the “town center,” which of course features a church:

Front of the Cathedral

From the outside, I think it looks like a hanger for a blimp with masonry on either side of it. The inside is pretty simple at this point, though it’s clearly a work in progress, too:

Inside the Cathedral

The arches were pretty cool, but notice the kind of alien-like/Frank Lloyd Wright-like lights.

The Cathedral/church is in the middle of a sort of faux town square, the “business district” if you will:

The empty streets of Ave Maria Town

Imagine your bakery hereAs far as I could tell, the open businesses included the Ave Maria U. book store, a dress shop, a coffee shop, a smoothie shop, some kind of jewlery shop, a couple of real estate places trying to sell lots in empty Ave Maria developments, a freaky toy/home schooling store, and a surprisingly cool-looking bike shop.

For all your home school and religious gift needsOne of the major controversies of Ave Maria-town was (and I guess remains) that Monaghan did not want to have any businesses that sold contraceptives; since that’s pretty standard fare for drug stores and grocery stores, there was none of that in “town” when we were there– though to be fair, there was a “coming soon” sign in front of a store advertising Publix, an area grocery store chain.

Oh, and I don’t know why, but I found this kind of funny:

Corner of annuciation and Pope John Paul II

If you park overnight near the corner of Annunciation Circle and John Paul II Way, you’re gonna get towed.

The Ave Maria University campus is pretty much across the street, and it too is a work in progress. Basically, you’ve got three or four large buildings that look like this:

Academic building

(By the way, what is the deal with Monaghan and Frank Lloyd Wright designs?)

And you’ve got a number of signs that look like this:
Future site of law school

That’s pretty much it.

Our overall impressions? I think terms like “creepy” and “strange” and bizarre” come to mind. Granted, we weren’t there very long, but I honestly don’t think we saw more than two dozen people in an hour of driving around. I mean, it was a whole lot of nothing, and what was there seemed awfully repressed, even for Catholic standards.

But time will be the test here. I am hoping that we can make the trip back there in about five years and see what’s there. Will it be the thriving dream of Catholic orthodoxy in the swamp? Or it will it be, um, swamp?

My tour to the Food (W)hole #2/Naughty grocery store pictures

Whole Foods Ann Arbor, with typical shopperI had to run a few errands and/or wanted to stall on starting commenting on student essays, so on my way home, I swung by the new Whole Foods in Ann Arbor– or, as the web site says, Cranbrook, which is really the name of a shopping center on the other side of Ann Arbor. It’s a good location for the chain because it’s close to lots of upscale west AA neighborhoods, and it’s also reasonably close to Saline and Dexter. But since we live completely on the other side of town, this visit to the Food (W)Hole was more or less just a field trip.

So, what’s the new store like? Why, it’s like a grocery store–or, to be more specific, it’s another location for one of the “world’s leading natural and organic grocer and we’re passionate about healthy food and a healthy planet,” a place that is “lucky to have a whole bunch of smart, passionate people doing incredible things in areas like organics, supporting local growers, green practices, fair trade, micro-lending and all kinds of food related stuff.” Pretentious? Sure. Am I a loyal customer? You bet.

The new store is pretty much the same as my regular Food (W)Hole: the usual large seafood selection and grass-fed or otherwise organic meat selections, supplements and herbal things, a coffee bar area, etc. Besides the layout (the space is much more narrow and long), I noticed at least four differences with this new store:

  • An even larger prepared/take away food section, and one that features a special gelato and ice cream counter. This strikes me as kind of funny because this strip mall also features an Old Country Buffet. So now you can fatten up either for cheap or for not cheap.
  • A sushi counter, where you can get fresh (and not packaged earlier that day) sushi. I suspect Will will require a visit.
  • A wine/beer/cheese tasting bar. I’m not quite sure about this arrangement (I didn’t ask and I wasn’t around long enough to find out), but it appeared to me that you could buy a glass of wine or a beer on tap and from our own Arbor Brewing Company (made in Ypsilanti), and then perhaps continue your shopping. This is what this video says about a store that opened in Rochester Hills, MI with a similar wine bar arrangement.
  • A rule against taking photographs: at the store’s entrance and next to the “no smoking” and “no roller blades” signs was “no photography.” Now, perhaps this is a policy at all Whole Foods, as this photo and the discussion about it suggests. One of the reasons discussed here says this is so other stores can’t steal design ideas, but it seems pretty easy to get around this. I mean, just go in and look around.

    In any event, I was feeling naughty, so while sitting at the coffee bar at the front of the store, I took this picture of the store behind me with the little camera on my laptop:


    Whole Foods Ann Arbor, "against the rules" inside pic

    Remarkably revealing, isn’t it?

The only down-side of the store for me was the wifi access in there was very spotty, but I suspect that’s something they will work out later.

By the way, I took the picture at the top of this entry after I left. How about my timing in capturing the transportation used by a typical Food (W)Hole customer?

Oh, and while I’m at it, I came across this pretty cool set of grocery store pictures when poking around on Flikr for this post.

Hey Obama– give your staffers an office to call from!

I’m sitting here in Sweetwaters with Will (he too likes working/playing/hanging about in coffee shops once in a while), and there’s this just out of college kid sitting a few tables away.  So far, he’s made about 40 cell phone calls to various people on some kind of list to get them to come to a rally to support Barrack Obama.  It’s a free country I know and I too have been on the cell phone in here recently, but jeesh, if you going to do nothing but talk on the phone for an hour and a half, can you go someplace else?  And here I thought Obama had fistfuls of cash.

There goes call #41.

Fair v. Fair

It’s been quite the arty week around here in Ypsi-Arbor. Annette and Will and I took in a bit of the annual Ann Arbor Art Fairs on Thursday, and on Saturday night, we went to that Ypsilanti upstart, the Shadow Art Fair. To be fair to the folks in that quaint festival in Ann Arbor, they had some automatic negatives compared to the most excellent festival in Ypsilanti, some beyond their control. The Ann Arbor Art Fair was both steaming hot and outdoors, while the Shadow Art Fair was both temperate and indoors at the Corner Brewery. The Ann Arbor Art Fair is kind of pain in the butt with all of the crowds, getting there in the first place, etc. While the Shadow Art Fair was crowded, it wasn’t near as mob-oriented as the Ann Arbor Art Fair. And while the Ann Arbor Art Fair offered bottled water, the Shadow Art Fair featured beer– well, not free, but since it was indoors and at what amounts to a large bar, easily available.

But the biggest difference between the two events was that the Shadow Art Fair was both very cool and actually affordable. The Ann Arbor Art Fair is about art as a product, a commodity. That means simple things on a stick, on paintings or prints to put above a couch, or “conversation pieces” that go in wealthy peoples’ homes. The Shadow Art Fair is about the process of art, about the making and experience, about DIY. And, I don’t know, the Shadow Art Fair just had a lot more coolness to it.

A couple of short videos to show what I mean. First, here’s Will picking out an intestine button from a large monster (for the cost of $1):

And then there’s this video of folks answering the artistic question of what’s inside the Ypsilanti Water Tower:

I assume he didn’t recognize me (why would he?), but I saw Mark Maynard peddling his wares. I was tempted by a Drew Barrymore poster he made (one of several Drew Barrymore tributes), but I passed. Instead, I ended up with a lovely Ypsilanti t-shirt and very groovy Shadow Art Fair poster, both products of those talented VG Kids. It’s hard to explain, but the poster I bought features an alternate version of the Shadow Art Fair poster on one side and part of a printing of a poster for Twangfest in St. Louis, MO. And Annette and Will both bought some cool woodprints that are liable to show up in our dining room soon.

Anyway, an exciting and arty week for all. But if you can only pick one art festival to attend next year, make it the Shadow Art Fair, please.

Our field-trip to the Elvisfest

I don’t know why I remember this, but here’s a fun-fact about Elvis impersonators that I was actually able to track down on the web here:

When Elvis Presley died in 1977, there were an estimated 37 Elvis impersonators in the world. By 1993, there were 48,000 Elvis impersonators, an exponential increase. Extrapolating from this, by 2010 there will be 2.5 billion Elvis impersonators.

Well, that statistic hasn’t come to pass, but we did have the chance to experience multiple Elvis-like performers the other night right here in Ypsilanti at the Michigan Elvisfest. It was a fine slice of local culture; here’s a brief video with a few highlights:

A few highlights to add:

  • It was kind of an interesting crowd– sort of a mix of a mix of white trash/red-neck folks, people who like the country and western, hard-core Elvis fans, locals out for a good time (that’d be us), and hipsters there on a goof. Actually it was a pretty fun group all in all.
  • There’s a whole Elvis impersonator culture out there that Annette and I were completely unaware even existed. For example, it isn’t “Elvis Impersonators,” but “Elvis Tribute Artists,” or “ETAs.” The MC (who was also an former ETA) kept bringing up all sorts of events similar to the Michigan Elvisfest all over the midwest and beyond. Who knew?
  • Sadly, we only saw one real Elvis Tribute Artist– or is that Elvi?– performing that evening, as you can see from the video. There was a staging area where there were ETAs standing around waiting to get their pictures taken and selling their ETA CDs and other merchandise.
  • Remembering her college youth, Annette noticed a lot of similarities between this thing and drag shows. For example, the adoring fans gave the various tribute artists flowers, which, I am told, is the practice at drag shows, too. Which makes sense since what is an impersonator excuse me, tribute artist but someone in drag?
  • The video features Annette drinking a beer, which, for those who know her, is about as rare as (interestingly enough) an honest to goodness Elvis sighting.
  • Frog Island was a good place to see a show, but every once in a while, we’d get a whiff of sewage smell. I have no idea where it was from, maybe the river, maybe a water treatment plant near there, I don’t know.

So, that’s another thing to check off my “to do in Southeast Michigan” list.

Farewell Estabrook, farewell public schooling

Will graduating from EstabrookI picked up Will from school today, and we both realized on the walk home that he would never have to go back into Estabrook Elementary unless he wanted to. We both had complex feelings about this.

To be clear: on the whole, we’ve been very happy with Estabrook Elementary, part of the Ypsilanti public school system. I remember volunteering in Will’s first grade class and learning so much about teaching and pedagogy and literacy among kids that age. Completely fascinating (thanks, Mrs. Thompson!). Mrs. Rust was great for both second grade and safety patrol. Mrs. Micallef was a great third grade teacher, as was Ms.Lava-Kellar for fifth grade. Though to be honest, none of them can touch Will’s fourth grade teacher Mr. Morrison, who retired the year after Will was done with his class. He was by far Will’s favorite.

So on the whole, Estabrook was a good experience for Will and for all of us. Really. I’d recommend it to anyone. Still, it was far from perfect, and I guess there some things about the whole “farewell” ceremony that didn’t quite set right with me. Early in the festivities, the principal, Mrs. DeRossett, warned all of us that we do not woop and holler at Estabrook; we clap politely. Thus I was no longer allowed to yell “Yea!” with every award and/or performance.

After a mini-recital of various fifth grade musical talents (which included a friend of Will’s playing the James Bond theme on piano), a bunch of awards were given out. Most dubious to Annette and I was the “Principals Award,” which Will is holding in the picture. First, as far as we could tell, this was an award that was handed out to all of the kids who did not cause some kind of “trouble” or something, presumably trouble with Mrs. DeRossett. About two-thirds of the kids got this award, which obviously singled out to one and all who the trouble-makers were. Second, almost all of the white kids received this award, and I don’t think it does a whole lot to build community among the racially diverse Estabrook community to do leave a bunch of African-American and Arab-American kids sitting down while almost everyone else gets this prize.

And third, it should be Principal’s Award, as in the possessive apostrophe s, the award “belonging” to and from the principal. I will grant you that as an English professor and writing teacher that I am perhaps a little more critical about these things than most, but passing out a certificate with a grammar error like that doesn’t exactly instill a lot of confidence in Ypsilanti educators.

In any event, with the farewell to Estabrook comes a farewell for Will to the Ypsilanti public schools. While we were pretty happy with the Ypsi elementary experience, we were not confident about taking the chance on the Ypsi middle schools or high school. The original plan was to go to Ann Arbor, which has notably better public schools, but when we got caught in the collapsed real estate market and it became clear that we could not afford to move, we decided to explore our other options. We decided on Greenhills, which is an independent school in Ann Arbor.

I think we have kind of lucked out in reverse. Had we moved to Ann Arbor, I think Will would have done fine in the public schools there and I think we would have adjusted easily enough to the subtle but noticeable lifestyle differences between the Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. But Greenhills is a really really great school, and I know Will is going to have opportunities he’d never get in any public school system. Instead of sitting in crowded classrooms where the teachers have to spend too much time worrying about mandatory testing and keeping the kids disciplined, Will will actually be able to learn and do some really cool and interesting things.

And we really like our house and our neighborhood and the fact that we can walk to work— well, we can walk when we aren’t carrying a lot of stuff and when the weather is decent at least. Neither Annette nor I are exactly “Ypsi proud,” the types who are all about the great things that Ypsilanti has to offer and who scoff at the snootiness of Ann Arbor. We try to put a foot into both places, liking a lot about about towns. But we’ve been here for ten years now and we’re starting to do more Ypsi-specific things. For example, last night we were out with family and friends to The Corner Brewery. This morning, Will and Annette are out and about at the annual Normal Park yard sale, which includes about 75 or so sales all in the neighborhood (as I have written this, they have brought back a snow globe and golf balls for me, and Will was inexplicably given a giant stuffed gorilla by someone). And this afternoon, we’re off to the last games of Will’s Ypsilanti township soccer league.

Still, I have some liberal guilt. Because of my line of work and my own politics, I kind of feel like that we shouldn’t be part of the “problem” of flight away from the public schools. More than one Ypsi friend of mine has thought of folks who have moved out of town and/or who took their kids out of the public schools as “traitors,” and I felt rather sheepish talking to some parents outside of Estabrook the other day while waiting to pick up Will– ah, no, he isn’t ready for West Middle School. Um, yeah, we’re going to send him to Greenhills….

But I’ll get over it, and I guess I’ve come to see over the years that schooling choices that parents make are ultimately rather personal, complex, and even contradictory. I can still support the public schools in general while taking advantage of other opportunities. And maybe this will get me to get more involved in Ypsilanti the community, especially if we decide we’re going to stick around in town for a while longer.

By the way, I have a movie/montage of Will’s Estabrook days I’m putting together. I’ll get it posted here sooner than later.