Tonight’s blogging has been preempted by a toilet repair emergency

Apparently we exceeded our lifetime flush capacity and blew out the inner workings of our toilet tonight, so I’m desperately trying to reconstruct it from scavenged parts. (At this point, I was going to suggest that I was in the process of using said toilet, while heroically trying to fix it at the same time, like Lindbergh, when he was making repairs to the Spirit of St. Louis, while in flight across the Atlantic, but then it occurred to me that a family member might read what I’d written and worry about my safety.) Anyway, I’ve got my hands full tonight, so I may not get around to that essay that I’d wanted to write about the historical significance of Davy Jones.

Before I get back to disassembling the intricate mechanisms at work inside my toilet… I’m pretending that it’s a nuclear bomb that I’m diffusing, which makes it a lot more fun… I’d like to extend a big “thank you” to our March sponsor, The Wurst Bar. As I’ve mentioned here before, it’s a really terrific place, and I’d suggest that you all eat there. That goes especially for you EMU folks who like to patronize Jimmy Johns at lunchtime. Do yourself a favor and check out Wurst instead. You don’t have to have beer, if you don’t want one.

Oh, and speaking of bathroom repair, I have it on good authority that The Wurst Bar, at my request, is about to get rid of their trough urinal. What’s more, the bar’s owner, Jesse Kranyak, has offered it to me. I was going to politely decline the offer, seeing as how I have a well-documented issue with peeing next to strangers, but my co-worker here at the site, Andre, thinks that I should accept the offer, drag the urinal into my yard, and construct some kind of open air training facility around it, where men like me, who suffer from the dread psychological malady known as paruresis, could confront their fears head-on, and penis-out… practicing in front of one another (and any strangers happening by at the time) and high-fiving when acts of successful public excretion occur. I think he may be on to something… I’ll keep you posted.

Posted in Local Business, Mark's Life, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

The fight over the Ypsi income tax is now officially on

I’d heard from folks that one of the men who led the opposition to Ypsilanti’s proposed income tax the last time that it was on the ballot was planning to get involved again this time around, and I’d been standing by, patiently waiting to see how his anger would manifest itself. Well, I got my answer this morning, when I heard form a reader that a mysterious stranger had swooped in and snapped up the URL for, which is what the pro-income tax group had been calling itself this time around. I wouldn’t normally have an issue with this, as I think the pro-income tax folks should have had the URL locked down before announcing the name of their group, but, from what I’m told, the site that you’ll now find at that address is full of “completely false” information. I haven’t had the chance to fact check it yet myself, but, if that’s the case, it’s despicable… but, to be honest, not altogether unexpected. As you’ll recall, we’ve seen stuff like this before in Ypsi.

Anyway, here’s some of what you’ll find if you visit

The folks supporting the City income tax aren’t sitting still, though. They’ve renamed themselves Save Ypsi Yes, and they’ve just launched a website of their own.

That’s all I have time for at the moment, but I’m sure we’ll have ample opportunity to go into this in much more depth in the future… This was, after all, just the opening salvo in what’s likely to be a long, protracted, and ugly fight.

[For those who would like to know more about Ypsilanti’s current financial situation, and what’s likely to happen if the income tax doesn’t pass, I’d suggest checking out our last thread on the matter, which was pretty exhaustive.]

Posted in Politics, Ypsilanti | Tagged , , , , , | 180 Comments

A glimpse of Prometheus by way of a TED talk given 11 years in the future

I like good, inspired marketing, and I think the following video qualifies. It’s a new trailer for director Ridley Scott’s highly anticipated sci-fi film Prometheus. The trailer, as you can see, is disguised as a TED talk from the year 2023, given by Peter Weyland, the extremely confident, boundary pushing CEO of Weyland Industries. (If the name sounds familiar, it might be because Weyland-Yutani was the company that sent the ship Nostromo into space in Scott’s epic film Alien, which was supposed to have taken place several decades after this TED talk took place.) Prometheus, as Weyland reminds us in his speech, was the Titan who, according to Greek mythology, was responsible for stealing fire from Zeus, and giving it to man, hastening our evolution. As Weyland, who is played here by Guy Pierce, also reminds us, Prometheus was punished for his actions by being bound to a rock, for all eternity, while an eagle repeatedly tore out and devoured his ever-regnerating liver. As I’m looking forward to seeing the film, I’m disinclined to dig too deep, for fear of finding out too much, and ruining the surprise, but this much I do know – the film is supposed to be about, at least at some level, the extraterrestrial origins of man on earth. What’s more, it’s said to have been influenced by one of my favorite authors (from when I was in grade school), Erich von Däniken, who posited the theory, in his book Chariots of the Gods, that ancient astronauts not only visited the earth hundreds of thousands of years ago, but interfered with our evolution… much like Prometheus. Here’s a quote from Scott, who addressed fans in June at the Cine Europe expo:

“The (space) journey, metaphorically, is about a challenge to the gods. NASA and the Vatican agree that is almost mathematically impossible that we can be where we are today without there being a little help along the way. That’s what we’re looking at (in the film), at some of Eric von Daniken’s ideas of how did we humans come about.”

He’s also been quoted as having said the following.

“We are talking about gods and engineers. Engineers of space. And were the aliens designed as a form of biological warfare? Or biology that would go in and clean up a planet?”

I could go on, but I have others things that need to be addressed tonight. Here, in the meantime, is that clever trailer I was talking about. I hope you enjoy it.

Posted in Art and Culture, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Growing Hope responds to CityFARM with the announcement of a similar service

Amanda Edmonds, the executive director of the local urban farming non-profit Growing Hope just sent in the following letter in response to my recent post about real estate developer Stewart Beal’s newly launched, somewhat competitive, largely for-profit entity, CityFARM.

Many, many community members and partners have come to me this past week with concerns about CityFARM — some of which I share, some of which I don’t share, and some of which. whether I share them or not, it’s not really my place to say. And, I’ve gotten countless calls and emails asking where I stand, and where Growing Hope stands. Stewart did contact me to talk directly over the weekend (and had sent me the email a week ago with the announcement of CityFARM), and Lauren had reached out Thursday/Friday last week (but hadn’t reached me — I’ll meet with her tomorrow. I wanted to wait until talking to them directly before sharing my views in a public forum.

I want to share where I stand philosophically, first. I find absolutely no problem with someone launching a service business in a field they think they have the appropriate competencies, and see market opportunity. Has the work of Growing Hope and others in the Ypsi area contributed to there being a market opportunity in this area? Sure, we have partially made that space, and that in itself is okay. CityFARM will test out their business model and either confirm, tweak, or move on if they don’t find that they have set appropriate price points or have a market here — to me that’s no problem at all, and the market will regulate that. I don’t yet have enough knowledge to understand fully the background they bring to be doing this and specializing in urban food production, but again, I figure that like any business, they’ll test the market, try out their service, and see how it goes.

Growing Hope is launching a somewhat similar service later this spring that will support our raised bed installation program. Since 2009, we’ve helped 150 low and no-income households in our area install raised bed vegetable gardens, and as we’ve found a lot of impact in building families’ capacity to access healthy food this way, we’re looking towards how to sustain that program (which had grant funding in year 1, and has been supported via general donations to GH and utilized volunteer support since) so that we can ensure and grow that impact. So, we’ll do some raised bed installations for a fee for service to bring in income that will support the cost of installing them with other families for free. We won’t do the customization, gardening for people, or other services CityFARM is offering. Let me note, however, that I have zero issue with the fact that CityFARM is also in this “market” we’re about to enter.

One of our considerations when launching a new earned revenue (i.e. call it social enterprise) venture is whether we can start small and scale it up over time — part of what is needed in our context to make something sustainable — so the scale of this for us 2012 will not be super large. We’ll utilize job trainees (via Michigan Works, as we’ve done in the past for other programs), with an end goal of eventually creating some sustainable jobs for people and empowering people with skills. When our Michigan Works Summer Youth Employment Crew helped install the raised beds in 2009, several applied and got to install beds at their own homes– all of those youth were from eligible low-income families — and I found the impact even greater when these young people got to be experts and bring such a great resource to their families. We actually have a whole matrix we developed to assess possible social enterprises, which includes both the business areas (e.g. start up costs, return on investment, etc) and the social factors we care about (does it create jobs, is it helping to overcome barriers for people in growing food, can it be replicated, etc).

The question around CityFARM, however, that is the point of the tension and debate happening — is about the role of the social enterprise component in this new venture. This is something I spend a lot of time reading, thinking, and talking about, and I’d recommend people look up the May 2011 issue of Inc Magazine for by far the best series of articles I’ve ever read about the different legal structures (from nonprofit to for profit, and hybrid models) in social enterprise. I believe there’s a space for people coming from every sector to do good and do it in a way that can sustain jobs, economies, businesses, community, etc. The models of how to do this are still very new, and I think there are a lot of learning curves for everyone attempting this. I think that for some coming from the nonprofit sector launching into more mission-related earned revenue or starting businesses, there is often a learning curve around some of business skills. And, I think that for those in the for-profit sector, there is very real learning around how to further a social mission in a way that (like any nonprofit) is responsive to and fits into the community it impacts, is done in partnership or collaboration with others in the area and involves people in defining the need and best way that entity can make an impact, etc.

From my vantage, when a business aims to engage with or further a social or community mission, there are an entirely different set of considerations (from the business part of the venture) in how that portion is planned, framed, how and when others in the community are informed, engaged, and involved. That is where, as I’ve communicated to Stewart and Lauren, I feel there’s been both naivity and some missteps. There is an active community of many partners in Ypsilanti urban agriculture and food systems in the nonprofit, for profit, and govt sectors — of which we’re clearly a big part — and I’d say we work together pretty well to support the greater issues of food security (which is very different from hunger), local food systems, economic development, making land available for urban growing, etc. Someone coming from a for-profit perspective may not, as has happened here, think about when and how you decide on that “doing good” part of the venture, in the context of a community where things are already happening. It happens, too, with people who show up in an area ready to start a new nonprofit without first contextualizing who is doing what where, what the needs and gaps are, how to gain community input, and, if taken from a positive perspective, where their intentions can really have the most impact. There was little thought — again, not out of any malicious place from my view — to whether it’s appropriate to call something a demonstration urban farm (and what that really means) without talking to someone like Growing Hope or others. We don’t have the monopoly on urban farming, but clearly play a big role here in Ypsi, and the community has invested time and money for now 4+ years to get our demonstration and training urban farm to fully open. (…and we’re getting super near re: this stage of fundraising and completion, ready to open this spring finally!!!!!) There was a lot of purposefulness in what we’ve developed, and before buying the Growing Hope Center property in 2007 we spent two years gaining input and planning for it. (Notably, the nonprofit process often moves much slower than for profit, but there are some advantages re: planfulness.) So, yes, as I told Stewart, I think their not thinking about the appropriateness or consequences of calling their demo donation beds a “demonstration urban farm” is one of the missteps. We’ve worked with Food Gatherers, and all of our area community gardeners, to identify what items are most needed and best grown for donation, and to help get the word out to those growing in the community how best their extra harvest can best impact food security. We’ve tried out systems so that multiple Ypsi gardens can donate their harvest and take turns dropping stuff at Food Gatherers, so we can better leverage the impact. So, we do have some expertise how demonstration donation beds could best showcase and further the impact of this endeavor, and indeed it would have been preferred to be contacted in advance to give input (that they could take or leave) in that design. Likewise, Growing Hope and others in the community teach gardening, through individual community experts like Lisa Bashert, mentoring that happens through small businesses like Ginny Golembewski’s, et al, so in offering that service as part of CityFARM it would have been more appropriate to understand or be in touch with the community of people doing this already and identifying, possibly, a new niche. And, offering an unpaid intern a “certification” in urban gardening can dilute the meaning of other such programs (e.g. the Organic Gardening certification course at WCC developed with Project Grow). I know they just didn’t think of that potential impact — and that’s kind of exactly the point of the issue.

I’ll note without speaking for them that this sort of thing happens in Detroit quite frequently, and I’ve watched the fallout and consequences over the years. An issue becomes “hot”, in part because people on the ground have been working for a long time to build examples of change, and others see that opportunity and get much media attention in their seemingly “new” efforts. It happens in the nonprofit and for profit sectors. I don’t think CityFARM is at all claiming to be the pioneer in this area, but some in and out of our area not familiar with what’s already going on across sectors in Ypsi will see and report on them as such. Clearly, from all the contact people have made with me around this (and I’ve not read most of the blog or comments yet), people in our community are sensitive to this, and that’s encouraging. In some ways it’ll be in CityFARM’s court to, in countering the storm and moving forward, make conscious effort to reframe their social enterprise part of the venture in the context of who and what’s already happening in the community. I’m confident they will.

And of course, as is happening here, when coming from the for-profit side particularly, some will question the authenticity of the effort, and whether the “doing good” part is more about PR than doing good. It is always worth examining closely for any venture. Ideally, it’s a win-win from both perspectives. While our work starts from the “doing good” side, we do believe we’ll have some competitive advantage because people know the direct impact of their hiring us. And likewise, many of us support businesses in our community because we know they support the community in various ways, from a bar who will host a nonprofit fundraiser, or a business that does pro-bono services, etc. I want a business to tell me what they’re doing good in a community, so that I can support them. People may question whether CityFARM is overstating their prospective impact through some donation gardens? Very possibly, but again in a way the market will to an extent regulate that over time if theirs are conscious consumers.

But, I work to stay positive. Lauren and Stewart both realized they’ve ruffled some feathers without an intention of doing so. I am confident that, as I said to Stewart, we’ll find the win-win opportunities in our community to further the “good work”, and I believe in now realizing what they’ve inadvertently done, they’re looking for that. How can they support local growers and suppliers (us and others) for all of their materials? How can they contribute their resources/assets (e.g. vehicles, et al) at times when other urban ag projects in the community really need them? Maybe their on-line marketplace will sell Growing Hope’s raised bed kits or another community members’ rain barrels. Maybe they’ll hire people who’ve come through ours and others’ training programs. I will offer my own suggestions for finding those win-wins and hope they’ll take some to heart. They of course don’t have to, but for now I’m going to trust that they will. I believe that all we can do is move forward, work towards more positive relationships, be open to really hearing where each other are coming from, and be responsive and respectful of where our community is at. We ultimately need a community — and more specifically a local food system — that supports economy, ecology, and community, and we need to recognize that there are going to be players from a variety of sectors and from a variety of scales in that.

So, how, if at all, does that change your opinion of Beal’s newest venture? And, more importantly, who are you going to hire when it comes time to build your next raised bed – CityFARM or Growing Hope?

Posted in entrepreneurism, Food, Local Business, Ypsilanti | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 17 Comments

On the optimism and pity of the non-Americans passing us by

My friend Pete and I eat lunch together a few times a month. Pete, who’s an academic, tells me of his travels to fascinating places like Malawi and Sweden, where he’s either conducting field research on the spread of parasitic diseases, or sharing his findings with leaders in the field of world health, and I regale him with fascinating tales of what it’s like to work in an office without windows, and parent small children at an unnaturally advanced age. Fortunately, as Pete has no other friends on this continent, he has no choice but to humor me. So, he tells me about the world outside the United States, as we share samosas, and I fill him in on what it’s like to change diapers with severe back pain… At any rate, during our last meeting, Pete, having just returned from Stockholm, said something that stuck me. He said, “It’s not like this everywhere.”

We’d been talking about the current crop of Republican candidates running for president, and their plans for the future of America, which run the gambit from eliminating restrictions on child labor, and slashing environmental regulations, to scrapping public eduction altogether and even further reducing taxes on the wealthy. I think I’d commented on how depressing it was, sitting by, and witnessing our world recede into the darkness of neo-feudalism, when Pete offered the observation that, in spite of how things were presently evolving here in the United States, the people he knew around the world, on the whole, were optimistic about the future.

To hear Pete tell it, folks around the world are actually looking forward to the future, investing in infrastructure, educating their children, and laying the groundwork for success in a world no longer dominated by the United States. As it had been almost a decade since I’d left the country, I had to take his word for it.

Well, the family and I headed north this weekend, into the heart of the country that gave us Tim Hortons, and what we saw would certainly support Pete’s hypothesis. Not only did the people that we talked with seem to be optimistic about the future, but things were booming. And, maybe it has to do with the fact that the Canadians are presently making a fortune in the oil and natural gas business, but my sense is that it’s broader than that. Not only are sky scrapers going up left and right in Toronto, but the landscape is covered in solar panels and windmills, which, at least to me, signify the existence of a forward-looking mindset.

There’s certainly a downside to the explosive growth playing out in Toronto, and we had an opportunity to hear about some of it firsthand from a former city planner that we had dinner with on Friday night. (He’s now a consultant, who works on behalf of developers.) He described it as being like the wild west, with developers pushing the envelope on a daily basis, aggressively tearing down buildings, and replacing them with ones that stretch ever higher into the sky. The ordinances, he says, are having a difficult time keeping up. And, at least it would seem to me, much of Toronto’s history, architectural and otherwise, is being put in jeopardy in the process. Still, the positive feeling that comes along with such growth is palpable. The subways are full, the markets are booming, and people are flocking to Toronto in unprecedented numbers.

I knew, or course, that other countries were getting on with their lives, and not everyone around the world was holding their breath, waiting to see how things would turn out here in the United States, but it was a bit of a revelation to see it firsthand, and to hear people from Canada commenting on the state of our country. They weren’t terrified, which is what I would have expected. They weren’t concerned, at least outwardly, about how a Santorum presidency, for instance, would impact them. If I had to sum the feeling up in a word, I’d say it was pity. They seemed to genuinely feel bad for us. And the pity, from what I could tell, didn’t seem to stem from the fact that ours is an empire in decline. The pity, I think, had more to do with the fact that we didn’t know how to make the transition gracefully. Maybe I’m projecting a bit, but my sense was that they felt sorry for us that we were descending into a state of anti-intellectual, religious fundamentalism where fear was more of a motivator than logic, where we didn’t care what our elected leaders said, so long as they wore American flag pins on their lapels, and told us that, despite the growing evidence to the contrary, we were still the “best” country in the world, and the one most favored by the God.

I don’t intend for this post to be a “Canada is so much better than the United States” piece. I know that there are problems in Canada. There’s homelessness, there’s corruption, there are threats to the environment, and I’m sure their politicians play upon the fears of the governed just as ours do here. It’s not a paradise. At least not now, in the winter. To a great extent, Canada is a big, open, wind-swept wasteland punctuated only by the occasional Tim Hortons. And, it can get damned cold. And, admittedly, I didn’t speak with everyone. I’m sure they’ve got their share of folks who would love to move to America for whatever reason. Still, though, my overriding impression was one of optimism. What I saw was a country investing in education, conservation, and alternative energy, and prospering as a result. It was like walking through the looking glass, into a world where the entire American dialogue had been turned upside down… where people weren’t talking about dismantling public education, selling off national parks, and tearing down the wall of separation between church and state that has served us so well these past few centuries. (Speaking of which, did you hear what Santorum said yesterday about the separation of church and state? He said that it made him want to vomit.) The cognitive dissonance made me want to vomit.

Anyway, while I don’t necessarily want this to be an ad for Canadian immigration, I would like to share a few relevant statistics.

First, while they don’t focus so much on teaching to the test, like we do under the regime of No Child Left Behind, the Canadian education system consistently outperforms ours.

Second, according to World Bank data, their country is has less wealth inequality than we have in the United States. In 2000, Canada’s Gini coefficient was 33. At that same time, the Gini coefficient in the U.S. was 41. And I suspect that the gap has widened over the last decade. [The Gini coefficient, according to Wikipedia, is a measure of statistical dispersion that measures the inequality among values of a frequency distribution (for example levels of income). A Gini coefficient of zero expresses perfect equality where all values are the same (for example, where everyone has an exactly equal income). A Gini coefficient of one (100 on the percentile scale) expresses maximal inequality among values (for example where only one person has all the income).]

Third, in a 2005 report by The Economist, 127 cities were ranked in terms of personal risk, infrastructure and the availability of goods and services. Vancouver, according to the study, was the best place to live. While no American cities made the top ten list of livable cities, several Canadian cities did, as did cities in Australia and Germany.

Fourth, Canada has a more robust safety net than the United States, offering, among other things, free health care to all of its citizens. (And, this is why Tommy Douglas was recently named The Greatest Canadian of all times.)

Fifth, (in part due to my last point, I’m sure) Canada ranks higher than the U.S. with regard to life expectancy (80.22 years in Canada versus 77.85 in the U.S.) and infant mortality (4.75 Canadian deaths per 1000 versus 6.50 in the United States).

Sixth, Canadian cities are diverse. Given the fact that Canada is welcoming to skilled (and wealthy) foreign nationals, the country is living up America’s promise of being a true melting pot, while we’re busy building walls and preaching xenophobia.

Seventh, the Canadian rich pay their taxes, enabling progress to continue, and quality of life to improve across the board. (For the details on the differences between our tax structures, click here.)

I could go on, but I think you probably get my point… Other countries aren’t sitting still while we work our shit out. They’re passing us by. And they’re no longer looking to us for inspiration. They’re looking at us with pity.

[The photo above was borrowed from and article in the Globe and Mail on Toronto’s construction boom.]

Posted in Mark's Life, Observations, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 14 Comments


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