Thinking about death, the legacy we leave behind, and David Bowie’s Blackstar

I had the occasion to spend some time this afternoon with a friend who, in spite of serious ongoing health issues, is launching a new social venture intended to bring resources to third-world farmers. When discussing his decision to launch something incredibly ambitious at this point in his life, when his heart is only functioning at something like 20-percent, he referenced the video for the song Lazarus, off of David Bowie’s last record Blackstar. He said he felt like Bowie in the video, who we see writing as if possessed, trying to get as much work as possible done before the end of his life.

In the wake of Bowie’s passing, we all talked about these last songs of his, which were clearly about his impending death, but this was the first time I’d had an opportunity to discuss them with someone who, in his own words, faces the prospect of death daily, and it was really an incredibly thought provoking conversation. It was so thought provoking, in fact, that I was still thinking about death, and the lasting legacy we all leave behind, this evening when I went out walking the dog and stumbled across the following. I don’t know if it’s a reference to the Bowie album, as there’s additional “r” at the end, but, from now on, every time I see it, I’ll be reminded of Bowie, this friend of mine, and the conversation we had about the fleeting nature of life, and the things we’d still like to accomplish in this world.

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[note: There is apparently a fascist metahuman in the DC comic universe by the name of Blackstarr, so I suppose this could be an homage to her. Hopefully that’s not the case, though. We need less fascism and more Bowie.]

Posted in Art and Culture, Other, Pop Culture, Uncategorized, Ypsilanti | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 17 Comments

I don’t ask for much… but now’s the time, for the good of Ypsi’s kids, to dig deep and make the Wurst Challenge a success

I rarely ask you, my loyal readers, to actually do anything. I may, every once in a while, ask you to consider sharing an article, if it’s about something that I feel as though people should really know about, but I rarely ask for more than that. But, today, I’ve got a favor to ask of you. I’d like for you to consider getting involved in some way, shape or form in this year’s Wurst Challenge, our big annual fundraiser for Ypsilanti’s FLY Children’s Art Center.

Why does FLY matter to the community?

With in-class visits, summer camps, and special interdisciplinary programs in the community, FLY, for the past seven years, has empowered kids to create, solve problems, and experience both new materials and confront new ideas that they might not otherwise have an opportunity to. And, for the next two weeks, in the run-up to the the third annual Wurst Challenge, we’ve got an opportunity to ensure that the volunteers of FLY can continue their vitally important work through the coming year. This is their biggest annual fundraiser, and we need to raise as much as possible so that they can continue to inspire the next generation to become the creative problem solvers we so desperately need if we’re ever going to turn this world of ours around.

In a world where school budgets are being drastically slashed, especially when it comes to the arts, it’s imperative that we as a community invest in programs like those being designed by FLY that help kids to cultivate a sense of curiosity, increase their resiliency, experience the joy of innovation, and just come to appreciate that learning can be both incredibly fun and relevant to their lives.

We need this next generation to dream, invent, and imagine. And that, in my opinion, is why it’s so damned important that FLY exists to provide safe spaces for kids to take creative risks, learn from their mistakes, and experience the thrill of making things happen.

Here’s how you can help. All you have to do is choose one… or maybe two.

1. You can donate in support of one of the competitors in the “20 Feet of Meat” challenge. As of today, there are four, and you can see their photos below.

2. You can either enter the challenge yourself as an eater, or you can form a team and recruit a designated eater to rally around.

3. You can help spread the word about the event, reaching out to your friends, colleagues and lovers to let them know that, on May 22, a bunch of men and women are going to be eating 20 foot long sausages for the good of local kids.

4. You can come out to Ypsilanti’s Wurst Bar on Sunday, May 22, and make a contribution in person while watching our champions face off against their smoked and coiled adversaries.

5. And, if you cant do any of that, you can send the kids in your life to one of FLY’s awesome summer camps, like “Who Are The People In My Neighborhood?” or “Draw, Write, Act: African Tales”.

Here are the first four contestants to join. They are each brave in their own way, and worthy of your support.

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[The above “donate” buttons don’t work, as this is just an image taken from the FLY site. If you’d like to donate, though, you can do so here. And, yes, that’s that’s local musician Jim Cherewick at the far right, next to famed roboticist Cre Fuller, who was thrown out of last year’s competition for cheating.]

Posted in Art and Culture, Education, Uncategorized, Ypsilanti | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

The Danger (re)Zone… the unsellable houses of Bell Street

Every once in a while someone I don’t know hands me something and asks me to publish it on this site. Until today, however, I don’t think that I’ve actually ever done it. I’ve never taken something that I’ve found scrawled on a piece of paper and stuck in my mailbox, and posted it. An article was left on my doorstep this morning, however, has made me reconsider my “thanks but no thanks” policy. The unsolicited article I received today, which you can read below, was not only coherent and well thought out, but it seemed to me like something that people in Ypsilanti should really know about. So, here it is… the story of a woman on Bell Street who just discovered that, due to recent rezoning, she may not be able to sell her home, which you can see here, just to the left of the former Vistion plant’s parking lot.

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This is the story of an Ypsilanti neighborhood that’s been around since 1837. This small strip of older homes on Bell Street sits on the edge of the city’s former landfill, nestled against a wooded area near Huron Street and Spring Street.

Over the years, the landfill contamination has spread, seeping closer to these neighborhood homes — so close, in fact, that the city officials sent letters to Bell Street residents in 2013 letting them know about the pollution’s migration.

CityLetter2013b

[The 2013 letter from the city of Ypsilanti included a picture showing the boundaries of the former landfill site. The circles are the places they took contamination samples.]

At the time, Bell Street homeowner Erin Snyder wasn’t overly worried. “I was concerned, yes, but none of the [polluted] samples were taken from my property,” she says. “Since we have municipal water services, and fill dirt was brought in to re-grade my property during building—and later, to expand my yard area—I figured my risk was probably minimal.”

Snyder tucked the letter and the information away until two years later, when she got yet another letter from the city in 2015.

This time, in response to the pollution, the city had rezoned Snyder’s home and a handful of others on the street to “PMD” (Production, Manufacturing, Distribution). Again, Snyder thought it wasn’t a huge deal.

That is, until she went to put her home on the market last week.

“As my realtor was pulling together information to prepare the listing, she noted the PMD zoning designation and became concerned,” Snyder says. After speaking with a member of in Ypsi’s Planning and Development Department (which handles zoning), she was told that if the home was destroyed, it could not be rebuilt.

In other words, if the home is damaged or burned or anything happens to it, that’s it. The owner can’t do anything about it. That investment? Gone for good.

Snyder was devastated. She wanted to sell, but why would anyone buy a home that, if damaged, could never be fixed? And even if she could find a potential buyer, Snyder says she soon discovered lending companies wouldn’t make it easy.

Snyder, who works in a title company, called a local loan officer and discovered that a potential buyer would have to get a letter from the city saying they could build a “non-conforming structure” in the neighborhood.

“While it may be possible for a potential buyer to get a conventional loan, the re-zoning has severely limited a buyer’s financing options,” Snyder says.

Desperate to figure out a solution that would enable her to sell her home, Snyder reached out to city planner Bonnie Wessler. They met in Wessler’s office in City Hall on May 6th to talk about the situation.

“Bonnie was sympathetic, she said my situation was a ‘tough one,’ but said there was nothing the city could do,” Snyder says. “[Bonnie] said the area was re-zoned in part because the surrounding area is largely commercial in nature, and in part due to environmental concerns stemming from the spreading contamination at the old city landfill.”

Snyder could apply for re-zoning, but the fee is steep: $1,000. And Wessler discouraged it, saying Snyder didn’t meet the criteria.

Snyder’s options were reduced to either finding a cash purchaser, or using the property as a rental. But any difficulties with getting a loan on the property couldn’t be resolved.

What Environmental Injustice Looks Like

Snyder is white, but the majority of her neighbors on Bell Street are lower-to-middle income minority residents. One house on Bell Street is even a Habitat for Humanity house.

Countless studies show that minorities are at a significantly greater risk for exposure to environmental hazards. An Associated Press analysis in 2005 showed that African Americans are 79 percent more likely than whites to live in neighborhoods where industrial pollution is suspected of posing the greatest health danger.

But the effects of pollution aren’t just related to health. “Many studies have found that as pollution increases, property values go down,” writes the author of a 2004 paper by the Global Development And Environment Institute at Tufts University.

No one wants to live in an area affected by pollution. But the city of Ypsilanti has made it difficult for the Bell Street residents not to. And, worse, the city has negated the largest investment — in some cases the only investment — these residents have made, in the form of their homes.

In sum, the city is punishing the residents for living in a toxic area, which was the city’s responsibility to begin with. The residents didn’t put the landfill there, after all.

Snyder says it’s worth noting that the entirety of Bell Street was not rezoned PMD.

“The northernmost parcels, which abut Spring and Harriet Streets, are zoned ‘Neighborhood Corridor.’ One of those parcels is property owned by the Ypsilanti Housing Commission. Property immediately to the west of Bell Street, which is directly to the north of the former city landfill parcel, is zoned ‘General Corridor.’” She says that both designations allow residential uses, although single-family residences are not included.

How and why the decision was made to zone specific parcels different ways wasn’t ever illuminated to Bell Street residents. The city’s 2015 rezoning letter wasn’t the beginning of a conversation. It wasn’t a proposal or a dialogue. In 2015, it was simply a decree.

And the price that Snyder and others on her street will pay is a steep one. She’ll continue to pay a mortgage on a structure she’ll probably never sell.

Financially, she says it’s a blow that will wound her, but she’s young enough that she can possibly absorb it. She has a decent job and other prospects, after all. She’s not so sure about her neighbors, though. She doubts they’ll be so lucky. And worse, they probably don’t even know the reality of their situation yet. They might not uncover it until they, like her, go to sell.

Currently, Snyder is waiting for a realtor to pull comps and tell her what her home could possibly list for. She’s been waiting for a few days now, which Snyder chocks up to the house “not being worth shit,” and the realtor dreading the conversation.

In the meantime, Snyder is investigating whether she has a fair housing case, and if she can pursue a Freedom of Information Act for documents that would tell her if the city knew about her pollution when they issued building permits for her home in 2004.

Posted in Uncategorized, Ypsilanti | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 42 Comments

Announcing “Six Pack Songs Vol. 1” by Pete Larson

A few days ago, I told you that my old friend and former bandmate, Dr. Peter Larson, had announced that he would be launching a new record label in Kenya and releasing songs that he’d written for my Ypsilanti-based AM radio show, The Saturday Six Pack. Well, it looks as though he’s kept his word. As of today, Six Pack Songs Vol. 1 is available for download from Nairobi’s Dagoretti Records. [A cassette version is apparently going to be available soon in Kenya.]

Here’s a taste:

[note: Not all of the songs on this 15-song compilation were written and recorded in Kenya, where Pete now makes his primary residence. Some of them were written in Gambia, South Africa and Japan. Regardless of location, however, almost all of them were recorded in one take, over coffee, on the Saturday morning that they would later appear on the other side of the world, on my radio show. Volume 2, Pete promises, is coming soon.]

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

Porch show season is now officially underway on Washington Street

Last night was the first Washington Street porch show of the season and it was incredibly beautiful. As the kids were with me and Linette, we didn’t stay too late, but we saw enough to make us extremely happy. And, thankfully, Misty Lyn Bergeron was there to capture some of it on her phone, so I can share a little bit of the magic with you now. Here are Zach Nichols, Davey Jones and Matt Jones performing the very beautiful “I’m in Love with School,” which Bergeron, by the way, says is one of her “favorite songs ever.” [The song, written by Nichols, is sung here by Jones.]

[As you might recall, Zach and Davey, who play together in the band Frontier Rukus, appeared as a “saw and banjo” two-piece on the Saturday Six Pack Holiday Special this past December. They called themselves The Everly Sisters at the time.]

Thank you J.T. Garfield, Emmet Cousino, Brian Little and everyone else who has a hand in making these porch shows happen each year. It’s really truly wonderful to know that, starting in the spring, the family and I can not only walk down the street and hear some awesome music, but also feel as though we’re actually part of a real community. [There’s really nothing more beautiful than watching people just stumble on these porch shows and then end up sticking around and being a part of the whole thing. It’s what life should be like.]

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

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