Posted tagged ‘localization’

Jerusaleum Garden and the Character of Ann Arbor

July 11, 2009

A visit to the Ann Arbor Public Library coincided with a need for a lunch solution today, so I stopped in at Jerusaleum Garden for the first time in a while.  They seem to have a new menu and are generally looking spiffy.  I sat in the adjoining patio that they share with Earthen Jar (a vegetarian Indian restaurant that sells its food from steam tables by the pound).  It was a perfect summer day, just hot enough to make welcome a languid moment watching passersby while surrounded by diners and potted flowers.  I was also pleasantly impressed with lunch – for $15 we got a fully loaded lunch for two (leftovers will serve for a couple more days).  The tabbouli had a number of chopped vegetables, including carrots, cucumbers, and tomatoes in it, along with the required parsley in good proportion, and a light lemon dressing.  The falafel was not oily.  The yogurt salad was generously loaded with chopped cucumbers.  It was a perfect summer lunch in one of the places that gives Ann Arbor its special local character.  I hope that it is not endangered.

Think Local First has a really fun T-shirt that I first saw Steve Bean modeling at a Transition Ann Arbor meeting.  It says, “Keep Ann Arbor Funky”.  (Sadly, they were on sale at Shaman Drum, another special piece of Ann Arbor that just closed.)   I agree with the sentiment.  What is it?  “Funky” has gone through many meaning changes, including references to “funk” music.  But “characterized by originality and modishness; unconventional” or more simply, as another source gives it, “hip“, is what we are looking for here, along with an acknowledgment of a slightly down-at-the-heel character, as in the computing definition, where “(funky) is said of something that functions, but in a slightly strange, klugey way. It does the job and would be difficult to change, so its obvious non-optimality is left alone”.

Many of our beloved institutions (I’m thinking of eating places, but there are others) are like this – not always bright and shiny, but real originals that bring character to the town in a way that the newest “concept” can’t.  They are individual and irreplaceable, and they are being lost.  We have lost Red Hot Lovers (though it may re-emerge in another location).  We have lost Tios, though the restaurant has moved to McKinley’s Liberty Street complex.   Happily, Blimpy’s lives.

I can hear the boos and jeers now.   “Ann Arbor in Amber.”  (Jon Zemke of Concentrate pulled off a classic with his “amber NIMBY neighborhoods”).  Yet without anchors of its unique and personal character, Ann Arbor could be a moderately affluent suburb anywhere.   The Ann Arbor Chronicle has been finding a number of posts from other communities  (listed in their Old Media and New Media sections) where Ann Arbor is spoken of enviously.  Being called a living museum may not sound complimentary, but the artificial communities sometimes called lifestyle centers try to emulate it.  Other cities literally build theme parks trying to capture that sense of genuine character that we possess now.  (I was amused to note that Hyde Park,  the home of our current President, has Ann Arbor envy, though funkiness is not mentioned in the article.)

But can character stand up against the relentless press of development?  Look again at the picture of Zaragon Place looming over the hapless shell of Red Hot Lovers. The property has evidently become too valuable.  When the City Council begins to develop the Library Lot,  will Earthen Jar and Jerusalem Garden survive?  I hope so, else we will have lost a little bit of ourselves.

Small Is Beautiful and Local Is Even More So

May 11, 2009

We have a rare opportunity on Tuesday, May 12 to hear Michael Shuman speak.  The lecture is free and open to the public, 7:30 p.m. in the Rackham Building.  Shuman is to goods-and-services-oriented businesses what Michael Pollan is to agriculture.  In his book, The Small-Mart Revolution, he sets up a dichotomy between “local ownership and import substitution” (LOIS) businesses, and the globalized “there is no alternative” (TINA) businesses that have taken over so much of American life.  His thesis is that we can live better and happier by supporting community-based enterprises and that the TINA businesses are responsible for many of our modern (economic) ills.  He calls the economy based on TINA “Wreckonomics”. The book was published in 2006, but remarkably enough says this in its first chapter:

“One of the central paradoxes of contemporary American life is that despite so much wealth and progress, we have never been so insecure.  Millions of middle-class Americans have taken advantage of low interest rates and borrowed their way to short-term stability, but we know that sooner or later this will come crashing down…Many of us are no further than one layoff, one major illness, or one national calamity away from plunging into a personal economic tailspin.”

He has many examples and prescriptions, and has continued the fight in many forums, as documented in his blog.  I’m looking forward to hearing him in person.

How Can Our Downtown Succeed?

May 1, 2009

A recent article in the Ann Arbor Business Review describes an increase in retail and commercial vacancies, with a drop in asking prices for rents.  This is good an indication as any that business is not doing very well downtown.  But what are the causes and cures?

There was some slight interest in the question of downtown’s retail success at the time that Ann Arbor was walking through the Calthorpe exercise (predecessor of the A2D2 process).  The organizers invited Robert Gibbs, a specialist in developing retail centers, to speak.  His talk was inspiring and enlightening – and as far as I can tell, his recommendations were ignored.  As I reported in an article at the time, Gibbs made the point that what really determines the success of retail businesses is—parking.  What do customers want?  They want to be able to park in front of the place they are going, or failing that, not too far away.  But parking is a contentious issue right now.  The DDA has been doing an outstanding job of building and maintaining parking structures, but this is expensive.  There is a strong push to discourage the use of the automobile to reach downtown.  This makes sense for commuters, who are coming to downtown presumably for the whole day, and the estimable GetDowntown program is there to encourage the use of bicycles and the AATA.  But it won’t help to bring shoppers.

Another factor that has been affecting our downtown retailers has been the surge in property prices and rents. We’ve seen a number of local stores that provided a good basic service leave or close partly because of rents.  With rents now falling, perhaps we will keep some of the remaining ones.  My belief is that the bubble in real estate speculation that characterized the whole country has affected our downtown by pushing up rents and the value of property that might yield a quick development buck.  Newcombe Clark is quoted in the Business Review article as saying, “One result of the falling rents is that downtown buildings will lose their value…Another is that new construction will become economically impossible because the rental rates won’t support the costs of building”.  Yes. Exactly.

The problem is that the business of downtown has become only the business of development.  The Ann Arbor Chamber of Commerce (who surely should be looking after the interests of  business) recently issued a policy statement that, if adopted, would expand the built environment of downtown by developing it intensively up and out.  They are still trying for taller buildings and they are frustrated with all those troublesome historic districts.  And while we are at it, let’s make the area where we can build these big buildings bigger (goodbye, Central Area Plan).  But will this really make our downtown healthier?  I say no.  The opportunity to make money from development downtown has blinded us as a community to what makes the downtown valuable to begin with.  That is its character.  Alter the character too much, and no one will want to visit it.

Look at the images shown on the Main Street Association site.  What makes it attractive?  The old (aka historic) buildings.  Its wide walkable sidewalks, somewhat impeded by outdoor seating (European!), and nice trees help.  But the human scale of the buildings and their charming facades are what really distinguish it.

Last summer, the economic development specialist Donovan Rypkema (who specializes in commercial district revitalization and the reuse of historic structures) gave a talk in which the take-home message was very simple: if you want to develop a successful upscale community, historic preservation is an important tool because the young professionals you are trying to attract want that authentic ambiance.  I think I’m not stretching his point too much to say that this authenticity will also bring in customers.

Of course, it is also key that downtown should offer services that we want.   One of my favorite places to visit is Downtown Home and Garden, where I can buy stuff I actually need for gardening and cooking.   Now look at this business.  It is in a historic building.  It’s fun to go in there (even if the cat is not on duty).  And you can drive your car right into the building (or park in the adjacent privately owned parking lot).  Put that together with a good business sense of providing things people want to buy, and you have a successful downtown business.

Transition Comes to Ann Arbor

April 22, 2009

Tonight I attended the organizational meeting of Transition Ann Arbor.  Actually, a group has been working on it for some time.  This “initiating team” (consisting of Nate Ayers, Lisa Dugdale, Jeannine LaPrad, Jeanne Mackey, and Jeannine Palms) was part of a training conducted earlier at Rudolf Steiner School, and has been tasked to take on the first step – called the “first ingredient” – at bringing Ann Arbor into the ranks of Transition Towns.  About 20 of us heard an introductory talk and exchanged thoughts about current and future efforts.  If we succeed in meeting certain criteria, then our city can be inducted into a world-wide network of these communities.

Transition is a global phenomenon initiated by Rob Hopkins of the UK.  A video of him and some other explanations are visible on the Transition US website.  Basically, Transition sees three crises building that will affect our lives forever: global warming, energy depletion, and economic collapse.  These will lead to what is called The Long Emergency, a time when life may change drastically.  Transition’s idea is that it is better to prepare for these abrupt changes by becoming more resilient, more interdependent, and more localized.  Although it is closely allied to a number of other dystopian concepts (I’m a long-time peak oiler myself), it is a joyful movement calling on using our “collective genius” as a community to resolve future problems in the supply of food, energy, transportation, health care, and housing.

There were some of the “usual suspects” at the meeting, but not many I recognized.  (I loved Steve Bean’s Think Local First T-shirt, that proclaimed, “Keep Ann Arbor Funky”.)  The group will be focusing in early days on getting the word out with films and talks, including some book club meetings at Crazy Wisdom Bookstore in June.  (Events are listed on the TAA website.)  Another focus is “reskilling”, relearning old survival skills like preserving food and repairing clothing.  They’ll be getting people educated with such tools as the Transition Handbook (a wiki version is available free online).

As a very long-time environmentalist (I was teaching biology in a junior college on the first Earth Day, and decked the bulletin board with special tidbits for it), I recognized a lot of familiar themes and questions.  For example, there is talk of “indicators”, a familiar usage from the sustainability canon. But what is so intriguing about Transition is that it focuses on the social and communal aspects of how we might live in reduced circumstances. It is truly a social phenomenon, and one worth watching, whether you are convinced that it will be needed or not.

UPDATE: There is a new “introductory meeting” scheduled for Thursday, June 11, 7-8:30 (the meeting I attended ended promptly on time).  It is at

Tappan Middle School

The organizers ask for people to rideshare or use alternative transportation because of another event at Tappan that night.

Second Update: The Ann Arbor Chronicle recently published an account of a reskilling workshop put on by TAA.

Thinking Local

April 14, 2009

There is an old expression—”that hits me where I live”.  While we all consider ourselves to be part of a national, even global, society, ultimately it is what happens right around us that has the most impact on daily life.  That locality is where social networks, business relationships, and the physical reality of day-to-day existence occur.

The city of Ann Arbor and its immediate neighbors are the local community that this blog is about.   It is also about how our town will face the challenges in our future.

Here is a principle of localization that is fundamental to this discussion:

“…key decisions should reside with those who demonstrate a connection and commitment to place, not with those who are placeless.  This “residential” principle says that people who live and work in a community are more likely to represent community values, be dependent on the coherence and durability of the community in place, and know that place.”  Thomas Princen, School of Natural Resources and Environment, University of Michigan, February 10, 2009 (lecture presented March 25, 2009).