Saturday, July 12, 2014

When public spaces reflect modern life--by not reflecting anything at all.

Just over a month ago, the City of Indianapolis eagerly heralded the opening of a new Marsh grocery store downtown—the second within the Mile Square, which has in recent years exploded in apartment construction.  The other, older store still loosely refers to itself under the name of O’Malia’s, a smaller Indianapolis shain bought out long ago by Marsh, though a handful of stores survive today under the O’Malia name.  It’s only about six blocks away, on the edge of the Lockerbie Square neighborhood, in a converted old Sears and Roebuck Department Store building.  The new Marsh occupies two floors and 43,000 square feet, as part of the five-story Axis mixed-use development near the Canal Walk.  Although the Lockerbie Square O’Malia’s has long tried to satisfy the downtown grocery demand, it was much more in keeping with a neighborhood corner grocery store and never had the feel of a regional supermarket.  It was satisfactory but hardly poised keep pace with the rapidly growing downtown population, as well as the increasingly spendy denizens of surrounding gentrifying neighborhoods.  In short, central Indianapolis apparently had far greater income density that the spread of grocery stores would suggest, and it was underrepresented.

Thus, enter the new Marsh.
At the time of these photos, the facility had been open about six weeks, even though the apartments within the Axis building are not yet complete.  I didn’t spend enough time roaming the aisles to get a sense of the quality of its offerings.  But aesthetically, it almost definitely fills a demand niche.
The Marsh’s interior is like slicing open an avocado, and maybe a tomato right next to it. It’s not a bad idea, and those shades of green (and the occasional bright red) certainly seem au courant enough.   Shiny and new is critical, because the Marsh Supermarkets brand has lagged considerably in recent years, though it was once the defining grocery store of the Indianapolis metro.  Former CEO Don Marsh’s opulent life, rumors of mistresses and financial mismanagement escalated from the late 1990s until around 2006; the company inevitably dominated news headlines for all the wrong reasons, and its share of the local grocery market plunged below Kroger, Meijer and Walmart.  Its nadir may have been the late 2006 purchase by Sun Capital, a private equity firm out of Florida.  Whether the new owners successfully re-branded it or its image was strong enough to prevail on its own, Marsh has endured, though still at a shadow of its former self.  It shuttered all of its Illinois locations, reigned in the majority of Ohio stores, discontinued its spin-off brands like LoBills (and most O’Malia’s) and announced another wave of closures at the beginning of this year.  Nonetheless, through the Marsh/O’Malia’s at Lockerbie and this new location, the declining chain dominates Indianapolis’ downtown grocery market, at least for the time being.  And this latest is definitely trying to splash a new coat of paint on the company’s overall image.

The aesthetics of grocery stores is something that I suspect resonates in our unconsciousness, far more than the blogosphere suggests.  After all, supermarkets seem more resilient to the encroaching dominion of online shopping than a lot of other retail.  Sure, some people feel confident ordering groceries online.  (Indianapolis is home to a successful cybergrocer; Green B.E.A.N. Delivery has grown into a multi-state enterprise.) But most people still prefer choosing their own groceries, particularly when it comes to selecting the produce, meats, and baked goods firsthand.  Thus, how a store looks can influence heavily how much people are willing to patronize a store.  And this Marsh looks contemporary—a stark comparison to the surviving Marsh locations in less chic parts of town, most of which have interiors that evoke the 1970s when they were built.  My suspicion is that renovating a grocery store is particularly capital intensive.  And since they sell such a large quantity of non-durable goods, with new shipments arriving daily, it is nearly impossible to upgrade a supermarket and keep it operational for its customers.  And when a location completely closes, even if just for a couple months, most of its clientele will find somewhere else…and they may never return.  Thus, grocery store interiors across the country are particularly likely to remain frozen in time.  Far more likely than, say, apparel stores, which also have to stay fresh to fight off that online competition.

From murals of the soon-to-change Indianapolis skyline to its subtle mezzanine that may go mostly unused, the new downtown Marsh in the Axis is as effective at conveying trendy urban living today is it is likely to look dated in fifteen years.  What seems particularly telling—and most reflective of the importance of novelty in design—are those public restrooms.
The swimming-pool-mosaic look has taken over in recent years, as popular a tactic in domestic kitchens as it is in gym locker rooms.  It will seriously date itself by the year 2020, but doggone it, it looks good right now.  These small, antiseptic restrooms in the new Marsh also reveal a certain feature that may not go out of style quite as soon.
The restroom is more significant for what it lacks: a mirror above the sink.  More and more businesses are opting to exclude mirrors from their restrooms altogether, much to the chagrin of the narcissists out there.  Why?  It could be because of a growing concern for privacy and the use of restrooms for unlawful voyeurism; after all, stories routinely hit the local news about cameras installed in public restrooms to spy on people.  Mirrors only expand the potential lines of sight that peeping toms can exploit.

But the bigger problem with mirrors in public restrooms is, unfortunately, the vandals out there.  This observation is probably axiomatic to anyone who has ever had to use a public restroom in a busy urban setting—which covers the vast majority of the adult population.  Mirrors harbor graffiti and its companion, the scratchitti, in equal measure.  In most restrooms, they’re right behind the interior stalls for suffering from various markings and tags.  Most Marsh locations are much more suburban, whereas this one, occupying the street level of a building with zero setback, is far more likely to receive walk-in pedestrian traffic that exclusively uses the restroom.  Thus, these restrooms will get more users, they’ll be harder to monitor, and the vandals will soon come out of the woodwork.

Or at least they would.  Removing the mirror deprives them of a popular canvas—a small omission that inconveniences a few people while allowing one more safeguard against any chances of diminishing the store’s aesthetic integrity.  Six weeks after its opening, the Indianapolis Marsh remains free of nail polish tags on its mosaic tiles or messages on the men’s room stalls.  And the ambiance of a fresh bowl of guacamole pervades.  Bon appétit.

Monday, June 30, 2014

When a street is not a road.

My year and a half in Afghanistan working under the US Air Force confronted me with a new acronym almost every day.  One of the bases for which I wrote a comprehensive plan required a “Glossary of Acronyms” in order to sort them all out, ballooning to several pages in length.  It was exhausting.

And then there are the words made up on the spot.

Generally speaking, I leave neologisms to the likes of Buckminster Fuller.  And even though acronyms don’t qualify as newly minted words, they can serve largely the same semantic function.  It’s hard not to scan the cultural forces that help to elicit both acronyms and neologisms with a certain level of amusement.  I’ll admit that I’ve deployed a new word from my artillery from time to time.  (I’d like to think I coined the term “popera” long before it achieved musical relevancy, but no one will see me phoning my lawyer.) Even though the output of fabricated labels within the discipline of urban studies pales in comparison to the Department of Defense, I still find that I’m rarely in the up-and-up when it comes to new trends or the modish terms to describe them.

Which brings us to the stroad.  I wasn’t aware of what a stroad was until just a few months ago.  Semantically, it seems just as inaccurate as the façadectomy that I have referenced a few times in the past.  After all, “stroad” is a portmanteau of “street” and “road”, used to characterize an arterial that seems to share features of both, but also nullifies their intrinsic advantages.  But aren’t “street” and “road” synonymous?  According to a recent City Lab article, Chuck Marohn, a “recovering traffic engineer”, coined the term “stroad” to describe any right-of-way that “moves cars at speeds too slow to get around efficiently but too fast to support productive private sector development”.  Therefore, a stroad tries to achieve the most desirable characteristics of both roads (for their ability to move vehicular traffic quickly) and streets (for their ability to link neighborhood features in an aesthetic manner that remains safe and appealing for all users).  It fails on both counts. According to Marohn, “anytime you are traveling between 30 and 50 miles per hour [as is typically characteristic of a stroad], you are basically in an area that is too slow to be efficient yet too fast to provide a framework for capturing a productive rate of return.”  Marohn has created a video through his nonprofit Strong Towns that offers a visualization of an archetypal stroad. 

My long-repressed English major has turned me into an insufferable semantic nitpicker.  Here I criticize Marohn for placing two words—street and road—into tidy, discrete semantic boxes…two words that for most people are fungible.  Beyond that, I need to chill out, because Marohn’s neologism is effective in pretty much every other sense.  Regardless of whether or not a stroad blends a street and a road, as anyone else would define it, it still feels like a hybrid of two types of right-of-way.  Perhaps it cold be called an arterial and a collector (a “collecterial”?), but then those two terms are fully entrenched in the lingo of transportation engineers.

“Stroad” really conveys another key point.  It’s one ugly sounding word—clipped, aggressive and vulgar.  It almost sounds like a blend of stoat and toad, two largely unloved animals.  And, in my first real-life encounter with a stroad (at least at a point when I knew what the word meant), the first thing that occurred to me was the unattractiveness of the landscape.  Here it is:

I’m looking eastward down Michigan Avenue, in the Great Lake State’s capital of Lansing.  And it’s obvious that this major street, which connects downtown Lansing to the campus of Michigan State University in nearby East Lansing, has enjoyed a number of investments that attempt to make it a more attractive environment for pedestrians.  Notice the vintage lamps hugging the curbs.  Another angle reveals some “bulb out” sidewalk designs intended to lower the section of the street necessary for walkers to cross at a given crosswalk, as seen below:

And, to be fair, quite a few of the structures on the north side of the street (to the left in these photos) date from a time period when most buildings directly addressed the sidewalk.   But the side on which I was standing—the south side—shows the fierce competition that those handsome old two-story buildings must face.

To be fair, real estate speculators have caught on to the notion that this is a redeveloping area, and someone is trying to market this corner parcel to capitalize on what is ostensibly an emerging district for young professionals.

I wish this developer the best of luck.  He or she may very well succeed.  After all, just a half-block to the west, on the north side of the street, sits the Cooley Law School Stadium, an apparent recent addition that has prompted certain civic boosters to brand this stretch of Michigan Avenue as the “Stadium District”.

And on the otherwise desolate south side of the street, another obviously recent mixed-use development sits just a little further to the west, ostensibly capitalizing on the Stadium District name.

And, another block to the west, an old industrial building has benefited from a repurposing into a mixed-use facility with restaurants on the first floor.

Perhaps Michigan Avenue will come together wonderfully as a corridor with densely interwoven different uses.  It doesn’t hurt to be optimistic.  After all, this stroad terminates just a few blocks further to the east, at the Michigan State Capitol. 

The elongated dome of the Capitol is visible in the distance.  So this Stadium District is just a football toss away from Lansing’s downtown and the center of Michigan’s government.  (But, incidentally, not the Ingham County seat.  Lansing is among the only state capitals that is not also the center of government for its respective county.)  But compare Michigan Avenue to another, smaller commercial thoroughfare in central Lansing:

The above pictures reveal the streetscape for Washington Square, a street perpendicular to Michigan Avenue that runs just a block east of the capitol.  Both roads are visible on the map below:

On Washington Square, cars can still get where they need to be, but never while careening at 50 miles per hour.  The abundance of on-street parking—most of it occupied on a lazy Saturday afternoon—integrates peaceably with the copious sidewalk-oriented buildings, resulting in an environment that is far more likely to foster higher concentrations of pedestrians.  Compare once more with Michigan Avenue just a few blocks away:

Churck Marohn recognizes that stroads often boast superlative investment.  But to what end?  The sidewalk on the right looks great, with decorative brick pavers, street trees, and wrought iron gates.  But the gaps between all the buildings on the right suggest that most landowners in this area still prefer setting aside plenty of space for off-street parking. Meanwhile, on the left, abutting the Cooley Law School Stadium, is another big parking lot.

And since parking lots are not exactly a high-intensity land use, chances are the land values along Michigan Avenue are significantly lower than Washington Square.  Admittedly, Washington Square is in the heart of downtown, but Michigan Avenue’s effort to assert itself as a competing Uptown district isn’t bearing the same fruit.

On his stroad video, Marohn asserts, “Parking lots don’t employ anyone, and parking lots don’t pay a lot of taxes, so this environment becomes very low-yielding.”  Frankly, it’s amazing that this stroad has even achieved what we see now.   But the investment to get here has been formidable, and it’s hard to imagine that the buildings that flank this seven-lane arterial will ever host sufficient density to make it hot real estate that can attract college students away from the much better, stroad-less street network in MSU’s hometown of East Lansing.  The only conceivable way to scale down this stretch of Michigan Avenue would be to turn it into a full-fledged street—or at least Marohn’s definition of a street—by giving it a road diet that invites the superfluous lanes to accommodate bicyclists, pedestrians, carefully deployed greenery, or mass transit stops.  But that, again, would require more infrastructural investment—the exact sort of Pyrrhic victory that has borne so many stroads in the first place.  By this point, that sort of money would go to better use in a complete urban dictionary.  Or a guide to the US Air Force acronyms.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Aging at home: does it have to be an uphill climb?

Baby Boomers remain the largest generation by volume of any recorded in the history of the United States.  This label, part of common parlance from coast to coast, imposes artificial bookends upon a group of people whose only real commonality is that they were conceived in the years following World War II—a spike in the birthrate that gives them gravitas, almost tautologically, again thanks to their formidable numbers.  They have shaped everything, particularly as they grew up and passed legal voting age, but then they continued to do so as they amassed wealth and earned a previously inconceivable purchasing power.  And their influence will undoubtedly continue in their wake after the last of them dies out.

Grim as it may be to talk about death, the first baby boomer became eligible for social security on October 15, 2007 (turning 62 on January 1, 2008), and, while a generation widely characterized by ambition and upward mobility is likely to defer retirement, eventually old age will catch up with it.   The widespread proliferation of extended care facilities, senior communities, and the younger “active adult” subdivisions is evidence that a sizable portion of the population is demanding a residential typology that scarcely existed 50 years ago, when most people were only expected to live a half dozen years after retirement.

But how do we respond to those who have no desire to leave the places they have called home for most of their adult lives?

A house like this, in the working class Detroit suburb of Lincoln Park, downriver from the Motor City, may at least shed a flicker of light on what’s happening.  And, as is often the case, I’m making assumptions with little more than my own peepers: I have no idea the age or family make-up of the folks who call this tidy bungalow home.  But the outside evidence suggests they are contending with the forces that father time imposes on our muscles, bones and joints.

The contraption leading to the front door should make it clear what I’m suggesting: it’s a wheelchair ramp.  And it’s an elaborate one.

More often than not, they have to be elaborate. Homes dating from this time period (between the 1920s and 1940s, I’d suspect) rarely accommodated people who depended on wheelchairs for mobility, partly due to lack of any organized advocacy on behalf of disabled people and heavily due to lack of demand.  Not only were people with access or functional needs less likely to expect navigability or self-sufficiency, the world simply had fewer of them around.  The life cycle simply didn’t mesh well with disabilities, and disabled people likely depended on either family or hired caretakers.  Times have changed, and homes with an extensive ramp like this one in Lincoln Park have grown increasingly common.

Aside from the physicality of the house itself, the space around it could pose a huge challenge.  Wheelchairs require a very gentle grade change of 1:12.  Otherwise, most users don’t have the strength to apply the needed torque to proceed up the slope, or their caretakers may be unable to push.  While motorized chairs can mitigate against topography to some extent, they are undoubtedly more expensive and may not be desirable for those who have enough upper-body capability to wheel themselves around.  Thus, to get the ramp they need to their front doors, many homeowners must sacrifice a good part of the front yard.

What’s interesting about the house in Lincoln Park is that it ostensibly has enough room, even though it rests on what would typically be a small parcel in a relatively dense, walkable pre-war neighborhood. While most of the homes in Lincoln Park claim narrow lots, this homeowner has ample space for a ramp on the one side.

But why would there be such a gap between homes, when the normal configuration for neighborhoods from this time period is much closer-knit, with minimal side yards?

It would appear that this modest little yellow house used to have a neighbor.  Just beyond the handicapped parking sign—to its left in the photo above—is a curb cut, with a paved strip wide enough for a car.  It’s hard to imagine any other purpose for that than a driveway that once led to a garage…to a garage that once served a house.  The house almost definitely was demolished, and enough of the pavement was removed to clear the ground for fresh turf.  All that remains is the strip between the sidewalk and the curb cut.

It’s neither possible nor reasonable to postulate that the owners of the yellow house bought the adjacent property, then demolished it, in part to expand their yard and to provide enough room for the handicapped ramp.  That former home could have befallen a million different fates.  But unlike Detroit, where demolished homes have routinely induced gaps in the streetscape, a lacuna such as this is rare in Lincoln Park.  And the generous side yard addresses what otherwise could have been a great enough engineering challenge to preclude this family’s ability to remain in their house.

Sweeping wheelchair ramps in front yards may not jump out to the unattuned eye—after all, we’ve seen the proliferation of accessible commercial and public buildings over the two decades since ADA passed—but it’s easy to surmise that their numbers are growing.    After all, those baby boomers may soon start facing the mobility impairments that accompany old age, and few houses, both old and new, meet the sundry requirements that allow households to age in place.  Aside from replacing all stairs with ramps, wheelchair friendly structures require significant additional retrofits.  Hinges must allow doors to pivot across a broader space in order to accommodate the gentler turn radii of wheelchairs.  Cabinets cannot be placed too high.  Knobs on stovetops—and the burners themselves—can’t be out of reach from a seated position.  Toilets need ample room and often bars for leverage to allow ingress and egress.  The operability of the most mundane household objects no longer seems so benign.   And I can’t begin to guess how the wheelchair-dependent person at this Lincoln Park house manages to get up to the next floor.   It may be little more than an attic or auxiliary space.  But if the bedroom’s up there, it’s probable that the family had to retrofit a room on the first floor to serve as the bedroom.  And since many older homes only have one bathroom, that spatial arrangement could also pose a huge problem if the loo is on what we Americans call floor two.

“Aging in place” may soon become a household term as this populated generation faces access and functional needs in an array of houses not built to accommodate them.  Americans with Disabilities Act standards are already ubiquitous, and HUD provided accessibility guidelines for affordable housing, coincident to the passage of ADA.  Could this cohort’s demand for ramps and broad bathrooms reach such an apex that it actually hurts the overall market for conventional housing?  Will the younger, less populous, able-bodied generation seek out a glut of homes entering the market?  Perhaps the boomers will resort to the tactics on display in these photos.

A colleague at a recent conference cogently observed that we rarely see sweeping ramps to front doors in high-income neighborhoods.  They dominate blue-collar areas.  A variety of cultural shifts over the next decade could corroborate if the aging in place phenomenon is socioeconomically driven, but it’s easy to speculate now whether such an assertion is true.  More affluent neighborhoods use their homeowners associations to create covenants attached to the deeds, which can restrict major modifications that could vitiate the aesthetics of the community.  These covenants may therefore require homeowners to find subtler and more expensive means of solving mobility problems.  Affluent homeowners may amortize their loans at a slightly earlier point in life, giving them more leverage in selling and moving to an appropriately suited domicile after retirement—one that better allows them to age in place than the one they enjoyed during their career years.  Lastly, affluent adults generally boast superior access to doctors and preventative care specialists, meaning they could be slightly less likely to face mobility impairments caused by common conditions such as stroke, since heart disease or cardiovascular-related ailments routinely affect lower-income people more often and at younger ages.

Regardless of how the baby boomers’ silver tsunami shapes future sociological studies, a fixed asset such as real estate will have to adapt to our morphing, creaky bodies.  The development world’s response to an as-of-yet undetermined demand shift could exert a profound impact on the shape and appearance of residential communities.  And we won’t always be able to bulldoze the home next door to make way for a new entrance.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Forbidden feet.

Travel any reasonable distance in this country, across multiple political boundaries, and you will inevitably discover a variety practices in handling traffic.  We see it everywhere: speed limit differences, right turns on red (or not), the size and generosity of the turn radius at an intersection, the style and design (or even the very existence) of pedestrian amenities. Though it may be a bit hyperbolic to assert that these idiosyncratic distinctions arise from the constituents applying representative democracy to get the system they desire (within the bounds of federally mandated core standards, that is), it isn’t far from the truth either.  Some states have developed their own characteristic strategies: the Michigan Left that I wrote about a few months ago has earned its significant detractors, but enough traffic engineers recognize its merits that other states have started adopting it.  (They still call it a Michigan Left.)  And everyone on the East Coast knows New Jersey’s penchant for the jughandle style of “left” turns, which also has apparently generated enough backlash to prompt injunctive legislation.

But one state has managed to surprise me with its dogged tendency to feature a particular sign—something I have only seen on extremely rare occasions elsewhere, but in this state the sign is commonplace.

Even amidst the dusky, grainy quality of the photo, it is obvious what this sign is trying to convey: no pedestrians allowed here.  Granted, it’s not an area that most would consider a pedestrian paradise: a post-war suburb to a large metropolitan area, in which big-box chains, strip malls, and sizable parking lots flank both sides of a six-lane highway.  Again, the twilight haze might obscure the clarity of the photo, but not enough to point out the obvious.

These signs are not along a limit access highway, an environment that disallows pedestrians through the vast majority of the country.  No, this is an area with plenty of stop lights, curb cuts, and choke points for vehicular traffic.  It’s not an attractive, desirable, or particularly safe area for walkers, but must they be forbidden?  Is it perhaps an isolated instance—a particularly hazardous location in which the sign emerges out of a genuine public interest to inhibit those without motors?

No, these signs are everywhere.  Here’s another intersection a half mile down the road.

Granted, it’s probably a horrible intersection to traverse by foot.  But to forbid it altogether?  Where is this?!  The lighter sky helps clarify, while the concrete “Jersey barrier” separating the directions of traffic flow might offer a hint as to what state this is.  But no, this isn’t New Jersey.

It’s a larger and even more populous state: the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.  I’m not as well-traveled as some people out there, particularly when it comes to the western half of the US, but I have still never seen a state where “no pedestrian” signs are as prolific.  I frankly can’t recall seeing them anywhere in most states except along expressways.  But they’re just a part of the roadside landscape in PA—in exurbs, rural areas, or major suburban thoroughfares like this one.

I’d be shocked if local police enforce this regulation outside of places where pedestrians typically are forbidden—i.e., legitimate limited access highways.  While it is unfair to form flattering or degrading inferences about an entire state from something as petty as a roadside sign, it’s hard not to wonder what elicited this sign in a state like Pennsylvania, where the settlements, the housing stock, and the roads largely existed before the automobile.  To this day, most Pennsylvania cities and towns—particularly those in the eastern half of the state, where this photo comes from—stand upon a tightly wrought grid with narrow streets, tiny parcels, small setbacks from the sidewalks and an overwhelmingly walkable character.  The interstices between towns might be filled with conventional suburbanization, but the old towns remain quite compact.  This pattern contrasts sharply with a state such as Nevada, where virtually all inhabited areas owe their layout to the ubiquity of the car.  Since around 1970, Pennsylvania has also remained one of the slowest-growing states in the country; population growth in the 2000s was less than 5%.  Thus, Pennsylvania can claim many more intact pre-automobile communities than most states.  And its largest cities, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, have public transportation systems that, at least by American standards, are fairly robust.

The Keystone State should boast better-than-average pedestrianism, and—for the most part—it probably does.  But somehow, among its successive legislatures, this red, white and black sign slipped into the inventory for various municipal traffic engineers, and in quite a few places they have deployed it with abandon.  My hope for those Pennsylvanians who lack the option or ability to drive is that all police offers turn a blind eye to this regulation.  While the photos above don’t depict a particularly walkable environment (sidewalks are sparse), how is anyone supposed to respond to a scene like this?

The municipality’s public works department has paved along the sidewalk easement, but then it restricts people from walking through the installation of this sign.  It might not yet be dusk, but it’s close enough to the twilight zone.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

When the best preservation efforts go up in smoke.

My latest is up at Urban Indy.  It focuses on a charming Victorian double in the historic neighborhood of St. Joseph, immediately north of downtown Indianapolis, perfectly visible in this Google Streetview image.

At least, that's how it looked in the summer of 2009.  This is what it looks like now:
It's gone.  Demolished.  One could argue that protections for "contributing buildings" in Historic Districts don't give enough teeth to enforce demolition, but that wasn't the problem here.  In the spring of 2010, the building burned to the ground--a fire of undetermined origin.

My research, revealed in full at Urban Indy, determined that it was not a suspicious fire by a landowner who wanted to rid himself of the structural albatross in order to offer the adjacent apartment buildings some quick-and-easy off-street parking.  I actually spoke with the owner of this tragically destroyed home, who made every attempt to save it.  The actual narrative, and the parcel's uncertain future, get full exploration, in an attempt to reconcile the need to preserve the "character" of a historic district (always a fuzzy word) with the understandable aspiration to maximize the marketability of a small, constrained piece of land.  Comments and further observations are strongly encouraged--residents of the St. Joseph neighborhood would certainly appreciate what outsiders might have to say!

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Urban recycling: not a bad (unironic) beer in the box.

-->A recycling station housed in an old factory building might not seem like a novel concept, particularly in a city with a plethora of underutilized or vacant industrial space.  Like Detroit.

And even the appearance of it—a pastiche of industrial chic, street artistry, found objects, and, yes, even a pretty extensive panoply of bins of reusable materials, all monitored by reliably bearded and tattooed staffers—is probably closer to the mental image of what community recycling could, or should, look like.  “Taking out the trash” isn’t just utilitarian and mundane; it’s fashionable, eye-catching and even sorta fun.

Despite my evocation of hipster clichés, Recycle Here! feels like a novelty, at least in part because it’s among the few ways that residents of the Detroit can divert their discarded objects from landfills.  Long notorious as the largest city in the country without a municipal recycling system (both elective and compulsory), Detroit has also striven to find creative ways to curtail the illegal dumping that took place on its copious vacant lots—much of it recyclable material. A group of Wayne State University students founded Recycle Here! in 2005 as a response to the obvious dearth of options serving Midtown, then as today an emerging neighborhood with visible signs of homespun reinvestment.

As smart as the initiative was, it couldn’t easily both fund itself and support a demand that clearly stretched well beyond Midtown.  By 2007, the Greater Detroit Resource Recovery Program (GDRPP) began funding Recycle Here! as the City’s de facto recycling center, all while expanding its outreach by offering additional drop-off days, a broader array of recyclable materials, and satellite locations elsewhere in the city.  In addition, the partnership has allowed curbside recycling pilot programs in three neighborhoods: Rosedale Park, East English Village and Palmer Woods/University District—with intention to grow throughout the city in the long-term.  The Michigan Municipal League website points out some of the other accomplishments: a growth of over 50% each year since opening; a non-profit spin-off called Green Living Science that has educated Detroit Public Schools on recycling initiatives; a for-profit arm called GreenSafe that sells recycled products to major consumption events, like Detroit Lions games. 

Even if it’s essentially an arm of city government, the Recycle Here! facility never for a moment feels like one.  The loudspeakers churn out tunes from a diverse array of genres, no doubt reflective of the eclectic taste of whoever is in charge at that moment.  On the busiest days of operation (typically Saturdays), a local vendor offers cheap French press coffee, and various food trucks tote their comestibles in the outside parking lot.  Another staffer sells screen printed t-shirts, virtually all of them featuring the ingenious and ubiquitous Recycle Here! bumblebee logo, designed by local artist Carl Oxley III:

And the bumblebee receives its share of competition from the other sculptures and murals that form a consistent backdrop to the more utilitarian goings-on up front:

If it isn’t already obvious, Recycle Here! has achieved what it ostensibly needed to do in order to ensure survivability: it evolved into a smartly-branded community gathering place.  And it’s a good thing it works so well: the process of recycling here is far from hassle-free.

Yes, the bins separate Styrofoam peanuts from other types of Styrofoam.  Visitors also have to hold all their plastics up to the light to see if the etching indicates a #1 or #2 (one bin) or #3 through #7 (a separate series of bins).  And cardboard gets separated from office paper, which in turn has a separate bin from newspaper, as well as glossy paper.

And less common materials need separating too.

Clear glass could contain a lot of items: salad dressings, pasta sauce, artichoke hearts, pickled pigs’ lips.  But colored glass usually captures a discrete family of consumable products.

Booze.  These days, varietals of wine do not delineate social strata that easily; even a few highbrow wines might reach the dinner table in a cardboard box.  But it’s very easily to distinguish consumers by the type of beer they drink.  And the beer bottles at Recycle Here! overwhelmingly fit a certain category: the non-corporate.

Whether it’s a microbrew from the Upper Peninsula or a Singaporean IPA, the beers being recycled here are the opposite of what about 85% of America drinks.  No watered-down Coors, Michelob, Budweiser.  The only beers found in the bins that would pass as mainstream working-class Americana are Pabst Blue Ribbon or this Miller High Life, like the one strangely perched, unopened, on the rim of the Clear Glass bin.

In other words, hipster beers.

Probably I’m going out on a limb by making inferences about cultures by the type of beers they consume, but not really, or at least not enough.  I don’t think we witness a dearth of Budweiser bottles because Detroiters simply don’t drink cheap beer.  I think the beers we see in these bins broadly reflects the ethos of people who go out of their way to recycle, and in Detroit, “going out of the way is” precisely what most people have to do.  In short, the act of recycling not only requires the active involvement of driving to the facility (at least for everyone outside those three affluent pilot neighborhoods), it also requires extensive separation once you get there.  If you have two boxes to deposit, it could take you over an hour to get it all done.   The staff at Recycle Here! makes the compelling argument that their approach not only ensures more material gets successfully recycled than if it all gets lumped together, but it also encourages the population to become more invested in the process.  While this may be true, it almost undoubtedly also scares off a huge contingent who simply doesn’t want to be bothered.

Thus, Recycle Here! succeeds because there are enough Detroiters, favorably disposed toward urban living, educated enough to have some disposable income, and predominantly left-of-center, all of whom at least value the idea of sustainability in its various incarnations: locally sourced food, fair trade or free-range growing practices, and non-corporate brews with higher alcohol content (and higher prices).  It fits like a hand in glove, and the fact that quality French press coffee gets served on Saturdays makes as much sense as the absence of a vendor selling McDonald’s, no matter how much Mickey Dee’s coffee has improved in recent years.  Through Recycle Here! and the pilot programs in those selective, higher-income, stable neighborhoods, the Greater Detroit Resource Recovery Program has found the right niche to plant a seed.  It offers a confident start to set the trajectory for a city-wide recycling system.
Now if only they could figure out where all those bottles of Bud Lite are going.