Welcome to an American City Where the Government Barely Exists

Aaron Mondry, from Splinter News, highlights the challenges that Highland Park faces, and uses information from DFC’s 139 Square Mile report to rethink ways to adaptively reuse the city’s substantial vacant industrial buildings.

Welcome to an American City Where the Government Barely Exists
By:Aaron Mondry
Splinter News
September 22, 2017
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On Woodward Avenue in Highland Park, Michigan, a historical marker stands in front of a derelict industrial building. It reads, “Here at his Highland Park Plant, Henry Ford in 1913 began the mass production of automobiles on a moving assembly line…Mass production soon moved from here to all phases of American industry and set the pattern of abundance for 20th Century living.”

In the 21st century, however, that “pattern of abundance” is absent in Highland Park, a three-square-mile city nestled in the middle of the much-larger Detroit that has become one of the most economically depressed places in America. The list of difficulties it faces is uniquely long and dire.

The city, which reached its peak population of nearly 53,000 in the 1930s, is home to just over 10,000 residents today. Its industrial base eroded with the departure of Ford and later Chrysler. Highland Park’s last high school closed in 2015, and the system is under emergency financial management. Like Detroit, many Highland Park residents have endured water shutoffs, but with far less media attention. In 2011, DTE Energy repossessed around 1,400 residential street lights, literally removing them from the ground because of a $4 million unpaid bill.

The city itself was under emergency financial management for nine years beginning in 2000— the longest duration of any city in Michigan—and a city administrator, reporting to the state’s Treasury Department, now oversees its finances. But after all these years, the budget is still perilously uncertain due to a $26 million lawsuit filed by the city of Detroit, which claims that Highland Park hasn’t paid its water bills (while, ironically, under emergency financial management) after closing its treatment plant and switching over to Detroit’s water system.

Crime, blight, and poverty are all entangled in this mess, both cause and consequence of a gutted school system, absence of streetlights, and an inability to provide anything beyond the most basic services.

“We’re providing good services as best we can,” Mayor Hubert Yopp says, “but at this point, because of our minimal budget, we can’t afford the equipment we need to do a better job.”

Highland Park’s government, in other words, seems to barely exist. When the lawsuit filed by the city of Detroit was first announced, there was talk that the city of Highland Park might dissolve entirely. And until the court case is resolved, there isn’t much the mayor can actively do. He does have people training block club presidents in grant writing and rebates for things like home repairs. He also had the Tax Increment Financing Authority Board of Directors create a long-term plan for the city.

But Highland Park residents have problems that need to be addressed immediately. Though they understand the state of their cash-strapped city, they’re impatient. So they’re providing for themselves and community what the city cannot, by dreaming up impossibly ambitious projects.

They just wish the city would dream alongside them.

No one exemplifies this attitude more than Shamayim Harris. From the porch of her house on Avalon Street, you can see construction crews renovating the interiors of shipping containers on an adjacent lot, and adding geothermal heating and cooling systems to a house halfway down the block. About a decade ago, the block was full of blight—now, there’s life.

Harris, a 51-year-old Highland Park native and a reserve officer with the Highland Park Police Department, is an imposing-looking African American woman with broad-shoulders and an angular jaw. She’s known by everyone as “Mama Shu” and either hugs or waves to anyone who passes by her house.

She’s also the “mama” of the block—Harris owns 29 properties on Avalon Street, which she’s in the process of converting into the holistic and sustainable Avalon Village. “The whole thing, everything, is connected together and here to uplift, serve, and cater to the community,” Harris says.

Shamayim Harris on her porch in Highland Park. Credit: Ali Lapetina

The initial shipping containers will become the Goddess Marketplace, a pop-up retail space for women entrepreneurs to sell their goods. The house under renovation will become the Homework House, an after-school center for children, where they’ll have access to a meal, tutors, a computer lab, and showers. Harris calls it “a home before they get home.”

There will also be basketball courts, a park, a wellness center, a greenhouse, and a vegetarian cafe.

For years Harris had been eyeing the blighted Avalon Street, wanting to fix it up somehow, but not having the means to do it. In 2007, her two-year-old son Jakobi was killed in an automobile hit and run. The tragedy seemed to unleash something in her, and ever since, she’s pursued Avalon Village with an unrelenting zeal.

Six months after her son’s death, one of the houses went up for sale for $3,000 and she bought it with some meager savings, a tax income check, and a loan from a friend. For a time, Harris and her daughter slept on a mattress on the floor in the unfurnished house that didn’t have heat or running water.

Mama Shu’s house on Avalon Street in Highland Park. Credit: Ali Lapetina

Even during the darkest days, Harris says, “Doubt never crept in… After my son died, I was like, ‘I’m doing this. Nothing can hold me back.’ I wasn’t afraid of anything because that was the worst fear I ever had.”

Just last year Harris started getting attention from donors and national media outlets. The Big Sun Foundation gave her a $100,000 grant. A successful crowdfunding campaign raised $243,690. She was even a guest on The Ellen DeGeneres Show where she was gifted a Cocoon9 home valued at $100,000 slated to be the village’s “city hall.”

Mayor Yopp—who is serving his second non-consecutive term after losing re-election in 2012, but winning in 2016—says he’s “proud of what she’s doing.” And on the whole, Harris feels supported by the city. But she’s still a little bitter about one incident.

In 2014, Harris erected a solar-powered street light in Avalon Village’s Jakobi Ra Park—the first residential street light installed by the Highland Park-based Soulardarity. Though she had been cleaning up the lot for eight years, she didn’t actually own it when the light was installed. The city tabled her request to purchase the lot for a year before selling it to her, but also fined her $1,000.

“It just seemed backwards to me,” Harris says. “This whole city doesn’t have lights, and we figured out how to get one and got in trouble for it.”

A similar ambivalence about the mayor and his government was expressed by many Highland Park residents, who feel the city is taking some positive steps, but, as with Avalon Village’s solar-powered street light, missing easy wins along the way.

In appearance and background, Jackson Koeppel couldn’t be more different than Mama Shu. Koeppel, who grew up in Manhattan, is a bony white man in his mid-20s. His father writes history books and his mother was a music publicist.

“I come from a high degree of class privilege,” Koeppel admits.

But he’s as dedicated to Highland Park as anyone. After dropping out of college, he protested mountaintop removal in West Virginia, and eventually came to Highland Park through a Green Economy Leadership Training program. He soon fell in love with the ingenuity and resilience of its people.

After extensive conversations with residents, he co-founded Soulardarity in 2012. The democratic, membership-based nonprofit, of which he is the executive director, has installed six street lights so far, which can come with a suite of functions like brightening as the day fades and a mesh network router that both connects to other lights and provides internet. The lights are also not connected to the power grid and remain on during outages—a feature which matters to residents who had their lights taken away.

But Koeppel and Soulardarity made an important realization in the five years from when they installed their first street light to today: It’s incredibly difficult to scale a membership model. They need a city-wide contract to build the lights to illuminate all of Highland Park.

That’s why Soulardarity made a proposal to install 1,000 of them, which would be owned by the city and make Highland Park the first U.S. city completely lit with solar lights. Citing a feasibility study his organization did with the Cooperation Group, Koeppel claims solar lights will save the city millions of dollars in the long term from reduced energy and maintenance bills. But because the city would have to rebuild its light infrastructure anyway, the difference in upfront cost would be negligible—$5.8 million versus $5.7 million.

Mayor Yopp says the city’s lights were repossessed because they had to drastically reduce their monthly lighting bills from about $90,000 to $15,000. Given the uncertainty with the water lawsuit, he adds, “The current budget cannot afford [Koeppel’s] prices.”

But because they’re a green energy nonprofit, Koeppel says it’s possible to reduce the upfront price tag through rebates and grants, and wants to work with the city to raise those funds. But to secure money from funders, his organization needs some form of verbal or written support from the city. It hasn’t come.

“What I hear our members saying is that they get it—they understand the city’s capacity is strapped,” Koeppel says. “But that’s not good enough. We want to work with the city in problem solving…We feel they can create support structures and encourage innovation instead of saying, ‘We don’t have time for that right now.’”

On Buena Vista, a street so potholed it’s nearly gravel, a successful crowdfunding campaign raised more than $10,000 for another Soulardarity street light on the site of a former elementary school. It’s one of the first steps, after cleaning up dozens of tires and a veritable forest of trees and weeds, in transforming the abandoned Thompson Elementary School into Parker Village, another mini-city rooted in technology and renewable energy.

Juan Shannon, founder of Parker Village, was moved after seeing Midtown Detroit’s Green Garage, a business incubator that incorporates green building design into practically every feature. But unlike with Avalon Village, you have to close your eyes to see the finished product at Parker Village.

The intersection of Buena Vista Street and Second Ave in Highland Park.

Shannon’s plan calls for an aquaponics garden and garden cafe in the playground, an electric vehicle charging station, a state-of-the-art event center, STEAM lab, coworking space, and offices for his entertainment company, Modern Tribe.

The elementary school was never secured after closing and scrappers gutted the building. But that’s not a problem for Shannon, who would have to redo all the plumbing and electrical because of his plans to build solar panels on the roof, radiant floors inside to disperse heat, and a recycled-water plumbing system that pipes it back into the irrigation.

Though he’ll eventually need to put millions of dollars into the building, given the progress Harris has made with her village, who’s to say Shannon can’t eventually do the same with his. And he’s not waiting on the city for financial support.

“Highland Park is going through its own problems,” Shannon says, “so we’re not really pulling on them to help us get started. But they’ve been supportive, come to a couple of chats and events I’ve had on ground.”

Aaron’s Jewelry and Loan, a pawn shop off of Woodward Avenue in Highland Park. Credit: Ali Lapetina

Robert Onnes, however, has some real beef with the city.

The middle-aged New Zealander first took up metal sculpting in 2005 after a career in electrical engineering. He sold some large sculptures and didn’t need the 10-year window he gave himself to be a successful artist, but felt hampered by the lack of affordable studio space in his country.

“I lived in a country with phenomenally expensive real-estate, like San Francisco,” he says. “Moving to a city at opposite end of the spectrum made sense to me.”

So Robert and his wife moved to Detroit in 2012 after reading about its arts scene in the Economist.

“You only get one life, you gotta make it work,” Onnes says. “You don’t want to be sitting on your deathbed thinking, ‘I should have done that.’”

While looking for a small personal studio, he ended up buying a 23,000-square-foot former stamping plant in Highland Park on Midland Street, which can be located by its hand-drawn sign off Hamilton Street. Now 333 Midland, it’s a gallery and studio space for 20 artists of various mediums.

Onnes says at first relations were fine with the city. For a time, he had to personally go to city hall and remind them to send water bills. “We had a lot of freedom up until we came to their notice,” Onnes says. “We pretended they weren’t there and that worked fine for us.”

Then earlier this year, he got a letter saying 333 Midland wasn’t up to code and it would have to cease operations immediately. He took care of the minor matters the fire marshall requested, like installing exit signs and extra fire extinguishers. But he still can’t get a clear answer from the building inspector about what else needs to be taken care of. This past July, Highland Park reinstated its Building Department for the first time in 15 years.

Onnes thinks Highland Park is missing out on a huge opportunity, citing a recent report from Detroit Future City, a strategic planning organization, which proposes ways to adaptively reuse the city’s substantial vacant industrial buildings. The arts features heavily in its recommendations. Again, it seems to be a case of the city getting in its own way.

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