Tag Archives: Michigan

Say Yes! to da UP, eh?

On this day in 1836, the territory of Michigan and the state of Ohio ended their war over Toledo in a peace conference called (I kid you not) the Frostbitten Convention. It was a complicated war (if relatively bloodless) and a complicated peace, but I trust you can look up the details for yourself on Wikipedia; what matters to a Great Lakes statriot such as myself is that the end of the war spelled statehood for the land shaped like a hand.

The terms of the treaty negotiated by Congress granted Michigan statehood on condition that it cede Toledo to Ohio, and in exchange, Michigan was granted the Upper Peninsula. Little did Congress (or Michigan, for that matter) know that the UP was rich in copper and iron ore. Poor Ohio. All they got was the Mudhens.

To borrow the words of LGK, “Happy 175th birthday Michigan! High five.”


People on a journey

I’m a week away from a big move out of my hometown, where I have grown up and gone to college, where I have always returned after semesters abroad, conferences and vacations. I’ve never left Michigan for an indefinite period of time before. So it’s a big move, but also a pretty hectic one. I recently got back from a quick road trip to Montreal and Massachusetts, and before Easter I will rest my head in at least a half a dozen more cities from Eugene to Indianapolis and Ithaca.

I’m trying to cram in as many friends and as many favorite things to do and places to see as I can before I go (feels familiar, thinking back on Budapest and Oxford), while also packing up my life and spending time with my family here, whom I love a lot and will miss immensely. In recent years I’ve become rather attached to Michigan and to Grand Rapids, which always surprises me. I never ever felt welcome here as a kid. We moved here from West Africa with basically nothing, and I went to a little Christian school where it always felt like everybody knew everybody (and everybody’s grandparents knew everybody’s grandparents and they all went on vacation to Gulf Shores together too). In those early years, even though Grand Rapids was the only place I could remember, I knew so damn well that I didn’t belong.

That only began to change in college. I’m not quite sure yet how it changed, but I think it had something to do with studying abroad, reading Yi-Fu Tuan, and generally coming of age. (I also credit post-2008 media coverage of Michigan as a giant vat of decay since the Other’s gaze of morbid fascination can only strengthen a person’s defiance and statriotism!) Whatever the origin of my sense of being at home here, I now find myself feeling massively conflicted about being one more person to leave. Will I ever come back?

Another place I’ve been surprised to call home is the church I grew up in, which I’ve started attending again only in the last year. During Lent, our church has been using as a sending song “We are people on a journey” by Gregg DeMey. It includes the verse, “We are people on a journey, rising up in life reborn. / We are people on a journey, speaking peace, accepting scorn. / We are walking toward a homeland, to a myst’ry yet unknown, / to a kingdom coming quickly, to the light of God’s own throne.”

I have to admit that I often find it pretty hard to make out the light of God’s own throne, but as I set out on this big and hectic journey, I can say Amen to the myst’ry yet unknown and the hope for a homeland in this Lenten time of life.

Geomorphology extra: winter on Lake Michigan

I went as a teaching assistant on field trip for an environmental studies senior seminar class this past weekend, and we winter camped at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore near where the Platt River enters Lake Michigan. The purpose of the field trip was to get students into an unfamiliar and slightly uncomfortable setting right away at the start of the semester to spend some time getting into the practice of having good and difficult discussions. There’s nothing like setting up camp in the fading light of a Michigan winter evening to build the sort of trust and mutual reliance that make for such discussions.

It was certainly a good trip, and I guess we’ll see soon if it succeeded or not. We had beautiful weather with temperatures in the 20s and lots of sun, and a mile-long walk through a couple feet of snow to the lakeshore was an unexpected treat. I’m not sure you’ve really lived if you’ve never seen a huge body of water frozen over, and Lake Michigan in the winter has lots of sweet ice formations (check out National Geographic’s photo of the day from Jan. 21 for evidence).

In addition to ice volcanoes and shelf ice, there were some great niveo-aeolian sand deposits (think of it as an ordinary dune landscape plus snow).
Where sand was deposited on snow,  I stepped expecting to stand on relatively solid ground, only to fall through half a centimeter of sand and into much deeper snow. But it was even cooler to see how the snow was eroded from the windward side of the foredunes and deposited on the slipface. It’s exactly the process that shapes sand dunes when there isn’t snow, but the presence of the snow and the color contrast with the sand made it so nicely visible:

There were a few geology majors along who could explain some of the formations to me better than I understood them myself, and it was a real gift, that trip to the lake. I had wanted to see some deer on the walk, but instead I got a lesson in coastal geomorphology. It wasn’t what I was expecting or hoping for, but as every geology student (and fan of the Stones) knows, you can’t always get what you want.


Follow up to my last post; I found this article about Detroit left on the printer in the place I’m staying for the summer:

Susan Saulny, “Razing the city to save the city,” The New York Times, June 20, 2010.

From the article:

For instance, though many of the plans presented to the city for consideration aim to create density in viable neighborhoods by consolidating and relocating residents from dying or dead neighborhoods, most do not go so far as to say which areas they would choose for destruction. Those decisions, group leaders said, are for the city to make.

“What we believe is that it should be data driven, in collaboration with residents,” said Anita Lane, director of programs at Community Development Advocates of Detroit. Any process for redesigning the city, she said, “needs to have all the stakeholders coming together to take ownership for this.”

The article summarizes a lot of the main threads of the debate and highlights many important concerns, for instance, that relocation and downsizing feel like a land grab to a population that’s been disenfranchised in the past or that necessary financial resources are hardly available.

One thing it doesn’t address that I’d really like to see some research on is the feasibility of land-use change from urban to agricultural or wild. The article notes that in many places nature is ostensibly beginning to reclaim abandoned properties, but how about cleaning up brownfield sites, and how can we turn neighborhoods into farms when there are electrical lines and sewer pipes under every street?

Downsize me

Before summer started and the job that accounts for my posting hiatus began, I finished my project for Advanced GIS. It’s called “Downsizing Flint: Spatial alternatives for a shrinking city.” Basically, my goal was to analyze the density of empty properties in the city of Flint to identify what parts of the city might be best for planned downsizing [read: demolition]. The .pdf below is the final result.


So, obviously, this is pretty simplistic and conceptual. I have a more detailed report, and if you’re interested in method, specific conclusions or the like, email me and I’d be happy to send it your way. But the short version is this: Flint’s population is less than a third of what the built environment can accommodate; this is a problem. Despite our nostalgia for places of past glory, it’s time to rethink, and probably, to demolish. Not that demolition is straightforward (or cheap) either. One thing we shouldn’t do is glorify decay. I’m certainly not the first person to suggest this (see links below), but I wanted to do an analysis that would help me think more concretely about downsizing in a specific place and not just in the abstract.

This project was also a lesson in data acquisition, but the city of Flint came through in the end. My thanks to the wonderful, if overworked, city employees I talked to for that.

Some resources about downsizing in the Rustbelt:

“An Effort to Save Flint, Mich. by shrinking it,” NY Times, 21 April 2009.

Genesee County Land Bank

Youngstown, Ohio