Blog: Mark Maynard



Mark Maynard publishes the magazine Crimewave USA with Linette Lao, to whom he is married. He also paints, puts out records, draws comics, and blogs when others sleep. He is one of the founders of Ypsilanti's popular Shadow Art Fair, co-chair of YpsiVotes, a community dialogue group, and a member of Ypsilanti's 2020 Task Force on the future of the city. He recently launched a new business called the Severed Unicorn Head Superstore, which is now taking orders. He has a keen interest in economic development, and a daughter named Clementine.
Mark Maynard - Most Recent Posts:

Post No. 3

 Who's Up for a Pedal Powered Film Festival in Ypsi's Riverside Park?

Those of you who read my blog know that a lot of things occur to me during the course of a day. Most of my ideas are admittedly pretty stupid. Recently, for example, I was arguing that Ypsilanti should position itself as a regional hub drive-thru chicken slaughter.

Occasionally, however, I come up with something really good. The last one of those that I had was for a bike-powered film series in Ypsilanti's Riverside Park. And it wasn't really all my idea. I just got the ball rolling.

The origin of the idea was pretty simple. I have a favorite movie, and I wanted to watch it some spring evening with my friends on the banks of the Huron River. The movie was the 1955 film noir Night of the Hunter - the only film ever directed by actor Charles Laughton. The film follows two children as they travel down a river, away from their mother's killer, a murderous preacher played by Robert Mitchum. It's a brilliant film that I love sharing with people, and I can't imagine a better venue than alongside the Huron at dusk, there among the frogs and crickets. That, anyway, was the impetus. And things evolved from there.

Shortly after posting the idea, two things became very clear. First, I found that there are a lot of people who really feel passionately about Night of the Hunter. And, second, I found out that there are a hell of a lot of people who want to see movies in our park. And, best of all, I learned that representatives from both groups are willing to help. Within hours of posting my idea, I had offers of sound systems and projectors. I had people offering to shimmy up trees to hang screens. I had people offering to bring popcorn. I also got the sense that this was going to happen with or without me, which was really cool.

Then we found out that it we couldn't get electricity in Riverside Park. That's when conversation on my site turned to solar cells. I ran the idea by Dave Strenski, the fellow who built the solar system at the Ypsi Food Co-op, and he, for various reasons, suggested we not go that route. (I think there was some mention of acid sloshing around and getting into kids' eyes)

The wheels, however, kept turning, and we ultimately settled on bike power, which is probably where we should have started in the first place. It works on every level.

I cannot imagine a better community-building event than a free, people-powered movie series. (And, yes, somewhere along the line it also became a short series, which could include other river-centric films, like The African Queen, or offerings for kids.) It has a whimsical Gilligan's Island kind of feeling to it that makes me smile whenever I think about it. I envision kids peddling with their parents, neighborhood associations signing up for blocks of riding time, folks from our senior housing developments coming out - everyone happy and enjoying the evening.

There would be another benefit too. If we pull it off, I think we might be the first in the nation to do so. I imagine some positive press might come from it, and maybe, just maybe, it'll be enough to attract the attention of an alternative energy company looking to open a facility in the Midwest, or a green developer --like this one. I know it's a reach, but as long as we're rebuilding Ypsilanti, why not do it right? Why not go green? Why not say to the world that we're a forward-looking community, thinking about sustainability?

I don't know how successful they've been, but
there's a town in Kansas that's doing it. They were hit by a tornado, and they've decided to rebuild green. They're using the opportunity to recreate their city. Why can't we do the same thing, starting with the 38-acre parcel we call Water Street?

We've already started doing it from the bottom up. Volunteers led by Dave Strenski have already converted our Co-op over to solar. And dozens of us have already pledged our own money to do the same for City Hall. The citizens of Ypsi are stepping in and doing it themselves, and this bike-powered movie project would be one more, very visible, illustration of that fact. This movie series would be an inexpensive, fun way to show the world what we value and what we're capable of.

As for the costs, I don't expect they'd amount to too much. I've got people willing to donate bikes. The only real significant cost then, assuming that we can borrow a projector and sound system, would be the City's fee for the use of the park and the generators. But, before we worry about that, we need to figure out how many bikes we need. Following are two assessments from my readers.

This first one comes from Paul G, an engineer in Silicon Valley:

    I've thought about trying to build a bike generator. You could just replace the 
    rear wheel of an old bike with a motor, add an energy storage/AC inverter box,
    and presto, you'd have free power (and get good exercise too).

    When I learned how much power can be generated by a human body though, 
    I got discouraged. For instance, a super-fit, Tour de France-caliber bicyclist 
    can sustain about 400 watts over several hours. But even that would barely 
    be enough to run the portable theater.

    The main problem is the projector, with its super-bright lightbulb. A quick 
    google search reveals the average projector consumes about 250 watts. Add 
    a sound system and factor in generator inefficiencies, and you'd probably 
    need Lance Armstrong to power this thing. And he'd be pretty tired by the 
    end of the film.

    
For the average "fit" adult, you could count on around 150 to 200 watts being 
    available (after inefficiencies, maybe 100 watts). So you could power the 
    theater with three or four such riders, or maybe 6-7 kids. The effort would be 
    similar to riding a real bike (with wind resistance) at about 20mph for a few 
    hours...

And here's what local alternative energy guru Dave Strenski had to say:

    
Human powered generators would be the best option for safety and 'coolness' 
    but can be expensive…

    
If I'm reading your mind correctly, this is what you want.

    
You can find DIY plans for bike generators here, here, here, and here.

    You can also buy finished bike stands
here or
here.

    
Keep in mind that a healthy/fit person can produce about 100 watts of power 
    for maybe 30 minutes. I think you would need 10 to 20 bikes plus a line of 
    would-be pedelers. Each bike would have it's own small battery to smooth out 
    the power coming from the bike and to handle people switching riders. All the 
    power would then be collected behind the screen (some place safe) and 
    combined and sent to an inverter to convert the DC power to AC to run the 
    projector.

    
Sounds like a great event, but would be costly to put on. Maybe you could sell 
    the bike stands after the show to recover some of the costs. I could see 
    people sitting on the Riverside Park's sledding hill watching a movie with a 
    line of bikes in back...

And then there's my friend Eric, who suggests that maybe we just have people bring their own bikes. Or, better yet, we scrap the idea of bikes altogether. He suggests we locate some old paddleboats and create recumbent pedal-power stations. And, as I'm not an engineer, I'm not sure that his would work, but he also seems to think that maybe we could do it with one big crankshaft, where everyone worked together to feed a single generator. I was skeptical, but he reminded me that 3-person bikes exist. So, maybe he's on to something.

So, let's say we want to do this – is it possible to do it now, this spring? As I see it, we'd need at least three working groups to pull it off. One to handle the math, engineering and implementation. One to handle the pr, marketing and fundraising. And one to handle the logistics, permits, etc.

My guess, just looking at the notes from Paul and Dave, is that we could probably do it with 14 bikes, if we had a constant stream of fresh riders to rotate in. I know that we could get 14 used bikes donated. I even suspect that we could find someone here in Ypsi to contribute space to store them and work on them. And, if we're lucky, I bet we could even find some local mechanical types to help us put all the pieces together. So, all we'd really need to do is raise money for the motors and City's $100 fee. My friend
Homeless Dave just built out a system in his house (see his video further down) and I suspect he'd be willing to help us cost everything out.

Another approach that may be worth considering is getting a number of local businesses, not-for-profits, high school classes, social groups, neighborhood associations and the like to each sponsor a bike. We could give them the plans, and help them out, but they would each be responsible for getting the bike there on the day of the event, having it staffed with riders, etc. It could be pretty cool.

So, here's the question… Am I stupid to think that this might be possible? Is it unreasonable to think that we can get 20 bike riders to rotate in and out for the duration of a two-hour movie? Is the cost of 14 or more motors going to be too much?

I don't know. There are a lot of components and a lot of unanswered questions. It's exponentially more complicated than something like the
Shadow Art Fair, but I think it might be worth it. (I'll tell you more about the Shadow Art Fair in my next post.)

How cool would it be to get something like this off the ground? And, once it's up and running, there's no reason it couldn't be done on a regular basis. (Unless we follow Dave's advice and sell the bikes afterward, which is also a good idea.)

Once all the pieces are together, we could break everything out several times a year if we wanted to. We could even use the bikes to generate energy for other events. We could run the PA at the annual Heritage Festival. We could use it to power the lights at other city-sponsored events. We could even keep them somewhere, like at the Senior Center, for people to charge their phones and laptops with…

I'm sure there are other things that need to be said, but I'm going to leave you now with Homeless Dave's video on bike power while I start my letter to Al Gore (inviting him to Ypsi to show An Inconvenient Truth in the park). Watch it, imagine the possibility of what I've laid out here, and let me know whether or not you'd be interested in helping out.



Post No. 2

 What's it going to take to open Ypsi's Freighthouse?

There are a lot of things that need to happen in Ypsilanti. A favorite pastime here in town is debating the order in which they need to be addressed. Or, maybe it's more appropriate to say that we fight over it. That's what happens when resources dry up. People, all probably well intentioned, begin to squabble. For every project that takes a step forward, you can bet there's someone in the wings, cursing their good fortune. And, I'm just as guilty of this kind of thinking as anyone.

Recently, I got it into my head that Ypsilanti's Riverside Arts Center had
perhaps unfairly claimed funds that should have been directed toward the reopening of Ypsilanti's historic Freighthouse. I'm still not confident that there isn't cause to be upset, but I don't think that the protracted online squabble that resulted from my remarks does either group any good.

But I feel passionately about the
Freighthouse. It's my favorite place in the entire world.

Or, at least, it was.

I can't remember when I first started going there. It was probably 11 or 12 years ago now. It was a magical kind of a place. A handful of other communities out there, I imagine, have public spaces warmed by wood burning stoves, where folks gather and talk, make music together, drink coffee, play with babies, and the like. There was something different here, though. I'm trying hard not to use the word "spiritual" here, because I don't want to be someone that would say something like that, but there was something about it that made me feel really good, and surprisingly optimistic about the human condition.

I've never been in a room where an elderly woman suffering from Alzheimer's could stand up and start dancing alongside little kids as though she were one of them, and it wouldn't seem at all odd. But stuff like that happened at the Freighthouse all the time. I don't want to overstate it, but there really was this incredible sense of inclusion and camaraderie that crossed all the typical lines that separate us from one another as human beings.

Sitting there on Saturday mornings was the most "in the moment," free of worry, and happy that I have ever been. And it's a big part of why I wanted to move back to Ypsilanti and settle down here. I wanted to live in a place where black kids could dance to amateur bluegrass next to an old man wearing a dress, like it was the most natural thing in the world. It reminded me of the Twin Peaks universe, only everything, instead of having a dark, seedy underbelly hidden just below the surface, had a kind of a hidden beauty, and a glowing shimmer. It was quirky and beautiful.

It was a like a little window into the heart of our City.

But that little window has been closed for the past several years now, due to repairs that need to be made. Apparently, until they're done, no one will insure the once vital building.

So, when I had an opportunity on my blog not too long ago to argue that money directed toward the Riverside Arts Center should instead have been used to make the repairs necessary to reopen the Freighthouse, I took it. Several good folks came forward to explain the situation to me, and tell me why I was wrong to argue that one was more valuable to the community than the other, and they were probably right. They pointed out that, as wonderful a place as the Freighthouse was, there wasn't a business plan in place that would see it operational, even if the repairs could be made. The Riverside Arts Center, on the other hand, had a plan, a track record, and a responsible Board. The Freighthouse had a Friends group that, while well intentioned, hadn't been able to move the project forward significantly over the past several years. As it was explained to me by one person, "They're organized enough to prevent a private developer from doing anything with in - like turning it into a McDonalds - but they aren't organized enough to raise the money for the repairs and see it opened as a viable, self-supporting entity." So, let's say all that's true – what now?

Are the people of Ypsilanti willing to get behind the Freighthouse in a significant way? It seems like there's some movement in that direction already.

The Friends of the Ypsilanti Freighthouse have applied for a $15,000 grant through Hamburger Helper's My Hometown Helper program. In hopes that our project is among those selected this funding cycle, Ypsi residents were being encouraged to leave notes of support on the Hamburger Helper site. We had 272 notes of support by the deadline. If you have a chance, I'd recommend that you go over and read what your neighbors had to say about the historic railroad building, and what it's meant to them. The stories of attending dances and weddings there, going back several generations, are quite touching. If there was ever any question that the Freighthouse was an integral part of our local community, this should erase any doubt.

The $15,000, if we get it, is only a fraction of the close to $400,000 in repairs that have been estimated, but it would be a fantastic step in the right direction, and, hopefully, it would encourage all of us to do more. Already, Café Luwak and Sidetrack have stepped forward to offer a percentage of their sales on certain days to the building's rehabilitation. And, the Full Freight Banjo fundraiser that was held a few weeks ago brought in over $3,000. It may not much in the whole scheme of things, but it's a great first step, especially when you consider that the last big, coordinated fundraising effort was February 19, 2005 – over three years ago – when the previous incarnation of Friends of the Freighthouse held their Preservation Ball.

I think I speak for most everyone when I say that we can't go another three years without our Freighthouse. I know it might sound like hyperbole, but the success of our town hinges on this beautiful, old community gathering space. When it's up and running, it illustrates all that's good about our City, and we can't afford to lose that now.

As I understand it, close to $400,000 in repairs have to be done before the building can be opened to the public. The good news is, I'm also told that the project might qualify for existing State of Michigan and federal grants, once some initial work is done, and a plan for keeping it running is in place. I know it's optimistic, but is it possible to think that we might be able to raise $100,000 within the community if we coordinate a year of fundraising activities beginning right now?

But, we don't just need to raise the money to see the repairs made - we need a plan that carries us into the future, ensuring that the Freighthouse, once opened, stays opened. We need to figure out how we're going to pay for someone to manage the space and keep the electricity on. A necessary first step, I'm thinking, is that the Friends of the Freighthouse need to call people together for a big brainstorming session. We need everyone in town to get involved. We need our EMU Business School faculty, we need our local entrepreneurs, we need our arts community, and we need our City leaders. We need everyone to get on the same page and make this a priority.

I have to think that there's a business model that would work. I recently talked with two caterers in Ann Arbor. Both confirmed that our area is sorely lacking when it comes to venues that can accommodate 300 and more people. They assured me that we'd have no shortage of groups offering to pay daily rental rates of $1,000 for the Freighthouse. If we had a few events like this a month, I'm thinking, it would go a long way toward keeping the lights on for things like the Saturday morning farmers market.

We need the Freighthouse because it sets us apart as a community. We need it because we need a place to hold our winter farmers' markets and our community dances. We need someplace for people to get married. We need a place for public meetings. We need a place to hold our debates and our elections… I'm reluctant to volunteer for something else, but I'll pledge this much. If people like the idea of a public meeting on the future of the Freighthouse, I'll ask some people and see if I can't put together a group of people to make it happen. I know budgets are tight right now, I know there are other worthy causes, like the public pool, and I know people are stretched for time, but if we're ever going to move this forward, now's the time we need to apply some muscle. If we want to save the Freighthouse, we need get moving.

As for the Riverside Arts Center, I don't begrudge them that they got the MEDC funds that had previously been committed to the development of the Water Street parcel. Their $600,000 elevator project is a worthy cause. The elevator, when completed, will allow disabled visitors to get to the upper floors of the building, and that's important. It's certainly better that the money went there instead of being lost when the Water Street project stalled. I just wish that other groups in the community, such as those supporting the Freighthouse and the Rutherford Pool, which also desperately needs work done, were given an opportunity to compete for the funds.

It's complicated, and, as I said at the start, there aren't really any bad guys here. No one took money for personal gain. It just appears as though a decision was made to help one entity, one with a proven track record, when other facilities in need of repair, like the Freighthouse and public pool, weren't given the option.

As I understand it, it's too late to move the money from the elevator at this point, even if we wanted to and thought that State would accept it, so all we can really do is wish them luck raising what they need to complete the job, and hope, once their project is completed, that they do everything possible to help the Freighthouse along by offering assistance, hosting fundraisers, etc. And all of us in the meantime need to do a better job of sharing information. If we haven't started to do so already, we need to get the directors of our local non-profits and various "friends" groups together at least once a quarter to discuss what they're doing and where there might be synergies.

Decisions such as these, especially during poor economic times such as these, need to be made transparent. And there has to be ample opportunity for community input.  To avoid doing this again in the future, we need better coordination between Council, City Administration, and the various groups within the community.

It may be a lot to ask of a City that, for some unfathomable reason, has not only a Chamber of Commerce, but three separate business associations, but we desperately need to better coordinate decision-making so issues like this do not arise in the future.

And hopefully, one day, we can have all of these meetings at the Freighthouse. It would be perfect.

If you have a few bucks, please consider sending them to:

Friends of the Ypsilanti Freighthouse
P.O. Box 970919
Ypsilanti, MI 48197-0919.

(The Friends of the Ypsilanti Freighthouse is a 501(c)(3) organization)

Or, better yet, think of something that you can do to raise money. The Fullfreight Banjo fundraiser a few weeks ago raised over $3,000, and it was essentially the work of a single motivated Ypsilantian (and all the musicians he knew). He took something that he knew and he found a way to apply it for the good of the Freighthouse and the community. Surely you've got an idea that might bring in a few hundred dollars for a good cause.

Post No. 1

 Hello, my name is Mark and I'm an Ypsilantian…

I lived in Ann Arbor for a while. Then I moved.

I met my wife in Ypsilanti, at a bar that's since been condemned. The place was called Cross Street Station, and my band, Prehensile Monkey-Tailed Skink, was playing there. Unlike everyone else, Linette didn't run screaming. Linette's her name. And that was more than 15 years ago now.

Before that night, I'd only been to Ypsilanti once. My friend Dave drove me out to Ypsi from Ann Arbor, where we were in college together. It pains me to say it, but our objective was to buy as much really crude porn as we could carry. Our roommate Jack's parents were coming to visit, and we wanted to make a good impression.

I'm not proud of it, but that's the truth.

Anyway, we headed out to Ypsi in search of inhumanly crude filth, and we weren't disappointed. We found a bookstore with a dilapidated cardboard box full of "used" porn magazines for a few bucks a piece. Until I met Linette, that's all I knew of Ypsi – porn and rock-n-roll. I'd heard there were drugs and prostitutes there too, but, as an  Eagle Scout with a propensity for panic attacks, I wasn't all that adventurous. Then, I met Linette in '93, and the love affair with Ypsi began in earnest. The more I learned about the City's rich and bizarre history, and the characters that called it home, the more I wanted to be a part of it.

I've now lived off and on in Ypsi for about a decade and a half. Linette and I tried to leave on a few occasions, but something always kept pulling us back. First, we tried Atlanta. I'd lived there for a few years as a kid and had fond memories of it, but, as a grown up, I found that it kind of sucked. We lasted there about two and a half years before coming back.

Then, after a short detour to DC, Linette and I moved to LA. We were there for about a year when we decided to pack our stuff, drive back across country, and settle for good in Ypsi. We were beginning to think seriously about houses and babies (actually, just one house, and one baby), and, when we thought about places we'd like to put down roots, the only place that came to mind was Ypsi.

There was something about Ypsi that just called to us. I can't speak for Linette, but, for me, it was the authentic sense of community I got on Saturday mornings, sitting around the potbelly stove at the Freighthouse, drinking coffee and watching people of all ages and races, dancing around to the sounds of banjos and guitars. There was a real sense of family, and a feeling that we were all in it together. Maybe I'm a sap, but I fell for it.

I'm generally a "glass half empty" kind of guy. But, when it comes to Ypsi, I can't do it. Where others see decay, I see a spirit of resilience. And I'm not alone. I know it puzzles some Ann Arborites to hear this, but there are quite a few of us who don't live here because we have to, but because we want to. There's a sense of community here that I've never felt elsewhere. People with ideas and energy are welcomed and encouraged. Maybe it's because there's little infrastructure, but there aren't a lot of barriers to participation. If you have a good idea and you come to Ypsilanti, you'll find people eager to join you.

I'm not anti-Ann Arbor. I like Ann Arbor. I lived there for several years, and I have quite a few friends who still do. I might give them a hard time over beers about the number of Starbucks that are downtown now, but I do like Ann Arbor. As the father of a three year old, I look at their school system with a great deal of envy. Ann Arbor, given the economic engine of the University of Michigan, has cultural assets that we in Ypsi could never hope to have. But, then again, because Ann Arbor is only a few miles away, we don't necessarily need to.

And I would argue that Ann Arbor's success hasn't come without a price. The cost of doing business there is relatively high. And, as a result, there's homogenization happening. Where there was once Drake's sandwich shop, there's now Jimmy Johns and Potbelly. And to add insult to injury, the Potbelly Sandwich Shop, stands where the once influential Discount Records used to. There's no sign to mark it, or draw attention to the fact that Iggy Pop, the godfather of punk rock, and favorite son of Ypsilanti, once worked there, but that's where it was.

There's still a hell of a lot of interesting stuff going on – don't get me wrong – but I'd suggest that the momentum is headed in the opposite direction. Take for example the Tech Center. The Tech Center, which used to be home to dozens of Ann Arbor artists, was not so long ago bulldozed to make space for an upscale Y. I know people love the Y, but it didn't come without a cost. Many of those artists, priced out of Ann Arbor, have left. And, I'd argue, that Ypsilanti, where many of them are landing, is coming out on top.

We may not have the Royal Shakespeare Company, but I'd argue that Ypsilanti has more to offer than the strippers and meth dealers that might first come to some of your minds. Ypsilanti isn't just one thing. As my friend Caleb says, "It's also quiet neighborhoods, homemade parade floats and crazy millionaires." His theory is that Ypsilanti is odd because it's stayed complex and layered while the Detroit metro region is full of places that are easily labeled as affluent or poor, urban or suburban, etc. Ypsilanti continues to defy labels. Virtually every demographic of Metro-Detroit's 5 million person region can be found in the 4.5 square miles and 22,000 people of Ypsilanti.

I suspect he's right, but what most appeals to me about Ypsi is the indomitable will to create and shake things up. Ypsi churns out American iconoclasts like other towns crap out gated McMansion communities. Iggy Pop was raised here. Preston Tucker, the automotive maverick who took on the big guys in Detroit, was from here. Early animator Winsor McCay got his start here. Elijah McCoy, one of the most famous black inventors of the 20th Century, was from here. There's a spirit of, "Fuck it, I can do it better," in the air. It's palpable. If you get out of your car, you can feel it.

Ypsi, in my opinion, by suffering financially since the end of World War II, has dodged a bullet. And it wasn't by choice. Our downtown wasn't overrun by national chains, not because we fought them, but because they didn't want us. The question now is, how will we navigate what's coming, because growth is clearly coming. How will we keep the unique character of our downtown? It's occurred to me to fight the chains. I'm told there's a town in Oregon that's passed a law requiring local ownership of businesses. I think that's probably a good thing in the long term. Locally-owned businesses put more money into their regional economies, and tend to stay when times get tough. They don't, like Pfizer, pick up and leave when profits are down (in spite of all the economic incentives that have been given them over the years).

But, the tax base in Ypsilanti, where 25% of our population lives in poverty, is eroding. We need tax dollars to keep our police on the street, our fire engines running, and our public parks open. Given that reality, I've mellowed a bit. I wouldn't be enthusiastic about a Starbucks on Michigan Avenue, but I doubt that I'd picket one. I'd just hope that it got people to stop their cars, feel that palpable sense of "Fuck it, I can do better" that's in the air, and give one of our local stores a chance.

And, of course, I'd wish that it would go out of business quickly.

I'll be here all week.
Signup for Email Alerts