Blog: Best Blogs of the Year

Over the years, Metromode has been privileged to have many of Metro Detroit's forward thinkers offer up their ideas for what's next in terms of the region's entrepreneurial talent, culture, and natural resources.

We say cheers to a comic book store's survival of decimated streets and a digital onslaught, to social equity coming before wealth, and to the turning of Detroit into a model of green urbanity. You're invited to have another look at these most inspiring ideas. We look forward to more such stories in 2012.

Best Blogs of the Year - Most Recent Posts:

Surviving the Economy in East Dearborn

By, Dan Merritt

Our original location was on Michigan Avenue in Dearborn, just east of Schaefer Road in a section of the city known as East Dearborn.
It had opened in 1985 as Comics Plus, in an 1,100-square-foot space, sandwiched in between a pizzeria and a laundromat. business had relied on a small legion of dedicated customers that had appreciated its convenient location, down-to-earth atmosphere and the friendly, helpful manager, my wife Katie.

When the owner of the business decided he wanted out of the comic book retail business, he offered to sell it to Katie first. At the time I was working as a machinist with little to no job satisfaction and even less opportunity for advancement. Now my experience was certainly not in business management, but I knew comic books, having been a lifelong comic book consumer and enthusiast. Convincing Katie to buy the business and forsake the security of a weekly paycheck was much easier than securing the loan to make it happen. However, we eventually prevailed in finding a financial institution smart enough to identify us as two enthusiastic entrepreneurs willing to do what it took to succeed.

Our first year in business was fantastic, our loyal clientele stayed loyal and the publishers stayed in business. Business was so good that we were looking for a new identity (the name Comics Plus just didn't do it for me) and a bigger location where the business would have more room to grow. By chance we lucked on a piece of prime retail space at the far east edge of the business district. In July of 2002, the newly renamed Green Brain Comics took up residence at 13210 Michigan Avenue, quadrupling our retail space and creating a new era of comic book retailing.

Nine months into our second year in the new location, the Wayne County Road Commission started a three-and-a-half-year-long reconstruction project of Michigan Ave., centered directly in front of our new storefront. Sales tanked as only the most loyal customers braved the mountainous piles of debris, construction equipment and traffic snarls. That's about when I realized we needed to make some new friends.

I first met then Dearborn Mayor Michael Guido at a public forum to address the concerns of local businesses and residents regarding the construction project. There was only so much he could offer in the way of help for those of us struggling with these adversities, but everything he offered I accepted.

And I should mention that I was joined at that public forum by another business owner and friend from the district, Windy Weber, co-owner of Stormy Records with her husband Carl Hultgren, or more popularly known as Windy & Carl. We were pals and fellow victims of the construction project.

Within a year from that meeting, Windy and Carl had moved Stormy Records into the vacant second floor over top of Green Brain Comics, the much delayed construction cleared, and Michigan Avenue had reopened. This was the spring of 2006, and within a year the Great Recession hit Michigan hard. Thankfully, with the relationships created and the experiences gained, we were prepared. And by a long series of careful adjustments, consolidations and the continued rethinking of business practices and purchases, we have weathered economic situations that forced more than a few companies out of business.

The future of comic retailing

Much like the challenges faced by the music industry caused by the digital music player and file sharing, today the comic book industry must confront eerily similar dilemmas.  Digital comics both legal and pirated have moved in to slowly but surely take their share of the audience. The comic book publishers have learned how important it is to transition into these new markets, but where does that leave the brick and mortar stores?

Years ago, my wife Katie and I decided that we would do our best to stand out in a crowd and make Green Brain Comics a unique destination. We declared that the focus would be solely on comic books, graphic novels, and the experience of shopping for them. This meant creating a distinctive atmosphere, making it user friendly, and incorporating as many exciting products and events as we can (creator appearances, art exhibits, comic jams, and our annual Free Comic Book Day Celebration) to add value to every visit while enticing new customers to try something incomparable: my favorite original American art form, the comic book.

In a way, this early business philosophy helped set us up for the future of comic retailing, a future which may already be upon us.

Later this year Diamond Comics Distribution, the biggest comic book distribution service, will begin providing a system for retailers to sell download redemption codes for digital comic books. Now, using a service like that might help usher in a new era, a grand new renaissance for this once proud colossus that in its heyday sold millions of copies, but now struggles to hit 100k print runs.

Or we stick to the plan, the plan that saw us through some of the most turbulent economic times in American history.

Much like our pals Windy and Carl that still sell vinyl records at Stormy Records, on the floor above our shop, I have an unrelenting faith in our product. Physical comic books are to digital comics as record albums are to mp3s. Comic books are best experienced in a comfortable chair, not hunched over a desk or running on a treadmill. Sure, digital comics look nice, and they sure get a lot of attention, but I don't need to recharge my copy of the Watchmen graphic novel between each chapter.

What it really comes down to for us is being a physical store that sells products to physical people. We are building a community with those people, and creating a unique experience that draws you in and makes you feel a part of something special.

Now I'm not declaring that our future business model will mandate a download-free zone. But what I am saying is that we sell comic books. WE SELL COMIC BOOKS!

The Nonprofit Utopia

By, Mike Tyson

As John Lennon said, "You may say I'm a dreamer…but I'm not the only one."  I believe that a 'nonprofit utopia' could exist, and that the time is ripe for it to begin in Metro Detroit.  We are at a critical juncture.  We are working to redefine ourselves, and to emerge leaner and meaner, and yes even greener (as in eco-friendly).  Shared resources, collaboration, and creative synergy could exist in the nonprofit community –and beyond – in and between Metro Detroit communities, including the city of Detroit.  Being a visionary is about imagining the possibilities, closing your eyes and envisioning how nonprofits in Metro Detroit could work together to achieve even greater success than they do currently.  But what would or could that look like?  And how would it work?

The truth is, some of this is already happening through shared efforts and collaboration.   Shared accounting and human resources duties exist already between nonprofits in our area.   Shared office space and resources for organizations is in existence right here at NEW.  There may be other collaborative efforts going on currently that are not public knowledge – or are at least unknown to most of us.

More could be done in collaboration in terms of information technology (IT),  allowing nonprofit organizations to share documents, best practices, and software applications.  The technology exists to allow this to happen.  All it would take is recognizing the benefit of the collaboration, and reaching an agreement.  It may be easier said than done, but it is possible.  Shared IT professionals could manage servers, websites, and networks for multiple organizations.

It would be necessary to find funders, philanthropists, etc. who are willing to support "back office" sharing and capacity building, crucial to making this successful.  Getting the people who write the checks to buy into the vision would be key!

The potential impact on the Metro Detroit area if an effective nonprofit resource-sharing network were to be developed is immeasurable.  Streamlining the work we as nonprofits do and eliminating redundancy of missions could make for a more productive, dynamic and powerful nonprofit sector in Southeastern Michigan.  There are nearly 50,000 nonprofits in the state.  Until the economy improves, the competition for funding is extremely high.  This makes the entire sector vulnerable.  Donors' dollars could be used more efficiently and effectively.   The focus on fiduciary responsibility is vital to the survival of nonprofits, and the ability to use those dollars more effectively and efficiently would certainly appeal to those who are giving them.  We have a duty to mission and money and that includes respecting what donors want.

Are there things that NEW could do to be a catalyst to this vision?  Certainly there are.  What things is NEW currently doing toward this end?  NEW's strength is in governance and IT capacity building. These are especially important components to making improvements in the nonprofit sector. It is important, now more than ever, to have strong infrastructure. We can help improve operations so that nonprofits can focus on mission.  NEW also has the tools to help nonprofit boards focus on everything that has been discussed in this blog over the last three days!

In summary of the last three days of being a guest blogger here, I would like to say that I have enjoyed having this opportunity not only to tout the strengths of the company which I lead, but also to propose a bold vision of what could be, and to solicit input for getting there.

NEW uniquely understands the challenges of the nonprofit community. NEW is in the trenches with our clients.  We understand nonprofits because we are a nonprofit.  What makes us stand out is that we've embraced the philosophy that you can do good, make a difference AND make money doing it.  Other nonprofits have learned this valuable lesson.  Has yours?

New Growth Foresting of Detroit

By, Rebecca Salminen-Witt

Driving through Detroit's east side one day a couple of years ago, I started thinking about the forest that was once the dominant feature of this region.  I looked at the fields surrounding me, and wondered how close we were to the early stages of a naturally recurring forest.  Trees had begun to grow out of fence lines and foundations and an understory was starting to take shape.  Mounds of illegally dumped trash had been covered by dirt and plants and now provided a new topography to a formerly flat residential neighborhood.  I felt like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz; it sure didn't look like I was in Detroit any more.

Forest succession is the natural process by which unique plant communities replace each other until they mature into a stable ecosystem.  If we left it alone for 100 years or so, the process of forest succession would eventually create a hardwood forest in Detroit's fields.  Each stage of succession creates the conditions necessary for the next stage.  As I drove along, I noticed succession communities in some areas of Detroit that were indicative of third- and fourth-stage succession.  Pines had begun to show up, mixed in with young hardwoods – this stage of succession doesn't usually occur for 20-30 years.  Suddenly it struck me that if we wanted one, we could have a new forest here in Detroit.  Sure, the Pacific Northwest has its old growth forests, and they are spectacular.  But what city in America has a new growth forest?  Wouldn't that be spectacular too?

The work that forests do naturally could be a huge benefit to a city like Detroit, which is faced with plenty of environmental challenges.   Forests naturally clean ground water, soil and air, all of which are contaminated in different degrees throughout a city.  They also intercept rain water, preventing erosion in a natural environment and preventing sewers from overflowing in an urban environment.  In Detroit, where the urban environment is directly adjacent to a river which impacts the largest source of fresh water in North America, preventing sewers from overflowing is a big deal.  It is such a big deal, in fact, that the Environmental Protection Agency has required Detroit to fix its combined sewer overflow problem so that we stop dumping raw sewerage into the Detroit River every time the snow melts or we get a big rain storm.  There are plenty of expensive, heavily engineered ways to contain storm water, but forward thinking cities across America have begun to use less expensive green alternatives. Just as The Greening of Detroit began to think about the possibility of creating a new growth forest in Detroit's fields, the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) and the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department joined their forward thinking counterparts in other cities and started thinking green about Detroit's combined sewer overflow problem.  The stage had been set for something spectacular.

We started with a discussion of green infrastructure for storm water mitigation and what that might look like in Detroit.  The discussions progressed and became planning sessions and before any of us knew it a really exciting new partnership had emerged.  Suddenly, those new growth forests that I imagined were looking a lot less imaginary!  The City is required to drastically reduce its combined sewer overflows (CSO) in the Rouge River area, and it must find a way to achieve this reduction economically.  Green Infrastructure, including trees, is one way to meet that challenge.  The Greening, with 20 years of volunteer-driven tree planting experience under its belt, created a plan for implementing an extensive tree planting program designed to maximize storm water benefits. We proposed this plan to the Erb Family Foundation and to the US Forest Service, and received $1.5 million in grants to implement an extensive pilot program. 

The pilot has launched with a study of Detroit's existing tree canopy – this study will ensure that we have the data we need to plant trees in the areas where they will provide the most benefit to the Detroit River Watershed and the Rouge River CSO area.  In the spring, we will plant the first of those trees.  We will plant them along sidewalks in lovely straight lines so that some day they will over-arch the streets in the way that we all remember.  We will also plant them randomly in plots that will look like – and work like – miniature forests, cleaning the soil and the air while intercepting storm water before it ever reaches the storm sewers.

Our new growth forests will be planted by volunteers.  Our plans call for us to plant twice as many trees this spring as ever before.  We need an army of volunteers to get it done.  I'm hoping that each of you will bring a car load of friends to help us plant trees one day this spring.  Justin and Jim are the Greening of Detroit guys who are arranging it all, just call them up for the chance to help plant Detroit's new growth forests.

Happy 10th Birthday, Detroit International Wildlife Refuge!

By, John Hartig

In 2000, then Canadian Deputy Prime Minister Herb Grey, U.S. Congressman John Dingell, and the late Peter Stroh charged a group of scientists and managers to define a desired future state for the Detroit River ecosystem. The output of that 2000 visioning workshop was a consensus document titled "A Conservation Vision for the Lower Detroit River Ecosystem." All U.S. and Canadian participants agreed to the following:

In ten years the lower Detroit River ecosystem will be an international conservation region where the health and diversity of wildlife and fish are sustained through protection of existing significant habitats and rehabilitation of degraded ones, and where the resulting ecological, recreational, economic, educational, and "quality of life" benefits are sustained for present and future generations.

This vision was then used by Congressman John Dingell to introduce legislation creating the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge that was signed into law by the President of the United States in 2001.  Canada responded by using a number of existing Canadian laws to work in a similar fashion.  North America’s only international wildlife refuge was born.

This year marks the 10th birthday of our refuge.  In ten years, we have seen:

  • The refuge grow from 300 acres to over 5,700 acres devoted to conservation
  • The preservation of Humbug Marsh, the last mile of natural shoreline on the U.S. mainland of the Detroit River, and its incorporation into the refuge in 2004
  • The designation of Humbug Marsh as a "Wetland of International Importance" under the Ramsar Convention (1,900 Ramsar sites have been designated throughout the world, 29 in the United States, and only one in Michigan)
  • The 2005 documentation of lake whitefish reproduction in the Detroit River for the first time since 1916
  • Our region singled out at the 2005 White House Conference on Cooperative Conservation for leadership in public-private partnerships for cooperative conservation
  • The creation of a ByWays to FlyWays bird driving tour in 2007 that highlights 27 exceptional birding sites in southeast Michigan and southwest Ontario
  • FLW Outdoors host the Chevy Open fishing tournament in 2008 that offered $1.5 million in prize money
  • The 2008 construction of the Fighting Island sturgeon reef that represented the first-ever Canada-U.S. funded fish habitat restoration project in the Great Lakes
  • The 2009 documentation of lake sturgeon reproduction on the Fighting Island reef, representing the first time in 30 years that lake sturgeon reproduction had been confirmed in the Canadian waters of the Detroit River
  • The 2009 documentation of osprey reproduction in Gibraltar, representing the first successful nesting in Wayne County since the 1890s
  •  The 2010 designation of the Detroit River as an "Important Bird Area" by The Audubon Society
  • The 2011 designation of Detroit as one of the top ten metropolitan areas for waterfowl hunting by Ducks Unlimited
  • Restoration of common tern (threatened species in Michigan) habitat at three locations in the Detroit River
  • The daylighting of Monguagon Creek at the Refuge Gateway in Trenton and the restoration of 67 acres of coastal wetlands at the refuge's Brancheau Unit in Monroe County; and
  • The completion of 38 soft shoreline engineering projects in the watershed    

Clearly, much has been accomplished, yet much remains to be done.  The Refuge's Comprehensive Conservation Plan calls for the refuge to grow to 12,000 acres.  The potential on the Canadian side is even greater.  I would not be surprised to see our international wildlife refuge grow to 25,000 acres in the next ten years.  This would be an amazing accomplishment and a gift to future generations.  Can you imagine this major urban area with 25,000 acres devoted to conservation?  These natural resource assets are critically important to: changing the perception of our region from that of the "rust belt" to one of a "green" urban area with exceptional outdoor recreational opportunities; enhancing "quality of life"; providing ecosystem services and benefits that ensure community competitive advantage; and attracting and retaining the next generation of employees for businesses.

Our refuge is now a major source of community pride.  If you haven't experienced your international wildlife refuge, I encourage you to go birding at one of the sites along our Byways to Flyways Bird Driving Tour, come to one of the open houses at Humbug Marsh or the Gibraltar Bay Unit, go kayaking on our Detroit River Heritage Water Trail, go fishing for a trophy walleye, go hunting in one of the most historic waterfowl hunting areas in the Great Lakes, bicycle along our regional greenway trail system, take part in one of the refuge stewardship activities, and much more.  If you are looking for a close-to-home, exceptional, outdoor recreational experience, you will not be disappointed!

Humbug Marsh - Michigan's only "Wetland of International Importance" designated under the Ramsar Convention (photo courtesy of Visual Image Productions)

Making Data a Force for Equity

By, Eleanore Eveleth

"We have a moment in time in which everyone is looking up and it's ok to talk about inequality.  It's our time, but only if we make it."  --Angela Glover Blackwell, founder and CEO of PolicyLink

Recently we've heard a lot of statistics about the growing income gap in the U.S.:
  • "Since 1976, the share of income going to the top 1% more than doubled, and these top echelon earners now get more than a fifth of the entire U.S. economic pie." (1)
  •  "Of the total wealth generated between 1983 and 2009, 82% of it went to the wealthiest 5% of households while the typical household's wealth actually declined." (2)
  • "The gap in wealth between white and African-American families has more than quadrupled in the past two decades." (3)

And economic mobility remains lower than often thought:
  • "the challenge of getting ahead, downward mobility is a serious risk, particularly for African Americans:  45% of middle-class black children end up poor, compared to 16% of middle-class white children." (4)

As the country wades through the Great Recession, it is communities of color that have been most impacted:
  • "While unemployment for whites at 8% is too high, 11.3% of Hispanics and 16% of African Americans are experiencing unemployment, with an additional 22% of Hispanics and 25% of African Americans facing underemployment." (5)

In November, Data Driven Detroit joined hundreds of other organizations at the Ren Cen to discuss issues of economic and social equity.  Hosted by Oakland's PolicyLink, the 2011 Equity Summit brought together diverse groups from around the country to discuss equity challenges, areas of progress, and strategies for social change.  For us at D3, the conversation helps ground our work and reinforce our purpose to strengthen distressed communities through access to better information and tools.

Before 2050, the majority of Americans will be people of color.  At present, 45% of kids under 18 are children of color.  What does the increasing wealth gap and lack of opportunities in communities of color mean for future sustainability?

Angela Glover Blackwell presented a clear proposition:  America must first and foremost concern itself with equity. (6)  We cannot expect our future to be prosperous and healthy if the majority populations have inadequate access to education, opportunity, decision-making, and wealth-building opportunities.

Glover Blackwell argues that building equity is not merely a strategy for progressives, but an economic imperative.  Building equity is a superior growth model to the consumerist consumption bubble that has burst. (7)

  • Equity, inclusion, and opportunity are key ingredients to unleash the creativity and entrepreneurialism required to make communities economically competitive and sustainable.
  • Developing countries that are more equitable and regions within the U.S. that are less segregated have more sustained growth over time.
  • Communities of inclusion and opportunity are more inviting to new residents and are better able to retain existing residents.
  • Equity, inclusion, and opportunity are also key ingredients to creating safe, healthy, and livable neighborhoods. Residents cannot merely be the object of decision-making, but must fully participate in creating the future direction of neighborhoods and the city.

Growth and sustainability require strategies to building equity: better education, access to jobs and opportunities, and genuine participation in decision-making.  D3's small role in this effort is to provide access to information and tools that empower residents and inform decision-makers as they craft the future of our region, cities, and neighborhoods.

Data Analysis
At the summit, Geoffrey Canada discussed research showing that a child's zip code is a predictor of life expectancy.  Canada urged the audience to think of all kids as our own – would a shorter life be acceptable based upon your zip code for your family? Would limited resources be acceptable to you for your child?

To highlight some of the issues facing children in our area, D3 published Right Start, an analysis of birth outcomes that informs decision-making around early childhood learning and resources for children and teen moms.  Also, D3's State of Detroit's Child highlights critical issues requiring concentrated and coordinated community attention to improve the lives of kids.

Planning and Technical Support
In addition to data analysis, D3 has provided planning and technical support to residents as they work to design their own neighborhoods' assistance that helps residents participate in decision-making.  The Lower Eastside Action Plan (LEAP) is a community-driven project designed to engage people in a process to transform vacant land and property into uses that improve the quality of life in LEAP neighborhoods and surrounding areas.  D3 trained residents to survey the neighborhood.  We also created maps and tools to assist the residents to visualize, discuss, and communicate existing conditions and future desires.

Tools to Access Information
With all the inequalities of access, Detroiters should not also have to contend with unequal access to information.  As we grow, we are experimenting with new communication and technical tools to make information more easily understandable and relevant – relevant to all stakeholders.

We are also developing a variety of web-based tools with differing levels of detail and user-accessibility.   Our goal is to empower stakeholders to more directly answer much of their own information needs.  We also aim to provide a public interface for the same data that is used to support policy-makers and city officials.  We have recently created an interactive web mapping and data visualization Community Profiling Tool to access a variety of indicators.  Other recently developed tools were created to understand the Census 2010 data, to get quick facts about change between the 2000 and 2010 Census, and to access property-level information prior to the Wayne County Tax Foreclosure Auction.

Inclusive and Transparent Processes
More than making data accessible, we're committed to making our process accessible and inclusive.  If our process can be an educational opportunity, that's even better.  Last summer, D3 partnered with Southwest Counseling Solutions to engage youth in Southwest Detroit to map neighborhood conditions.  This Community Youth Mapping Program gave students an opportunity to learn more about the geography of their neighborhood and gain job skills in the process.  The program introduced students to the work of D3, demographers, urban planners, policy wonks, and data crunchers.  A strategy of building equity requires that these fields grow to better represent the populations they serve.  It's not going to happen unless we get youth excited about things like mapping – and they are.

This article was co-authored by Lisa Rayle, D3 transportation consultant.

1. America's Tomorrow:  Equity is the Superior Growth Model. 

2. America's Tomorrow:  Equity is the Superior Growth Model. 

3. Pew Research Center, 2011. In PolicyLink memo "A Policy Agenda for the 99%".


5. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2011. In PolicyLink memo "A Policy Agenda for the 99%".

6. Angela Glover Blackwell also founded D3's NNIP sister organization in Oakland, California Urban Strategies Council which does incredible work to empower low-income communities and communities of color through access to information and technology.

7. Angela Glover Blackwell and Manuel Pastor have substantiated these arguments in Uncommon Common Ground.

Signup for Email Alerts