Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò made this lovely remark on a podcast episode:
A lot of these people that we rightly respect and revere in organizing circles were just regular people who had the very unregular thought that they could do something about the world around them. And who just decided to do it.
And it’s stuck with me, so I’m memorializing it here. It’s dead-on.
The most recent time I thought of it was last week, when catching up with a friend at Workantile. He had organized a group buy of solar panels for his neighbors and, in the process, learned that his subdivision’s homeowners association (HOA) bans solar panels that are visible from the street. The reason? They’re aesthetically unpleasing and will damage property values.
He then had the unregular thought that he could do something about that. So he looked into what it would take to get that rule removed. That led him to power mapping, and in particular, the HOA board of directors. And he found that no one has ever been elected to this HOA board. The member meetings never make quorum, so all board vacancies are filled by appointment. By the board. Pretty unhealthy governance.
Now he’s looking at doing something about that. That’s a bigger challenge and a very boring way to fight climate change. But it’s the right thing to do. And it’s possible, with a big enough dose of unregular thinking.
I send love and solidarity to everyone who sees something that could be better and instead of tolerating it, says, I could do something about that. And just decides to do it.
This is a love letter to Ann Arbor’s scrappy little downtown makerspace, All Hands Active. In particular, their weekly Repairsday event, which takes place on Thursdays from 6-8pm. And it’s a vignette of how they helped revive a lovely old keyboard/synthesizer.
All Hands Active is a nonprofit. Their mission is educational. I’d argue it’s political, too, though not in the common sense of the word as it relates to electoral politics or parties. Rather, there’s an ethos that you should be free to modify and repair things, that people should help and teach each other, that consumer culture and its quickly-obsolescent, disposable goods are bad, and that knowledge should be free. (Some of that might be me projecting).
So, Repairsday. Any human can bring in an object they’d like to repair. Volunteer AHA members are on hand to help. That can look like advice, diagnosis, or attempting to fix the item together. Sometimes an item can’t be fixed, but that’s okay too. You learn from taking it apart, and for me, knowing that a thing was unfixable – in my case, a toaster that only heated one of its two slots – put me at ease with discarding it.
Last week, AHA Repairsday helped me fix a classic keyboard, rescuing a valuable object from the landfill and giving it a second life.
In July I predicted that there would be no in-person instruction for Ann Arbor Public Schools this entire school year. Unfortunately, that prediction is looking accurate. Let’s start planning for September 2021.
The discussion among the district, board, and parents seems focused on reopening this year. At what level of disease activity, and which safety precautions, would be enough for kids to begin going to school? At least, that seemed to be the discussion a month ago, when disease levels were lower and other districts in SE Michigan (including some in Washtenaw County, like Saline and Dexter) were sending kids to school.
Especially with the current COVID surge now shutting down those other districts, it seems likely that reopening this year is not in the cards for Ann Arbor Public Schools. Given that, I fear we’re wasting precious time and energy debating possibilities and metrics for reopening this year. It echoes what happened this summer, when time spent considering possibilities for in-person instruction would have been better used on improving systems for remote instruction.
A year ago, Ann Arbor opened its first protected bike lane & cycle track: the William St. Bikeway. From my individual perspective, it’s been a huge hit. My family bikes on it to reach the downtown library, NeoPapalis Pizza, and the university. I see it used by other cyclists, skateboarders, and scooter-riders, snow clearing was decent last winter, and it’s only infrequently blocked by parked cars or trucks. Car traffic on William is calm and not noticeably backed up.
Construction of the city’s next protected bike lane is well underway, on First Street. And the city experimented this fall with temporary bike lanes around downtown, some of which have been great. The Division St. Cycle Track provides a divided, protected two-way bike highway without affecting car travel and it intersects conveniently with the William St. Bikeway, opening up travel in all directions. The William St. Bikeway was the proof point that made these other installations possible.
So it improved my family’s experience biking downtown and paved the way for other infrastructure. Did it change people’s behavior? In my post last year about the Bikeway, I displayed a snapshot of the Strava cycling heatmap that I took on November 1st, 2019. I grabbed one today, November 2nd, 2020, to compare. Here’s last year (see the old post for interpretation):
To fully understand the 2020 election for Washtenaw County Prosecutor, it must be seen in the national context, where a split over how to improve the criminal justice system is playing out in prosecutorial elections in counties all across America. Ours is just one of those.
In the last few years, activists across America have sought to elect progressive district attorneys who come from outside the system and openly pledge to disrupt it. The highest-profile case is that of Philadelphia’s Larry Krasner, who compared his 2017 election as district attorney to “the pirates taking control of the ship.”
Here’s his response – after already assuming the role of Philadelphia’s district attorney – as to what the role of prosecutors has been in the disaster that is the criminal justice system in America:
WATKINS (Interviewer) : Prior to this you were a lifelong defense attorney and something of an antagonist of the system. You had a front-row seat to what you’ve called in a couple places, “the slow- motion car crash of the criminal justice system.” What role do you think prosecutors played in this car crash, one I suppose we now call mass incarceration?
KRASNER: I would say that they built the car, maintained it poorly, tuned it incorrectly, and deliberately drove it into the wall at the highest speed possible while intoxicated. I would say they played a pretty big role in causing a slow-motion car crash and they did it in their capacity as prosecutors working in the office. But also very often, they then went on into politics where they had sway over legislation or where they had discretion as elected officials to do things in positions other than chief prosecutor, and frankly, continued to do bad things.
The Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) is considering possible improvements to I-94, south of Ann Arbor. The timing is lucky: they were still in the study phase when the impact of COVID-19 emerged and there’s time to hit the pause button. For fiscal and environmental reasons, and to meet its stated goals, the state should indefinitely halt any investments in this stretch of highway.
This project would add capacity to the stretch between Ann Arbor-Saline Road and US-23 pictured here:
MDOT’s objectives for this stretch include accommodating an increased volume of traffic. They seek to “reduce recurring peak period congestion along the corridor and improve travel time reliability” as well as “provide reasonable capacity to address existing and 20-year forecasted 2045 traffic demand along the corridor.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has upended the case for spending millions to improve traffic flow on this stretch. We can no longer afford this project, but luckily, we also no longer need it.
Today’s the New Hampshire presidential primary. That got me thinking it would be a good day to vote in Michigan’s presidential primary, even though it’s not for another month.
In 2018, Michigan voters approved Prop 3, allowing for no-cause absentee voting. Previously, you could only request an absentee ballot if you met certain specific conditions: you’d be out of town, you were over 60 years old, you were in jail awaiting arraignment or trial, etc. Now, in a win for voting access, anyone can request an absentee ballot without stating a reason.
So today I celebrated my birthday by walking over to the city clerk’s office, obtaining an absentee ballot, voting, and submitting it. I avoid any lines on Election Day (March 10th) and can rest assured that my vote is cast. I don’t have to worry about the potential for an unexpected emergency or rush at work. And candidate campaigns can see in their data systems that I’ve already voted, leaving me in peace as they focus their resources elsewhere. (Who has requested, and returned, their absentee ballots is a matter of public record).
This isn’t as good as official early voting, like what Illinois has. And it’s not as good as official voting by mail, like Oregon has. But it can be those things in practice if you take advantage of it. Here’s to winning expanded ballot access – and using it!
Based on what I hear from cyclists in other cities, Ann Arbor drivers are relatively kind toward bikes. But maybe they woke up on the wrong side of the bed today, as I was harassed twice while dropping my kids off on the way to work.
I hate it. Car-to-bike yelling and honking carries the underlying threat that the driver could, if they wanted, kill you instantly and likely not even face repercussions. You’re alive because they tolerate you. By virtue of their speed and windows, they dictate when an exchange will happen, when it starts, and when it’s done.
When I get harassed, my heart starts racing, I second-guess myself, I stop chit-chatting with my kids. If I was harassed more often I’d be discouraged from riding my bike, and it’s undoubtedly keeping others off their bikes now.
None of that is news. But the two incidents this morning provided a useful contrast and left me slightly hopeful.
Driver #1: I was biking up Seventh Street north of Huron with two kids on the back. There’s decent room to pass here and cars often do, as they’re unable to on the previous block. A man in a pickup pulled up alongside me and drove parallel to me while he shouted, “that’s seriously unsafe, bro!” Then, not sure what else to add: “Seriously unsafe!” and sped off.
I didn’t have a snappy comeback, and don’t have one now. Bike safety is more complicated than a soundbite. My kids and I were quiet. They were rattled like I was. To the extent our trips to school are dangerous, it’s because a man like this could kill us. So it’s disconcerting to hear a warning from him.
I’ll just note here that the underlying issue is Ann Arbor’s terrible transportation infrastructure. We should not have to share a lane with this truck. In fact, the city just last year considered installing a bike lane on this stretch, but decided to use the space for storage of private cars instead. Yeah, the guy shouldn’t yell at me, but the City of Ann Arbor takes the assist on this one. I used to get harassed on North Maple Road, now there’s a buffered bike lane there.
Driver #2: having dropped the kids, I headed inbound on Miller toward downtown. The bike lane was pure ice so I took the lane. A Pontiac Vibe laid on the horn as it passed me – then had to step on the brake as the light at Seventh turned red. I pulled up alongside the car and told the driver, “the bike lane was full of ice so I had to drive in the car lane, sorry.” He rolled down his window, fumbling for words: “Sorry. It’s just hard.” Pause. “I get too pissed off, I’m sorry.” I smiled, and told him no worries, we are all trying to get to work. “Have a great day!”
His contrition buoyed my spirits and offset the incident with the truck. He was a normal human: a decent person on foot and an impatient, unkind one behind the wheel. This near-universal transformation applies to me, too, and it’s been widely acknowledged since before this 1950 Goofy clip, where driving a car transforms him from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde:
I was lucky to catch Driver #2 at the light for this moment of redemption. It left me optimistic about the power of people to get past differences, see each other as humans worthy of respect, and come together – once we log off our devices and get out of our cars.
David Zinn, whimsical local artist, is an Ann Arbor treasure. His chalk drawings on sidewalks are fleeting (though I have a few of his prints hanging on the wall), but in 2014 he put up a permanent work: the Singing in the Rain mural on Fifth Avenue. If you stand at the right spot, Gene Kelly appears to be swinging from a real-life street lamp (first photo below). No news here so far.
(I went looking for Zinn’s social media presence so I could link to him and I see he has >300k Instagram followers! I’m not surprised, his work is well-suited for that channel. I’m glad he has a large online following in addition to his local adoring fans).
Walking down Fifth Avenue on a rainy day in October 2017, I stood at the spot where the street lamp aligns with the mural – and noticed something on the sidewalk at my feet. A pair of footprints had emerged to mark where the viewer should stand, along with lyrics to the titular song:
A hidden bonus artwork had revealed itself! These appeared to have been made with stencils and a clear coat that is only visible when it prevents the underlying pavement from moistening – and darkening – during rain. Rainworks has some examples of this medium.
Twice in the past year I’ve walked past that spot in the rain and not seen the hidden art. So I emailed the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority (DDA) who had sponsored the mural, to see what had happened and if they could restore it. They didn’t know what footprints I was talking about, and when I shared the photos, they said they’d never known about anything of the sort and couldn’t say what had happened.
I noticed last week that there are some newer-looking sections of sidewalk pavement in that area. If I remember, I’ll compare them to the photos I took in 2017 and see if that explains what happened.
Unresolved is who added the bonus sidewalk art. Was it surreptitiously added by David Zinn? Or by a 3rd party? Its hiding-in-plain-sight nature already made it some of my favorite art around Ann Arbor and its rogue creation only adds to the mystery. I hope the stencils are reapplied! If they’re not, then my photos serve as a memorial. If you know more, comment or drop me a line.