Posts by Author: Serena Maria Daniels

What This Food Critic Meant to Those Who Make Cities

Writer Jonathan Gold seen at the Los Angeles Times Food Bowl launch party on Thursday, April 27, 2017, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Dan Steinberg/Invision for Los Angeles Times Food Bowl/AP Images)

In the weeks that followed the L.A. riots of 1992, the national media was on the scene, helicopters circling South Central L.A., local anchors cutting into regular programming to give the most updated count of the buildings burned from arson and the growing number of lives taken.

Meanwhile, Jonathan Gold, then a restaurant critic at LA Weekly, was penning his own account, using the food establishments around his apartment, not far from the epicenter of the uprising, as the backdrop of the chaos, in an area he simply called a neighborhood just west of downtown:

“This is some of what is burned and gone, just within walking distance of my apartment: the Halal Pakistani restaurant Bundoo Khan; the Bangkok-style buffet restaurant Renoo’s Kitchen (noted, ironically, for its incendiary Thai curries); the Filipino fish joint Bahay Bangusan; the Third Street branch of the excellent Salvadoran place Atlacatl, which was home to some of my favorite pupusas; a brand-new country Korean restaurant that was around too briefly for me to remember its name; and the Latin nightclub Mexican Village, whose groovy, Mayan-style gargoyles loom grinning over smoldering heaps of ash. In one mall, newscasters have been lining up for standups against scenes of picturesque devastation the way that 747s sometimes circle over O’Hare.”

His account of that moment in L.A. history, which threatened to unravel the fabric of a misunderstood city, mirrored how real Angelenos experienced it, according to his wife, Laurie Ochoa, during a scene from the 2015 documentary City of Gold.

Gold, who died Saturday from pancreatic cancer, had a way of making sense of Los Angeles’ overwhelming megalopolis through food.

Los Angeles is defined by its many enclaves with diasporas that span the globe: Ethiopia, El Salvador, Armenia, Vietnam, Thailand, all over Mexico, China, India, Iraq and beyond. But the way Angelenos understand those enclaves, unlike cities such as NYC or Chicago, whose borders are bluntly defined by street grids and boroughs, is through food. The cuisine made from the thousands of immigrant-owned restaurants Gold reviewed in his 40-plus year in journalism served as the connective thread to tell the story of Los Angeles.

In the San Gabriel Valley, Gold famously told the story of the Chinese diaspora migration from near the city center to the 626, as it’s commonly called, referring to the suburb’s area code. By dining its many strip mall eateries, he became not only one of the very few journalists to write about these places, he shed light on a thriving economy driven by immigrant ingenuity.

When he reviewed Guelaguetza in the mid-1990s, he named it the best Oaxacan restaurant in the country. His words had an immediate impact, with diners of all nationalities and races flocking to the Koreatown eatery to get a taste of the family-owned establishment’s famous mole negro, chapulines (fried grasshoppers) and a vast variety of mezcal.

Bricia Lopez-Maytorena, whose parents Fernando and Maria Lopez opened Guelaguetza in 1994, likens Gold to a tío, an uncle, someone who’s encouraged her family since she was a child doing her homework in the corner of the restaurant, located in an area of the city where Oaxacans have moved to in large numbers since the 1990s. She says his praises of Guelaguetza helped not only the bottom line for the family business, but it introduced Angelenos to a cuisine and culture not yet widely understood at the time.

Back then, “Mexican food, in general, was still very broad, there was nothing really distinct about it, some people didn’t even know Mexico had different states… so him highlighting a restaurant that was Southern Mexican, in particular, a Oaxacan restaurant… he was really at the forefront of the food landscape,” says Lopez-Maytorena, who along with her brother and sister have since taken over the business.

When I learned that Gold died Saturday, I was hunched over my laptop working on a story about Mexican food traditions. In between coming up short on ways to describe the picoso sensation that comes from a guajillo chili, I glanced over at my Facebook feed to see news of his death coming in at full stream from my journalism comrades back home in Los Angeles.

The pit in my stomach was palpable.

I had only met Gold in real life once, 10 years ago, during a writing workshop he gave at a summit for journalists in Orange County. Into a classroom filled to capacity, he entered carrying a crate full of strawberries. He asked us to come up with a better description of the berries than the color red. I was a community reporter living in Garden Grove, Calif., at the time. The thought of food writing hadn’t yet crossed my mind; after all, what I wanted to write about was social justice movements, about immigrants’ rights and to review rock en Español concerts.

It was Gold who planted the seed that I could accomplish all of that through food writing. We maintained touch via social media ever since. He reveled in his earlier days as a music writer, covering West Coast rappers and the 1990s ska and punk scene in Orange County. I sometimes asked him for recommendations for eating in downtown Los Angeles, which in 2008, had yet to catch on in my eyes as the hip place to be.

In 2015, I landed a gig as a restaurant critic and food blogger at an alt-weekly in Detroit, where I now live. When asked who informed my food writing, it was Gold whose name stuck out the most, pointing to his ability to use food as a lens for diving into all those other issues that I had always loved reporting on but that were often crossed off the news budget by editors who felt these sorts of stories were “too fringe.” I’ve since also founded Tostada Magazine, an independent media outlet premised on the notion that food has the power to bridge cultures.

As the Trump Administration continues touting anti-immigrant tropes to justify its actions like immigration bans or family separation, it’s stories about the many contributions made by immigrant communities — stories Gold wrote that are too often overlooked by most mainstream media outlets — that help to counter the harmful narrative playing out across the country today.

Gold, a white man, understood his place of privilege to be able to report on immigrant communities for a mainstream audience. To Lopez-Maytorena, that he dove right into the many cultures that make up the city made him feel like he was a part of the multi-ethnic community, even though he didn’t look like the people he wrote about.

“He was one of the first people that really saw how important the immigrant community is in the city,” she says. “He understood that we’re a majority in the city, he understood that immigrant stories are what make our city what it is.”


New Food Hall for Immigrant Women Will Build on the Tenderloin’s History

Plans are in motion to build a food hall featuring immigrant women entrepreneurs and chefs. (Photo by Serena Maria Daniels)

Reem Assil is a Syrian and Palestinian chef and owner of Reem’s California Arabic bakery, in Oakland. Starting out as a farmers market stand, the bakery has since gone on to be named a 2018 restaurant of the year by Food & Wine. Assil also recently opened a new eatery, Dyafa. Earlier this year the James Beard Foundation (considered the Oscars of the food world) named her a semifinalist for best chef in the west.

Assil is one of nearly 30 restaurant owners (97 percent of them women) who, starting out each with less than $5,000 in capital, have gone from a kitchen incubator in San Francisco’s Mission District to their own brick and mortar locations across the Bay Area. And now, plans are in motion for that kitchen incubator, La Cocina, to build a shared brick-and-mortar food hall for businesses currently under its incubation, in an area of San Francisco that is home to a particularly high-need population.

At the former site of a long-abandoned post office once noted in the San Francisco Chronicle as the “No. 1 blight in the Tenderloin,” the future La Cocina Municipal Market is envisioned as a 7,000-square-foot food hall featuring new and established entrepreneurs providing healthy, affordable meals to area workers and residents — a majority of whom live in single-room occupancy housing unequipped with kitchens.

In many respects, expanding into the Tenderloin makes sense as a logical next step for La Cocina, founded in 2005 out of the desire to encourage informal food businesses operated mostly by Latina immigrant women to take the leap from working out of their home kitchens into formalized enterprises. While women of color start businesses of all industries at a far higher rate than other demographics, they are also disproportionately more likely to fail because of lack of access to capital or other resources crucial for a start-up’s success.

The Tenderloin District has a long history as a starting off point for newcomers to San Francisco, dating back to the miners of the California Gold Rush in need of short-term housing in its many hotels. Those accommodations eventually became converted into low-cost single-room occupancy units, which became an affordable refuge for some of the city’s most vulnerable, also attracting programs and organizations that serve vulnerable populations — helping to feed a perception of the area as seedy and crime-ridden, despite its proximity to downtown. The neighborhood remains a resilient hub for the city’s immigrant communities.

“I think the Tenderloin is the densest neighborhood, there are more children than anywhere else in the city, it has a 97 employment rate, mostly in the food industry,” says Caleb Zigas, founder and executive director of La Cocina. “There are more immigrants and refugees, who are vibrant and hardworking and (the area) is largely ignored.”

It took two years of negotiating to finally sign a lease with the city of San Francisco to occupy space on the abandoned post office property, which the city plans to have redeveloped with affordable housing on the floors above the new food hall.

As the city raises money to develop affordable housing on the site within the next decade, La Cocina has agreed to build kitchen and dining space to incubate seven low-income women entrepreneurs at a time, potentially employing more than 30 area residents at a time.

In the two years since negotiations with the city began, construction costs have skyrocketed and the price tag to build the food hall has ballooned to $4.2 million. With contributions including from the city, the Shorenstein family (who sold the property to the city) and $1 million of La Cocina’s own cash reserves, the nonprofit still needs to fill a $1.5 million gap in funding to get work started on the build-out.

La Cocina’s intent is to launch debt-free to keep down costs and keep prices affordable for entrepreneurs and their potential customers in the area.

“This is not just for people who are willing to pay a higher price point, but for all in the Tenderloin, for low income, immigrants, refugees and also those who work there,” says Zigas.


Pop-Up Kitchen Counters Mainstream Narratives About Food in Detroit

(Photo by Valaurian Waller)

Over the past few years, Detroit community organizer Ora Wise has seen national media outlets hash and re-hash a certain narrative about the city’s developing restaurant scene, highlighting white chefs who grew up outside the city or elsewhere, who were drawn to Motown because of its reputation as a so-called blank canvas.

“It’s such a settler, colonist story, you know,” says Wise, sitting at Detroit’s Trinosophes café, not long before it closed for a remodel this summer. “It’s like, ‘look, we just have this empty land, with no people that we can then build our settlement on.’ ”

What those narratives often miss is the legacy of self-reliance around food within Detroit’s black and brown communities — which make up more than 80 percent of the city’s population.

That legacy was on full display at the 20th annual Allied Media Conference, which took place earlier this year. Wise was one of the lead organizers behind the Dream Café, a three-day whirlwind experiment involving 14 chefs, six from Detroit and eight visiting for the conference, who all took on the challenge of feeding conference attendees in a pop-up setting using ingredients sourced almost entirely from Detroit’s network of urban farms.

“The urban farming movement here in Detroit is predicated upon solidarity movements here in the city, which it has been for a long time standing,” says Shane Bernardo, a Detroit-based community organizer who served as the conference’s local food systems coordinator.

One by one, a chef would enter the kitchen at Cass Café, which hosted the pop-up experiment, prepping and dishing out hot plates by the dozen and then simultaneously helping the next round set up as they left. It was like opening and closing 14 new restaurants in the span of three days. Chefs worked alongside local urban farmers, harvesting crops of greens, root veggies and berries daily and developing menus on the fly depending on what they were able to pick.

It got so hectic one day that one of the servers from Cass Café’s regular crew walked off the job during lunch. Ederique Goudia, program associate for the business incubator FoodLab Detroit, says she went without sleep for days to make sure things ran smoothly.

D-town Farms, a 7-acre urban farm in Detroit. (Photo by Valaurian Waller)

Allied Media Conference organizers liken the annual convening to an ecosystem where media-makers and youth gather around the power of storytelling, strategizing and mobilizing for a more just and resilient world. Wise, who’s been involved with Allied Media Conference for several years, had previously focused on educating youth to develop multimedia for social movement building. More recently, she and others have been looking at how to incorporate food programming into the mix, the thought being that in order to combat the effects of inequality among marginalized groups, one needs to be nourished properly as well.

The Dream Café evolved out of a series of community dinners over the past few years with conference participants, which aimed to foster a re-imagining of the food system with communities of color at the center, instead of at the margins.

Bernardo highlights the city’s long history of solidarity movements among people color, dating back to the days of the Underground Railroad — Detroit was one of its final stops before African Americans made their way to freedom in Canada — to the Great Migration when poor blacks fled the Jim Crow South.

Malik Yakini, founder of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, which runs the 7-acre D-Town Farms in Detroit’s Rouge Park neighborhood, was among the urban farmers with Bernardo recruited to source ingredients for the pop-up. Yakini says that the event helped to connect the dots between some local chefs and the farm and it did create an economic boost. “This is another step in the direction of building relationships with people who share a similar vision for society,” says Yakini.

(Photo by Valaurian Waller)

“A lot of the chefs involved were discovering connections between their ingredients or some of their dishes that were a huge part of their cuisine,” Wise adds.

Over the next few months, Wise says, she’s working with conference organizers to figure out how to build on this year’s experience for next year’s conference.

Meanwhile, at a post-Dream Cafe debriefing, FoodLab Detroit and chefs compared notes on how they each fared. In all, the nonprofit’s members brought in about $9,000 during breakfast and lunch service. In addition, ticketed dinners hosted by visiting chefs at eateries across southeast Michigan brought in even more.

Discussions have already started about the possibility of further use of Cass Cafe as a popup dining venue, bringing in more revenue to both chefs and the restaurant. Goudia, who along with business partner Dameon Gabriel is also planning to open a Cajun-inspired eatery, music and cultural space in the Detroit’s West Village neighborhood later this year, said that Dream Cafe inspired her to be more intentional about creating popup events centered around people of color and using local food sources.

Meanwhile, some of the participating local chefs are looking to start using local produce from the urban farmers they met in the process. Wise says that conversations are being had between some of the Detroit chefs and NYC cooks about collaborating in some fashion.

“Whenever colonized or marginalized people discover connections between each other’s histories and stories and struggles, they become stronger, we become stronger,” says Wise.


Atlanta Park Redesign Makes a Big Statement About Equity and Inclusion

Sara J. González Memorial Park in Atlanta is currently under renovations to achieve full compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. (Credit: Friends of Sara J. González Memorial Park)

It started out of a desire to honor her mother. For Isabel González Whitaker, 46, a symbolic gesture would evolve into a vehicle for organizing the Latinx and other marginalized communities in the neighborhood where she grew up.

Formerly Coronet Way Park, a modest playground area in a predominantly Latinx section of Atlanta’s Westside, the 1.5-acre patch of land was renamed in 2009 in honor of González Whitaker’s late mother, Sara J. González, a Cuban immigrant whose imprint in Georgia’s Hispanic community spanned decades and crossed the intersections of business, philanthropy and human rights advocacy. It was reportedly the first park named for a Latinx immigrant in the state of Georgia.

A busy magazine journalist based in NYC at the time, González Whitaker thought that getting the park renamed in her mother’s name meant her job at the park was done. Little did she know it was only just the beginning. After years of annual clean ups and community organizing to redesign the park, the park will re-open this summer after construction to complete the redesign — which includes making the park fully compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

“I’ve always had a fist in the air, for the Hispanic community … and this is really about inclusion of all communities,” González Whitaker says.

González Whitaker, who now splits her time between Memphis and Atlanta, began by gathering support to clean up the park. She organized family and neighbors in annual cleanups and eventually landed corporate and philanthropic donors to assist in revamping the park.

In 2014, the efforts intensified after a local developer made a sizable contribution to the park. With unexpected donation money in hand, she was now in a position to take her passion project to another level. She established a steering committee of neighbors and community leaders, which crafted a set of inclusionary tenets that would inform the development of a new playground, soccer field and legacy plaza.

So far, González Whitaker has raised $200,000 from corporate sponsors and individual donors, and a $100,000 grant from Park Pride Atlanta, an Atlanta-based nonprofit that supports community efforts around green space betterment. Friends of Sara J. González Park was also established through Park Pride. The Robert W. Woodruff Foundation provides funding for Park Pride Atlanta’s grant program.

At the center of the renovation, full compliance with the ADA means improvements like “Zero G” swings, equipped with a high back, wide base, and molded adjustable harnesses to stabilize children with special needs; specialized rope climbing structures; and wheelchair access throughout for kids and adults alike. It also means taking into account visitors with intellectual disabilities like autism, who may have difficulty with socialization, communication or play settings.

These types of playgrounds compliant with the ADA are cropping up across the country, as cities and towns make upgrades to aging playground equipment. Harper’s Playground in Arbor Lodge Park in Portland, Ore., was completed in 2012, becoming that city’s first all-abilities inclusive playground. A nonprofit named Harper’s Playground was also created in support of building inclusive playgrounds all over Portland.

For González Whitaker, having an accessibility component made the project all the more impactful, she says, mentioning a family member with special needs.

“All-abilities was definitely something on my brain because this playground was not [that],” she says. “I wanted for [her family member] to have a place to play and she couldn’t do that.”

González Whitaker hopes the redesigned park will help maintain the neighborhood — once a more industrial area and still home to a longtime Latinx community — for at least another generation of her family.

Sara González arrived in Atlanta in 1975 and settled on the city’s westside, in a section where the Hispanic population was made up of mostly Cubans and Puerto Ricans. Like the thousands of other refugees who fled Cuba at the start of the island country’s communist regime, she fled her hometown of Havana in 1960, first settling in New York City, then Chapel Hill, N.C., and eventually Atlanta.

The González family opened a small restaurant on the city’s northwest side in 1978, which remained open for eight years. The restaurant’s failure, González Whitaker says, would drive her mother to help other immigrants overcome similar obstacles, she wrote in an essay for the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

Sara González would go on to spend the next 30 years working in support of the area’s growing Latino community, including as founder of the Hispanic American Center for Economic Development, later as president and CEO of the Georgia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and others.

Gilda Pedraza, executive director of the Latino Community Fund Georgia, notes that Georgia now has the 10th highest Hispanic population in the country. It was the work of individuals like Sara González, whom Pedraza met through the Georgia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, who helped unite the community.

“She saw the writing on the wall that we would be critical to the growth of the state,” says Pedraza, herself an immigrant from Peru. “She was a visionary.”

González Whitaker notes the park’s rededication is especially timely, given the current anti-immigrant and Latino sentiment building across the country, and as the neighborhood experiences the signs of redevelopment and possible gentrification — an issue taking shape in Latino neighborhoods in cities like Detroit, Chicago and parts of Los Angeles.

Having community buy-in, González Whitaker says, will be crucial to the park’s success.

“I’m hoping to both preserve and give (the park) a platform to elevate the community,” she says.

This article is part of The Power of Parks, a series exploring how parks and recreation facilities and services can help cities achieve their goals in wellness, conservation and social equity. The Power of Parks is supported by a grant from the National Recreation and Park Association.


Cooking Up Opportunity for Salt Lake City’s Refugee Population

The Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Douglas C. Pizac, File)

Emma More and her family moved from Venezuela to Salt Lake City in the early 2000s, in part, to help her daughter continue her education. They were also drawn to the close-knit network established by the Church of Jesus Christ of Ladder Day Saints, to which they belonged.

The plan was, More’s daughter would attend community college, they would spend a few years in the United States helping her get established and then possibly return home. But by 2014, while they were still living in Salt Lake City, Venezuela fell into political and economic crisis. It became clear, More says, that their plans to relocate back to their village in the tiny state of Táchira would not be likely for the foreseeable future.

It was soon after that More began to consider her employment options, and it didn’t take long before the idea of a food business came to mind. Back in her home country, informal eateries flourished inside people’s homes. There were no signs out front marking them, she says, it was more a matter of stopping by a neighbor’s house to enjoy a traditional dish.

One day, More came across a cluster of tables outside a church, set up by various social service organizations. One was from SPICE Kitchen, then a relatively new food business incubator. An organizer caught her attention — she spoke Spanish, and that made the difference between passing by the information table and sticking around to hear more.

“I worked at a school in Venezuela but always made homemade meals,” More says through a Spanish-language interpreter. “I explained that my food isn’t gourmet but it’s the food of my village, from my country, so that is something that I could do.”

At the time, there wasn’t much in the way of traditional Venezuelan cuisine in the Salt Lake City area, so it seemed that starting something would fill a niche. Within a matter of months, More was enrolled in SPICE Kitchen’s programming and launched La Pizca Andina, a catering business that specializes in traditional Venezuelan dishes like arepas, buñuelos and pizca andina — an egg soup made in More’s hometown.

Now six years in operation, SPICE Kitchen, in partnership with Salt Lake County, currently supports the work of 24 food businesses, mostly catering companies or food trucks, helping refugees and immigrants through every step, from early ideation to potentially brick and mortar locations.

Applicants go through a month-long application and enrollment process, followed by a four to six month pre-incubation period to establish a business plan that covers product development, marketing, and finances. After that, participants have up to four years to bring their businesses to scale, including access to the organization’s commercial kitchen and opportunities for accessing capital. Once an entrepreneur graduates, they can continue using SPICE Kitchen resources such as discounted kitchen rental.

The beginnings of SPICE Kitchen came in 2012 out of demand from its client base, mostly immigrants and refugees from war-torn countries. It’s a project of the local office of the International Rescue Committee, a resettlement agency whose services include immediate needs for new arrivals like rides from the airport, temporary housing and job placement.

Resettlement agencies in many other states offer six months of assistance to newly-arrived refugees. In Utah, through providers such as the International Rescue Committee, the state’s refugee services agency supports up to 24 months of assistance to refugees. That means once immediate needs are met, more long-term avenues for economic opportunity become possible, according to Kate Idzorek, the SPICE Kitchen program manager. Over the years, she says, clients consistently brought up developing their informal food businesses from occasional hobbies to formalized enterprises.

“The ultimate goal is either income patching, or becoming a sustainable source of income … In an area they have talent in,” Idzorek says.

Idzorek’s office consulted with La Cocina, a kitchen incubator based in San Francisco’s historically Latino Mission District that focuses on helping Latinx-owned businesses grow. One aspect that drew SPICE Kitchen to the Bay Area’s work was in its success in addressing language barriers. Caleb Zigas of La Cocina says that organizations looking to emulate the Bay Area’s model reach out to them regularly for consulting. As a nonprofit itself, Zigas says collaborating with other groups is somewhat limited. In the case of SPICE Kitchen, organizers flew La Cocina staff to Salt Lake City and paid a $2,500 consulting fee.

One common issue facing groups like SPICE Kitchen or La Cocina: until they get involved, food handler certification, state and county licensing and other logistical issues are all communicated exclusively in English. Idzorek says most of the local IRC’s office clients speak Arabic or Spanish, but programming is also available in Tamil, Ukrainian and a few other languages.

The International Rescue Committee has since helped similar initiatives in other cities to support refugees and immigrants get a foothold in the food industry. The resettlement agency even created its own federally-certified community development financial institution to provide small business loans and other credit to its clients across the country

Meanwhile, More has since gotten her business an established client base, including the University of Utah, and she hopes to someday open a small restaurant or perhaps first a food truck that is representative of the town she lived in in Venezuela. She says demand for her traditional dishes continues to grow as more Venezuelans seek asylum in the United States, and in particular those who flee to Salt Lake City to, like her, find the support of the Church of Jesus Christ of Ladder Day Saints.

“With more arriving, it’s more common to see empanadas to buy or tres leche cake, it’s becoming more common,” More says. “Many are wanting to open their own food businesses to continue providing traditional, local food.”


Flint’s Neighborhood-Led Approach to Reducing Crime

A July 2016 block party organized by the University Avenue Corridor Coaltion, in Flint. (Credit: University Avenue Corridor Coaltion)

The “broken windows” theory came into the urbanist lexicon when former NYC Police Commissioner Bill Bratton popularized the “enforcement first” policing approach to minor offenses like vandalism and turnstile skipping in the 1990s. The thinking was to address the smaller, “broken windows” low-level crimes right away, thus discouraging more serious offenses.

But that theory has come under criticism over the years, with detractors saying the approach only addresses part of a larger socio-economic condition that requires a more holistic approach to deal with inequities. And the evidence has been clear: people of color are disproportionately targeted by police under the approach.

Looking at high vacancy rates, violent crime and poverty in Flint, Mich., a group of residents, community workers, business owners and university officials came together to take a different tack. Instead of police patrolling around, ticketing folks for minor infractions, the group implemented what’s become known as the “busy streets” theory. It’s a theory reflective of work from researchers like Patrick Sharkey, who are only now shedding light on the role of community members in reducing crime through local initiative.

Following a three-day-long workshop in 2012, the University Avenue Corridor Coalition formed to to fix up a three mile section of University Avenue, a stretch that spans through the city’s Carriage Town and central neighborhoods. The mostly volunteer group rolled up their sleeves, starting small with neighborhood cleanup days, planting flowers, mowing lawns, repairing park benches.

The coalition now counts more than more than 80 individuals, block clubs, local businesses, local government departments and Kettering University. The “busy streets” has now been studied and proven to have a lasting impact on the community.

“When you take care of the little things, people notice,” says Dr. Robert McMahan, president of Kettering University. “And they see others taking pride in their place and that is contagious.”

The results have been clear: less crime and more business.

A five-year study, recently published by the coalition, shows that between 2012 and 2017, there was a 78 percent drop in blight; a 54 percent decrease in assaults; 83 percent fewer robberies; 76 percent decrease in burglary; and a 36 percent drop in vandalism. Funding for coalition efforts include $2 million in grants, coming mostly from the U.S. Department of Justice.

As for positive development, the corridor saw $50 million in investment over that same time frame, including the reopening of the neighborhood’s historic Atwood Stadium, an 11,000-seat venue that Kettering took ownership of in 2013 and revitalized; the closure of a party store once a hotspot for crime that was redeveloped as a sandwich shop; and across the street, an empty lot once a popular area for drinking in public is now University Square, a park space that hosts events, food truck rallies and family-friendly activities.

Researchers from the University of Michigan’s Prevention Research Center of Michigan and the Centers for Disease Control-funded Youth Violence Prevention Center compared neighborhoods experiencing similar issues and found that places where community members maintained empty lots had nearly 40 percent fewer assaults and violent crimes than untouched vacant lots.

In Flint, coalition members believe the success of the approach has as much to do with community members feeling a sense of ownership of improving the area as it does with the collaborative, somewhat informal nature of the coalition’s efforts. Dallas Gatlin, executive director of the Carriage Town Ministries, a founding member group of the coalition, says there are no bylaws, no officers or bureaucracy that might otherwise get in the way of progress.

“The joy of seeing things get done, that things are getting done, is the fuel behind the growth. It’s not being bogged down by administrative involvement,” Gatlin says.

Carriage Town Ministries, a 130-bed shelter for men, women and children, asks that the people it serves perform community service in the neighborhood. Each morning, five days a week, 15 people are assigned cleanup duties in the neighborhood. The nonprofit’s objective goes beyond beautifying the area, focusing also on helping the people involved develop skills that could be applicable in the workforce, Gatlin says.

On top of regular neighborhood cleanups, Carriage Town members have restored five abandoned houses, which are now part of the organization’s campus. There’s a garden where folks can learn the basics of planting and harvesting crops, as well as fostering healthy cooking and eating habits. University Square is maintained by Carriage Town Ministries residents.

Gatlin, who previously worked for 30 years for General Motors, says there was a time when Flint had the highest household income per capita in the country for people under age 35, thanks to plentiful jobs in manufacturing. But as is common in other Rust Belt cities like Detroit just 60 miles to the south, the reality today is vastly different. The median income today for Flint residents is less than $26,000, with more than half of its families with children living in poverty. The city lost more than a quarter of its population since 1990s, leaving behind empty houses (one in five homes are vacant). Flint has the second-highest homicide rate in cities with populations under 100,000, trailing another post-industrial Rust Belt city, Gary, Ind.

While Flint and other post-industrial towns may never go back to the way things were, Gatlin and others are hopeful that efforts like those led by the coalition will help redefine the city’s future.

“I will probably be long gone before Flint becomes the fully vibrant college town that it will become someday, but people have to lay the groundwork now,” Gatlin says.


How Detroiters Are Shaping a Post-Industrial Riverfront Park

A current rendering of the redesigned west riverfront in Detroit. (Credit: Michael Van Valkenburgh and Associates)

Sure, sometimes, the 22-acre space comes alive for the occasional outdoor concert, but for the most part, Detroit’s West Riverfront Park is pretty desolate compared to the city’s RiverWalk, just a few miles east and home to lush wetlands vegetation, family-friendly playgrounds and volleyball courts and spacious walkways that welcome three million visitors a year of all races and incomes.

To help re-envision West Riverfront Park, the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy sent a community advisory team made up of Detroit residents on a tour of other cities to see firsthand the sorts of amenities a world-class waterside park can offer.

The community advisory team visited cities like Chicago, New York and Philadelphia, where they had the opportunity to take notes on what works elsewhere and how that might apply for West Riverfront Park, the final stretch of the 5.5-mile Detroit riverside that the conservancy is looking to redesign.

“One of the coolest places we saw in Philadelphia was this park that had been built as an almost popup park,” says Khalil Ligon, one of the community advisory team members and also a planner who works for the Alliance for the Great Lakes. “There were lots of concessions and cool places to eat … We have the space for it, the entire riverfront is not developed so we have room to explore some of those things.”

Observations from the community advisory team informed an international design competition that asked firms to come up with plans to redesign West Riverfront Park, a project that is expected to cost $50 million, to be raised through donations.

A team led by Michael Van Valkenburgh and Associates beat out three other teams that had been selected as finalists in a months-long process.

Van Valkenburgh is considered one of the most significant landscape architects in the United States. He’s created designs for the Brooklyn Bridge Park, Maggie Daley Park in Chicago, a redesign of Pennsylvania Avenue near the White House and is working on the landscaping for the Barack Obama Presidential Center in Chicago. Working alongside his New York-based firm will be architect David Adjaye, the designer of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

Among the conceptual plans proposed by Van Valkenburgh’s team was the creation of a cove with a beach, where visitors can wade in the water (or ice skate during winter months), a whimsical playground featuring sculptures in the shapes of Michigan animals and plants, an area for outdoor concerts, a sport house and other pavilions.

Van Valkenburgh says that he would eventually like to see the creation of an indoor swimming pool, where children can learn to swim for free. “Then, West Riverfront Park becomes a place where you had a defining experience,” he says.

Van Valkenburgh and his team visited Detroit at least 10 times since the competition process began last year, checking out neighborhoods near and far from the park site. They also met with the community advisory team, from whom he learned how many of Detroit’s elder residents describe their love of Belle Isle, the island park situated on the Detroit River that had historically been considered the city’s jewel.

“We’ve got to think of ways that people just have to come here,” he says. “I know Belle Isle was that in Detroit, and to some extent, that still is.”

Whatever will take shape at West Riverfront Park is the culmination of work to reimagine the city’s riverfront that dates back to the early 2000s, when the conservancy was established.

The current riverfront development spans more than three miles, from around the Joe Louis Arena downtown to just east of the MacArthur Bridge, which connects mainland Detroit with Belle Isle. Once the West Riverfront section is complete it will be one of the longest redesigned riverfronts in the United States.

One theme that has existed since the first sections began to be transformed: how to make the riverfront a place where everyon is welcome. Prior to any revitalization, much of the Detroit riverside was considered a wasteland of abandoned warehouses and neglected roads. In the process of re-envisioning that space, the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy has taken steps to ensure resident involvement, such as creating the community advisory team for the West Riverfront Park redesign.

Residents like Ligon were nominated for spots on the team, and in her case she used her point of view as both an urban planner and a Detroiter to inform her input. She also hopes the revitalized park’s design implements details that pay homage to Southwest Detroit, where the park is located and where most of the city’s Latino population resides.

“This was definitely a much better experience in terms of really capturing the dynamic nuances that you’re hearing from the public,” says Ligon. “There’s often a lot of meetings for the public to give their feedback for redevelopment projects. Unfortunately it doesn’t necessarily translate into the buildout … Here, I have been able to see that input translate into the conceptual design.”

This article is part of The Power of Parks, a series exploring how parks and recreation facilities and services can help cities achieve their goals in wellness, conservation and social equity. The Power of Parks is supported by a grant from the National Recreation and Park Association.


L.A. Converting Public Spaces into Public Service Hubs

Olvera Street. (Photo by David Moore via Wikimedia Commons)

Part of El Pueblo de Los Angeles National Historical Monument, in downtown L.A., Olvera Street is a brick-paved corridor that was the birthplace of Los Angeles. Along Olvera, Chicano merchants still sell sarapes, lucha libre masks, Mexican candies and taquitos. A major tourist draw in downtown for nearly a century, the streets around El Pueblo are now home to some of the area’s largest homeless encampments.

Pressure is mounting for city leaders to take action on homelessness across L.A. County. The encampments that make up the famous Skid Row in downtown L.A. can now be seen across the city, at local parks, subway platforms and bus stops, parking lots and sidewalks, leaving organizers who work with the unhoused calling for immediate action from City Hall.

Some activists are resorting to extreme tactics. An Activist with Los Angeles Catholic Worker, which operates a free soup kitchen and hospitality house for the homeless, Kaleb Havens spent Ash Wednesday to Easter (the 40-day Catholic season known as Lent) chained to an iron fence, fasting in protest for most of that time, calling on leaders to not simply throw money at homelessness.

“[The solution is] not just creating these social services, but making them humane,” he told LA Taco, an independent news site that has been documenting the homelessness crisis over the past few months.

In what Council Member José Huizar calls a “triage-like” response, city council last month voted in favor of establishing a temporary shelter on a city-owned parking lot that sits at the southern edge of El Pueblo. The shelter would be made up of five trailers: three equipped for temporary housing, another one for restrooms, showers and laundry, and one for administrative work and case management.

The L.A. Homeless Services Authority would contract ongoing services to a non-profit service provider. Participants would work with case managers to find permanent housing. According to Huizar’s office, the first year costs for the shelter would be about $2.4 million for the design and installation of the trailers, as well as sewer and water costs. Yearly operations are estimated at $1.4 million. The site is expected to launch by summer 2018.

L.A. City Council also voted last month to initiate similar sites on other city-owned property in and around Skid Row, and have directed city staff to find potential funding sources and locations.

According to Huizar, the El Puebla parking lot is an excellent pilot ground because the area has the largest concentration of individuals experiencing homelessness in downtown L.A. outside of Skid Row.

In December, city council voted to turn over ownership of another city-owned property at 1320 Pleasant Avenue in the nearby Boyle Heights neighborhood to Jovenes Inc., which provides shelter, transitional housing, and permanent housing to homeless youth. According to Jovenes, youth homelessness has increased by over 64 percent in L.A.

Officials from the L.A. County Metropolitan Transportation Authority are grappling with a loss of ridership on buses and trains by passengers put off by the growing number of homeless people sleeping at subway platforms or riding the buses in place of sleeping on the street. The transit agency has begun to look for places where they can place supportive services for the homeless on agency-owned property, including allowing people living in their cars to park them in agency-owned parking lots, or installing showers and storage lockers that could be placed on vacant land the department owns around transit stations or bus storage yards. The agency created a $9 million loan program last year to encourage affordable housing near its stations.

Earlier this month, L.A. City Council also approved two new laws, one that would speed up the often lengthy process of implementing homeless housing projects and, another that would make it easier for motels to be converted into temporary housing.

Meanwhile, the Clean Streets Los Angeles program has fielded nearly 6,000 requests by residents asking for help to clean encampments throughout the city.

These are just a few short-term measures city leaders are taking to help stem the homelessness epidemic in Los Angeles County.

Rising rents, coupled with a shortage in affordable housing units throughout the region, has resulted in a homeless population that an L.A. Times editorial estimates at more than 57,000 in L.A. County. The situation has forced some to relocate to far-flung parts of the region, share living quarters with multiple families, and or resort to renting out box trucks or RVs.

In the long-term, Measure HHH, a ballot initiative that voters approved in late 2016, authorizes a $1.2 billion bond to help pay for 10,000 units of affordable housing over the next decade.

Tod Lipka, CEO of Step Up on Second, a social service organization that works with the chronically homeless experiencing mental health issues, applauds the city’s efforts to provide short-term gap services while waiting for longer term permanent housing solutions to come online.

“The city has done amazing things over the past couple of years to address this problem, that for many, many years have not been addressed,” Lipka says.

While all efforts should be place to address permanent housing solutions, the city’s use of sites like at El Pueblo will help to manage the problem in the immediate term, Lipka adds.

Huizar, whose district covers downtown, Boyle Heights, El Sereno and northeast Los Angeles, says in the meantime, his district needs temporary, emergency housing.

“This is the model I want to see used next to create a triage-like response in Skid Row,” he says of the parking lot shelter approach. “Unfortunately, as the single largest homeless encampment in the nation, Skid Row is ground zero of our homeless challenge and we must step up our efforts to address it.”


Growing and Selling an Equitable Local Economy in Detroit

Local produce at The Farmers Hand. (Photo by Serena Maria Daniels)

Despite all the hype over Detroit’s “come back,” “revitalization, “renaissance,” or whatever other superlatives that business reporters so often tout in development stories, the city’s dearth of healthy grocery options in many neighborhoods remains conspicuous to most who live there.

There are plenty of corner liquor stores (known colloquially in Michigan as party stores), selling all manner of unhealthy snacks and maybe a small selection of produce on the verge of spoiling at a high markup. But by and large residents to seek outside of the city limits for their grocery needs.

Each year, $178 million leaks out of the city and goes to suburban grocery chains, according to 2014 data from the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation.

That’s what The Farmer’s Hand sought to address when it opened its doors in 2016, in a gentrifying neighborhood with no shortage of craft breweries, pricey restaurants and micro-distilleries, but nevertheless lacking a proper grocery store.

Founders and co-owners Kiwi Louya and Rohani Foulkes believed in the idea of providing fresh produce, dairy, meats, and a curated selected of dry goods, as well as a small cafe featuring coffee and ready-made breakfast and lunch options — all in a compact corner store where folks can forgo the car and instead walk or cycle to pick up essentials.

The store represents local in every way it can, including the seasons. Everything from the fingerling potatoes, the charcuterie to the kombucha and bottles of artisan olive oil, all comes from Michigan sources and many of the products come from within Detroit city limits. During the colder winter months, root vegetables tend to be high in supply, while the fall months might feature Michigan’s famous apples. The 100-plus suppliers that work with the market are small-to-mid-sized vendors that adhere to humane food practices.

“When they run out, it’s nice, I get a text message, we can cut it and bring it right down the street,” says Greg Willerer, who, along with wife Olivia Hubert, own Brother Nature Produce, an urban farm just north of the market-cafe. “When you buy from Whole Foods, it’s already 10 days old … Here, it’s hours old.”

What customers don’t necessarily see is the impact the market has on its own suppliers and employees. The business model emphasizes sharing profits with the very producers who source the food, working with producers on a consignment basis. Vendors get back 70 cents of every dollar sold at The Farmer’s Hand, a stark contrast to the 17 cents for every dollar ratio at large scale supermarkets. What’s more, they set their own prices. Full-time employees are also paid a living wage and receive healthcare benefits.

“By working on consignment with farmers, we’re respecting the work that it takes to grow their products,” says Foulkes.

Foulkes says their model is about respecting the work of farmers.

“There can be a disconnect between what people think a product is worth and what they want to spend on meat and dairy. We’ve gotten used to that traditional way of purchasing,” Foulkes says. “So there’s a little bit of relearning on both sides learning what it takes on both.”

Louya, a native Detroiter who is African American, and Foulkes, originally from Australia, were inspired by similar models at the Argus Farm Stop in nearby Ann and Local Roots in Wooster, Ohio, both of which buy directly from the farms and producers they work with. Argus Farm Shop vendors receive 80 percent of the items and they set their own prices. Local Roots farmers see 75-82 percent of each dollar, and relies on volunteers and community support to keep costs low.

Outside The Farmer's Hand market and cafe. (Photo by Serena Maria Daniels)

In just over a year in business, it’s too soon to tell the long-term impact this model has on vendors, but Louya and Foulkes are already expanding. Within the same building, later this spring, Louya and Foulkes are opening Folk, a stand-alone, 24-seat restaurant that will expand upon the original space’s offerings of breakfast and lunch, coffee and espresso from Michigan coffee roaster Hyperion, and a counter featuring Michigan-based Reilly’s Craft Creamery ice cream. With the second brick and mortar space, Folk is also creating additional employment opportunities.

The question remains, can a business like this — with attention paid on locally-made products, an equitable pay model for vendors and living wages for employees — sustain itself in a city with a high poverty rate? Not far away, in the city’s Mexicantown neighborhood, Detroit Farm and Garden, an urban gardening supply store, recently announced that they would be shutting down operations after a six-year run.

Willerer and Hubert hope that customers will see the value that products like Brother Nature and others sold at The Farmer’s Hand bring to the table, not just in terms of flavor.

“My wife says this and sometimes it makes people cringe, but stuff that we grow, that they sell, isn’t grown by slaves,” he says. “If you look at the stuff at Meijer, maybe that 5-ounce bag of salad mix is $3. Ours is $5, and ours is only hours old. Our stuff has no lettuce, has its own flavor, it’s just a superior product, it’s only a little bit more expensive.”


Chattanooga Market Connects Innovation District to Low-Income Seniors

An aerial view of Chattanooga. (Credit: Casey Yoshida)

Like other post-industrial cities, Chattanooga was struggling to find its way after its manufacturing base picked up and relocated overseas, leaving behind them a crippled economy.

Hoping to reignite the local economy, in 2015, business, city and nonprofit leaders developed a 140-acre “innovation district” downtown, providing a space for tech startups, business accelerator programs and youth training programs. The center of this district was the former Tennessee Valley Authority building, which over the years had become underutilized as the utility downsized. Now repurposed as the Edney Building, it serves as the district’s anchor.

Across the street from Edney are the Patten Towers, a public housing development for low-income seniors. As the district became flooded with tech-savvy entrepreneurs, the question arose over how these residents of the towers would be included in this so-called revival.

Last fall, a group of nonprofits banded together to launch Bingo’s Market, a pilot grocery store on the ground-level of Patten Towers that not only provides the new influx of more affluent entrepreneurs with gourmet grab-and-go lunch options, but gives the residents with a healthy option for groceries much closer to home.

Behind the effort are Causeway (which describes itself as a nonprofit social innovation studio, by providing coaching, funding, and project management for early-stage social enterprises), The Enterprise Center (which manages the Innovation District), the YMCA of Metropolitan Chattanooga, and PK Management (which manages Patten Towers).

Causeway and startup accelerator The Company Lab received a grant from the Lyndhurst Foundation back in 2015 to begin working toward connecting the towers and the Innovation District. Along with The Enterprise Center, the organizations started facilitating focus groups with residents to better understand their needs, hosting a weekly business class and sponsoring a health fare. Among their findings, they learned that access to food was the biggest area of concern among for 51 percent of residents.

Patten Tower residents are at least 62 years old or have a physical or mental disability and earn below a certain income level to qualify for housing. The 2015 survey shows that many of the residents make less than $500 a month.

For the past several years, the YMCA of Metropolitan Chattanooga’s Mobile Market had made weekly stops at the towers a few hours at a time. The trouble with that model, says Chelsea Conrad, creative director with Causeway, is that it was never supposed to be a long-term solution to healthy food access but more of a temporary project to highlight the demand for fresh food. The truck has instead been in operation for seven years and is heavily subsidized.

“The whole point of Bingo’s was to strike a balance of affordability and financial sustainability that doesn’t rely on grant funding,” says Conrad in an email.

During the six month pilot period, PK Management allowed Bingo’s Market to use the space rent-free. Just two employees work limited hours to staff the market, but a growing sales volume and innovative pricing strategies are factors that organizers hope will give the market some staying power.

“There’s really nothing like this downtown,” says Tara Williams, who went from working on the mobile market for six years to managing Bingo’s. “There’s a Family Dollar, which [sells] overpriced, unhealthy crap, or a Publix across the river, but you have to take a bus to get there.”

What if that weekly truck stop could be a permanent fixture, organizers thought. The impact could even go beyond easier access to healthy food. Bingo’s is situated in a room that faces Georgia Avenue, which Williams says has been vacant for quite some time. She says Bingo’s serves as not just a convenience store, but a community hub.

“I feel like there’s such a dynamic group of people that come in there and are interested in the fact that there’s actually something here,” Williams says, adding that some residents turn to the store not just for food but for socializing as well.

In the first six months in operation, the challenge for Williams has been stocking the fresh produce grocery staples that residents need and keeping prices down, while appealing to the startup crowd who might be more interested in grab-and-go items for breakfast at dinner.

To encourage residents to frequent Bingo’s, folks with an EBT card get a 10 percent discount and the owner of the local Mad Priest Coffee Roasters provides cups of coffee for $1 (as opposed to $2 to $3.50 charged for a cup at the small batch roaster’s coffee shop).

What no one will find are unhealthy merchandise like cigarettes, booze or food or drinks that contain high fructose corn syrup. For sodas, folks have to walk around the corner to the nearest convenience store.

The six-month pilot period ended in March and Williams says she’s hopeful that PK Management will allow Bingo’s to remain, though she won’t there to see it through. The intention was for Williams, a Knoxville native, to take over as the owner after the trial period ended, but she says she had to resign so she can support her sick mother and go back to school.

While she doesn’t doubt that Bingo’s will one day realize profitability, she said it’s been a challenge to learn the ropes of running a business, while supporting herself on a limited income (she earned $10 an hour, the same she earned when she worked the mobile market).

Conrad says the organizations involved have recently agreed to continue supporting Bingo’s for another six month period and are looking for a replacement to take Williams’ post. If a replacement cannot be identified soon, an existing YMCA employee will fill in for the interim.

“We are at that six month mark and can all see that the store is fully capable of being sustainable one day, but it is not quite there,” says Conrad in an email.

For example, the market was operating in the black in January, but dipped back into the red in February, Conrad says. The holidays, winter weather, and a construction project across the street all were possible factors for the slowdown.

Even though she will not get to see if Bingo’s can sustain itself long term, Williams is certain it’s already had an impact on residents’ lives.

“It spawns conversation, it’s a place for them to get away and talk to somebody and do something different,” she says.


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