EZ Parking

Posted by jdg | Wednesday, November 23, 2011

This is not a post I ever wanted to write, but I feel it would be somewhat irresponsible for me not to. I tend to be relentlessly positive about this city and all of the things we're able to do here, and that's probably annoying and unrealistic so I feel compelled to follow up on a couple of ongoing stories to give the full picture.

First, one of the stores that I wrote about in the old "But where do you shop?" series has gone out of business. R. Hirt Jr. weathered the 1887-88 recession, the Panic of 1893, the Panic of 1896, the Panic of 1907, the Panic of 1910-11, the Great Depression, the early 1980s recession, and our current economic crisis only to be felled by a family squabble. The family member who owns the building didn't let the one who operates the store to renew the lease, but promises to open a new cheese store in the space under a new name with new employees.

This wasn't just a store to our family, it was a weekly ritual. After picking the kids up at school, we'd stop in to pick up our weekly supply of milk, pasta, cheese, yoghurt, sausage, and whatever else we needed. The kids would always beg to climb three stories to the toy department, and I'd hold their hands as we climbed the creaky 118-year-old steps and we'd always tell the same stupid joke about the pile of hay above the steps ("Hey! Hay!") and when we got to the third floor full of wicker baskets and holiday decorations I'd let them run over to the toys where they'd spend twenty minutes looking at each one before picking out some small $1 or $2 trinket to bring home. My daughter in particular always had a difficult time choosing a toy, and the kind ladies who filled out our handwritten bill must have watched a hundred times as I got down on my knees on those old plank floors and tried to reason with her that she didn't have to feel nervous or ashamed for wanting something. A few weeks ago they told us the bad news: they'd been given pink slips, and the toy department was liquidating even before the rest of the store. One of them broke into tears, talking about how they've watched my kids grow up and soon my daughter started crying. It took her almost an hour to recover.

It might seem not seem like such a big deal; the space is going to re-open with a new retailer from the same family. It will still have cheese, but not the toys. The faces behind the counters won't be the ones we've come to count on as friends. Over the last few weeks of business, our weekly visits grew more frequent. I became a bit more magnanimous with the toy allowance. One or another of the ladies in the Hirt sweatshirts would always end up crying after we started talking. They'd lost the only jobs they'd had for decades. It was pretty emotional.

On Saturday we stood outside the store and watched the last people coming out. I recognized my daughter's emotions as partly my own. I think she was beginning to fully understand the idea of memory; that our experiences in that store with those people had become part of an inaccessible past, and there is something profoundly sad about that. And that when something exists only in memory you have to fight to keep from forgetting it. Yesterday morning she pulled this out of the closet and insisted on wearing it to school:

Over on the sub-page, I created a little photo essay: The Last Days of R. Hirt Jr., 1887-2011.

* * * * *

The second piece of lousy news is that the little garden we spent all summer building was torn out so the property could be used as a parking lot (I wrote about the Busy Bee Garden Project here and here, for some background). The garden went from this:

To this:

Construction of a new jail in a huge vacant lot closer to downtown where many football fans used to tailgate has pushed the market for game-day parking out much further that it has ever been before, and this year the vacant lot next to our garden was leased by some group that swoops into the city's vacant lots and charges for parking during Lions football games. Even though the small, trash-strewn vacant lot where we built our garden had stood unused for a generation or more (with weeds and inches of soil covering whatever had been there before) it caught the eye of the parking company and they approached the owners of the lot (Busy Bee Hardware) and offered to lease it for parking. And they agreed.

Here is where I accept responsibility for my naivety: I am entirely at fault for trying to do something positive on land that wasn't mine, and I don't for a second think I have any standing here. I was stupid and put my faith and trust where it didn't belong (mostly in the belief that it would be safe to grow some food and flowers in a trash-strewn vacant lot that no one had wanted anything to do with in decades). The Busy Bee folks were unapologetic and told me that this was actually a good thing, that whatever this company was paying them would help pay for the taxes on the property and in the end it would help the hardware store. And because I obviously have an interest in not seeing their business go the way of R. Hirt Jr., I have to be able to see their side of it. That doesn't mean it still didn't hurt.

On Saturday, with my daughter distraught over the closing of her favorite store (see above), we encountered the parking guys who were tearing out our garden. My wife took the kids home while I went over to take some pictures of the destruction and see if I could save some of my neighbor's perennials. The parking guy ordered me off the land and told me to stop taking pictures. "Take a picture of THIS," he said:

I believe his exact next words were, "Wanna take a picture of my dick, too?"

Jeez, all I did was ask him if he was a Joni Mitchell fan. I was kind of grateful to that guy for being such a jerk, because it allowed me to get angry at "EZ Parking" rather than crying over spilled Brussels sprouts.

At least my kids had one thing to be thankful about, ba-da-bum. Speaking of the kids, I still haven't let them see what's happened to the lot. After all the time we spent there and work we put into it, I really don't feel like trying to explain why somebody thought it would be better as a place to park cars for a few hours two Sundays a month, four months of the year:

I thought they were only going to be able to get about ten cars in there, but they tore down the fence in between the two lots and managed to squeeze in fourteen at ten dollars a car. That's $140 per game, and with four games left this year what they'll squeeze out of the lot won't even come close to the cost of the materials, soil, plants, and labor that we spent to build the garden.

I was a little annoyed watching people park their cars on our garden when I noticed that there was a vacant lot (see above) about 25 feet away that hadn't been a community garden where no one was parking cars, as well as a fenced-in lot next to it owned by Stroh's, the same company that leased the other lots to the parking company. I guess they wanted to keep the lots contiguous, so they would only need to pay one guy to take all the money. These two lots---which are actually closer to Ford Field---sat empty while the others filled up.

* * * * *

The real story here isn't the epic fail of some douchebag's neighborhood beautification project, but the reality that despite all the good that's happening in this city, it's still a place where vast swaths of the downtown area are only used a few hours a week for people to park their cars. A friend on facebook recently linked an article that rang true: "Parking lots are the best possible way of destroying a city’s soul. They are gruesome, lifeless places."

I've heard it said that these parking companies bring money and jobs downtown, but then again so does crack cocaine. I can hardly imagine an industry that has less of a positive impact on a city than these parking operations. I don't see the money or the jobs staying in the city. Basically a bunch of guys with accents and orange safety vests show up in the city for a few hours on the eight Sundays that the Lions play in Detroit and charge people $10-$30 to park in surface lots, many of which sit completely empty the other 357 days of the year. On the day of the football game, the individual in charge of all parking operations near our garden was a Pakistani gentleman driving from lot to lot in a luxury SUV. I saw him drop off a black woman in her 50s near our garden and hand her an orange flag that he told her to wave on the side of the street to attract customers. She told me she "was just trying to get out of town" and he "picked me up at the bus station" and "didn't even give me enough time to take a shit." I asked her if she was being paid minimum wage and she laughed, "Nobody earns $7 an hour in Detroit." Those are the kind of exploitative jobs these companies bring to the city. 

I started asking people why they parked there, pointing out that there were three free street parking spots less than twenty feet from where they handed the guy $10, and all three people told me that they didn't want to get their cars broken into during the game.

* * * * *

Luckily, the Busy Bee folks were able to salvage our wooden boxes, tools, and rain barrel before the parking guys threw them on their lovely trash pile with the bricks, plants and flowers. We were also able to save the bees and give them a new home thanks to Greg at Brother Nature Produce.

I'm already scouting out locations for a new garden next year, and I've got a couple of prospects that could prove to be way better. When we started this I said, "My interest in this project was less about gardening or growing produce, but teaching my children the responsibility that comes with caring for plants." The hundreds of hours we spent up there were not wasted, and this year when we get those boxes set up in a new lot with new seedlings soaking up the sun I'll be teaching them about stubbornness, and perseverance, and maybe even a little but about naivety.

So with Thanksgiving tomorrow and another fourteen cars destined to park their cars on a little spot where we built a garden that made our summer so wonderful (before the Lions play on national television) I am thankful that we had that summer, even if our garden has now become a memory: part of an inaccessible past. The kids are already thinking about the future.