Bricks, Beams, and the Pillars of a Post-Industrial Renaissance

Brick + Beam Trio

Brick + Beam Detroit is a collaboration between the Michigan Historic Preservation Network, Detroit Future City, and Preservation Detroit. Victoria Byrd Olivier, and Amy Elliott Bragg, and Emilie Evans are the founders (L-R). Yes, all women, which makes this writer giddy.

So, I’ve noticed a bit of a theme recently. The ToolMade Project (TMP) has partnered with numerous organizations and amazing humans working their tails off in Rust Belt cities, though perhaps that’s not much of a surprise. Both the need and the efforts in this region have been so great. But, the work taking place in these cities is not merely triage. Economists, urban planners, architectural historians and other nerds obsessed with the built environment are hailing these cities as hotbeds of innovation as younger generations—those not old enough to have experienced the elevator drop of decline—see only endless potential in the sturdy industrial bones of these cities. All of the stories TMP has covered center on grassroots efforts with local buy-in and hardworking community members, and these efforts have manifested in different ways. Here are just a few of the strategies from recent blog posts that are shaking the iron oxide off the gears of progress:

  • Buffalo’s University Heights Tool LibraryThere’s a definite need to buck the overspecialization of trades and to make tools and resources more affordable and accessible to communities with few resources.
  • Detroit’s Americorps Urban Safety Program: Vacant structures need to be secured, lawns need to be mowed, art needs to fill boarded-up windows, and streets need to be cleaned up to make areas safe and to foster optimism in struggling neighborhoods. There may not be money from the city or state, but there are people willing to give their time and energy.
  • South Bend’s Historic Preservation Commission: Having a vintage home and some tools is an incredible opportunity, but most people weren’t born knowing how to rehab a structure and require some know-how. Free or inexpensive hands-on workshops are invaluable and empower individuals and the community as a whole.

This month, the TMP has partnered with yet another organization in that region—a group from Detroit—that is creating the bedrock for massive change by fusing many of these strategies. But before you get to hear about the groundbreaking work they’re doing, I thought it might be useful to give a quick and dirty history lesson about what the Rust Belt is exactly, and how these cities—cities with rich histories, ideal geography, and extraordinary infrastructure—experienced such a rapid and devastating decline. So sit back and soak in a little context.

rustbelt

I love me a useful map. Credit: BJennings, 2010

The Rust Belt refers to a region of the U.S. formerly known for its industrial jobs, specifically, steel and automobile manufacturing. It also wouldn’t be a stretch to credit this region with having played a crucial role in winning the second World War, with Pittsburgh alone having produced one-fifth of the Allied forces steel from 1940 to 1945. While boundaries vary depending on the source, in general, the belt stretches across parts of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia and Wisconsin—areas that thrived because of their readily available coal, labor, and inland waterways. This “industrial heartland of America” was booming until the 1970s, when a number of critical things changed. And they pretty much changed all at once. The steel factories that were the bread and butter for a huge percentage of people were shutting down due to a combination of increased automation, the transfer of manufacturing to the West, several devastating free trade agreements, and the general decline of the steel and coal industries.

As you’d imagine, this created an industrial and economic free fall that changed the realities of hundreds of thousands of people. Specifically, the U.S. worldwide market share of manufactured steel went from 20 percent in 1970 to 12 percent by 1990, and employment in the industry dropped from 400,000 to 140,000 over the same period. The term “Rust Belt” was coined in the 1980s and became synonymous with economic decline, population loss, and urban decay.

la-la-na-dollar-homes-01-jpg-20140814

Many old homes in Buffalo, NY are vacant and slated for demolition. Fortunately, the city’s Urban Homestead program allows residents to buy these homes for just $1 each, as long as they agree to renovate and occupy them. Programs like these are crucial, but they need additional support from groups who will help homeowners navigate the work.

Needless to say, these cities are still struggling. Populations plummeted when many were forced to move elsewhere for work, and those who remain and are doing what they can do deal with the economic realities and vacant property issues. So it’s a darned good thing that so many organizations are stepping up, like Brick + Beam Detroit.

As I mentioned earlier, Brick + Beam is taking what many pioneering organizations are doing and going a step further. They’re not only educating residents about rehab directly, they’re thinking bigger and creating an infrastructure for a massive community forum with potentially endless resources available to rehabbers. 24/7. This makes a whole lot of sense because, well, maybe you really want to fix your wood windows before winter but oops(!) you missed the one class a year that is offered. What do you do next? Can you do the work yourself, or is there a reasonably priced contractor out there who will actually do the work well? Also, what in god’s name is a glazier point? They’re making resources (and moral support) free and accessible to all.

Jim Turner Teaching

Workshop instructor Jim Turner demonstrates a paint-scraping technique at a hands-on window restoration workshop. Photo credit: Brick + Beam Detroit

Brick + Beam began by holding monthly (mostly free) events for people wanting to know how to fix up their homes. But these aren’t typical lecture-style meetings. These events include incredibly well attended open mic storytellings (rehab stories!), panel discussions with local contractors to field their questions, and even a “fixer-upper supper club” that was held at the site of an active rehab project. As a result of these events and partnerships with skilled professionals, a community web is beginning to catalyze and rehabbers are sharing their tips (and, likely, minor catastrophes) with others in the same boat.

Brick + Beam put together a "Fixer Upper Supper Club" as a show, tell, and eat event. More useful and more tasty and the old "trick them into attending a meeting with cheap pizza" approach. Photo credit: Brick + Beam Detroit

Brick + Beam put together a “Fixer Upper Supper Club” as a show, tell, and eat event. More useful and more tasty and the old “trick them into attending a meeting with cheap pizza” approach. It’s also a great way to foster community. Photo credit: Brick + Beam Detroit

But beyond these events, they’re also creating a website that will serve as a hub for people interested in property rehab. This will be accessible at all hours as a result, and contain a Q&A forum, a resource library, and a map that shows where the forum members’ properties are located and what they’re working on. These concentrated areas will be “hot spots” that will reveal which neighborhoods are seeing new, concentrated investment–information that can be used in a number of ways. They’re also working on a “Launch Box” that will be stocked with how-to guides, stories, resources, and other goodies for first time homeowners.

The “Launch Box” was something that especially made my ears perk up. It seemed a perfect opportunity for a partnership, so TMP partnered with Craftsman this month to give a handful of homeowners some essential tools they’ll need to fix up their “new” vintage homes, as well as a cheat sheet of tool essentials. These kits were hand delivered last week and we can’t wait to hear (and see) the follow-up!

Brick + Beam Storytelling 2

The Brick + Beam launch party in 2015 brought people together to share their home rehab stories. As you’d imagine, many of these stories are filled with successes and mishaps, and create a wonderful sense of “thank god we’re not the only ones!” Photo credit: Gertrud Høgh Rasmussen

Some Rust Belt Sources and Resources:

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Saving South Bend

One of around 1700  vacant homes in South Bend whose fate is yet to be determined. (South Bend Times photo by Greg Swiercz)

One of around 1700 vacant homes in South Bend whose fate is yet to be determined. Sure would be a shame to see you go, good lookin’. (South Bend Times photo by Greg Swiercz)

South Bend, Indiana is, like many Rust Belt cities in the Midwest, marked by de-industrialization and population decline. The economic shocks of past decades—attributed to factors like the transfer of manufacturing to the Southeast, the decline in steal and coal industries, and good old globalization—have left a lot of these cities without jobs and well, without as many people. So, South Bend found itself with more homes than could be filled, currently around 1700 vacant properties, which apparently must either be smashed to bits or rehabilitated. Well, guess which is usually cheaper?

A home is demolised in a Near Northwest neighborhood. The demo is part of the city's push to address 1,000 vacant homes in 1,000 days. (South Bend Times photo by James Brosher)

A home is demolished in a Near Northwest neighborhood. The demo is part of the city’s push to address 1,000 vacant homes in 1,000 days. It might be worth arguing that if we addressed all of our issues by turning them into tiny obliterated hunks of waste, we might not quite be addressing the root cause. (South Bend Times photo by James Brosher)

Here’s the thing—it’s not the building stock’s fault that there was an exodus. In fact, the buildings in many of these cities, which once boomed with jobs and industry, are generally pretty extraordinary, laid out in well designed planning grids with accessible and centralized main streets. They are walkable and human-scaled and downright handsome. These historic structures are also unequivically the greatest assets these cities have to offer. They hold their resale value better (think long-term), are made with incredible old growth wood and other materials that are no longer available, and will, quite frankly, easily last another century if they are just shown a little TLC. This is simply not the case for new construction which tends to be out of scale, made with inferior materials, and ages about as well as acid-washed jeans.

Local residents learn the basics of power tools through a Restore Michiana workshop. Empowering people to fix up their homes and neighborhoods is a slick and useful way to help save your city.

Local residents learn the basics of power tools through a Restore Michiana workshop. Empowering people to fix up their homes and neighborhoods is a slick and useful way to help save your city. (Photo by Restore Michiana)

So, it was a no-brainer for ToolMade to support a group in Indiana that is working to empower homeowners by offering workshops that help them repair and restore their buildings. South Bend’s aggressive demolition program is already in the works and is set to span the next three years, so if the local government doesn’t see the value of preserving more of its built environment, it’s time to educate and put tools in the hands of residents who want to fight for their history and quality homes and neighborhoods.

Pad sanding like a boss.

Using a pad sander like a boss. (Photo by Restore Michiana)

To help fill the knowledge gap and teach homeowners and contractors how to work on these buildings, people like Elicia Feasel and Steve Szaday create and run workshops through Restore Michiana. This group is the result of a partnership between Indiana Landmarks and Historic Preservation Commission of South Bend and St. Joseph County. Why the partnership? As Steve puts it, “every house has a story, even if it was no more than Billy’s Grandma’s house…and if we can teach someone enough to give them the courage and skills to save that house by doing some of the repairs themselves, we have successfully made a difference.”

Hardware 101.

Hardware 101. (Photo by Restore Michiana)

The workshops are lead by experts in specific fields and are refreshingly cheap—usually around $25-30 for a whole day, sometimes with pizza included! In the past two years alone, hundreds or locals and contractors have taken classes through Restore Michiana. Lectures have been given on a topics like how to research your home’s history, historic paint colors, and historic masonry care. Hands-on workshops have focused on plaster repair, wood floor repairs and refinishing, and the upkeep and repair of historic wood windows.

"Life leaps like a geyser for those who drill through the rock of inertia." -Alexis Carrel

“Life leaps like a geyser for those who drill through the rock of inertia.” -Alexis Carrel (Photo by Restore Michiana)

The program is self funded and all of the fees are used up to print flyers, buy supplies, and help reimburse equipment rentals and or logistical costs. Some local hardware stores have helped by providing basics like glazing, chemicals, wood fillers, etc., and all of the tools that were used on these workshops were either brought in by guest experts or are a part of the Restore Michiana’s personal home stash of tools. This unfortunately meant that all the tools had to be shared, even with 15-20 people in a class. That’s limiting and frustrating if you’re itching to get some hands-on know-how.

If you want to save your homes, resources, neighborhoods and possibly even souls, you must provide pizza. It is the #1 rule of organizing.

If you want to save your homes, resources, neighborhoods and possibly even souls, you must provide pizza. It is the #1 rule of organizing. (Photo by Restore Michiana)

The May class was a day-long Intro to Power Tools workshop for people having little to no experience using tools. The focus was on learning the basics of sawing, routing, sanding, and drilling, and took place at one of the most enduring and unique properties in St. Joseph County, the Birdsell mansion. The building is a Local Historic Landmark built in 1898, and currently available for lease (yes, sure, this is a plug. Preservationists ain’t nothing if not resourceful).

Thanks to the support of several concerned groups, more of these classes are going to happen going forward. If we want our neighborhoods to improve, we have to get out there and get our hands dirty.

Thanks to the support of several concerned groups, more of these classes are going to happen going forward. If we want our neighborhoods to improve, we have to get out there and get our hands dirty. (Photo by Restore Michiana)

Several sponsors, ranging from hardware stores to Habitat for Humanity to real-estate groups to the local pizza spot underwrote/sponsored the event. ToolMade donated several items including a much-needed Craftsman Lithium-Ion 3-Piece Combo Kit (a drill, circular saw, work light, extra lithium battery, circular saw blade and a multi-chemistry charger), a Compact Lithium-Ion Battery Pack, and an ever-useful pad sander. The best news? Because the Power Tools was so well attended and now has more of the needed tools, there will be more of these classes going forward. Not bad for a crew working on a shoestring budget that is also conducting a number of other classes, often dragging in tools from their own garages. And so, I am left with no choice but to bust out the old Margaret Meade quote to wrap this one up: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” I know, but come on, it’s just so damned true.