Lofts Attract Urban Renewal

  • Lofts are no longer just structures with large windows and exposed brick. Lofts are quickly becoming a symbol of the lifestyle of the young, urban professional. (Photo by Lester Graham)

In cities across the nation, old warehouses, factories and other buildings are being turned into brand new luxury loft apartments, and for many urban areas, those apartments are a big part of trying to get people to move back to cities from the suburbs. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Nora Flaherty has this report:


In cities across the nation, old warehouses, factories and other buildings are being turned into brand new luxury loft apartments. And for many urban areas, those apartments are a big part of trying get people to move back to cities from the suburbs. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Nora Flaherty has that story:

Abby Cook is taking a tour of the Union Square Condos.

“…finished the dining area, old basketball hoops and signs throughout the building, so…”

The condos are being built in what used to be a high school, and when they’re finished, the apartments will have a lot of the things that lofts are known for. They’ll have high ceilings, hardwood floors, big windows and exposed brick.

“It’s a great use of the building, it’s a neat idea and just the uniqueness, I think of it.”

Cook is excited about the idea of moving to downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan. She lives in the suburbs now.

“Location is key, I think. Being that I am a young person, and I go out a lot, being close to downtown, just being close and the convenience is huge, just huge.”

Developers all over are building these kinds of lofts in empty city centers. That’s because lofts are thought to attract a group that’s become kind of a holy grail to urban planners: young, educated, professionals like Abby Cook. They’re often willing to live in neighborhoods that other affluent people shun, and it seems, they love lofts. Julie Hale Smith is with Michigan’s housing development authority.

“Our main target goal was to increase population in our urban centers. When we looked around at other cities in the country that we were emulating, we noted that one of their linchpins of revitalization was the redevelopment of historic buildings or the kind of faux-lofting of new, or newer buildings to provide that kind of lifestyle, that kind of urbanist lifestyle for folks that chose to live in those kinds of dwellings.”

You hear the word “lifestyle” a lot when you talk about lofts. In fact, they’ve become almost synonymous with a certain lifestyle, and not just in the minds of developers and urban planners.

FLAHERTY: “When you think of loft apartments, what words do you think of?”

PERSON 1: “Urban living.”

PERSON 2: “Maybe urban contemporary types, younger…”

PERSON 3: “Young, urban, hip.”

PERSON 4: “Maybe en vogue for city living, kind of stylish…”

But what is it about lofts? Doug Kelbaugh’s the dean of architecture and urban planning at the University of Michigan.

“Lofts have a certain cache… they started in London and New York, where older manufacturing buildings or warehouses, in the case of London, were converted by urban pioneers, often artists, into large, open spaces, typically without separate rooms, and now it’s become sort of a lifestyle issue.”

But luxury lofts like Union Square are a far cry from the gritty artists’ lofts of 1970’s New York. They often have amenities like pools, gyms and game rooms.

“What will happen, is you’ll come up this stairway – there’ll be a landing here – and then there’ll be a second stairway that goes up through the roof to your private rooftop deck…”

Developers often like to call any apartment with big windows and exposed brick a “loft.” University of Illinois Geographer, David Wilson, says it’s all a matter of marketing, that developers aren’t just selling an apartment, they’re selling an identity.

“Developers and builders look at them and they see certain physical attributes: high ceilings, large, expansive windows, and so forth, and they seize upon the idea of marketing these physical attributes. And the marketing process hooks up to the notion of, ‘Let’s play to the identity of these people. Let’s make them appealing, let’s make them attractive.'”

So when people see apartments that look like lofts, they don’t think about washing those big windows, they think of having the hip, urban lifestyle that the windows imply. Take Hannah Thurston. She’s a 23-year-old student. She and her husband are putting down a deposit on one of the Union Square apartments.

“I’m hoping that the other people moving in will be great neighbors. Obviously, we’ll have a lot in common being young professionals, obviously there are a lot of nice perks.”

But whatever developers’ motivations, and whatever people might think of them, lofts are succeeding at one thing: they’re bringing at least some new people many of the nation’s abandoned city centers.

For the GLRC, I’m Nora Flaherty.

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Urban Artists Fight for Graffiti

  • Graffiti artist Juan Carlos Noria imagines his artwork as a gift to the community. Artwork provided courtesy of JCN at

Graffiti has been a part of urban life since ancient times. There’s also a long history of trying to get rid of it. In many North American cities, civic leaders are experimenting with new ways to eradicate graffiti. But as the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Karen Kelly reports, urban artists are determined to keep it alive:


Graffiti has been a part of urban life since ancient times. There’s also a long history of
trying to get rid of it. In many North American cities, civic leaders are experimenting
with new ways to eradicate graffiti. But as the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Karen
Kelly reports, urban artists are determined to keep it alive:

About twenty artists, most of them men, spread out on either side of a canvas wall set up
in the middle of a parking lot. They wear baggy jeans, baseball caps and gas masks. The
ground is littered with spray paint cans as they splatter color across the canvas.

(sound up)

The artists build on each other’s ideas. Horizontal purple stripes are transformed into an
exotic bird. Pen and ink drawings peek out beneath layers of orange and brown, slowly
disappearing under the paint. This is Ottawa’s first graffiti fest, organized by
local artist Juan Carlos Noria. He arrives by bicycle, wearing splattered jeans and
carrying two backpacks stuffed with spray paint.

“This is our way of giving back to the city true expression and unfortunately I do agree that some of it
is ugly but it’s like a hammer, you know? It’s a tool for building or destroying.”

Noria is a full-time artist who sells oil paintings and sculptures. But his best known work
might be his graffiti. He creates detailed pen and ink drawings on white paper. Then,
late at night, he glues them to downtown buildings.

His drawings depict the plight of humans in the modern world. One shows a man using
one hand to pour coffee into his mouth, as he pounds a hammer with the other.
Another depicts a person surrounded by bubbles representing thought – about money,
heartbreak, and the passage of time.

For Noria, this sort of unexpected art is comforting in a city that prides itself on

“My living room isn’t this clean, you know? And a lot of these Ottawa streets are super
clean. In an alley that is vacant, it’s almost like a mark that a human being has been there
and I think that’s important, you know?”

But to many other people, graffiti is a sign of crime, decay and danger. That’s prompted
Ottawa to join other North American cities in introducing a graffiti management policy.
The plan includes a special phone line to report graffiti and tougher fines for those who
are caught.

The city estimates it spends about 250 thousand U.S. dollars cleaning up graffiti on city
property every year.

Paul McCann is head of Ottawa’s surface operations office. He says the biggest problem
is tags – initials or names scrawled in marker.

“I’m not talking about the nice graffiti art that a lot of people appreciate but the problem
is the tagging. Some of it is gang related. It’s not in the right place, it is considered
vandalism if you don’t have permission.”

McCann says there’s been a sharp increase in tagging. And it can make residents, and
tourists, feel unsafe. But he draws a distinction between the taggers and the so-called
serious artists.

While graffiti will never be tolerated in places like the parliament buildings, McCann is
looking for areas where graffiti can flourish, such as skateboard parks. It’s a strategy
that’s been used in other cities, including Toronto and Montreal. And it’s something Juan
Carlos Noria is eager to support.

“Graffiti is a movement of the youth. We must embrace it, say it’s not going to go away
so let’s give them spaces to work in and I think that by offering them these spaces, the
older artists will realize these are gifts, so they will in turn speak to the younger artists and
educate them and that’s what it’s all about.”

For Noria, graffiti offers a public venue to vent his frustration about pollution, capitalism,
and the ubiquity of advertising. Not long after the graffiti fest, one of his works
appeared on the wall of an abandoned theatre. It depicts an angel imagining a beautiful
gift as it sends a spray of paint onto the building.

For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Karen Kelly in Ottawa.

Youth Rodeo on the Rise

No matter where you travel around the region, you’ll find kids
playing all kinds of organized sports – from baseball to bowling. But a
growing number of young people around the Great Lakes are embracing a
sport that’s traditionally been practiced in the Western U-S. The Great
Lakes Radio Consortium’s Wendy Nelson reports:


About a dozen boys and girls are gathered outside on a chilly, windy afternoon in Kent City,

Michigan dressed in jeans, cowboy boots and hats. They’ve gome to practice the sport of rodeo. The

athletes specialize in different events, including barrel racing, goat tying and steer wrestling.

Tonight, they’re at Sue and Andy Sharp’s house to practice. Most of the kids bring their own

horses, and the Sharps have a few steers for roping and wrestling.

SUE: “You would like to be able to practice once or twice a week at least, if possible. Not all

the kids can do that, though, because some don’t have a place near them, and they have to travel

quite a ways.”

The Sharps met when they were both competing on the Pro Rodeo Circuit. But now, they’re passing on

their skills to a new generation of riders.

“In 1974, when I first started, and before that, there were rodeos. But nowhere near as many are

there now. When they went through the phase of the urban cowboy, it really started to grow east of

the Mississippi and got more notoriety and people started to get involved, and that’s continued


Still, rodeo riders aren’t exactly commonplace in these parts, but their ranks are steadily

growing – fed by the increasing number of high school rodeo teams and 4-H programs. In fact,

several of the current youth rodeo champs come from the Great Lakes States. Wisconsin is home to

the world champion high school bareback rider. Indiana hosts the world champion in pole bending.

And Michigan is the home of the national champion bull rider.

With programs like the Little Britches Rodeo Association, kids as young as toddlers can get

involved in the sport. Tonight, Cody Schmitz has the distinction of being the youngest one at the

practice session.

CODY: “I’m a bull rider.”

NELSON: “You’re a bull rider. How old are you?”

CODY: “Ten.”

NELSON: “Ten. And you ride a bull.”

CODY: “But I don’t ride, like, big bulls. I ride, like, these steers and stuff.”

Cody says just like other athletes, he gets nervous before a ride.

CODY: “You get butterflies and stuff, but once you get on, then they just go away and you’re just

having fun and sitting there. But it’s not very good to hang up.

NELSON: “What does that mean, to hang up?”

CODY: “Hang up as in, your hand’s still stuck in the rope and then it’s pulling and stuff. Well,

it’s not very good.”

Cody weighs about ninety pounds and stands just under five feet. But the steers can weigh hundreds

of pounds, so it’s a kind of understatement to say that rodeo can be dangerous. Just ask Matt

Kostel. He used to compete, but now he just watches from the sidelines.

“Had a little accident with a bull. He caught me in the forehead right here with a horn and put me

in the hospital. And they put plates in my forehead and screws and had to do reconstructive

surgery on me.”

Even so, Kostel hopes to someday return to the sport. For many – like Cody Schmitz – the rewards

outweigh the risks. Riders can win cash and even college scholarships. Cody’s only been competing

for a couple of years, but he’s already set his sights on becoming a pro. At tonight’s practice,

he’s decked out in a protective vest and mouth guard – ready to ride a steer.

(sound of rosin rubbing on rope)

“All right! Come on, Cody!”

Cody’s fourteen-year-old brother, Eric, helps him get ready: rubbing rosin on the rope for a

better grip. Then Eric and some of the other boys gather ’round to give Cody some final bits of


ERIC: “No matter what he does, keep shuffling your feet. Feel comfortable – start kicking.”

GUY 2: “Get right up on your hands, don’t get off it.”

Then Cody gives the signal, and they’re off.

GUYS: “Look at ’em buck, Cody! Look at ’em buck!”

The steer almost immediately throws cody to the ground, and the whole thing’s over in a matter of

seconds. Cody’s hurting from a hard fall on his elbow. But after a pep talk from his brother Eric,

he’s soon up and ready to ride again.

ERIC: “How bad do you want it?”

CODY: “Bad.”

ERIC: “Then you better try. Because without trying, you ain’t got nothing, right?”

CODY: “Right.”

This ride goes better for Cody. He’s able to hold on a little longer before getting bucked off.

It’s a close-knit group here tonight – not just the brothers, but all of the riders. And most say

they’ll continue riding, either as pros or just for fun, because, as Eric Schmitz says, rodeo is

as much a lifestyle as it is a sport.

“I mean, everybody’s together, everybody’s friends, you help each other out. I don’t know how to

explain it – it’s just kind of a cowboy deal, I guess. And I couldn’t imagine myself doing a thing


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Wendy Nelson in Kent City, Michigan.

An Autumn Passing

Fall begins with unrivaled energy and beauty, but when the colors fade, it seems melancholy hangs in the bare trees as everything braces for winter. Great Lakes Radio Consortium Commentator Julia King explores the eternal link between nature’s cycle and an acceptance of death:

Inner-City Children and Lead Exposure

Many inner-city homes built before World War Two still contain lead paint-making them harmful environments for children. An estimated twenty-percent of inner-city children have dangerous levels of lead that could be hampering their central nervous systems. Researchers are trying to find out what long-term effects lead exposure in the home has on children. And they’re testing a drug that might reverse those effects. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Steve Hirschberg has more:

Unique Program Targets &Quot;At Risk" Youth

One in four Americans infected with HIV each year are under the age of twenty. In a recent study in the journal "Science," thirty-five percent of male teenagers reported they had intercourse while they were drunk or high and six percent say they use crack or cocaine. In every city and town, there are teenagers at risk. But getting them to seek help is often an uphill battle. As the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Karen Kelly reports, a growing number of agencies are taking their services to the streets:

Floating Classroom Promotes Science

This summer, a floating classroom is making its way around Lake Michigan. On it, both kids and adults will be learning about water quality issues and gathering scientific data. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Wendy Nelson has more:

Great Lakes Story – Today’s Youth

This Spring, environmentalist Alden Lind received the SpecialAchievement Award from the National Wildlife Federation for a lifetimeof work protecting the Great Lakes. Born in Duluth and raised alongLake Superior’s North Shore, 63-year-old Alden Lind has spent over fortyyears as an active steward to Lake Superior. Now he faces a personalbattle with congenitive heart failure. As part of the Great Lakes RadioConsortium’s continuing series "Great Lakes Stories", Lind says thattoday’s youth need to get more involved in politics:

Great Lakes CD-ROM

Chances are when you were in elementary school, you saw your fair share of film strips. They weren’t much more than a boring lecture, with pictures…And the only good thing about them was getting chosen to run the projector. But today, computers in the classroom can really jazz up a lesson. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Wendy Nelson reports on some new software that’s helping kids learn about the Great Lakes:

Early Puberty

A recent study in the medical journal Pediatrics reports that many girls in the U.S. are entering puberty much easier than normal. And as the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Suzanne Elston discovered, exposure to environmental chemicals may be the culprit: