So, You Want to Know More About the Motor City?

(Ed. Note: Dozens of links are provided below, after the introduction.)

Miichigan Central Station

Miichigan Central Station

Detroit’s unwanted celebrity status nationally and internationally continues to fascinate me. Detroit is now known as a failed American urban experiment. For the more cynical or the painful realists, it represents the dark end to America’s middle-class dream, and the embodiment of the decline of American power and even its civilization.

Detroit rose like a phoenix at the beginning of the 20th century and then experienced the near death of the American automobile industry at the start of the next one, culminating in the taxpayer-funded bailouts of General Motors and Chrysler during the Great Recession. Once the nation’s fourth largest city, the population has fallen from 1.8 million to less than 800,000 in 50 painful years.

Since the violent Detroit riots of 1967 that killed 43 and burned more than 1,000 buildings, the community has transformed into a nearly all-African-American city. Sadly, it now ranks as the country’s murder and arson capital. Multiple factors, well beyond Detroit’s control, spurred these changes. These include white flight and suburbanization, along with national racial politics and globalization.

From a public health perspective, there are not many major cities doing worse. Entire neighborhoods have been vacated. Burnt out shells of homes and businesses dot the urban landscape that now is turning to seed. Nearly half of the city’s children live in poverty. Once glorious buildings that were testament to the confidence in industrial capitalism, notably the ghostly Michigan Central Station, stand vacant as monuments to a past glory. They are our America’s modern-day Roman Colosseum, symbol of a dying or dead empire.

Detroit is also my home town, where some of my family have long roots as Michiganders. It is the place where my life story began, at the intersection of two stories of my adoptive and biological families, who all eventually fled or simply moved away.

To help others understand Detroit Motor City and why it matters, now more than ever, I have compiled some of my favorite links to resources, films, books, and online content that I have uncovered recently. Take a moment to learn more about this famous place that once was the world’s greatest industrial city.

Detroit, Enduring Icon of Decline and “Ruin Porn” CelebrityAndrew Moore Book Cover

  • Detroit Disassembled, photo book by photographer Andrew Moore (highly recommend)
  • The Ruins of Detroit, photo book by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre (highly recommend)
  • James Griffioen, Detroit photographer of decay (recommend)
  • Five Factories and Ruins (web site)
  • Lost Detroit: Stories Behind the Motor City’s Majestic Ruins, by Dan Austin and Sean Doerr, provides historic and architectural background
  • American Ruins and The New American Ghetto, by Camilo José Vergara, depict dereliction and abandonment in cities like Detroit, Camden, N.J., and Chicago
  • Julia Reyes Taubman, socialite ruin photographer of Detroit and subject of some blowback for photographing decay while protected by a wall of money
  • Detroit 138 Square Miles, website that accompanies photographer Julia Reyes Taubman’s photo book
  • Beautiful Terrible Ruins, art historian Dora Apel examines ways Detroit has become the paradigmatic city of ruins, via images, disaster films and more and notes that the images fail to show actual drivers in the downward spiral, such as globalization, neoliberalism, and urban disinvestment
  • Diehard Detroit, a time lapse video of many of Detroit’s famed architectural ruins, abandoned factories and homes, monuments, buildings, and freeways, with absolutely no perspective on the meaning behind the mayheim, just titilating entertainment with great technique and a cool drone toy (it is stunning visually, and thus classic “ruin porn”)
  • Detroit’s Stunning Architectural Ruins, and Why Documenting Its Faded Glory Matters (an article by the Huffington Post, a liberal blog which exploits unpaid “contributors” more than Henry Ford ever did his factory workers)
  • Urban Ghost Media, photos of the much-photographed and now infamous Eastown Theater

Detroit and Media Coverage

Must-See Detroit Documentary Film: Burn

The great documentary about arson in Detroit and the men who fight it.

The great documentary about arson in Detroit and the men who fight it.

  • Burn, a documentary film by Tom Putman and Brenna Sanchez, tells a year-long story of the year in the life of Detroit firefighters, who battle uncontrolled arson against all odds (amazing filmmaking!!! … from the firefighters interviewed: “That is how you burn a city down. One at a time.”)
  • Interview with filmmakers Putnam and Sanchez on their documentary Burn (great read on scrappy filmmaking with a purpose)
  • The Making of Burn—so, you want to make a great film no one in power gives a crap about, but you have to do it anyway

Must-Read Books on Contemporary Detroit

Detroit, The Former Glory

Pro-Detroit Media Coverage and the “Re-Birth” Branding

Detroit, Industrial IconDiego Rivera Mural, at the DIA

Nice Photo Essays of Before and Now:

Detroit Stories and Research of Interest

The crowded, congested, contested road: unsafe at nearly every speed

Seattle traffic

Seattle traffic is among the worst in the nation, and it can be downright deadly, according to those who track road-related fatalities.

Every day that I drive to work, I am literally putting my life on the line. I commute roughly 80 miles daily, round trip, from Seattle to Tacoma, navigating one of the most harrowing urban traffic corridors in the Untied States, on Interstate 5 and two state highways. (My story why I am commuting this way will be for another day, but there are good reasons.)

Routinely, erratic drivers dangerously pass me, putting our lives at risk, in order to gain a few extra minutes by speeding. I have seen many accidents, some fatal, on this route over the years, and I am glad that I have my will and living will in proper order in case a truck jack-knifes near me in the rain—and yes I’ve seen that happen twice before on the freeway system around Seattle.

Seattle Road Kill 2001-2009

How deadly are roads in the Puget Sound–take a look at the roadkill on this data map showing types of mortality by form of transportation for 2001-2009.

Judging by this map, we get a fair share of road kill in the metro area I call home.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) put the number of road deaths annually in my home state at nearly 500 (2009). Nationally, in 2012, the United States reported that 34,080 people died in motor vehicle traffic crashes in 2012, a 5.3% jump over 2011. This ranks as 10th leading cause of death in the United States, if one pulls this form of death from all accidental deaths, in which it is grouped by the CDC epidemiologists.

So by all counts, getting in one’s car (or on one’s bike or in a bus or other form of transportation) and hitting the road can be deadly business in my country, especially given the proliferation of mobile-device users and drunk drivers.

In 2011, cell phone use in the good ole’ U.S.A. was a contributing factor in more than 3,300 deaths and for the previous year, in 387,000 motor vehicle injuries. These are very sobering numbers, and I actually expected there would be more given that I have seen far too many texters during peak travel times in vehicles moving 70 mph. Normally I move over a lane or lay on my horn to snap them out of it.

But this is nothing compared to the perils that passengers and drivers experience globally. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), road accidents claimed 1.2 million lives globally in 2011, ranking as the No. 10 cause of death, on a list that has some pretty nasty company, including respiratory infections (3.5 million), tuberculosis (1.3 million), and the big killer of children ages 0-5 years, diarrhea (2.5 million).

The Institute for Health Metrics produced this data table showing how road deaths globally compared to other causes of death (it's No. 10); go to: http://www.healthmetricsandevaluation.org/gbd/visualizations/gbd-heatmap

The Institute for Health Metrics produced this data table showing how road injury globally compares to other burdens of disease (it is No. 10); go to: http://www.healthmetricsandevaluation.org/gbd/visualizations/gbd-heatmap

A typical story that one sees with mind-numbing frequency overseas are bus collisions with motorcycles and motor scooters. This November 2012 story, 19-yr-olds crushed to death by bus, notes two aspiring young men were run over by an errant bus driver and dragged 40 feet in Chandigarh, India; the driver then fled the scene. Both of the men’s heads were crushed by the bus’s wheels.

I saw no less than three similar road maulings on the island of Java in 2009, when I visited Indonesia. That island, one of the most densely populated locations in the world, is overwhelmed with low-income and middle-income residents on  scooters competing for space with trucks and army of loosely and unregulated van taxis and buses.

Indonesians who use these highly efficient and inexpensive 100-125cc motor scooters are frequently killed on the island nation's infamously unsafe and crowded roads.

Indonesians who use these highly efficient and inexpensive 100-125cc motor scooters are frequently killed on the island nation’s infamously unsafe and crowded roads.

Road accidents alone in Indonesia account for more than 48,000 deaths annually, the 9th leading cause of death in the world’s largest Muslim nation.

The United States Department of State offers this stern warning to would-be American visitors to Indonesia–a country I really loved by the way: “Air, ferry, and road accidents resulting in fatalities, injuries, and significant damage are common. … While all forms of transportation are ostensibly regulated in Indonesia, oversight is spotty, equipment tends to be less well maintained than that operated in the United States, amenities do not typically meet Western standards, and rescue/emergency response is notably lacking.”

During my two-week visit in 2009 to the island nation, I rode about a dozen different buses and equally as many microbuses, not to mention the country’s crash-prone domestic air carriers once, their local train service (also unsafe at times), and the far less safe inter-island ferry services. I saw about a half dozen crashes from my bus window, most fatal and usually with motor cycle riders as victims, and from my hotel room I heard one multi-vehicle crash in the middle of the night that clearly claimed many lives. I learned the next day it was between a bus and truck. The bus was totaled.

Roads can really kill you overseas, and so can planes, boats, and trains too

Buses like these are cheap in Indonesia, but your life can be as some locals would say, insha-Allah, or at the mercy of God.

Buses like these are cheap in Indonesia, but your life can be as some locals would say, insha-Allah, or at the mercy of God.

The writer Carl Hoffman, author of the book The Lunatic Express: Discovering the World… via Its Most Dangerous Buses, Boats, Trains, and Planes, documents the horrendous conditions of ferries, public transportation, trains, planes, and other forms of transport. The book’s online promotion notes that it offers a “harrowing and insightful look at the world as it is, a planet full of hundreds of millions of people, mostly poor, on the move and seeking their fortunes.”

Anyone who has travelled in developing or “middle-income” countries (like, say, Chile or Turkey) knows their life is literally in the hands of drivers who may have no proper training, in busses with no proper maintenance or even reliable brakes. Worse, the drivers of buses and microbuses in countries from Uganda to India to Mexico may trust their fate to Allah, Saint Christopher, the Virgin Mary, or Krishna. Those who have travelled in such places know this to be true, by the many religious deities dangling at the front of public transportation by the drivers’ seats.

Worse, the drivers will often play chicken with their competitors by speeding into oncoming traffic at high speeds while passing other vehicles or simply to “have fun.” I swear I thought I would die on many occasions in: Mexico, Guatemala, Nepal, Peru, Uganda, Indonesia, Egypt, Turkey, Chile, Argentina, India, and other places that I’d rather forget just now.

accident or more by Birn

When is an accident really an accident, or when it is linked to larger systems issues? This analysis is provided by Anne-Emmanuelle Birn in her description of the social determinants of health (SDOH).

Three separate times, after I lived through the near mishap, I swore I would never, ever take a bus again in a developing nation. Yet I threw caution to the wind, as I needed to get around, and I could not afford to get around any other way. Not seeing the country I was visiting was not an option.

Is it really  “just an accident” or something more?

Anne-Emmanuelle Birn, international health professor at the University of Toronto, and co-author of the widely used global health tome called Textbook of International Health, points out the deeper connections that road-related deaths have to poverty and social inequity in undeveloped and middle-income countries. Birn writes that road traffic accidents are the second-leading cause of death for children between 5 and 14 years of age globally, and that poor and working classes are disproportionately affected in most countries. In high- income countries, most of those killed are drivers and passengers, whereas in low- and middle-income countries pedestrians, cyclists, and public transport passengers make up nine out of every 10 road-related deaths.

In Haiti, for instance, the word for local transport is molue (“moving morgue”) and in southern Nigeria locals say danfo (“flying coffins”).

Duncan Green, an Oxfam policy adviser and development blogger, recently wrote an article asking when road traffic injuries would finally be recognized as a priority by the international development community.

In fact a major report released in June 2013 by the Overseas Development Institute, the United Kingdom’s leading development think tank, notes that transportation is not recognized as a human right like access to water, yet it still is a fundamental factor for many to achieve basic human rights. Well-run transportation systems, for people and for goods and services, promote benefits, while unsafe and weak transportation systems harm the most vulnerable citizens.

Given the debate emerging now for future sustainable development post-2015, the deadline set for the Millennium Development Goals, road safety may finally find a way into the broader public health, development, and environment agenda, as a way to tackle this clearly documented major global killer. Perhaps the threat may finally be treated as the international epidemic that is is, globally or closer to home in the United Sates. For me, this includes the roads in the Puget Sound where I spend more than two hours daily to and from my public health job.

Africa revisited through the Dark Star Safari

From the comfortable security of my modern cocoon in Seattle, Wash., I am vicariously reliving some long-ago travels I made in Africa during the summer of 1997, which already was 15 years ago. I have the often cynical but always observant and honest Paul Theroux to thank for being lifted out of my quotidian boredom and back to my brief five-week journey in central and East Africa.

Sunrise on the Serengeti, a magnificent sight indeed.

In June 1997, I travelled to Rwanda, just three years after the genocide. I arrived there, hoping to try my hand at freelance journalism and perhaps cover some of the genocide trials that were underway in the aftermath of the horrific crimes against humanity. I lacked two of the most critical elements to pull this off: connections and cash. Maybe I lacked cajones too. I also was floored by malaria once I arrived in Kigali, Rwanda, and I pulled out in two weeks, having lost a lot of weight and having determined I would not have the resources to succeed in my original plan. As to whether I would have succeeded as a freelancer if I stayed longer is hard to say, as Rwanda then was in the throes of an incredibly violent civil war that had claimed thousands of lives. That conflict, which involved the stopping of microbuses—like ones I was riding—and the slaughtering of all passengers, was pitting the Tutsi-led forces of the new post-genocide government of Rwanda against the extremist Hutu militias who had taken hold in then eastern Zaire. This was just before Zaire’s own meltdown into violent civil war, tribal violence, and foreign interventions that remains unresolved to this day.

Passing the time in Moroti, Uganda, on my way to the north of the country in 1997.

Theroux’s book, called Dark Star Safari, is typical and classic Theroux. It recounts a year-long trip he made from Cairo to Capetown in the early 2000s, mostly by land transportation, using local means such as the back of trucks, buses, microbuses, and sometimes rides in Land Rovers and overland safari trucks with the many white Westerners he sees. Theroux is unforgiving in his criticism of both Africans and of outsiders, who are mostly Westerners but occasionally Indians, Japanese, and Chinese. Theroux often savagely skewers this mostly Western crowd as if they were the marabou scavengers, the quite ugly and ubiquitous large storks seen throughout eastern Africa, which lurk about and wait for carrion to devour.

I like Theroux because he attempts to put what he sees into context, with the perspective of a man who spent two years of young adulthood as a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi in the 1960s and later several years as a lecturer in Kampala, Uganda, before the despot Idi Amin took over and destroyed that nation. To his credit, Theroux’s comments on the failures of aid projects, for instance, are based on his first-hand encounters. He credits foreign aid organizations and Western governments for creating a culture of aid dependency in many African nations. But his biggest target is corruption by African leaders and its military and civilian rulers. Writes Theroux of the large cities he visited and detested on his trip: “Scamming is the survival mode in a city where tribal niceties do not apply and there are no sanctions except those of the police, a class of people who in Africa generally are little more than licensed thieves.“

Traveling by bus in Uganda, rarely a dull moment.

I have exchanged a few emails about this book with a friend of mine who also did a Peace Corps stint in Africa and who thought Theroux was honest about what he observed. I told my friend that Theroux’s description of traveling through a inhospitable, mostly lawless area from Mega, Ethiopia, to Isiolo, Kenya, where two white Westerners refused to give him a ride in their Land Rover, brought back my own memories. Like Theroux, I saw plenty of those same Land Rovers in Kenya, Rwanda, and Uganda and also never got a lift. (Did I deserve one—no, but they could have been offered; I did refuse a ride once too because I wanted to walk, but the driver was African and a decent guy.) I too wondered who are these privileged outsiders anyway? I remember distinctly two haughty U.N. officials—an African and European—sniping like French lords at low-paid Rwandan hotel staff while wearing stylish dark shades and expensive suits, angry dust got on their suitcases, as they disembarked at Milles Colines Hotel, made famous during the genocide where Tutsis hid while surrounded by killers. The cost for a room in 1997 was about $150 a night as I recall, or about half of what a Rwandan then earned in a year. I could not afford the place and luckily found accommodation with a great aid worker I met who I thought was doing good work.

Like Theroux, I travelled by truck to some remote parts in the bush. This trip took about 12 hours and was among my most memorable.

I also remember Italian missionaries in Northern Uganda, near Karamojo, in the deep bush who ran a furniture shop and spoke the local language and seemed completely at ease and in their element — like some of the Italian missionaries Theroux met in Ethiopia and Kenya. And, like Theroux, I remember these “overlanders,” the white tourists on coverted safari trucks crossing Africa, when I stopped at Lake Naivasha, Kenya. In my case, the passengers expressed excitement about seeing mountain gorillas in Rwanda without having a clue about the raging conflict there or another violent uprising that was occurring in southwest Uganda. And one has to wonder about two female aid workers he disparaged for their peddling of a Plumpy’nut type nutritional food product to poor children in person cause they reportedly didn’t trust the mothers to deliver the aid themselves? Is that true? I believe it is. Just this spring I heard an announcement by U.S. AID that the United States is pushing corporate food aid with corporate food giant Pepsico, in Ethiopia. What’s good for Pepsico is also good for U.S. AID and Ethiopians, if I am to believe the facts in this press release.

Anyway, not everyone agrees with Theroux, and here’s one attack, by John Ryle from 2002 in the Guardian, of the book and of the writer himself. Personally, I think Theroux is smart and clearly sees the public health, economic, political, and outsider-driven problems that challenge the countries he visited. I also do not think one sells books being nice or being 100 percent true. Theroux is a strong brand, and you know what you get when you read his brand. And it remains exceptionally enjoyable.

I shot this photo near Mt. Karamojong, a mountain that is home to a rebellious group who were known to rob locals with AK 47s when they were not fighting with other cattle raising tribes in Kenya. Or maybe they are just a tribe trying to survive in a land with few resources and many threats.

Cheap energy poses a threat to Americans’ health

One of the most talked-about initiatives taking place in public health, with funding supports from the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC), is policy, system, and environmental change to address the rise of chronic disease in the United States, the country’s leading cause of death. According to the CDC, chronic diseases are responsible for seven out of 10 deaths of all Americans annually, and one half of all Americans have at least one chronic illness. Worse, three-quarter of the $2.5 trillion (yes trillion) dollars spent annually on health care in the United States goes to battling chronic diseases. The CDC’s grant funding is being disbursed to health departments to undertake a range of interventions. But none of these interventions is going after what some say is one of major sources for the rise of obesity and chronic disease—the cheap price of energy in the United States.

According to Ian Roberts of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the overall obesity rate is highest in the United States among all other nations because the price of gasoline is very low. “So where gasoline is really cheap, we over-consume it, it’s bad for the environment and actually because we should be using food energy for human movement – if we use gasoline for human movement, then we store the food energy and you know where we store it.” And there are other costs associated with being a fat nation, says Roberts. “So there’s obviously an increased demand on food supplies, but also there is an increased demand on everything. You know, bigger people need more energy to move them. Airplanes take more energy to get off the ground. It takes more of the shares that, you know, of the Earth’s resources to actually support all that extra weight.”

In the United States, the U.S. Energy Information Agency estimates we use 317 million BTUs per person a year. In this country, nearly half of all of our energy comes from petroleum and natural gas, and the country ranks seventh globally in terms of per capita energy use, trailing Canada and some smaller nations like Luxembourg and Trinidad and Tobago. However, the United States is  No. 2 (19% of global demand) in terms of global consumption of energy after China (20.3% of global demand), which just took the No. 1 slot.

Feeder pipelines gather crude oil produced at Prudhoe Bay, which is eventually shipped to the lower 48 for consumption on the West Coast.

A significant negative outcome can be seen in the widening waistlines of Americans. Charles Courtemanche of the Department of Economics at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro published a study in 2009  (A Silver Lining? The Connection Between Gasoline Prices and Obesity) that found increases in gas prices were associated with an uptick in walking or bicycling and public transportation use (and more people walking to bus and subway stops) and a drop in the how often people eat at restaurants, all impacting weight. Courtemanche estimates that:

– A $1 rise in the price of gasoline would reduce overweight and obesity by 7% and 10% in the U.S. The reduction in obesity would save approximately 11,000 lives and $11 billion per year, savings that would offset 10% of the increased expenditures on gasoline.

– An 8% of the recent rise in obesity from 1979 to 2004 can be attributed to the decline in real gasoline prices during the period.

According to Dr. Brian Schwartz, professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Department of Environmental Health Sciences and co-director of the School’s Program on Global Sustainability and Health, cheap energy also is responsible for creating our built environment, which is exacerbating our poor health trends. Schwartz argues that since World War II, the United States and other developed countries “have invested in large tracts of low density, non-compact, single use developments, which are highly reliant on the automobile and often lack public transit options.  This type of housing and transportation system is totally reliant on cheap and plentiful oil.”

The built environment of U.S. suburbs has been shaped by the relatively cheap price of petroleum paid by U.S. consumers at the pump.

Schwartz argues the average foodstuff in the United States requires about 10 units of fossil fuel-based energy input for each unit of food energy derived from the food, and that ratio jumps to 100 to 1 for many meats. Less energy would lead to declines in food calories too, as many kinds of food would become too expensive to produce and too expensive for consumers. What’s more, Schwartz suggest that this unsustainable suburban lifestyle would change dramatically after peak oil, that future and historic moment when global production of both oil and natural gas reaches its historic peak and begins to decline, setting off chain reactions impacting every facet of our life to what we eat, how we work, how goods and people move about, and how nations respond on a massive scale. (Go here for a summary of peak oil and its health impacts, as explained by Schwartz.)

Schwartz also notes that our entire health care delivery system, on top of our suburban-sprawl development pattern, food production systems, and supply chains, also is tied to unsustainably cheap energy in the form of cheap fossil fuel. “Large energy-inefficient health care facilities are staffed by health care workers living in distant suburbs who require large quantities of paper, plastic, and electronics to do their work. Systems for provision of care will need to be completely redesigned to adapt to the new reality of more expensive energy.”

Portland, Ore., that oh-so progressive Northwest city that has become a beacon of contemporary planning that tries to vaguely resemble what they do in Netherlands or Denmark, for instance, already has assembled a Peak Oil Task Force, back in 2006. The group prepared a report and drafted a resolution, passed by the City Council in 2007. That resolution sets out an ambitious goal to “reduce oil and natural gas use in Portland by 50 percent in 25 years and take related actions to implement recommendations of the Peak Oil Task Force.” It may be no surprise Portland was recently ranked the No. 1 biking community in the United States.

What continues to baffle me is how unengaged or willfully silent the United States’ professional public health system is to the connection between cheap energy and health, notably obesity. I just did a keyword search today (Sept. 3, 2012) on the word “obesity” for the upcoming American Public Health Association (APHA) Annual Meeting and Exposition to be held in San Francisco in October 2012. There were 797 hits for the word–many for papers being presented on the topic. When I typed in the word “oil” I yielded 33 hits, some on the Deep Horizon oil spill and its impacts and others on shale gas development, such as a paper being presented by Dr. Roxana Witter of the University of Colorado called “Comprehending health implications of natural gas development through public health research.” But I saw no papers on any linkage between the so-called “obesygenic environment” and energy prices tagged under the word “oil” in the searchable database of presentations and papers. I did a search for the word “energy” and got 82 hits, but most related to topics like high-energy drinks, not on oil, gas, or energy policy issues impacting human health.

Seattle like other cities is entirely dependent on relatively cheap petroleum, and as a consequence suffers from some of the worst traffic congestion of any metro area in the country, as well as a sprawl development in the city and throughout surrounding King County.

I dream of the day when public health professionals will organize their advocacy less around what kids eat at school and talk more about what our state and national lawmakers are doing to create meaningful tax policy that prices energy–making it more expensive while using revenues to promote renewable energy sources–to create larger downstream impacts. To completely cede this issue to supporters of cheap energy and the status quo and to deny that there are serious public health implications by doing so is to turn one’s back on best available evidence and the duties those in the field have to promote healthy outcomes for the U.S. population.  I did try to raise this issue in one of my classes at the University of Washington School of Public Health, and was met with unusual silence. I hope one day perhaps UW faculty in the economics department, school of business, and schools of public health and public affairs get together one day to pursue research examing negative health impacts of national energy policy.

Portland: hip, healthy, homogeneous, and house of the homeless

I just visited Portland, Ore., twice now in the last nine days. Though I moved away in 1987, I have returned countless times. I still love it, as I have since I first visited the Rose City back in April 1983. I went to college in Portland from 1983 to 1987, and I have always felt comfortable studying, living, and working there. I fondly remember my outdoor summer job painting homes during the day and being able to commute nearly everywhere by my bike to my work locations.

I was enamored by the quirky stores like Corno’s on MLK Boulevard, which closed sadly in 1995 (RIP Corno’s we loved you!), and by the many urban gardens I saw in southeast Portland around the campus of Reed College. I also liked that I could bike throughout the city and feel relatively safe that bike commuting was accepted and more secure than in other cities because of the budding efforts by city planners to make that city bike friendly. Portland’s famous mayor from 1985-92, Bud Clark, a former Reed College dropout and tavern owner, made biking cool to a national audience by biking to his job in downtown nearly every day (way to go, Bud!). Mayor Bud made a big impression on me when we overlapped in Portland.

Portland is well-loved by its fans. Some call it one of the healthiest cities because of its many trails in the hills above the city, in Forest Park, an Olmstead Brothers designed gem from 1903 that today encompasses more than 5,100 acres and miles of multi-use trails and many critters.

Portland also defied a national trend by preventing a major highway construction project planned for Highway 26 from plowing through the downtown (the Mt. Hood Freeway). Instead, famed Gov. Tom McCall diverted highway funds ($23 million) in 1974 to build the now famous public transit system that laid the groundwork for the visionary light rail line known as MAX. Portland still has its freeways and gridlock, but it did go its one way. A highway was torn up in downtown and turned into a riverfront park. In essence, Portland has been making policy changes for many years that promoted an alternative vision to the sprawl development that has fueled this country’s destructive and costly obesity epidemic and proclivity to chronic diseases.

Portland is not perfect, however. By becoming trendy with progressives and attractive for lifestyle refugees, it is becoming more expensive and perhaps less diverse in some measurable ways.

First, on the plus side, many have praised the benefits to the “new urbanism” in Portland, for which the city is becoming increasingly famous. I’m not entirely convinced the high-end makeover of parts of Portland, such as the Pearl District, where the once famous Henry Weinhard’s brewery was converted to pricey condos and office/retail, is a good thing. Portland also has lots of farmers markets, parks, green spaces, and policy measures promoting healthy lifestyles and food choices. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention touts this as “healthy community design.”

On top of design features, such as denser developments that are pedestrian friendly and built to promote interactivity, the city is now ranked No. 1 as the most bike-friendly, knocking rival and bike-loving powerhouse Minneapolis-St. Paul back down to the No. 2 slot, according to Bicycling Magazine. “After being named runner-up in our last round of best bike city rankings in 2010, Portland reclaims the top spot. The only large city to earn Platinum status from the League of American Bicyclists is a paragon of bike-friendliness, with 180 miles of bike lanes and 79 miles of off-street bike paths. Always quick to embrace cyclist-friendly innovations, Portland was the first city in the United States to implement bike boxes at intersections and elementary-school bike commuting trains. Among the city’s many bike shops is newcomer Go By Bike, which is located under the aerial tram and offers valet parking, rentals, and repairs.”

Of course there’s a downside. The Oregonian newspaper in 2011 analyzed 2010 census data and found the “whitest city” in the country– that would be, yes, Portland–became even less diverse in the last decade, while surrounding areas have grown more diverse. This is also a national trend in other major cities, where exurbs and suburbs are becoming more diverse ethnically.

The April 30, 2011, article in the Oregonian (In Portland’s heart, 2010 Census shows diversity dwindling), noted: “Of 354 census tracts in Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties, 40 became whiter from 2000 to 2010, according to The Oregonian’s analysis of the 2010 Census. … The city core didn’t become whiter simply because lots of white residents moved in, the data show. Nearly 10,000 people of color, mostly African Americans, also moved out.” Census data show that of the city’s 584,000 residents, 76% are white, compared to Oregon’s whopping 86% figure. Latinos are the next largest racial/ethnic group at 9.4%, followed by Asian Americans (7.1%), and African Americans (6/3%). And not everyone is living well, riding overpriced road bikes, and sipping microbrews. About one in six residents lives below the poverty line. The unemployment is slightly higher than the nation’s, though on average four in 10 residents has a college degree. One person who works in public health I talked to about job prospects in Portland told me, many PhDs were pouring beers and waiting tables while looking for professional work on the side; don’t come here without a job.

The most glaring example of the problems I saw during my two visits was the crush of humanity that was waiting at the entrance to the Multnomah County Library as it opened its door on a sunny July 3 morning. I counted about 60 persons, the majority of whom were clearly homeless or indigent. There are about 1,700 people living on Portland’s streets. Many persons I saw that morning were carrying all of their possessions in backpacks or large plastic bags. Many had not had a shower in some time. The library provided both a restroom to use and Internet access and simply a shelter. It basically resembled libraries in Seattle that serve as de facto homeless shelters during business hours.

I decided not to photograph the clear signs of economic distress I saw on the streets or at the library’s gates and focused on snapshots of the downtown features that make the city fun and livable – its downtown streetcar, the MAX light rail, beautiful open spaces, yummy food carts, a downtown farmer’s markets, bike infrastructure that made me salivate, and a vibe that keeps my teenager’s crush alive and throbbing.

Every day can be bike to (fill in the blank) day

Here in the United States, promoters of biking and various groups attempt to rally public awareness around the health, environmental, cost, and multiple other benefits of biking by having “bike to work month” and “bike to work day.” This is important, because these activities can turn the attention of a chaotic media landscape for a brief moment on the incredible versatility and value of biking.

The down side is, once the day, week, or month passes, the next worthwhile cause takes the spotlight, and the public’s attention quickly turns away from biking, and without sustained interest, meaningful policy work and political momentum fizzles. Luckily, I live in a Seattle that at least has a critical mass of cyclists and some more “advanced” infrastructure to help keep cyclists somewhat safe from the perils of sharing roads with vehicles. To Seattle’s credit, it is getting ready to update its bicycle master plan. (For anyone who is from Seattle and who has not taken the survey, please do so.) And nationally, many advocates are working hard to sustain a national movement one community at a time.

As a highlight of “bike to work day” on May 18 in Seattle, a portion of the Ballard neighborhood was closed to vehicle traffic. Bikers were able to lock their bikes to makeshift bike locks. This is a scene we seldom see in this country because too few businesses and governments support and pay for basic infrastructure to make cycling more doable — such as having secure areas to lock bikes and accommodate them. (This is not the case in every community, and cycling advocates throughout the country are working to ensure new developments accommodate bikes with the right bike racks.)

Celebrating Bike to Work Day in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood, May 18, 2012.

I remembered my travels to Germany. Even back in the 1980s, I found hundreds of bikes locked outside, in large bike parking areas, that were used during every month of the year, including winter months. I long for the day when bike racks are common in front of every building, and every rack is occupied by a locked bike.

A sea of bikes in in Heidelberg, Germany, December 1985 — winter did not scare these cyclists, and they had a place to park their bikes.

Walking and why it is the secret to longevity and happiness

This week, a physical education columnist with the New York Times named Gretchen Reynolds was all over the radio. In 48 hours I heard her interviewed by Terry Gross of Fresh Air  and then interviewed by the BBC World Service. She has published a book with a catchy title called The First Twenty Minutes. It appears to be catching fire.

I liked a lot of the things she was saying, and how she communicated. Reynolds is a communicator attempting to take peer-reviewed journal articles, which to nonscientists are impenetrable with graphs and meaningless numbers and confusing P values and unconnected to their lives, and make them fit into the larger problems this country faces with the obesity and overweight epidemic. I applaud her for calling attention to this problem that is bankrupting our medical system and leaving tens of millions of Americans unable to live more productive, happier lives.

I caught most of her interview with Gross, and while upbeat, I found some of the discussion on the health benefits of activities like standing up often while sitting to be out of touch with larger systemic issues causing the health crisis that led to two-thirds of this country to become obese or overweight.  Encouraging people to do minor things is not asking anything resembling sacrifice or commitment, which is what is required both in a personal sense and a larger policy sense. It is as if we have completely dumbed down all of our messaging to the lowest denominator. But then again, Reynolds is someone making a living as a writer and health expert — and selling a popular message as a product is critical to success.

Instead of the media talking to experts about whether 30 minutes of exercise is  good enough to keep us healthy, media should be talking about the primary reasons why people aren’t exercising—the overconsumption of TV and screen use, the built environment that promotes the utter dominance of the internal combustion engine, and the failure of each individual to take ownership for their health from the food they eat to how much they move their bodies. (And, yes, I know it is more complicated than this, especially for many minorities and lower-income Americans, but these factors matter a lot).

I was delighted, however, that Reynolds praised the health benefits of walking. She rightly called walking the single best exercise that exists on the planet and what humans are built for. She is right. It reduces your risk for heart disease and diabetes, and it apparently increases memory capacity in mammals (makes sense, blood flow stimulates oxygen and chemicals produced by the body to be delivered to the brain). As for me, there is no better exercise in the world than walking. A walk anywhere, anytime, in any weather, beats sitting on my butt and not walking at all. I feel healthy, happy, and more level-headed after a walk. I just wish more Americans could embrace walking and voted to support measures that promote walking – sidewalks in neighborhoods, parks and trails – and support politicians who want to change how we deal with public transportation funding in this country. Even one of the biggest promoters of lopsided transportation priorities, the car- and petroleum-friendly federal government, notes that a tiny sliver (0.7%) of federal transportation funds are spent on improving pedestrian facilities.

Maybe we need what Scotland has, the right to roam about in a responsible way (yeah Scotland).

Walking the Coastal Trail in Anchorage on a lovely summer night.

My favorite place to walk in Anchorage Alaska, along Westchester Lagoon.