Blotting Update: Detroit Wants To Sell You This Lot

Sharon McClinton cares for the vacant land around her house. Detroit is trying to make it easier for residents like her to buy that land, too.

Apparently, the phone has been ringing off the hook over at Detroit’s planning department.  It’s all because of a few lines uttered by Mayor Dave Bing in his State of the City address last week. (You’ll find them about 30 minutes in.)

“This week we sent out over 500 letters to property owners in Hubbard Farms, Springwells Village and Southwest Detroit,” he announced, “telling them if they own a home adjacent to a vacant city-owned lot, they can purchase this lot for a mere $200.”

“No coming downtown,” the mayor said.  “No added bureaucracy. The city will mail back the deed.”

The initiative is a response to the overwhelming problem of abandoned property in Detroit.  It’s a problem we explored in our stories about Detroit “blotters” — which you can see here and here.

Blotting describes what happens when homeowners annex the vacant lot, or lots, next door. They create expanded properties, between the size of a lot and a city block.  Sometimes, residents can purchase these side lots.  Often, they’re constrained by bureaucracy or money, so they may just throw up a fence to ward off the dangers of abandonment. Continue reading “Blotting Update: Detroit Wants To Sell You This Lot”

Want To Buy A Home But Can’t Because of Student Debt?

Chicago suburbs, by flikr user Scorpions and Centaurs

American student loan debt totals nearly one trillion dollars. These loans break down to about $23,300 owed by each borrower. Changing Gears has been reporting on the effects of that debt and what it takes to pay it off.

We want to know how student debt affects big purchasing decisions. Are you ready to buy a house? And if so, can you get a mortgage?

Tell us how student debt affects your housing plans.

Student Debt: When Fixing Cars Breaks The Bank


Victor Gregory teaches high schoolers about cars. He worries when they take on debt after graduation.

Americans owe close to a trillion dollars in student loan debt.  Changing Gears has been reporting on that debt, a lot of which comes from attending private, for-profit schools.  They’re the fastest growing part of higher education, popular for non-degree technical training.  Call them career colleges, technical schools or trade schools … just don’t call them cheap.

Fact: For-profit schools cost more than community colleges.  Fact: For-profit students borrow more, then default more than students from public colleges.  Fact:  All this explains why I ended up at the strip club in Detroit.

So I’m at Cobra’s the Grind, eyes-avoiding-buttocks, walking up dimly lit stairs to meet the manager. Steve is a big guy; he started here as a bouncer. He lays his gun down next to us as we talk.  He had different life plans after graduating high school in 2006. Continue reading “Student Debt: When Fixing Cars Breaks The Bank”

Student Debt: The Cost Of Learning A Trade

Kate Davidson
For $2, this little guy gets a “college boy” cut from barber student Tom Amundson


America’s student loan debt is now bigger than its credit card debt. It’s approaching a trillion dollars. Student loan default rates are rising too. While many families struggle to afford traditional colleges, a lot of student debt comes from attending private, for-profit schools that focus on vocational training. These students default on their loans twice as often as students from public colleges. Today we’re looking at one small school battling big defaults.

Continue reading “Student Debt: The Cost Of Learning A Trade”

Cliffs Natural Resources Scraps Plans for UP Nugget Plant

Cliff's Empire Mine in Michigan's Upper Peninsula

If you’ve been following our coverage of iron mining in the region, this might interest you.  Cliffs Natural Resources, North America’s biggest iron ore supplier, is scrapping plans to build an iron nugget plant in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

A nugget is just a little clump of very pure iron.  Big deal?  Well, here’s why the new nugget technology matters … and why Cliffs spent years studying it in cooperation with Kobe Steel of Japan.

Remember, the iron-rich regions of Michigan and Minnesota:

1) provided the iron ore

2) that made the steel

3) that helped the industrial Midwest become the industrial Midwest.

However, miners extracted so much high-grade ore, for so long, that mostly low-grade ore remains today.  Companies like Cliffs spend a lot of time and money processing that ore — essentially upgrading it into a product that contains more iron.  That product, called a pellet, is what they ship to steelmakers.

Nuggets have a far higher iron content than the pellets typically produced in the region.  They look like Junior Mints, but they’re almost 100% iron.  Very pure.  Which could make them very valuable to the next generation of steelmakers.

Check out our recent piece on a groundbreaking nugget plant in Minnesota.  Mesabi Nugget hasn’t reached full capacity yet, but it has produced more than 200,000 tons of iron nuggets.

As for Cliffs Natural Resources, the company decided a nugget plant in Michigan would not be commercially viable.  However, spokesman Dale Hemmila says that won’t prevent Cliffs from investing $60 million to extend the life of its Empire Mine to 2015.

The Empire and Tilden open pit mines are essential to the economy of the UP.  We reported earlier on one “company town” that relies on the economic oxygen of the mines.  If you’ve never been to Ishpeming, now’s your chance.

Trombone Shorty Gets The Ultimate New Orleans Honor

Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews is special to us at Changing Gears. He gave us his song “Right to Complain,” for the Changing Gears theme song. He’s doing his part to help kids in New Orleans, in the same way that people are trying to help out in the Midwest.

Trombone Shorty

Now, Andrews has gotten the ultimate New Orleans honor. He’s the subject of this year’s Jazz and Heritage Festival poster. It’s called Porch Song, and shows Andrews on the porch of his home in Treme. The artist is Terrance Osborne.

Andrews, 25, is joining a heralded group of musicians who’ve appeared on the poster, including Irma Thomas, Allen Toussaint, Louis Prima, Jimmy Buffett, and Fats Domino.

We talked to him not long after Changing Gears went on the air in 2010. Hear his interview a few months ago with our friends Greg Kot and Jim DeRogatis on Sound Opinions, from our partner station WBEZ.

The State of the State in Laingsburg, Michigan

Janae Jodway owns Body Works Medical Massage in Laingsburg

LAINGSBURG, Mich. – Michigan’s Governor Rick Snyder gives his second State of the State address tonight.  He’s already signed more than 300 public acts.  That’s a new law for almost every day in office.

Over the next few weeks, Changing Gears is looking at how changes in state government are impacting lives and wallets across the region. Here in Michigan, people are riveted by some of Snyder’s big ticket changes, like giving emergency managers the power to strip control from elected officials in failing cities and school districts.

But this story is different.  It’s about one Mid-Michigan town and all the small, drowned-out changes that deeply affect people’s lives.  People like Janae Jodway.[display_podcast] Continue reading “The State of the State in Laingsburg, Michigan”

Changing Gears Special: A Retrospective on 2011

Our mission at Changing Gears is to report the economic transformation of the industrial Midwest, through the stories of people driving and experiencing this change.

Recently, our stations aired an hour-long encore presentation of our favorite series from the fall, as well as other stories from throughout 2011.

Have you ever wondered if small business really plays an important role in job creation? Or why our region seems to focus so much on one magic thing that will save the entire economy? And, have you wondered what will become of all the thousands of the empty houses and factories that litter our region?

Corey Greenwald's machines are shaping intricate designs in metal blocks, largely unattended.

We also went to a few factory floors to see what manufacturing is like these days – including one place where the machines continue to work at night, unattended, long after the human workers punch out.

We hope that these stories – about the Magic Bullets that are supposed to save our economy, innovative ways people are filling Empty Places, and what the modern factory looks like, help fulfill our mission.

Our partners at WBEZ are featuring our special on their site. You can check it out here.

Changing Gears Special: “Getting By” Looks At How The Recession Is Affecting Us

Depending on the analyst and the statistic, the Midwest economy is on the mend or still in trouble or somewhere in between.

Getting By, a year-end special from Changing Gears, went beyond the experts and numbers.

"Getting By" participants

Senior editor Micki Maynard and WBEZ’s Steve Edwards gathered at a dining room table with eight Illinois residents from different places and different points of view to discuss the economy’s real world impact on their lives.

We talked about how the recession is affecting everyone, from veterans to business owners, single mothers to people struggling to find work.

Listen to Getting By here and see more photos of the people who took part.

Many of our participants came to us through our PIN network, and we’re always looking for people who can lend their insight. If you’d like to become a source for us, click here.

Can Technology Breathe New Life into the Midwest’s Old Iron?

Plant manager Jeff Hansen says Mesabi Nugget is a pioneer

The industrial Midwest might not be the industrial Midwest if it weren’t for the iron-rich regions of northern Minnesota and Michigan. These iron ranges have long supplied domestic steelmakers, depleting the highest quality ore along the way. Now, a plant in Minnesota is testing a process to dramatically upgrade the low-grade ore that remains.[display_podcast] Continue reading “Can Technology Breathe New Life into the Midwest’s Old Iron?”