The Handbuilt City was conceived in 2011 as a “think/do” tank which could serve as a cure for the common community development enterprise while I was working in St. Louis with RJ Koscielniak and Theaster Gates’ Rebuild Foundation. The idea was to take an integrative approach to development, thinking not only about finance and spreadsheets but also about the manual processes of development as well as the cultural ones. I also wanted to tell stories, things that are often missing from the spreadsheet model of development, and, in order to tell stories, I wanted to write stories– to explore and understand how culture informs the processes through which cities are built and unbuilt, and vice versa. While Handbuilt has comprised a number of different co-conspirators over the years, it is currently just me by my lonesome.
I went to a little college in Iowa, where the sky was blue, the corn was high, and the highest accolade in community development was to attract a big box retailer or a gun parts supplier to periurban greenfield land by the interstate. For a bit under a year I interned for the county economic development corporation, which indeed had actually just changed its name from referencing the local interstate. I helped develop plans for a business incubator (which never materialized but laid the groundwork for a retail co-op space), helped a real estate developer work out some plans for renovation and reuse of some lovely old buildings in the historic downtown, helped prospective industrial developers think through land use and subsidies, and completed a needs assessment survey of local nonprofit organizations and community groups to build a student fellowship program.
Moving to St. Louis in the fall of 2010, I started a residency with artist Theaster Gates, where I managed business operations, shoveled plaster dust into dumpsters, and learned why it is problematic for overeducated white hipsters to ride fixed gear bikes into black neighborhoods to consume commodified culture and then leave and talk about the “blank slate” that is the inner city. St. Louis was prime for development and the city was looking for the Next Big Thing—maybe Paul McKee’s monumental redevelopment of North St. Louis with a proposed $394 million in tax increment financing, or the Cortex project. I worked with longtime co-conspirator RJ Koscielniak and NextSTL’s Alex Ihnen to produce the Open/Closed Conference on Vacant Property and the accompanying Shuttered Film Festival.
Handbuilt became a brand under which I did business 2011-2015, working as a contractor and a consultant for a handful of investors developing properties in St. Louis, Chicago, and Northwest Indiana. I left the sluggish job market in St. Louis behind at the beginning of 2013. Wearing various hats as a paralegal, construction manager, project manager, and financial analyst and working with a small team of associates, I helped private equity partners prospect, acquire, and build out portfolios of several hundred residential and commercial properties, principally but not entirely from delinquent tax rolls, and principally long-vacant homes. I developed homes in Gary’s historic lakefront Miller Beach neighborhood, and I worked with local residents and aspiring, nascent real estate entrepreneurs to acquire their first or second rental property. During this time, I trained extensively in BPI, RESNET, PHIUS, and LEED stuff for energy efficiency and sustainable design, and attended the Summer Institute on Sustainability and Energy at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
I was recruited to the Cuba of the North, or the Paris of the Rust Belt, in 2015 to provide consulting, analysis, and operations management for a private equity group grappling with a complicated but lovely portfolio in the 7.2, those innermost square miles of Detroit. I provided market research into hospitality finance, helped build out some industrial loft space, and periodically found myself poking around in mechanical rooms of old car parts factories with a headlamp and a voltage pen.
I put Handbuilt ventures on the back burner from 2015-2017 while I worked full-time for Southwest Housing Solutions to manage their housing development partnerships with the Detroit Land Bank Authority, Chemical Bank (née Talmer), Flagstar Bank, and the AFL-CIO Housing Investment Trust. I was a 2016 summer fellow of the Ecologic Institute’s POCACITO program in Germany, and have hosted POCACITO fellows in Detroit. I left Southwest in March 2017 in search of greener pastures and to return to work in real estate consulting.
I am also working on finishing and eventually publishing my Construction and Design Standards Guide, a heavily editorialized, technical “how-to” manual on residential construction in Rust Belt capital climates that aims to advance construction techniques for energy-efficient, resilient construction and good design. The CDS guide evolved from a one-page cut sheet I produced for Southwest Housing to standardize the process of scope development, eventually turning into a hundred-some page book. I am also working on Detroit Park City, a development atlas of parking lots in the Motor City that proposes development alternatives for hardscaping.
In addition to the above history, I reside in the city of Detroit in a charmingly renovated, 1884 house with two roommates, pet rats Edmund and Fitzgerald, and a lot of bikes. I can be regularly found riding with the Beat The Train bike club, which tours Detroit starting from behind the Michigan Welcome Center at 0630 every Saturday morning for six months of the year, at Pubstumper’s Trivia at the historic Victoria Tavern, at Avalon International Breads, exhaling for downward facing dog at Detroit Yoga Lab, or roaming the riverfront.