Posts Tagged ‘michael stepniak’

Interns’ Labors Leave a Stronger, More Sustainable Metro Detroit

August 22, 2011

Southgate was just one of the cites where interns made their mark...

Threescore and some days ago, our interns entered the ranks of the UniverCities Connection program. Now, as the days grow shorter, they’re bidding us adieu and headed back to school or, in Jordan Eizenga’s case, moving on to post-college life. The offices of the Suburbs Alliance will be a little emptier without them.

Don’t shed too many tears, though, for there’s much they’ve accomplished. Their regional climate and energy work this summer testifies to the power of tapping young minds from Michigan’s universities to take on the challenges of its cities.

...leaving them greener (hoop house, Highland Park)...

Stephanie assembled a strategy library that the cities of Ypsilanti, Southgate and Hazel Park will use to build individualized climate action plans. It includes more than two dozen entries on everything from A (anaerobic digesters) to W (wind power), detailing energy savings, ancillary benefits, funding and implementation mechanisms, and real-life examples for each strategy.

Jordan Eizenga tunneled through reams of municipal energy bills to assemble data on total energy consumption for the nine cities that have adopted the Millennial Mayors Congress Energy Protocol. Now, for the first time, this data gives them a yardstick to measure their progress towards the Protocol’s 25%-by-2015 energy use reduction goal.

Jordan Garfinkle used his energy expertise to write policy briefs describing how the cities can meet that target. Do they need to know the relative merits of community-based and corporate energy strategies, or learn what conservation strategies have been working for other Michigan cities? It’s all here.

Michael participated in what sometimes seemed like every aspect of Southgate city government. Whether digging up energy records, manning City offices, discussing regional initiatives, or directing traffic, Michael reveled in the “extreme glut of things that need to be done,” and did them with gusto.

...and more vibrant (Crossroads Festival, Ypsilanti, outside MSA office).

The interns’ work struck at “the real meat of environmentalism in local policy,” in Jordan E.’s words. These young people have made the region’s first collaborative effort to curb energy use possible. Putting their university training to work outside the ivory tower, they’ve done what cities couldn’t accomplish on their own. The Millennial Mayors Congress and Regional Energy Office will ensure their work doesn’t sit on a shelf, but reverberates far into the future, as cities establish mechanisms for meeting the Energy Protocol and pilot local climate plans.

Just as important, though, is how the summer’s work has sustained and strengthened the interns themselves. Don’t go yet; we’ll be checking in on them later this week!


What Makes an Authentic “Detroiter?” Intern Michael Stepniak Speaks

August 18, 2011

One unimpeachable Detroit foodstuff is, of course, the coney dog.

UniverCities Southgate energy intern Michael Stepniak grew up in northeast Detroit. Yet when we described him as a “native Detroiter” in a recent draft communication, Michael wasn’t having any of it. In a cogent e-mail written at two o’ clock in the morning, he explained why.

“I try to play that stuff down, actually,” Michael wrote, describing his claim to the city. “If you move here, you’ll find more than enough people trying to tell you how ‘Detroit’ they are, and I’m not about to be mistaken for that.” Instead, he’s working to establish a different sort of Detroit identity politics.

“I truly believe in regionalism, and one of the ways I try to foment that is by the things I say,” Michael explains. “I like it when a suburbanite says ‘I’m from Detroit.’ Damn right they are. In more ways than they are aware, for the most part.”

“‘Detroit’ will always be a divisive, loaded term until more people embrace it as their own. And that means, for me, not placing much stock in street cred. There is already too much of a divide between ‘the natives’ and the newcomers.”

As Michael points out, claims to an “authentic” Detroit heritage can be jealously guarded. Even suburbanites have been known to poke fun at their fellows for professing a Detroit identity, as the final rap battle in “8 Mile” indicates; cinephiles will recall Eminem’s climactic put-down of a rival who, despite his “gangsta” pose, is no more “from the 313” than Eminem himself. Individuals, organizations, and cities alike all wrestle with this subject.

Detroit identities contested in popular culture. (

Yet Michael isn’t the only one urging us to rethink what “Detroit” means. In a recent MetroTimes column, longtime political commentator Jack Lessenberry urged readers to “[r]ecognize Detroit for what it really is — not the artificial city limits, but the real city, which is the counties of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb.” Even that definition, of course, might leave Washtenaw County feeling a little excluded. Its membership in the region was a topic of some debate earlier this year, after Conan Smith, Chairman of the County Board of Commissioners (and, as fate would have it, Michigan Suburbs Alliance Executive Director) received a spot on the “Fab 5” panel of Detroit politicos, formerly the “Big 4.”

Whatever the particulars, however, we can hope that a new metropolitan identity is in the works. For one thing, more suburbanites are venturing south of 8 Mile, and more longtime Detroiters are leaving the city. These shifts could unsettle some long-cherished identities and foster a new appetite for regional collaboration. As we’ve always believed, that’s something that would reward city and suburbs alike.

The View From Above: Broderick Tower Offered Michael Stepniak a New Angle on Detroit

June 27, 2011

Atop Detroit's Broderick Tower. Photo:

Working as a mason tender gave UniverCities intern Michael Stepniak a better feel for metro Detroit’s urban fabric than most people ever have. An itinerant private contractor assisting at construction and demolition sites, he found himself “essentially living in [his] work truck several times over the years.” Moving around the region, he saw change in concrete form, as it happened on the ground: in the clean lines of a freshly poured basement, or the dust of a jackhammered loading dock.

During a job at downtown Detroit’s Madison Building, Michael found himself drawn to a dramatic new perspective. Next door to the Madison stood the vacant thirty-five-story shell of the Broderick Tower, commanding the corner of Woodward and Witherell at Grand Circus Park. An open window on the Broderick beckoned within reach of Michael’s scaffolding. The attraction proved irresistible. After work one day, he climbed through onto the Broderick’s ninth floor and made his way up twenty-nine flights of stairs to the roof.

Michael back on the ground.

“From 360 feet up,” he recalls, “the wagon-wheel corridors of Detroit stretched out to the horizon. I thought that I knew the city like the back of my hand, but I had never seen anything so breathtaking.” Years before Google Maps made aerial photos commonplace, the panorama led Michael to reflect on the infrastructure spread out below him. “I began to consider the systems upon which my way of life depended: streets, sewers, power plants, police departments, sidewalks, buses, and so on. It is one thing to live in a major metropolitan area, it is quite another to attempt to understand what makes it one.”

Now an urban studies major at Wayne State University, Michael hopes to attend graduate school for urban planning, feeding the fascination with cities that he’s fostering this summer with UniverCities in Southgate. Wherever that takes him, though, he knows he’ll find himself pulled back. “For some reason, other cities lack some intangible quality that makes Detroit my home,” he says. “I love this town.”