Monday, June 1, 2009

John Dolza, 40

John Dolza was laid off from his job at a nursing home last summer. After spending a few months volunteering for the Obama campaign, Dolza decided to focus his efforts on establishing the first community garden in his town of Fenton, Michigan.

In a few short months he has rallied the town around the project, securing support from the city government, several local businesses, a grant from the Mott Foundation, and numerous friends and neighbors.

"I could not do this right now if I didn't have all this support. MARVIN payments are keeping me in gas and food, my good friend Val is putting me up...and the city is really, really supportive".

For the time being, Dolza has put off job-hunting to focus on organizing the garden full-time. With a nod to his umemployment benefits, he jokingly refers to it as "the Garden that MARVIN built".

The picture above, taken in March, shows Dolza at the site before groundbreaking. This is what it looks like now:

Dolza believes this is a project of necessity.

"People around here are hungry," says Dolza. "We've got folks who are going to Wal-Mart and stealing food and toilet paper because they're so broke".
With this in mind, 2600 square feet of garden, about a quarter of the entire space, is dedicated for food for the hungry.

Dolza was also pleased to discover the project appealed to a wide range of Fenton residents.
"We've got retired hippies, U.A.W. guys, former GM managers, family moms that wanna grow food for the family...a huge diversity of people and all of them really energized".

Nevertheless he says, "There's a lot of cohesion here. Folks here wanna take care of their own, and that's what we're leveraging".

Dolza believes the time for a community garden of this nature is particularly ripe.

"Personally I think it's prudence, in case really hard times are around the corner... Also- we've all got time instead of money. If you're poor and don't want to live on double cheeseburgers, corn flakes and ramen noodles, this is about as good as it gets".

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Jenny Campbell

Jenny Campbell is hard at work creating a suite of costumes for the Mermaid Parade, an annual event in Coney Island, NY. She has a lot of time on her hands these days to make the costumes exactly how she wants them.

After spending twenty years as a photo archivist and digital imaging technician at the Walters Art Gallery, Campbell was laid off in February. To hear her talk about it, it sounds less like a job loss and more like a death in the family.

"It really broke my heart because I thought I knew the collection better than anyone. It was my baby. I can't say "collection" anymore without tearing up, and I often have dreams of walking through the galleries," she says. The loss has effected her so profoundly, she doesn't think she can ever go back to the museum.

To make matters worse, Campbell had bought a house three weeks before she was laid off. The house sits in Hamilton on a quiet block off Moravia Road. Her living room is cluttered, though remarkably put together considering she's only lived there a few months. It's clear that Campbell wasted no time making the house her own. Now she sits here and wonders if she'll be able to keep it.

"I see it as the cosmic energy saying 'nope, you're not supposed to have this kind of life'," she laughs. "If at middle age, you're buying your first house, maybe it was never meant to be".

And so now Campbell is considering the 'artist lifestyle'. She's an inventive costume maker, and has created a line of painted-screen dresses, a variation on the classic Baltimore art-form (see image below). She just got back from a trip to New Orleans where she hopes to find a market for her work. In the mean time, she's trying to keep her spirits up in the face of difficult times.

"I make it a specific point to jump out of bed every day, make the bed, and open the blinds immediately," she says. "I know I'll land on my feet, I just don't know where".

See more of Jenny's work here:

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Victor Pytko

In the heart of the Pioneer Building on East Grand Boulevard in downtown Detroit, Victor Pytko browses through the stacks and stacks of paintings that fill his studio. No surface, vertical or horizontal, is left uncovered, and the place is filled to the brim. A space heater in the middle of the room hums away on an uphill battle against the drafty building, an old paper factory converted into artist studios.

Pytko describes himself as "self-unemployed". After 15 years working for PR agencies, Pytko struck out on his own in 2001, essentially becoming a freelance PR man.

"I slowly over the years built up a sufficient number of clients to make a decent living out of it, until recently when the market went bad. A lot of projects dried up," he explains.

Having been self-employed, he wasn't eligible for unemployment benefits. But rather than dwell on his bad luck, Pytko has turned his painting hobby into a full time job. He now spends 30-40 hours a week painting, applying for grants, and promoting his work to museums and galleries.

In addition, he's attempting to take advantage of Michigan's growing film industry.

"There are a number of opportunities right now in Michigan working in the film industry. Using what I know about photography, and having done some PR work that involved video and web , I'm trying to bring it all under one umbrella now, calling it my 'creative side', and looking at any way to leverage it," he says. In the past several months, Pytko has also been an extra in a number of movies.

Not only has this change renewed a creative passion in his life, but Pytko claims it serves a much needed therapeutic quality.

"You start biting your nails when you don't get a check for a while," he says. "I'm pretty much using the escape mechanisms that painting offers to avoid thinking about it too much. Instead of worrying about it and getting depressed, I come down here and paint knowing that most artists are broke anyway," he says with a grin.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Sangeeta Joshi, 38

Sangeeta Joshi had been a paralegal at a DC law firm until they began downsizing their staff in October. Her company's biggest client had been AIG. A first generation Indian American, Joshi fears for her retired parents who relied on their daughter for financial support. Joshi has had little luck in her job hunt, and has begun selling her belongings to make ends meet.

She has recently picked up a part-time contract job, but it's a mixed blessing. Taking this job means making the same amount she did on unemployment.
"Whatever I make at the part-time job, I have to deduct from unemployment. So I may as well not work, but I can't do that! Otherwise I'd go stir crazy and fall into depression." She says. Joshi feels having any kind of job gives her life structure, which is exactly what she needs right now. "I'm not going to say no to work," she says.

Epic Systems

Not everyone is suffering in this economy. Epic Systems, a Verona, Wisconsin-based medical software company is growing in leaps and bounds. Since 2005, the company has added over 1,000 new jobs to it's roster, and is currently in phase two of construction of it's massive new rural campus (pictured). The company has a reputation for hiring young people, and their website boasts dozens of job openings. Epic specializes in electronic medical records, a field which the Obama administration hopes to support with the economic stimulus plan.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Baker's Keyboard Lounge

At 75 years old, Detroit's Baker's Keyboard Lounge is the oldest running jazz club in the world. It's small stage has seen the likes of Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, Cab Calloway, John Coltrane, and Ella Fitzgerald, to name a few. But just as the club is preparing to celebrate it's 75th anniversary, owner John Colbert has made it known that it's doors may soon be closing.

"The business has dropped about 35-40% four nights out of the week," says Colbert. "Our cash reserve is down to keeping us open about 2 and a half months at most".

He acknowledges that Jazz's hey-day has passed, causing their clientele to diminish in the past decades. In an attempt to keep customers coming, the club expanded their event repertoire to include new genres. But opening a lunch and dinner restaurant at the club is what really kept the money coming in. Now that people are eating out less, Colbert believes the recession may put the final nail in his club's coffin.
The night after an article about Baker's dire situation came out in the Detroit Free Press, the club was crowded with people there to support it and take in the sounds of Gerard Gibbs (on keys below) and his band. Colbert hopes that as news of the club's situation spreads, help will find a way of arriving.

At the end of the night, a waiter tallies up bills on a piano in the corner.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Tiny Texas Houses

Brad Kittel is a 53 year old Texan entreprenuer. In 2006 he opened his latest in a string of start-up businesses called Tiny Texas Houses. A former Austin real estate broker who focused his energies on run-down East Austin, Kittel turned away from that business after about a dozen years.

"At that time, I didn't even know what the word 'gentrified' meant. But after the houses there had gone up in prices, then all of a sudden I was the bad guy cause I'd gentrified the neighborhood. I was blamed for raising prices and all the taxes going up,"recalls Kittel.

He then turned his energies towards dealing in salvaged home furnishings, and eventually landed on the idea of the tiny house. According to his website, Kittel began building the tiny houses "to demonstrate just how great it can be to downsize our carbon footprint, simplify our lives, and live in a house with a soul that will be energy efficient as well as beautiful".

Kittel is hoping that the idea of the tiny house will resonate particularly well during the economic downturn. He wants to position his company's product as a smarter alternative to the McMansion style homes that have been cropping up all over America in the last decade.

And the bottom line? Kittels' houses start at $38,ooo and go up. So while they're not exactly cheap, they are within reach for many first time home-buyers.

In addition to being energy efficient, the tiny houses are built almost entirely out of salvaged materials (seen above), save for plumbing, wiring, and some hardware. In the state of Texas, approximately a third of all solid waste in landfills is debris from construction and demolition projects.

But beyond the practical benefits of his houses, Kittel hopes to have an impact on an American mentality. With that in mind, there is an educational component to his business plan.

"My goal is not to build a million tiny houses, it's to teach people to build a million tiny houses," says Kittel. He hopes to establish an internship program at his facility so people can come learn how to salvage materials and build these houses themselves.

"We can't compete with Wal-Mart, and we're not trying to," says Kittel. "The built-in obselescence has become the mantra of the United States, and unfortunately people have come to accept the Wal-Mart mentality of cheap, cheap, cheap. Quality is not an issue. We've got to move away from that Wal-mart mentality. We as Americans have to say 'Hey, everyone here is not a pig' everybody here isn't glutonous and wanting to have it all. We're willing to save some for our grandkids and for the rest of the world. It's the sense that I'm not sure people will do that. But at least I want to put that banner out there and say there are alternatives".