Changing the City Narrative

Is this what comes to your mind about Detroit?  The perception has to change before the city can. Source:, using a Cleveland Plain Dealer graphic from 2007.

(EDIT: I forgot to insert links initially.  They’re all in now.  Hope it all makes sense now.)

My father and I often share our thoughts about the future prospects of our hometown of Detroit.  It goes back to my teenage years, but we still do it today.  These conversations started in the mid-‘70s, when I think we realized that opinions were spiraling out of control regarding Detroit and were becoming increasingly negative – the riots, the school busing controversy, accusations of police brutality, and the “Murder Capital of the World” tag, all while enduring the steady loss of auto manufacturing jobs.
We usually agreed that there was racial context to this evolving narrative.  This probably became most clear in 1973 when newly-elected Mayor Coleman Young, in an effort to demonstrate that he was willing to be tough on crime, said he was telling criminals to “hit 8 Mile Road”, the celebrated boundary and psychological divide between city and suburb.  What a lot of white residents heard, however, was something completely different.  They heard, according to later accounts, one of two things – 1) that white Detroiters better get out of Dodge if they know what’s good for them, or 2) that black Detroiters just declared open crime season on white suburbanites.  
What a way to start your administration.
I recall an after-Thanksgiving Dinner discussion with my father and grandfather, circa 1979 or 1980.  It was clear that both realized that Detroit’s narrative had spun wildly out of control.  It was also clear that they both realized something that has only become clear to suburbanites and residents of the rest of the state in the last few years – that the negativity directed at Detroit would ultimately become directed at the metro area and the entire state, and damage economic prospects for everyone.
I remember my father making a bold statement at the time.  He said, “Perspectives about Detroit are not going to change until there’s a white mayor again.  Only then will people say, ‘yeah, Detroit is changing for the better!’” 
That’s definitely one way for the city to change its narrative.
About a month ago I wrote a piece about the importance of mesofacts (described here) and changing city narratives.  Don’t knock the power of the narrative.  As I mentioned in the previous post:
…Ann Arbor’s proximity to Detroit has put a low ceiling on its economic fortunes.  Money quote from a 2009 Wall Street Journal article about Michigan’s economic woes at the time:
“(D)espite Ann Arbor’s educated work force, employers here find Michigan’s reputation as a failing manufacturing economy can deter potential hires from moving to the state.

At HandyLab, an Ann Arbor firm that makes a DNA-analysis device, Chief Executive Jeffrey Williams says he has had a hard time finding Ph.D.-level workers with highly specialized skills. His company, which has doubled to roughly 60 employees in the past year, has 10 job openings.
“It’s definitely gotten much harder with all the stigma around Detroit,” he says. “Somebody tries to pigeonhole us as Detroit, we say, ‘No, it’s Ann Arbor, it’s a completely different environment.’ “

Detroit’s perception is altering its reality.  The city will not get better until its perceptions change first.
How, exactly, can a city like Detroit reverse 40-plus years of negative press?  Hey, I’m just a guy with a passion for cities, but it’s clear to me that patches like bike lanes, “Cool Cities” initiatives, DIY Urbanism and the like won’t do a thing to transform the image of Detroit.  The city has to come to terms with its soul; it must examine why it exists as a city.
Here are four thoughts on altering the image:
·         Brand the city as a city of redemption.  I brought this up in a post last week.  From that post:
“If Rust Belt cities are smart, they would target talent in other cities to support existing successful industries or targeted industries in their area.  Surely there are people who have failed at, say, getting that angel investor to fund their renewable energy technology idea in Silicon Valley and they’re resigned to being an anonymous database administrator in the Valley instead.  That person is one who should be embraced by Rust Belt cities – bring them back here, support them and their work, and let it grow.  Hell, even tell them that if it reaches a level in your town that requires relocation for future growth, let them go.  And then pursue another failed smarty in search of redemption.”
·         Establish alumni networks of Detroit expats around the country.  I honestly believe that one of the secret successes of the Pittsburgh renaissance has been Steeler Nation, the gathering of Pittsburgh Steeler football fans cheering on their favorite team across the nation.  Steeler fans in Atlanta, Charlotte, Dallas, Phoenix, Portland and other places come together and not only cheer, but reminisce about their Pittsburgh connections.  And, when the opportunity presents itself, they sometimes come back home.
Anyone familiar with the Lions knows they haven’t had nearly the success of the Steelers to replicate that model.  But Detroit could create alumni networks in cities across the country that could identify relocated Detroiters who might be interested in returning, or supporting the revitalization efforts of the city.  Another model that could be employed here is that of college alumni associations.
·         Embrace immigration.  Detroit has largely missed the wave of Hispanic migration that’s taken place in much of the rest of the country.  The city’s Hispanic population has grown, going from 2.8% to 6.8% between 1990 and 2010, but the overall small number is nothing like the 28% Hispanic population in Chicago.  Detroit would do well to attract more Hispanic immigrants to the Motor City.  Also, the Detroit metro area is noted for having one of the largest Arab populations of any in the nation, particularly Arab Christians.  While there is a political dynamic that could interfere with this, Detroit has a niche here that it could tap to increase migration flow.
·         Encourage brain drain.  I know, it’s counterintuitive.  Cities spend millions of dollars attempting to hold on to its local talent.  But, as I’ve discovered through Jim Russell, it doesn’t work.  Instead, Detroit should let its best and brightest leave and participate in the alumni networks around the country.  Let them share their positive experiences about Detroit with other Detroit expats, but more importantly with others with no connections to Detroit.
I know there are a lot of people who will look at this and think this has little to do with the economic and health of shrinking Rust Belt cities.  They will argue that a targeted economic development program that emphasizes investment in industry clusters, workforce development strategies, and the like are the way to go.  There are others who will argue that being “cool”, through funky architecture, eclectic programming and other similar efforts will do the trick.  Trust me, if that was all it took for Detroit and similar cities to make a comeback, it would’ve happened already.  Address the perceptions and the rest will follow.

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