A sleepy-eyed Adriel Thornton takes a long drag on his cigarette, standing in front of the Max M. Fisher Music Center at 8 a.m., explaining why he had to cut his evening festivities short the night before. “I’m not a morning person,” says the civic activist and event promotions whiz, “and I knew I had to be up early for this.”
“This” is day two of CreateDetroit, a meeting of business, civic and cultural minds organized around a presentation by economist Richard Florida (“Hipster economics,” Metro Times, Feb. 25).
The previous evening, Florida had spoken to a near-capacity crowd at Orchestra Hall, where he touted his vision of creativity as a catalyst for economic growth, the theme of his popular book, The Rise of the Creative Class.
Florida had the air of a motivational speaker, claiming that Detroit has more raw potential than any other city in the nation. He gave a brief synopsis of his concept and what makes a city a livable, vibrant place — but other than the obligatory White Stripes and Eminem references, the speech could have been delivered in Anyville, USA. Yet he riled up the Detroit crowd; the women in the row behind me responded with a hearty chorus of “Uh huh! That’s right!” after every other sentence.
As he closed, Florida encouraged Detroit to “reach down and harness that energy” to make the city a better place to live.
The obvious question hanging in the air was “how?” Florida spoke for an hour, but didn’t offer a single concrete suggestion.
Thankfully, the conference’s second day yields more tangible results. The daylong brainstorming session, which drew together 300 people, includes bleary-eyed yet enthusiastic young activists like Thornton, middle-aged business leaders and members of community organizations.
Everyone is seated at tables of 10; CreateDetroit steering committee member Tom Taylor says considerable thought was put into ensuring each table would have a good mix of ages and professional backgrounds. My table is particularly interesting. Sitting to my right is Austin Black, 23, a recent college grad, who is the chair of the economic development committee of Next Generation Detroit, a civic activist group of young Detroiters. Across the table is Ann Perrault, co-founder of Avalon Breads. There’s also Bob Hayes, the city planner for Windsor, and Don Fraser, a representative from Comerica.
Bassist Marion Hayden from the jazz group Straight Ahead (who provided entertainment at the previous night’s event) is at a table across the way. State Sen. Buzz Thomas, art gallery owners George N’Namdi and Robert Maniscalco, and Triangle Foundation executive director Jeffrey Montgomery are also in attendance.
Florida is accompanied by his right-hand man, George Borowski, who has a sort of creepy Dr. Phil vibe. Together, the two wear wireless mics and stroll the audience as they extol the virtues of creativity. And they’ve brought some high tech toys for us to play with.
Each table has keypads, resembling clunky TV remotes, that are used to poll the participants. The results appear on a large display screen. We find that we’re split 50-50 between men and women, and divided roughly into quarters by age: 21-30, 31-40, 41-50 and 51-64; 4 percent were aged 20 and under, most of them Detroit public high school students.
Some 64 percent of the audience is white; 21 percent black, and Latinos, Asians and a multi-racial group are about 4 percent each. The audience is 85 percent straight, 15 percent defining gay, bi or “undecided.”
Next, we hear from a panel that includes techno pioneer Derrick May, co-founder of Avalon Breads Jackie Victor (my tablemate Perrault’s business and life partner), artist Tyree Guyton, and developer David Farbman. Each talks eloquently about loving Detroit and choosing to stay. But amid all the fluffy “go Detroit” sentiments, only May has the chutzpah to bring up the love-hate relationship that so many Detroiters have with their city. He also points out that it was “kind of sad” that it took a Pittsburgh economist to bring credibility to things Detroiters have been saying for years.
Even Florida agrees.
We break for lunch, and I meet a group from Rotterdam, Netherlands. Their company, Generator, is devoted to linking Detroit and Holland; they will have a stage at the next Movement, the electronic music festival, of which the Dutch government is a sponsor.
“I’m amazed by how many people are negative about Detroit,” says Olof Van Winden, who hosts his own Detroit music night in a Rotterdam club. “We think it’s the greatest city, that’s why we want to invest in it.”
When we return, it’s back to the keypads. We rate the Detroit region (seven counties and Windsor) on several of Florida’s indexes: talent, technology, tolerance, brain drain (or gain), and the composite of these, dubbed the creativity index. Our guesstimates are then compared to Florida’s calculations, which are based on everything from patents per capita to the number of college graduates in a region.
Apparently Detroiters and Florida don’t quite see eye to eye.
Some 47 percent of the audience rated Detroit “above average” in technology; Florida ranked the region No. 57 out of 61 regions across the nation. For the composite index, 81 percent of us thought Detroit “needs a little help” or is “middle of the road”; Florida ranked us No. 55 of the 61 regions.
Next, tables are divvied into “neighborhoods,” and each is assigned an area of concentration — my table gets technology. We are to come up with three concrete ways Detroit can better itself the within our assigned concentration. We have 10 minutes.
The table agrees on some things: Education is vital. And more internships are necessary. A partnership between schools and universities and the auto industry would be beneficial. We need a dang mass transit system already.
The ideas from all the tables are then filtered into Florida’s computer, and we get to vote. Of the technology suggestions, mass transit is the big winner. No big surprise.
Then, the gods of Detroit technology, angered by Florida’s poor ranking of them, smite him: Both of his computers crash. After a couple minutes, it becomes clear we won’t be able to see the suggestions the rest of our neighbors came up with, which is rather disappointing.
Instead, the floor is opened up for questions. Bassist Hayden wants to know how to find out who owns abandoned houses, as her neighbors want to start a sort of sweat equity plan to restore them; Florida suggests the city appoint a “minister of homestead” to head such a task.
Johnny Jenkins of Detroit Black Gay Pride emphasizes the need for an LGBT liaison to the mayor’s office. A Detroit high school student, a Wayne County government employee, and a Shrine of the Black Madonna representative chime in.
Then, the open forum devolves into self-promotion. A Clear magazine representative touts the publication and tells us where to buy it; a woman who claims Detroit’s dance scene is lacking plugs her company and says she wants to open up a downtown studio.
Thankfully, the infomercials end with one of the most stirring speeches of the day.
Sporting a mohawk and a Made In Detroit T-shirt, Joachim Marijnen, one of the Dutch guys, proclaims his love for the Motor City.
“I started listening to Detroit music when I was 15. Detroit is for me what Mecca is for Muslims. You guys really have to realize what you’ve got. The whole world is looking at you.”
Post-conference, Montgomery of the Triangle Foundation says he’s been pleased with the crowd: “It was very diverse, and not in the ways they measured on those little keypads.
“The effectiveness and success of this — we won’t be able to measure that [immediately], ... We’ve got to see where things are next Wednesday, or a week from now, and six months from now.”
Thornton, the young promoter and activist, was delighted with the energy of the day, but was missing one person in particular.
“I thought the mayor should have been there,” he says. The mayor briefly introduced Florida on day one, but sent a representative for day two. “He likes to portray himself as a fresh, young, innovative person,” says Thornton, “and I think he needed to hear a fresh, innovative approach to dealing with the city.”
Like Montgomery, Thornton hopes to keep the ball rolling.
“When this sort of thing happens, people have a tendency to meet themselves to death. Action needs to happen. I hope that every person there walked away with the understanding that they were empowered to do something. And get to work!”Sarah Klein is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org