Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A prisoner is being sentenced to his fate. His captor solemnly commands: “Take him to Detroit!”
“No, No!” the prisoner screams. “Not Detroit! Please, anything but that!”
This oft-quoted barb is from the 1977 comedy Kentucky Fried Movie. But that was the ’70s, when Detroit’s economy and national reputation were still tumbling. The city has visibly improved by leaps and bounds over the past few decades, and no one thinks it’s the worst place on earth anymore, right?
From a 2000 episode of “South Park”:
Satan (in hell, confronted by a supposedly dead bad guy): “No! It can’t be! You’re dead — I killed you!”
Bad guy: “Yeah, you killed me. Where was I supposed to go? Detroit?”
Even after twenty-some years of business development, new attractions like stadiums and casinos, and an explosion of world-renowned musical acts, Detroit — a city that according to Hollywood is worse than the sulfurous pits of hell — is still the butt of jokes.
Detroiters aren’t laughing
Among the unamused is a rapidly expanding collective of metro Detroiters — business leaders, city officials, university employees and socially conscious hipsters — that wants to remove Detroit from the punch line. The group, backed by the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce, has joined forces with a newly famous economist who claims the key to revitalizing Detroit (and other cities) is nourishing the arts, culture and diversity, so that the city can draw young, creative professionals to live and work. The group calls itself CreateDetroit, and hopes that through its action one day the expression “I want to live in Detroit” will be an earnest sentiment and not the end to a tasteless joke.
Essentially, CreateDetroit is a Detroit-centric spin on Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s Cool Cities initiative. Granholm’s project encouraged mayors of cities across Michigan to work on ways to make their towns more attractive to young artists and professionals. Some 80 cities took up her call, creating “cool” advisory boards. But Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick took a pass; his representatives say the mayor is already doing things to make the city better with programs like Kids, Cops, Clean. So the chamber of commerce, along with officials from Wayne State University, decided to do their own thing to address the issue of “cool” and “creative” in Michigan’s biggest city.
CreateDetroit (www.createdetroit.com) is a loosely structured, grassroots group of Detroiters and suburbanites, including business leaders, representatives from organizations such as the Triangle Foundation, Detroit Synergy, Young Friends of Woodward, Detroit techno pioneer Derrick May, activists and young professionals.
Founded by Hans Erickson and Karen Batchelor of the chamber of commerce, and Ann Slawnik, director of the Detroit Orientation Institute at WSU, the group’s big kick-off event takes place March 3 and 4.
The star and inspiration for this confab is Richard Florida, a flashy economist from Pittsburgh who recently rocketed to national fame with his book, The Rise of the Creative Class.
Florida’s basic shtick goes like this: His creative class is filled with young, well-educated professionals paid to create. He lumps into this category everyone from musicians and artists to engineers and entrepreneurs, graphic designers, doctors and innovators of technology and ideas. He says these people are key to a diverse and flourishing arts and cultural scene, and vital to the success of cities. The creative class decides which cities are destination locales; therefore, it’s in the interest of cities to attract them. The creative class, he says, stimulates economic growth and development.
The idea is based on the theory that some young people make geographic choices before job choices, such as when new college graduates head to San Francisco, jobless, simply because they want to live in San Francisco.
CreateDetroit wants to ensure that the young creative class makes Detroit its home. And the group hopes Florida can help them do that.
“Our biggest export is our kids,” says Erickson, the chamber’s chief information office. “And that has to stop. We spend all this money on education, and then they leave us and go to other cities.”
The goal of CreateDetroit is to stimulate discussion on how to make Detroit a destination city, to gather suggestions, and ultimately to devise a prioritized plan for the betterment of the city. The chamber of commerce, a powerful group that represents the corporate and business (read: money) sector of metro Detroit, has already targeted a few basic concepts, such as the issues of segregation and “self-esteem” (encouraging Detroiters to take pride in the city). After the conference, CreateDetroit will form task forces to tackle these issues, and draft tangible plans and strategies.
Last summer, Erickson and Batchelor, head of public affairs for the chamber, stumbled across an e-mail advertising a conference call with Florida, touting his ideas of city revitalization. Intrigued, the two joined the call, and spoke up during the Q&A session. After identifying themselves as Detroiters, Florida said he was interested in the city. In the past, Florida has referred to Detroit as having the most potential in the nation (which didn’t stop him from ranking the city among the worst in his “creativity index”).
Erickson and Batchelor initially discussed bringing Florida in for the chamber’s annual political and business conference on Mackinac Island. They joined up with Slawnik, who had already contacted Florida. Together, the trio invited Florida to Detroit to lead an intensive, two-day “Regional Transformation Project.”
“We looked to him as a catalyst because of the national publicity he and his work have garnered,” says Erickson. “He lends credibility to something people have been saying for a long time: The quality of a place is important.”
By using Florida, an exuberant speaker with a penchant for getting his audiences riled up, CreateDetroit hopes to spark discussion among the business class, the so-called creative class, and city and suburban residents. So far, there’s plenty of interest: Organizers were shocked when the first informal meeting of CreateDetroit at the Furniture Factory last October drew more than 100 people, simply by word of mouth. As the group began to expand, business leaders, other civic organizations, activists and the simply curious signed up for the ride.
Cool vs. Creative
This isn’t the first time Florida’s ideologies have charmed a Michigander. Granholm invited him to speak at a daylong “Creating Cool Conference” in Lansing in December 2003, where he heartily endorsed her campaign.
In September 2003, Granholm announced she’d contacted the mayors of more than 200 cities across the state, and encouraged them to form something she dubbed a Local Cool Cities Advisory Group. It was up to each mayor to choose who would sit on the board (apparently, city mayors have their fingers on the pulse of what is “cool”). Thus far, 80 cities have responded, with roughly 20 of them in southeast Michigan.
So what’s the difference between Detroit’s Cool Cities committee and CreateDetroit?
Excellent question. The answer depends on whom you ask.
Erickson says Cool Cities is the governor’s initiative, while CreateDetroit is a “grassroots” organization.
Maura Campbell, spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Growth, is quick to point out that she thinks Cool Cities is “also a grassroots effort” and “about government being a conduit to cool.”
Campbell says Cool Cities in Detroit “kind of morphed into CreateDetroit.” She says Mayor Kilpatrick didn’t come up with a Detroit advisory group, but the mayor’s office indicated that it would work instead with CreateDetroit.
Lucius Vassar, director of corporate and civic affairs for the mayor’s office, attended the Lansing Cool Cities conference as a representative of Detroit.
“In other communities, Cool Cities was a call to action, and Detroit already had a lot of action,” says Vassar. “I don’t think it necessitated the city to form a Cool Cities commission. Under Mayor Kilpatrick’s leadership, we already had a number of efforts that are about promotion of the city, economic development and cultural resources, for example, the mayor’s vision of Kids, Cops, Clean.”
Kids, Cops, Clean is the mayor’s initiative to rebuild the city by focusing on after-school programs for kids, improving the police department, and making neighborhoods cleaner and safer. It was introduced in April 2002.
Vassar describes Kids, Cops, Clean as “the mayor’s vision for a city where families have access to new opportunities, technological innovation and safe, strong and smart communities. And that’s pretty cool.”
“It’s important that there be continued support and dialogue of CreateDetroit,” says Vassar. “But the mayor will continue to support other efforts, and has led other efforts, that hope to have the same effect of promoting and supporting Detroit and its people.”
Perhaps the city’s pennies will be split accordingly as well. Vassar says the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation donated $10,000 to CreateDetroit, which amounts to a drop in the bucket for such a large event.
CreateDetroit committee member Jay Dolata, who works for the advertising firm Brogan & Partners and just bought a townhouse in Detroit, hopes the city will get a little more enthusiastic.
“I don’t feel they’re participating enough,” says Dolata of Detroit city officials. The mayor sends people to CreateDetroit meetings, “but it doesn’t really feel like they’re taking an active presence,” Dolata says.
Kilpatrick was invited to sit on the seminar’s discussion panel, which includes influential Detroiters such as techno music star Derrick May, developer David Farbman of the Farbman Group and artist Tyree Guyton. The committee was so bent on garnering the mayor’s attention and convincing him to sit on the panel that they had a teddy bear, decked in “cool” shades and a biker jacket, sent to the mayor’s office on Valentine’s Day — compliments of CreateDetroit.
Vassar says Kilpatrick can’t sit on the discussion panel because his schedule is too busy, but that the mayor plans to introduce Florida to the conference on Wednesday, March 3.
“In order for the people that are attending this event to be moved, they need a leader, and the mayor is the obvious leader here,” says Dolata. “You have to have the mayor promoting it as well. His attendance is crucial to the event’s success.”
Karen Batchelor bustles into Avalon Breads, apologizing for being late.
“Before we start, I promised the guys outside I would buy them a cup of coffee,” she says, referring to panhandlers. Apparently this is a ritual; each time Batchelor visits the store, they get a cup of coffee and a brownie.
Batchelor is a dyed-in-the-wool Detroiter, born and raised, and currently lives in a loft in midtown. Her 28-year-old son decided to stay in the Detroit area despite his options elsewhere, and Batchelor hopes other young people will stay as well.
“This is just the beginning of the dialogue,” Batchelor says with an infectious enthusiasm. “Out of it will come an action plan, to work with neighborhoods, community organizations. I think the timing is right for this.”
Detroit development and jobs have always relied on the automotive and manufacturing industry, what Batchelor refers to as “Plan A.”
“CreateDetroit is a Plan B … [it will] make sure the talent comes here.”
Batchelor says CreateDetroit will continue to evolve with hopes of turning ideas into concrete action plans.
Drumming up more money certainly wouldn’t hurt. Grants for Detroit’s Department of Cultural Affairs took a serious hit this year. State funds were slashed in half, from $140,000 to roughly $72,000; and city funds will drop from $150,000 to just $50,000 at the start of the new fiscal year.
CreateDetroit is a labor of love, run by volunteers. Erickson and Batchelor use some of their working hours at the chamber to focus on the project, but the majority of the work is done after-hours. Same with the rest of the committee, which must squeeze in time for weekly meetings, distribute posters and invites, and do everything else that goes with promoting an event, without getting paid for it. They’re also adept at generating sponsorship dollars.
Erickson says: “We didn’t have any money when we started this, and we’ve gotten several things up and going with little or no capital thanks to the incredible generosity of people who are passionate about change in Detroit.”
So far, primary funding has come from the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce, the Van Dusen Endowment from WSU's College of Urban, Labor and Metropolitan Affairs, the governor’s office and other sources.
“I cannot think of something I have ever been more civically excited about, ever,” says attorney Mark Bisard, president of the Young Friends of Woodward (young professionals working to better the Woodward corridor) and president of the Detroit branch of the Teach for America Alumni Association (like the Peace Corps for teachers). Bisard can enthuse for hours on his love of the city, and his commitment to turning its potential into “kinetic energy.”
As a leader in CreateDetroit’s outreach program, Bisard, who used to live in a Harmonie Park loft, is responsible for spreading the word and getting as diverse a group as possible to attend the seminar. One goal of CreateDetroit is to bring to the table people who’d normally avoid a civic meeting.
Bisard says that while Florida focuses on a certain demographic, CreateDetroit wants to involve everyone.
“We weren’t crazy about the idea of excluding anybody,” says Bisard. “This group, I don’t think we’re going to be blind Florida followers, but we’re excited about using this as a template. It’s a loose association of a lot of people with a common idea: to make Detroit a better place to live.”
Naturally, it’s easy to get business leaders to sign up. It’s luring the artists, writers and musicians that poses a greater challenge.
“In order to be successful, we need to get a true snapshot of Detroit. And to come up with a matrix to invite everyone is difficult,” he says.
“For Thursday, we’ve got, uh,” Bisard pauses. “Uh, Carl May? Is that right?”
When informed on the difference between techno DJs Derrick May and Carl Craig, Bisard laughs sheepishly.
“I’m so uncool,” he jokes.
Perhaps, but Bisard’s willing confession to his uncoolness is refreshing. Like him, CreateDetroit’s committee members are deferring to their younger, hipper colleagues for advice on where to flier and send invites, and on the selection of musical entertainment for the Wednesday night (so far, the female jazz group Straight Ahead and hip-hop artists Slum Village have been mentioned). Secondly, CreateDetroit is wisely avoiding the “C” word (cool). Granholm’s focus on that particular adjective has been ripely lampooned. When Granholm donned a pair of dark sunglasses while launching the Cool Cities initiative, the subsequent photographic evidence had Detroit’s “cool” contingent groaning and rolling their eyes, as if their dads had turned their baseball caps around and tried to adopt a rap-star vernacular.
As Bisard puts it: “Cool is just a pretense to get everybody in the same room and talk about making Detroit a better place to be.”
Hipster linguistics aside, CreateDetroit appears well steeped in Detroit culture, distributing fliers in Avalon Breads, the Cass Cafe, the Detroit Artists Market, George N’namdi and Sherry Washington galleries, CCS and all the major universities, and to organizers of Dally in the Alley, Arts Beats and Eats, Mexicantown Community Development Corporation, Southwest Detroit Business Association, Windsor Business Association, Focus Hope, Motor City Blight Busters and dozens more.
Throughout his book, Florida heavily emphasizes that tolerance, diversity and embracing the gay community are critical to a thriving city. Historic preservation consultant William Colburn, a member of CreateDetroit and rep for the Triangle Foundation, has been spreading the word to the gay community.
“There has always been a strong contingent of gays and lesbians active in the community, buying historic homes, and working to revitalize sections of the city,” he says. “[Florida] highlights the contributions that gay people make to cities.
“A city where two gay men can walk down the street holding hands is a city that’s going to be welcoming of outsiders, the entrepreneurs, the people on the cutting edge of art,” Colburn says. “And right now, there probably isn’t one block where that could happen here, city and suburbs.
“We’re the only major city that doesn’t have an active, vital gay neighborhood in city limits,” he says. Instead, “it’s dispersed around the city and the suburbs, and it limits the ability of gay people to be visible and open, and to be creative contributors.”
The artists’ perspective
They don’t come much more creative than Bethany Shorb. A chameleon, Shorb is continually reinventing herself and her art. One could write a book on her various hairstyles alone (and in fact, a British Web site about synthetic hair devoted a special section to her).
After receiving her bachelor’s degree in sculpture at Boston University, Shorb, a New England native, went to Cranbrook Academy of Art for her master’s. After graduating, she took over design for Cranbrook’s Web site, began designing her own line of clothing, and eventually turned the side project into a business, which she runs from her loft in Eastern Market.
Referencing the chorus of the famous Big Apple tune, “If I can make it there, I can make it anywhere,” Shorb says: “I think that’s far more true of Detroit. Other cities like Boston and New York seem really fluffy in comparison; they coddle you, whereas Detroit is so much more do-it-yourself.”
“People who are the true creative pioneers in Detroit are so driven and hard-core,” Shorb explains. “They fill their lives with it, they immerse themselves, whereas I think you can get away with a little less in other cities. Detroit artists are badass.”
Shorb says ever since she moved from West Bloomfield to downtown, she’s felt a renewed sense of creative energy.
“I live with a painter, an illustrator and a very successful clothing designer, and that’s just my floor,” she says.
Shorb is intrigued by CreateDetroit, and hopes to attend the inaugural event. Her personal wish list for Detroit includes “a PR makeover,” to raise awareness of the talented arts community that’s already present in Detroit, more grants and funding for the arts in the city, and more public art projects. If CreateDetroit can help get funding for such things, that would be great, she says.
“I think it’s a good step as far as awareness. It’s inspired conversation between myself and others,” she says. “If it inspires a few people to actually start talking about this, then it’s a step in the right direction. Even if it pisses people off that Detroit got ranked horribly, that will inspire creativity and change: ‘Yeah, this sucks, let’s fix it.’”
Detroit musician Chris Codish, keyboardist for the Brothers Groove, makes his living as a musician, and has done so for the past ten years.
“If you want to survive, you have to become a jack of all trades,” he says. “You really have to hustle.”
Of CreateDetroit, Codish says, “I think it’s a great idea, but I have no idea how they’ll implement it. I’m kind of skeptical, naturally. Like, what are they really going to do? Are they going to build a club and then have grants for cats to play there?”
Like Shorb, Codish believes the key to CreateDetroit’s success should involve education funding, and raising awareness of the talent that’s already here.
“There’s so much good underappreciated talent here right now,” he says. “I think Detroit has historically been underappreciated for its contributions to music over the past century.
“Sometimes it feels like Detroit has never said, ‘Hey, we’ve got something really great here.’ Detroit needs to take pride in what it already has.”
CreateDetroit takes place Wednesday, March 3, at Orchestra Hall, and Thursday, March 4, at the Max M. Fisher Music Center. On March 3, economist Richard Florida will speak for an hour-and-a-half; tickets are $10. The March 4 event will rely heavily on audience participation: During the daylong session, Florida and his entourage will conduct a census, split the audience into discussion groups, and collect ideas and suggestions for ways to improve Detroit’s creative draw. Capacity is 350, and tickets are $60 (a limited number of scholarships are available for students and low-income folks — to inquire about a scholarship, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org).
To buy tickets and register for the event, go to www.createdetroit.com. Tickets are also available at Avalon Breads and Café De Troit.
Check out these additional stories:
Does civic creativity pay?
A profile of Richard Florida and his book.
A breakdown of how Florida rates the Motor City.
Funding the arts
Detroit's arts spending doesn't measure up to other cities.