Gregg Newsom is a native Detroiter that has lived all over the region and throughout the US. He's seen Detroit through the eyes of a late 80's/early 90's anarchist punk as well as the eyes of a young professional during a recent five-year stint working 8 floors above the Hard Rock Cafe for Compuware. In 2006, Gregg left the corporate world, graduated from massage school and traveled to India to study with yoga guru, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. Regardless of his vantage point Gregg has always maintained a connection to the undercurrents of culture and the potential of the unsung communities of Detroit.
In 2006, Gregg was part of a seven-member team that converted a 1981 Diesel School Bus to run on waste vegetable oil. The team then drove the bus across the continent and back in an effort to raise awareness of alternative energies.
Earlier this year Gregg and his partner Angela Kasmala opened the Detroit Evolution Laboratory in Eastern Market. The "Lab" is a small wellness and education center that offers community-based yoga classes, bodywork, vegan and raw food preparation classes, catering, nutritional counseling and more.
Gregg will be writing will about how Metro Detroit needs to embrace a process of economic and community evolution rather than chasing the single big fix.
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Photograph by Marvin Shaouni
The Next Detroit looks like the Super Bowl each and every year? Hmm…
Now, don’t get me wrong, I envision Detroit as a vibrant and successful city but this harkens back to the quick fix tactics that we have discussed prior. There appears to be a huge disconnect between the city’s vision and the community’s vision. We need to attract new industry, new investment and new opportunities but to avoid gentrification and encourage lasting evolutionary change we must empower the current population.
The recent Detroit DrillDown Report by Social Compact documents impressive possibilities for economic growth in our city. This growth is possible due to untapped resources within our neighborhoods. Of course, in order for these resources to become available it is stated that we need to attract retail and industry to the local neighborhoods. Rather than inviting large retail chains and cold service organizations, I encourage individuals to create businesses that will resonate with their neighborhood. This takes hard work and dedication, but with the support of the community it becomes possible.
Angela and I have been privileged to witness the creation of a community driven organization designed to do just this. Open City is a forum for aspiring and current business owners. Launched in September of this year by Liz Blondy of Canine To Five and Claire Nelson of Bureau of Urban Living, this group meets the third Tuesday of every month at Cliff Bell's to encourage and support new business in Detroit.
Claire and Liz have engaged in the immediacy I’ve been ranting about over the past few days. Without corporate or government backing they have presented a valuable resource for citizens who are ready to step up and create change. It seems to me they are fueled by certainties, like the DrillDown report, but they are also fueled by their dedication to and belief in Detroit. As the majority of small business owners have experienced, Detroiters are some of the most enthusiastic customers and clients you could ever hope for. Individual inspired community projects like Open City are requisite to empowering Detroit’s current population and engender the concept of participation. Liz, Claire and everyone else working with Open City are providing an invaluable resource for evolutionary and community driven revitalization of Detroit!
If you'd like you can follow these musings and explorations in a less structured form on my blog.
I want to thank Metromode for inviting me to this forum and thank everyone for their comments and emails.
Viva Detroit! ~G
I was seven years old when the Renaissance Center was going up. I remember the first time I walked into the “city within a city.” My very active imagination was certain I had stumbled upon a yet to be revealed Star Wars set. The pods hanging in mid air, rough cement staircases and walkways, and glass and steel all seemed so futuristic. Today, the design elements of the RenCen are slowly becoming aspects of a future that never saw full light. Of course, I was pretty much unaware of the social and economic challenges that the city faced at this time.
I do remember watching the news in ‘77 and that there was a great deal of rhetoric behind the erection of these towers. I certainly recall the buzz and phrases like “phoenix from the ashes” being thrown around. This massive project was going to save the city and true to its namesake, the Renaissance Center would create a new enlightened age. It one sweep the nightmare of Twelfth Street would be negated, the destruction of Paradise Valley would be forgiven and those who fled the city would find their way back home.
Instead the failed revolution of the sixties was simply followed by a failed seventies renaissance. White flight continued and Mayor Young’s rather chaotic practices and political battles kept the city and its dwindling population in a holding pattern.
With the recent, utterly unfounded and unfortunate return of our “most dangerous city” status, I postulate that the idea of a renaissance was one of the factors that prevented Detroit from expanding its geographical boundaries. Chicago and other major cities have annexed outlying suburban areas and due to this have maintained economic and racial diversity. This fact alone negates the report, yet this report and others like it that were published through the 70’s and 80’s, assisted in the creation of a wall between urban and suburban in our region.
Quick fire revolutionary tactics and faith in an overnight renaissance have contributed to a great division in the region. Obviously, by using the moniker Detroit Evolution Laboratory for our business efforts, Angela and I are dedicated to approaching the challenges that face our region from another angle. We’re both fond of the idea of social evolution. Sparked by actualized individuals within communities throughout the city and region, evolutionary concepts have the stamina required to assist the development of sustainable slow burn change.
Evolutionary concepts link up with our previous discussion of immediacy, participation, and decommodification. In our experience positive and long lasting change begins with the individual. Yes, in a challenged region like Detroit, a solid infrastructure, economic development, and healthy commercial activity and communication between the city and suburbs are vital, but even the most refined infrastructure is meaningless without empowered and actualized citizens. In times of economic hardship we can’t loose sight of the individual. In fact, for positive social evolution to take root, these times mandate emphasis on health, diet, fitness, education and, in our opinion, self-expression.
Today I’ll leave you with this blurb from Detroit’s website and ask where the individual is in the Next Detroit and whether we want to live in a city that looks like the Super Bowl every year?
The NEXT Detroit refers to the Detroit after the transformation of City government. It is the Detroit of the future. It is the Detroit that we can already begin to see at the end of the tunnel. The NEXT Detroit is the transition from the foundation that was laid through the transformation of City government. The NEXT Detroit is a City that has been repopulated due to the new industry, new investment, new entertainment, and new opportunities. The NEXT Detroit looks like the Super Bowl each and every year.
Decommodification is taken seriously within the orange trash fence that denotes the boundaries of Black Rock City. The gift economy is one of the most fascinating social aspects of the event. Save very specific circumstances, currency is not exchanged in the city. Participants gift one another with tangible and intangible expressions of themselves. It is important to note that this is considered a means of participation and not based on exchange or trade. Gifts are given unconditionally.
Corporate sponsorship and advertising are banned from Black Rock City. Commercial interests and consumption are considered barriers to immediacy and are believed to prevent full-on participation by members of the community. The basis of this theory is a reaction to the breakneck speed that our society is running at. Due to the demands of our daily lives we engage in massive consumption simply to keep up.
This ban interrupts mandated and often soulless interactions. There is a shift from passive consumption of goods to an active creation and expression. It also negates the possibility that external forces could influence aspects of the communities experience and development. Participants are given the opportunity to express themselves and by engaging in this expression they contribute to the community at large. This process brings us right back to immediacy and breaking through barriers that may hinder our experience. The individual is empowered to directly influence his or her community and culture.
Decommodification works fairly well in Black Rock City for a week out of the year. But lets be realistic for a moment here, Detroit was and is a city created by industry. We’d be here without the automobile for sure, but we wouldn’t be faced with the same issues and opportunities. Our dependence on corporations can be seen in every nook and cranny of the region. Now, I know that corporate funding does a great deal of good work here. I simply wonder, based upon the empowerment that I’ve experienced at Burning Man, how aspects of decommodification could empower us here at home?
Obviously we’re the Motor City and we’re not going to wipe away the commerce that keeps us on the map. But what would it look like if we shifted the focus from passive consumption to active expression within our communities? More importantly, what would it take to do so?
Detroit’s NEXT Detroit Neighborhood Initiative 1st Quarter Report published by Mayor Kilpatrick’s office in October is focused upon efforts to attract retail to Detroit and to six specific neighborhoods. Yes, it is vital that these neighborhoods get a boost and, based on this study, it is quite apparent that there is opportunity for business to be successful in these areas.
If we were to shift gears and play with decommodification here, we would not look to attract outside retail to these areas but look within the community itself to grow retail that matched its own needs. A slightly decommodified NEXT Initiative would empower individuals within these communities to explore their personal and cultural experience and through this exploration discover and hone their talents and gifts. Rather than a quick fix or a band-aid, this empowerment begins a sustainable evolutionary process for the individual and the community that will manifest as business, art, and any other form imaginable.
These 10 principles work well for a city that exists for only one week out of the year. They also smack of an idealism that harkens back to the failed revolution of the sixties. From our rather dystopian perspective, they seem naïve, but over the past four years I’ve seen them put into practice in the desert and found them empowering. Save the “tourists” that come out for the climax of the event, the majority of the citizens engage in a great many of these principles. This means the majority of the population takes the ideals of their society to heart. Due to this they not only adhere to these ideals, but also propagate and protect them.
This level of involvement, of participation, is quite unheard of in our non-temporal society. In the Detroit region and within society at large we tend to experience the exact opposite. The majority of the population has become “tourists”. Currently the active minorities of the region are divided into big business interests, small entrepreneurs pursuing the establishment of a creative class, and dog-eared activists that have been pounding the pavement for years.
Black Rock City has a real “buy the ticket, ride the ride” feel to it. The majority work hard and spend a great deal of cash to get to the middle of nowhere and participate. They’re engaged and involved because they chose to do so. So, the question here becomes, how do we expand the ranks of our active minority and encourage the regional population to buy the ticket? Though it is tempting to simply brighten the place up and create a few amusements here and there, these actions tend to impart passivity rather than participation, and certainly negate sustainability.
Returning to the 10 principals, it’s vital to note that the touchstone of Black Rock City’s culture is immediacy. Of course, the decision to overcome barriers to our experience is an intimate choice that can’t be dictated or coaxed. Angela and I wake up every morning before sunrise, light a candle, chant and pray for Detroit. Yeah, we bought the ticket and are having a Very immediate experience. Though this manifestation of immediacy is our unique expression, we find others in our community practicing immediacy in other forms. So, what would occur if those who are already practicing immediacy engage in or at least connect with a few of the other principals?
Actually there’s a natural process here. The already “immediated” tend to be active in inclusion, self-expression, participation, and lean towards environmental awareness. For many, this is part and parcel of immediacy. The big bugaboo of translating the culture of Black Rock City, especially to Detroit, is decommodification. For our region, the failed revolution of the sixties stratified the community and led to a procession of political and corporate quick fixes that continue to this day. Though commerce is vital to both the mass populace and active minority, exploring decommodification at a minimal, neighborhood level will assist to create sustainable therapeutic practices rather than simply applying another logo embellished band-aid.
Next time, I’ll wax further on decommodification in a city of commerce and open a dialog between the terms renaissance and evolution.
I’ve been quite blessed to travel extensively through the States and abroad. Upon reflection, I’ve only found myself in three places that actually feel like home. There’s the quaint little neighborhood of Lakshmipuram in Mysore, India that captured my heart with its narrow red earthen and cow littered streets. Of course, there’s this august city of Detroit, which is poised to reframe itself as a flagship for sustainability and urban agriculture. Then there is the Brigadoon-like Black Rock City that emerges yearly from the dust of the Nevada desert to become the 4th largest city in that state. These extremely diverse locations somehow exude a similar energy that resonates within me as home.
Black Rock City hosts Burning Man, an infamous art festival/cultural experiment that I’ve been attending for the past four years. This year, as my partner Angela and I frantically packed for our pilgrimage to Black Rock City, we decided to study the Burning Man community and culture. We were on the look out for concepts and tools that could be applied here in Detroit Rock City. Over the next few days I’ll share some of our findings, but first we need to get our heads around Black Rock City itself and tackle the question “What is Burning Man?”
There are as many answers to this as there are citizens of Black Rock City. Though pictures speak loudly and the photo galleries on the Burning Man site are phenomenal, the images do not express the planning, hard work and principals that create the event. One of the most important aspects of Burning Man is the desert itself. This alkaline and seemingly alien landscape is incredibly harsh and without adequate water and food it can be deadly. This environment makes the already impressive infrastructure of the event even more so. There are planned city streets, a daily newspaper, a working and amazingly reliable post office, highly efficient emergency services, and a citizen run crew of community mediators. Did I mention that volunteers provide all of these services? It is a massive project that many plan for all year round.
For me, the event is about fantastic art installations that have brought me to my knees in awe. It’s a social experiment where every citizen is encouraged to participate through radical self-expression. It’s also a place where the term “do-ocracy” is embraced and if something needs to be done people actually step up and do it!
Today, I’ll leave you with the 10 Principles that guide the event. Tomorrow, we’ll begin to discuss how these ideas that create a temporary city in the desert can be translated to assist us in creating a more sustainable Detroit.
Burning Man’s 10 Principles
Radical InclusionAnyone may be a part of Burning Man. We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community.
Burning Man is devoted to acts of gift giving. The value of a gift is unconditional. Gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value.
DecommodificationIn order to preserve the spirit of gifting, our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation. We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience.
Radical Self-relianceBurning Man encourages the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources.
Radical self-expression arises from the unique gifts of the individual. No one other than the individual or a collaborating group can determine its content. It is offered as a gift to others. In this spirit, the giver should respect the rights and liberties of the recipient.
Our community values creative cooperation and collaboration. We strive to produce, promote and protect social networks, public spaces, works of art, and methods of communication that support such interaction.
Civic ResponsibilityWe value civil society. Community members who organize events should assume responsibility for public welfare and endeavor to communicate civic responsibilities to participants. They must also assume responsibility for conducting events in accordance with local, state and federal laws.
Leaving No Trace
Our community respects the environment. We are committed to leaving no physical trace of our activities wherever we gather. We clean up after ourselves and endeavor, whenever possible, to leave such places in a better state than when we found them.
ParticipationOur community is committed to a radically participatory ethic. We believe that transformative change, whether in the individual or in society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation. We achieve being through doing. Everyone is invited to work. Everyone is invited to play. We make the world real through actions that open the heart.
Immediate experience is, in many ways, the most important touchstone of value in our culture. We seek to overcome barriers that stand between us and a recognition of our inner selves, the reality of those around us, participation in society, and contact with a natural world exceeding human powers. No idea can substitute for this experience.