Jeff Meyers is the managing editor of Metromode
and its sister publication, Concentrate
. He is also a film critic for Detroit's Metro Times
Jeff is on the board at 826Michigan
and a cable commissioner for the city of Ann Arbor.
Before moving to Michigan in 2003, Jeff was the Creative Director for StageDirect, an Internet start-up out of Portland, OR, and a freelance writer. His writing has appeared in The Stranger
, Willamette Week
, various literary magazines and Playboy. In 2000 he was a finalist for the Oregon Book Awards for his poetry collection, Hereafter
. Before becoming a writer, Jeff spent 11 years working as a microbiologist.
Jeff will be offering up some ideas for how Metro Detroit can prepare itself for a more successful future.
I was recently chatting with my neighbor Matt Toschlog and he was complaining about how conservative America is. He wasn't talking about politics but rather about our irrational reluctance to change. He used the metric system as his example. The metric system is considered, by almost universal accord, a better, more accurate standard of common measurement. Economists, engineers, researchers etc. have all weighed in (no pun intended) on its superiority to the antiquated English system of inches, pounds and pints. European countries came to the conclusion decades ago that their societies must adopt the metric system as the standard unit of measurement.
But not Americans.
We've made half-assed attempts but other than 2 liter soda bottles, have been unable to make the switch. Despite the fact that it's better for us in nearly every way.
Why? Because we don't like change.
I don't know if it's because we're lazy, stupidly prideful or desperately afraid of anything new. I do know it's foolish. And the arguments against change just don't stand up. Yes, a generation will struggle with realigning their notions of how the world works but after that it'll become the standard. A better standard. That our political leaders have been unwilling (re: too cowardly) to make the change demonstrates how fearful our nation has become to change.
In many ways, the metric metaphor seems to describe Michigan's mindset.
Change is resisted because it is risky and uncomfortable and takes a lot of effort. Michiganders seem to believe that because we once had a system that worked for a long time we shouldn't change. Sure, we knew it couldn't last. Yes, the signs have been there for a very very long time. But we're going to stick with the old way of doing things no matter how many industries die, young people move away and jobs are lost. All because change is too scary. We'd rather make half gestures and cautiously ineffectual plans than actually take a chance, piss some people off and do what's needed and necessary.
How else to explain decades of discussion about mass transit and no tangible achievenment?
How else to rationalize the backlash against the state's ambitious film tax incentives before they've even been given a chance to work? (It's the first bold thing the state has done in many a moon and less than six months in legislators were threatening to pull it back.)
How else to justifiy the highly inefficient and economically foolish resistance to regionalism? As we wrote in Metromode, the Woodward corridor alone has 10 separate local governments serving 192K people. Nine have separate planning commissions and city councils, eight maintain their own library systems. Warren, in contrast, governs 145K residents with two municipal entities. Having your own downtown shouldn't be the excuse for lack of cooperation.
The list of intractable issues goes on and on, whether it's allowing greater density in our downtowns, banning smoking in bars & restaurants, creating a functioning regional bus system, putting in sidewalks or truly investing in bike lanes, Metro Detroit is resistant to changing the way business is done and life is lived.
And we're suffering for it.
I spent nearly a decade living in Portland, Oregon and let me tell you, the state of Oregon has far less resources than Michigan. There are no major university systems (UofO is a decent school but it ain't no U-M), no giant corporate employers (Nike is typical with 5000 local employees) and a far smaller tax base. The 70s and 80s were dire years for both the city and state, with high unemployement, dwindling resources and a timber industry that had been seriously curtailed. When I moved to Portland in 1991 you could buy a 1400 sq ft home 3 miles from the center of downtown for roughly $60K. Today, that same home goes for approximately $275-300K. Why?
They had vision. They took chances. The city of Portland planned for the future instead of allowing itself to be paralyze by the present. They instituted a downtown parking cap that limited how many parking spaces were allowed in Portland. This forced smarter planning and better mass transit (the ban remained in place for nearly 25 years). Try that in, well, any city in Michigan and they'd string you up.
Portland also created 1% for Public Art intitatives along with planning and building codes that emphasized what was best for their downtown's development, not easiest.
They put in bike lanes, established an incredibly ambitious urban growth boundry and began a long range light rail plan. Amenities like offleash dog parks and skate parks were established, city-wide recycling was enforced, and ordinances that favored locally owned businesses were put into place. Today, Portland has one of the highest percentages of locally owned businesses in the country. It's population is booming and its downtown is a global model for planning and sustainability.
In the mid-90s the city poured money into one neighborhhod with the idea that its transformation would have a positive halo effect for the rest of the downtown and surrounding neighborhoods. The result was the Pearl Distric --a former warehouse district that had been overrun by junkies and rats-- which now boasts a vibrant restaurant & gallery culture, an authentic Chinese garden that takes up an entire city block and hip loft and condo spaces.
I'm not saying Portland is perfect. It has a long way to go before its schools are half as good as many Metro Detroit schools sytems. It's art museum can't touch the DIA. And I'm not saying Portland isn't suffering now. OHSU, the region's number one employer just announced massive layoffs. It's going to be lean times for the city and they'll inevitably have to tighten their belt. But if they take direction from past leaders, they'll use it as an opportunity to innovate and prepare for the future rather than simply respond to the present.
And more importanty, despite the hard times, people aren't moving away. Young people are still flocking to the city. Sure, they might not land the job of their dreams but they'll live in a place they love.
And there are clues that Portland is still learning from its past. The city has aimed to garner 100% of its energy needs from renewable resources by the end of 2010 (it's currently at 10%). Compare that with Michigan's goal of 25% by 2025. Does Detroit even have a goal of its own? The Metro region? Heck, even Chicago is aiming for 20% by 2010 (it's currently at 2.5%).
I know this sounds like the typical gripe that Metro Detroit should be like somewhere else. It can't and it shouldn't. But it should learn from other places, take inspiration from other places and take some damn risks. It should realize that "but we're different" isn't a reason, it's an excuse. And a lame one at that. Every place has its challenges, its deficits and advantages. Only the best places know how to rise above the things that stand in their way and leverage their assets into success.
The election of Barack Obama was predicated on change. But change has to be more than swapping who sits in the oval office, or which party controls Congress. Change is something we should all be looking to embrace. Smart change. Bold change.
Where is the local leader who says we WILL have a light rail system up and working by 2012? Where is the politician who pushes through mandatory recycling in Detroit or bike lanes along Woodward? Where is the city council member that bans all surface parking lots in their downtown or requires 50% of on street parking spaces be for compact cars only, tickets for everyone else? When will Farmington and Farmington Hills get over themselves and merge into an efficient and vibrant commmunity with a great downtown?
Want improve neighborhhoods? Why not target transitional communities and offer teachers, cops and firemen reduced or, even better, no property taxes for living and working in those communities. Have empty properties? Lease them to non-profits and arts groups for $1 a year. Give 'em a five year lease. Want to turn your downtown into a 24-hour liveable destination? Offer incentives that make you uncomfortable because they seem too generous then sunset them 5 years from now. Got a small surface parking lot in your downtown? Sell it to a developer for $5 if they agree to make it the best property in the city with public art, mixed income housing and green features out the ying-yang.
Yes, some people will be pissed off. Yes, some of the ideas won't work. But cautious, toothless changes over a long time simply aren't enough to stem the exodus of opportunities, talent and smart people from our region. We can do better. We must do better. We're very near the bottom people. The time has come to think big.
When John F Kennedy said in 1961 that we'd walk on the moon there was no indication that we actually could. It was both a hope and a challenge. NASA met the challenge seven years later.
What bold challenge can we issue to Metro Detroit? I'd love to hear what project or change you think we should commit ourselves to.
Seven years is just around the corner. Will we reach for the moon or remain mired at the bottom?
With Obama taking the reigns of our brutally hobbled nation there's been a whole lot of discussion about public works. Finally, after decades of unconscionable neglect, people are talking about shoring up infrastructure, investing in communities, and laying the foundation for a more solid future. It's about damn time. And it's not enough.
This past December I attended the D Show. It's an awards get-together put on by Metro Detroit's advertising community in celebration of their creativity and craft. I was asked to be one of the judges for the "Joe" Award, which gave me a front row seat to what the industry considers their best work. It was impressive. Funny, moving, ironic, sentimental, inspiring, the commercials knew how to press the right buttons to get an emotional response. This year's D-Show was a more modest affair than last. Behind the jokes and shmoozing and drinking and self-congradulations there was an obvious anxiety about the failing economy, the seismic discord at the car companies and inevitable decisions that would have to be made about employment.
Though the instinct to stuff cash beneath the metaphorical mattress must be strong, I have a modest proposal for our local ad agencies, big and small: Invest.
Invest in Metro Detroit. Invest our region with your creativity and brand savvy and knock 'em dead design prowess. Put together a public works project that helps our region rethink its identity, improve its image, serve its residents and put its best face forward. It won't retrain tens of thousands of laid off workers or bring mass transit to our urban cores or move us toward greater sustainability. But it's a gesture that makes clear that southeast Michigan is serious about becoming a knowledge-based economy. That we take our image seriously.
Look, there are only a handful of places on the planet with billion dollar ad agencies. I'm not saying they are billionaires. I'm saying they handle billions in ad market dollars. Assign some of your world class talent to help our community. Handle us with the same level of attention, care, professionalism and creativity as Ford, Microsoft, Budweiser or Target. After all, if local ad agencies can't or won't look after how their own community presents itself to the world, what does that say about their ability to look after their clients?
If each agency adopted an individual Metro Detroit city for a year, guided their branding efforts, redesigned their websites (for usability not gimmicky wows), and helped the Detroit area put its best face forward to the citizens who lived here, the results would be impressive. I'm not talking about some slick stab at selling Metro Detroit to tourists. I'm talking about a nuts and bolts, core competency approach. Something that gets every community in the Metro region in sync, up-to-date and professional.
I know it's not sexy or hip or attention-getting but neither are power gridss, roads and rail lines. They are, however, necessary. And doing them well affects the quality of life of the people that use them every day.
IMG's publisher Paul Schutt recently told me how a few years back Chrysler Financial had donated 300 of their employees' time to clean up Detroit's Corktown neighborhood. All day long financial professionals --some of the top people in their field-- walked the streets collecting garbage. It was a nice gesture but, frankly, pretty absurd. Picking up trash was not the best use of these people's skills. What if Chrysler had instead hired one or two damn good financial experts to help Corktown win block grants, find funding and balance its books for a year? I suspect the results would have been more lasting than a day of clean streets.
This the idea behind what I'm proposing the ad agencies do. Take responsibility for a local community and put your people to work on it. Challenge professional peers and competitors to do the same in their communities. Insist.
So, why have I singled out our local ad agencies? No reason in particular. I could have just as easily challenged the growing IT industry or celebrated architecture firms or technology companies to do the same. Invest. Not in the business-as-usual here's-a-token-donation but in tangible, game-changing ways. Ways that leverage your talents and abilities. Ways that, brick by brick rebuild the foundation of our community and make us ready for a brighter future.
Leave your comments below or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Growing up in New York (as I did) meant that if you were asked, "Where are you from?" your answer would always include New York City as the reference point.
You were from the city.
Or just outside the city.
Or pretty far outside the city.
We all called it 'the city" because to New Yorkers, there really isn't any other city.
Upstate New York meant Syracuse or Albany (the capital!) or anything a couple hundred miles north of NYC. And, of course, there was Buffalo. If you had a major NFL team you were permitted your own idenity. Only a radical few would say they grew up on Long Island, but to anyone outside the Northeastern seaboard, further explanation was inevitably required, so why bother? The follow up was always, "just outside New York City."
Referencing your individual community was meaningless. No one in Oklahoma or Iowa or Germany cared if you were from Ronkonkoma, Port Jefferson or Syosset. New York City --which by extension meant any of its five boroughs but typically evoked images of Manhattan-- was the universal reference point.
Like Paris or London or Rome, it was the identity we were all invested in. It's reputation was our reputation, even if we lived a hundred miles outside its borders. When the city fell on hard times we apologized for it, or talked about it like a wayward member of the family. When the city prospered, we couldn't find enough ways to piggyback on its reputation. Love the city or hate it, we all recognized that it was our state's most important asset and the heart of our identity.
I've lived in several other big cities around the U.S. and the story is the same. "I'm from outside Chicago... or L.A.... or Portland... or Seattle." To answer Winnetka or Northridge or Beaverton or Bremerton would be absurd. Invoking the nearest big city means something. It provides a context and identity, however vague, for who you are. It also requires that you recognize that as the city goes so too goes the surrounding region.
Michiganders think they're different.
Well, the truth is, everyone thinks they're different but Michiganders, particularly southeast Michiganders, behave differently when it comes to telling you where they're from. At meetings and music events and conferences around the country I'd meet people from Michigan who'd tell me they were from Bloomfield Hills or Farmington or Warren or Dearborn or Livonia.
Those names meant nothing to me.
Birmingham made me think they were from Alabama. Troy immediately brought to mind New York. Pressing harder for clarification I'd be offered a geography lesson that down played their connection to Detroit. It was the unfortunate landmark, the city only to be mentioned in passing. Sometimes I'd get the Mitten, which was cute, but really didn't tell me what I wanted to know.
"So, you're from a suburb of Detroit?" I'd ask.
"Oh no, we're pretty far outside Detroit. Like 45 minutes. It's way different. And I don't work for the car industry. We have the Cranbrook Museum. Have you ever heard of the Cranbrook?"
I hadn't. And I'd think to myself, 'what is wrong with this person?'
And then five years ago I moved here. And I get it. I get what people in Ferndale and Royal Oak and Novi and Canton and even Ann Arbor are doing. You don't want to be associated with Detroit's numerous problems. And I still say to myself, 'what is wrong with you people?'
Because not wanting to take the blame for Detroit's problems is the same as not taking responsibility. And the fact is, we are all, in one way or another, responsible.
Even in the 1970s when New York City was bankrupt and mocked for its depravity, corruption and crime we never pretended it was any less than the center of our world. No one criticized the city more than its fellow New Yorkers (especially the suburbanites) but if the insulting remark came from an outsider, we'd kick your ass. New York was our out-of-work, alcoholic, too-loud Uncle. We were embarassed by his behavior and pissed off that he couldn't get his shit together but he was family and you didn't disrespect a member of our family.
I grew up 45 miles outside the city in a fishing village on Long Island and this is exactly how my friends and I felt. And we were afraid of the city. We'd only ever been there for field trips to museums, Broadway plays and ball games. But we knew it was ours. We were New Yorkers.
Detroit is your reference point. Period. Good or bad. And believe it or not, you don't get to decide. The rest of the world has already made the decision for you. No amount of denying it is going to change the fact. You can brand your local community six ways to Sunday and Detroit will still be the city everyone outside Michigan (and even in Western Michigan) associates you with.
Yes, Ann Arbor has U-M and its football rep to trumpet, but that's like saying Berkley or Silicon Valley can divorce themselves from the Bay Area's identity. They go hand in hand. (And, if you ask me, the only reason "The Bay Area" is used instead of San Francisco is because Oakland has an NFL team.)
So, this is my challenge to the readers of Metromode, and my hope for the future of Metro Detroit: That everyone within a hundred miles of Motown --with its storied history, fanstastic architecture, world class cultural institutions and, yes, embarassing problems-- tells the world that they are from Detroit.
Or just outside Detroit.
Or within spitting distance of Detroit.
You are Detroiters. (Grosse Pointers just sounds silly).
Because that small gesture implies ownership and ownership implies responsibility and with responsibility comes an investment in Detroit's future.
And God knows it needs a whole lot more of that.