Blog: Matt Clayson

This is the final post from Matt Clayson, our guest blogger this week. Matt is a Detroit resident and an attorney for a local tech company. Check back daily for his thoughts on how to develop SE Michigan to meet the demands of the next generation.

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Matt Clayson - Most Recent Posts:

Post No. 5

So, how does one make sense of all these intangibles? What can be done to provide immediate solutions? What can be done to provide long-term solutions?

Accessibility. As I mentioned on Friday (Post 2), Detroit is underground; it is the great hidden city. Though this underground nature can be leveraged as an asset, it can also be an impediment. How do we counter these impeding effects?

Information is one part of the solution.

The new resident, the future resident, the casual visitor and the curious: all need a one-stop source for gleaning information regarding all things Detroit. A cost-benefit analysis, per se, complete with average housing costs, insurance costs, utility costs, tax information, crime statistics, school rankings, etc. Such a source would be a realistic approach that discloses both the benefits and detriments to living in the city of Detroit; it would be a legitimate view that would enable individuals to make an educated decision regarding moving here; a transparent site that would provide information for busting myths and quelling rumors; and an inclusive site that connects the numerous online and physical resources geared towards retaining current and attracting new residents.

Developers in Grand Rapids, Michigan, have used such an approach in many of their marketing materials. These marketing materials break down the costs of living in the city. They include monthly mortgage costs, based on income; association fees; and property taxes. They include information regarding local businesses, school stats, crime stats and population and economic trends. This information enables the potential buyer - the potential resident - to envision and understand what living an urban lifestyle entails.  

As applied to Detroit, this source could be a quick and relatively inexpensive solution to the problem of retaining current and attracting new residents. It could be part of changing the attitudes discussed in Post 3. It could use factual evidence to underscore Detroit’s unique sense of opportunity (Post 4). All it needs is a champion.

An urban agenda is the other part of the solution.

On Friday (Post 2) I made the case that, dense, warm and inviting urban areas are also accessible. Unfortunately, Detroit lacks an urban agenda that addresses its fundamental shortcomings in this regard.

Sure, the city has a master plan. Sure, the preservation community has a long-term vision document and strategic mission. Sure, numerous charrettes and studies have been commissioned in an effort to sustain and support urban growth. Nevertheless, a comprehensive grassroots campaign to transform our city into a true urban place has yet to be seen. And, until one is created, individual interests will pursue their specific agendas without regard for a unified urban vision of Detroit.

Again, this could be a quick and relatively inexpensive solution to the issues of creating urban place, changing attitudes and presenting opportunity. And, again, all it needs is a champion.

So, be that champion. Join a community group that you believe can promote these ideas. Advocate for information transparency. Advocate for a unified and inclusive urban agenda.

Most importantly, be an engaged resident and enlightened citizen. It’s up to us to build the type of community we all want to see.

Opportunity

The optimist in me believes that Detroit has not an, but the advantage in opportunity.

Detroit is different in that it is very local. People know each other here. People support each other here. They want to see each other succeed and make a difference. The opportunity to join such a close-knit community rarely exists in regions the size of Detroit. Those that know the key to leveraging this local sense of community are successful. And they have the opportunity to create more than an idea, more than a business: they have the opportunity to create a meaningful impact. This ability to define and shape a city and region’s future should be a key component to any economic initiative.

Compared to competing regions, Detroit is also inexpensive. Space is relatively cheap. Housing is a steal. Sure, auto insurance is high. Sure, taxes are more than they could be. Sure, you’re not going to get 20,000 square foot storefronts on Woodward Avenue for bargain basement prices.  Still, Detroit offers a high value for those who have the ability to relocate; those who have the desire to open a business; and those who have the edge to innovate and change an economy. This value can be leveraged regionally, nationally and internationally in an effort to inspire and attract new talent, new leaders and new ideas. 

Too often, Michigan gets caught up in the "woe unto me rustbelt mentality." And, yes, there is no denying that our state has experienced tough economic times. But to focus merely on problems and structural issues, without consideration for this region’s unique opportunities, is to miss the solution to addressing Michigan’s fundamental economic problems.   Any solution to these problems; any vision for urban growth and density; and any plan geared towards attracting new talent must whole-heartedly feature these notions of opportunity and value as unique and distinguishing factors.


Attitude

Attitudes are different in and around Detroit. Notions of entitlement and mediocrity prevail. For Detroit to be a vibrant urban place and a powerful economy that competes regionally and nationally, attitudes have to change. And for attitudes to change, leaders must lead, both on the grassroots and conventional level, to change these attitudes. 

To the casual observer, it would appear that prevailing regional attitudes can be divided into two categories: the armchair quarterback and the armchair booster. Though both may be well intentioned, their efforts fall short of real solutions and real leadership.  

The Armchair Quarterback Syndrome: We all know an armchair quarterback – the person who always has a comment, usually negative, about the state of things in the city and region. Unfortunately, neither a solution nor any tangible action follows this opinion. Online message boards, chatrooms and forums are chock full of these people. They justify their opinions by proudly asserting that they care enough to add to the dialogue. They believe they are entitled to real, tangible solutions to the issues they raise merely because they’re joining in the dialogue. Yet, in many circumstances, these people shy away from being part of the solution.   

The Armchair Booster Syndrome: We all know the armchair booster, too. This individual recognizes the importance of a vibrant urban core and appreciates urban growth and density. This individual supports businesses within the Greater Downtown area, volunteers and spreads positive goodwill about Detroit. Yet, the armchair booster does not live within the city of Detroit. Like the armchair quarterback, the armchair booster also suffers from a pervasive sense of entitlement. The individual believes he/she is entitled to a vibrant urban core merely because of his/her good intentions. This individual’s efforts, though well-intentioned and beneficial to the community, still falls short of a real, tangible solution to this issue of vibrancy.

Now, there is no denying that Detroit is unique and authentic. And progress has been made at establishing its sense of place. But the city is at a profound disadvantage because it does not have an urban core that adequately competes with comparable urban products. For Detroit to grow its economy in the 21st century, it needs a definable central city that competes regionally, nationally and internationally.

Simply put: to have the vibrant urban core that the armchair booster desires and the solutions the armchair quarterback demands, Detroit needs more residents. Engaged, taxpaying and entrepreneurial residents.

Armchair quarterback – if you want solutions to the issues you raise, move in the city of Detroit. Be more than just another voice. Vote in elections. Join civic groups. Join the thousands of active Detroiter’s who are tackling citywide and regional problems.

Armchair booster – if you want a dense urban core, move to Detroit, open a business in Detroit or, better yet, do both. Vibrant urban cores consist of residents, business owners and entrepreneurs. Your energy is needed twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week to join the efforts in growing this urban community. 

The region is not entitled to a vibrant urban core. The region is not entitled to automatic solutions.  Like most things in life, no one is going to do the hard work for us.  Rather, we must take ownership of these problems, confront the tough issues and realize the level of commitment necessary to make Detroit a successful and competitive urban place. In fact, it should be the foundation for any agenda of urban growth and density. 

Place

Let’s examine place in the context of Detroit. Communities with a sense of place are authentic. They’re gritty. They’re local and accessible. Detroit is different from its competitors as it is authentic. Chain restaurants and stores do not shout at the bystander from every corner. Rather, local haunts and venues are intimate and welcoming.

But does this grittiness and authenticity lead to a stronger city and stronger regional economy? Authenticity, grit and intimacy are important elements of place, but should they be defining elements? Authenticity and grit alone do not make a vibrant urban place.

Equally important to place are the elements of density and accessibility. To me, they are interchangeable. A dense urban environment is an accessible urban environment – one that is as inviting to the local insider as it is to the casual visitor. Street level businesses and pedestrian activity lend to a sense of comfort, warmth and belonging. They are the intangible elements that people use when comparing Detroit to other cities and regions. And though Detroit has made strides in creating this dense environment over the years, it is still at a disadvantage when compared to other cities and regions.

For Detroit to be relevant in the 21st century, it needs to further embrace urbanity and density as vital components of its economic plan. The new generation of Detroiters value place. They crave the authenticity of a truly urban community. To continue to grow and attract this community of engaged, young and educated individuals, local civic and government leadership has to advocate for an agenda of urban growth and density. Similarly, this same generation of Detroiters must convey that vision to the city and region’s civic and government leadership.


Differences

Detroit is different.  No doubt about that.  As a city and a region, our differences are a divisive issue.  To the optimists, our differences are our comparative advantage that sets us apart from competing regions.  To the realists, our differences – if not examined, confronted and presented realistically – are our weaknesses.  To the pessimists, our differences are an excuse to leave.

We all know that Detroit and the region is lacking in many areas.  These points are pounded home in newscasts, in casual conversation, on online message boards and at the water cooler.  And, rightfully so. We are obsessed with the differences between us and other cities and regions – the disparities in education standards, crime statistics, job growth, climate, downtown retail and public transit.   

The optimist tries to compensate these differences with what are perceived as comparative advantages: our grit, our authenticity, our attitude, our history, our architectural stock, etc.  The realist attempts to analyze these differences and the statistics supporting them in an effort to find solutions.  The pessimist uses these differences as further proof supporting their desire to leave.  

Really, there is not much more to say about these issues.  They are discussed constantly: solutions come and solutions go, resulting in a stale and tired dialogue.  And what has this tired debate between the optimists, realists and pessimists achieved? Nothing tangible.

So, maybe it is time that we shift our dialogue to the intangibles – the differences that cannot be measured by exact statistics, by rigorous scientific standards.  What about the intangible concepts: what about place, attitude and opportunity?  Would maybe a shift in dialogue to these theoretical concepts engage a new generation of Detroiters in a more vigorous debate that challenges the fundamental ways that we view ourselves as citizens of a city and a region?  
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