Blog: Ric Geyer


In talking to Ric, two things become obvious quickly – first, he is crazy about the city, and second, though his background and education seem tailored to the corporate world, he seems more at home in the neighborhoods than in a traditional office setting.  The truth is, Geyer has been "living in two worlds" for some time; one focused on strategy and innovation for a host of corporate and public sector clients and one focused on the arts and neighborhood redevelopment.  

Ric currently serves as managing partner of 4731 Consulting, a firm focused on developing innovative solutions for improving the condition of our cities.  Previously, he held positions with Deloitte Consulting, Ford Motor, and the City of Detroit.  

His work on the 4731 Arts Incubator has brought back to life several old warehouses on Detroit's near west side, and with the Woodbridge Neighborhood Development Corporation as a partner won a State of Michigan "Cool Cities" award.  He also was on the founding board of the Architectural Salvage Warehouse of Detroit, which is now located in one of the facilities on the corner of Grand River and Warren.  This organization continues to grow and has a wealth of architectural treasures (and lots of other useful things) for sale.  Ric's current project is rebuilding one of the buildings that suffered malicious destruction by a group of tenants in April '09.   

Ric's commitment to improving the city started 20 years ago at Honest John's Bar (long story), and has continued through three administrations.  He started with efforts like Paint the Town, Habitat for Humanity, and the Detroit Ambassadors (remember them?).  He later served as the Mayor’s staff advisor, as "Executive on Loan" to the Governor's office, and as interim chief financial officer for Detroit's Super Bowl effort.  He also served on Detroit's Economic Development Corporation board, as chair of the board of Preservation Wayne and as chair of Tyree Guyton's internationally known Heidelberg Arts Project.  

When the city was determining which houses to demolish as a portion of a HUD grant in the early 90s, he authored A Comparison of Neighborhood/City Linkages and Performance Measures in Select Cities to convince the city to go directly to the block clubs and neighborhood CDCs to provide a list of the structures that should come down. He is currently serving as an advisor to the SHAR House (Self Help Addictive Rehabilitation) on their Recovery Park Project, about which much more will be heard in the near future.

Ric received his Bachelor of Science in accounting from The University of Akron in 1980 and his Masters in Business Administration (Marketing Strategy and Strategic Planning) from the Wharton School in 1986.  Ric also has a wife and six children, is an award-winning woodworker and is also known locally for his annual 14-mile swim across Lake St. Clair to raise money for cystic fibrosis.  He can most often be found in the pool at the DAC or at his buildings – constructing something.

Ric Geyer - Most Recent Posts:

Post 6: Love and Heroism

First, I want to formally thank Metromode for asking me to provide my thoughts.  It has been a thought provoking and delightful, if not humbling, experience.  You'll see there are several blog entries tucked in here.  I hope you enjoy them.


Two Kinds of People…


There are really only two kinds of people.  Those who care about others and those who care only about themselves.  This notion transcends economics and culture and color.  The truth is that if all of us cared more about the fate of others, this would be a much better place to live.  

Janice Winfrey was recently re-elected as the City of Detroit Clerk.  In her inaugural speech, which was excellent, she issued a call to action for Detroiters.   "You say you love Detroit", she said, "but remember, 'Love' is an action word".  She went on to stir up the crowd with examples.  In this context, I think people who care about others get what she said immediately.  It's not only about making money, it's also about helping the guy down the street, or taking the neighbors' kids to task if they get out of line.  It is about active participation in the civic process, and we need to realize how important each of us is to that process.  

And we need to ask ourselves about the people around us.  Do they also care about the world in which they live?  Do they treat others as you would have them treated?  I once turned down a job offer because my interviewer was incredibly rude to a waitress at lunch.

If we want people to act nicer and be nicer, then reward people for being that way.  Buy from companies that support the community.  Seek out the people who care and reward them with your support, your business, and your respect.  

There but for the grace of God go I…  

Every now and again, I imagine what life would be like if I woke up and found my life completely different.  Do you ever have that dream where your life is completely upside down?  Imagine you woke to find that you had just gotten out of prison, you were 30 years old, had no identifiable skill, read at about a 6th grade level, and lived in a neighborhood that had nothing positive to offer – no role models, no opportunities, no chances.

What would you do?  How would you survive?  To whom would you turn?  What sliver of hope would you cling to – if in fact you wanted to cling to something that suggested you could get out of this existence, that you could better your life.  

These people need our help, as much as we need them to be part of the solution.  I support SHAR and ASWD, two organizations that deal with these issues everyday.  This problem won't go away by itself.  Ignoring it isn't just the wrong answer, it is irresponsible.   

Next time you see someone who needs help – think about it – what if it were you?


Heroism


In the context of urbanism, heroism is when your actions are intended to help others more than they are intended to help you.  

Carolyn Mosher was one of my heroes.  She was one of those people whom you can't forget.  Love her or not, she made an impression.  And she had a passion.  "We need to reuse these materials," she would say.  "It is a waste of landfill space and you can't replace this stuff anyway."  She, of course, founded the Architectural Salvage Warehouse of Detroit and worked there daily.  It is now ably run by Tom Friesen, who is taking it to a whole new level.  

Colin Hubbell and I sat at Avalon Bakery as I told him about Rickie and learning of his diagnosis.  He told me about the "new normal", and how, when things change completely, this new normal will manifest itself, and things will move on.  He was a guy who loved what he did, loved his wife, loved his kids, and most of all, loved life with a passion that most of us can only long for.  

Bill Beckham – should have been the Mayor of Detroit.  He was talented, committed, and experienced.  Had he not passed suddenly, he could have guided the city these last 10 years or so.  We would clearly be in a different place had he been Mayor.

Doug McIntosh – When we lost Doug, we lost one of our most ardent supporters of the historical built environment.  He went to uncommon lengths to get buildings saved, renovated, or just plain appreciated.  I worked with Doug on Preservation Wayne some time ago, and even if I didn't always agree with him, his heart was pure and his convictions were without question.  I will never forget standing shoulder to shoulder with Doug as Madison Lennox came down.  His partner in McIntosh Poris, Michael Poris, continues to argue passionately for good design and for preservation and pursues award-winning architecture for those lucky enough to hire him.

Chuck Forbes – OK. So, one day, this Ford exec gets the idea that Detroit needs to save its three theaters and that he's the man to do it.  After years of effort, he currently owns and operates the State, he started the original effort to save the Fox, and he moved the Gem Theater rather than allow it to be torn down.  At a time when people trade buildings like stocks, this man adopts structures and treats them like they were his own designs.  He does quality work and has singlehandedly changed the face of this city because of his passion, his determination and his spirit.  If the rest of us had half the energy he still has, we'd get twice as much done.

Sue Mosey, Kathy Wendler, David DiChiera, Maggie Disantis, Karen Brown, Therese Ireland; these people have changed the face of the city and continue to make positive progress every day.

Mike Finney – Executive Director of Spark.  Originator (I think) of "Open Source Economic Development".  He believes in the prosperity of the region, and his actions bear that out.

Phil Cooley – Smart beyond his years.  I say, turn it over to him and see what happens.  Just look at what he did with Slow's BBQ.

Ken Harris – the young, extremely talented and very organized Executive Director of the Detroit Black Expo.  If the future ends up in his hands, I think we'll be OK.

Hubert Massey – excellent artist/engineer/humanitarian.  And one heck of a nice human being.

We lost a couple of others as well.  Our friend Jason Ellison – an extremely creative, caring artist.  And Randy Eaton – a GIANT among men. His wife, Gillian and his son Tristan (Thunderdog Studios) continue to make a huge difference (positive) in the world.  The whole damn family is awesome.   

Tyree Guyton, Victor Pytko, Darcel Deneau, Jack Johnson, Jerome Ferretti, plus the entire group at the Pioneer Building – there are hundreds of great artists in the city.  Find them.  Buy their paintings.  Support their creativity.  Do it for them – do it for us.  It is something you can do right now to make a difference.  

Thanks.  

Post 4: Blue Collar Innovation

I talked earlier about the next big thing.  It seems like we are all looking for the next big something – the Big Idea, the Big Economic Miracle, the Big Business Process Change, and lately, the Big Federal Program, etc.  Well, at the risk of being labeled a heretic, I think the next big thing is already here - and more to the point, I think the next big thing is us.  That's right, I think that you and I are all part of the next big thing.  

There's a lot of talk about needing new ideas, new answers and new solutions to solve the crisis that confronts us.  To paraphrase a concept attributed to Ann Moore, the Chairman and CEO at Time, who spoke at the Inforum luncheon at the RenCen last week, "If we are going to solve our issues, we need to get input from everyone, everywhere."  

And it is true, the status quo hasn't worked – we need to get new ideas, new inspiration, new hope – and we need it from new places.  Creative new approaches are the ONLY way we're going to work our way out of this.  But here's where I differ from a lot of other people.  I believe we already have the talent, the experience, and the ideas to drive us to the answers and solutions we need.  And more to the point, I believe we always have had the answers - but because of ego, inertia, or just plain lack of capacity, many people get shut out of the process.  And that has to stop.  

So, if we have the ideas, how come they don't make it to the surface?  It is because these ideas represent change.  And bureaucracies resist change.  When confronted with change, they shut down – they wait it out.  This is true of automobile companies as well as big cities.  

So, to make the next big thing a reality requires one thing.  It requires the power structure to look outside and listen to the ideas that are being discussed and then to act on them.  It means becoming an active part of the conversation that is already going on daily with the entrepreneurs, the neighborhood groups, the non-profits, and the university think tank groups who are focused on solving the issues they (we all) face.  

Recently, I wrote an editorial for Crain's entitled, "Could Detroit become known as 'The City that Listens?' , where I suggested simply that the people who lived and worked in the city were in the best position to know what is going on with them.  The city needs to get them in to the conversation.  These are the people that actually have the information, as Elinor Ostrom says – ought to be asked what they think – and then the information should be acted upon.  But that oversimplifies the problem.  

Because resistance to change is a big problem.  And if we don't figure out how to get over it, or around it, or through it, it will slowly kill us. 

Here's an example of what I mean.  One of the smartest, most creative, purest intellectuals I know is a waiter at a restaurant in midtown.  He is exactly the kind of guy that needs to be sitting in a group that has been tasked with developing creative solutions to problems.  But society looks at him and says, "He doesn't quite fit the mold," so they discard him and his ideas – when those ideas are precisely what we need right now.

Being able to inspire and motivate people of different backgrounds is our greatest hope, I believe, at inventing our way out of this mess.  

If we can challenge them, engage them, and leverage their results, we can generate a creative power that will carry us through this decade and beyond.  So maybe that's really the next big thing.  The ability to not only inspire and motivate the new players, but to get their ideas to the surface.  It is not enough to come up with creative ideas – we must also have the kind of leadership that will act on them.  

All right, you say.  Where are you going with this?  First, an appeal to the city and to the businesses that make up the city to open the dialogue with a much larger group of people – to seek their counsel and then to act on their ideas in a way that gets us to the solutions we so desperately seek.  

But on a broader scale, I think individually we all need to consciously broaden our personal networks.  We need to interact with people that don't look like us or don't think like us or didn't grow up like us.  We need to ask them tough questions and laugh with them and find out how they think and what they know.  And we need to solve problems with them.  And I believe a leader will emerge who has the ability to do just that.  In fact, I believe a whole new generation of leaders will emerge that have figured out how to get the most creativity from the largest group of people and combine it in such a way as to generate above average solutions – and returns.  

So, here's what we're doing about it right now.  

"Blue Collar Innovation"- I get a chance to deal with a lot of different kinds of people – some that are pretty down on their luck.  The guys at Architectural Salvage Warehouse of Detroit or at SHAR – some of them are ex-offenders who are suddenly cast out on the street – sometimes with no skills, no role models, no jobs, and no hope.  But one thing they do have is the desire to turn themselves and their situations around.  We need to embrace these guys and help them turn themselves into productive citizens.  For their sake, of course, but also for our sake.  We need them and their perspectives and ideas and energy.
 
As a result of all this, one of my partners, Richard Mishler, the ex-GM at TechTown, and I have been planning an effort we're calling "Blue Collar Innovation", a program to teach the "hard arts" – metalworking, woodworking, etc. to a whole new crop of people.  It is our hope that by mixing a number of clever, innovative, craftsman-type guys in a setting that promotes innovation and collaboration and teaching, we can bring in a whole new group of people that society has overlooked, but who are nevertheless clever problem solvers. 

Maybe this is just a great place to meet and talk about new ideas or train people in what are becoming the forgotten arts, or teach neighborhood kids learn how to build things. Or maybe it is a more structured environment where new ideas can be invented and prototyped.  Whatever its final evolution, it is based on two critical factors: first, diversity is the key to our salvation, and second, there are some very smart guys out there whose talent and creativity we desperately need – in this city, in this state, and in this country if we are to remain competitive.  It may not be sexy, but if nothing else, it will be a great place to be around people that don't look like you or think like you. 

So, if you're looking for shop space, and don't mind working with some other people in a common area at the same time, look us up at 4731.  We are definitely still in the planning stages, and are in fact still cleaning up the building after the devastation from our last tenant, but we are thinking pretty hard right now about how to put a dozen or so workshops in a building manned by creative, collaborative craftsmen, who are interested in helping the city and the region come back. 

 

Post 5: Swimming St. Clair

The first lesson is that you need to be your own medical advocate.  It's like the commercial currently running that suggests – "questions are the answer".  Ask questions until you understand what is happening to you and your loved ones.  No one else cares as much as you do.  

It starts in the fall of 2007 when we can't understand why our son Rickie is coughing all the time and can't seem to shake a case of bronchitis, or asthma, or allergies, or whatever else we heard 37 times since he was born.  After yet another unproductive visit to the doctor, we happen to come into the kitchen to find Rickie coughing so hard he's doubled over.  I hold him as he stands up, expecting to see him crying.  Instead, he's got a big smile on his face.  "It’s OK, Daddy.  I can always breathe after I cough like that".  If my wife had not gone back to the doctor and demanded that tests be run, they'd still be feeding him Robitussin.

After the tests are run, we wait seven days for results.  I cry constantly.  At one point, Rickie asks me out of the blue, "Daddy, do I have much life left?" On October 12th, 2007, we are told he has tested positive for cystic fibrosis.  

We go to our first hospital, where we are told that he is going to be watched and we are to "wait and see how he is after a couple of months".  "It is how we get a baseline on our patients", we are assured.  Well, after about six heart-wrenching weeks of listening to him cough every 30 seconds or so, we take him to the Mott Children's Hospital at the U of M.  Dr. Sami Nasr checks him out, and immediately orders him to stay in the facility.  He is there for nearly seven weeks.  When he comes out, he isn't coughing – at all.  How's that for a baseline?  

During this entire period, I swim whenever I can.  It's like therapy for me.  When I needed to get away and think, I would get in the pool and pound out the laps until I was exhausted.  

Early in the spring of '08, I decided to swim across Lake St Clair.  

To give us a goal on which to focus, to bring attention to cystic fibrosis, and to see if we could actually do it.  My friend Mike Stevens at the DAC had something to do with it as well.  The process itself was pretty easy.  Clearance from the Coast Guard, permission from the Grosse Pointe Yacht Club (they were very helpful) and then more training.  Greg McDuffy, Mike Hutchinson and Derek Weaver all asked to join us.  And then suddenly, it's time.  

We awake to nasty skies and light winds, but they are out of the northeast, which puts the waves at our back.  The weather service is cautious, but we decide to go anyway. We're in the boat at 7:30 am, leaving the Yacht Club to cross Lake St Clair.  We're in the water by 8:15 and after 15 minutes of bravado, we take off from the west side of Gull Island.  We swim past the two Old South Channel Range lighthouses (1859), and then begin to make our way across the bay.  6-7 hours later we are nearing land at about the 9 mile tower.  After that, we swim another mile or so down the coast to the harbor.  

The overall distance is 13-14 miles, and the winds (NNE) tend to run in the opposite direction of the currents (SSW), causing these strange choppy waves which seem to run in two directions at once.  In a boat, it is annoying.  In the water, it can be exhausting.  And we pegged the water temp at between 67 and 73 last year – most of us wear neoprene swimming vests or full body suits.  The first year, I tried a neoprene vest over my trunks, but took it off after five miles because it was chewing up my shoulders.  Last year, we ended up cutting the sleeves off the vest and I finished in that.  It does provide a little buoyancy.  

Adrenaline takes it out of the boring category, and fear helps to keep it interesting.  The hardest part is spotting the 9 Mile Tower when you're just starting out, and then seeing it again every time you look up for the next 5-6 hours.  It is mind-numbingly frustrating.  But eventually, after about 15,000 strokes, you realize you are no longer focusing on the tower, you are now looking down the shoreline towards the tower at the Yacht Club.

Last year, with the end in sight, the wind suddenly shifted 180 degrees.  I remember the waves that had been coming over my back were suddenly coming straight at me, making breathing a challenge.  And then in a flash, the winds kicked up to about 40 mph, the waves rose to about 2 ½ feet and we got slammed with hail.  Mike Stevens blew a whistle and yelled at us to get into the boat.  By the time we climbed the ladder, we were getting pelted with rain, hail and high winds.  It was absolutely invigorating – making our way through the storm off the lake and into the harbor.  

It is some primordial urge to take on the elements, I think.  Whatever, it is a chance to get together with a group of guys and face a challenge together.  And it is for one of the best reasons I can think of that we do it.  It raises money for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and for a Medical Trust Fund for Rickie to help him take care of future medical expenses.  It also raises overall awareness of the disease and the progress they are making to cure it.  And with your continued support, we will swim, and we will find a cure.  If you want to join us, or just help out, please check out the site and drop us a note.  
Oh, and Rickie continues to amaze us.  He is healthy and growing strong.  Thanks.



Post 3: Open Source Governance

I believe that if we as a city, state, or nation are to remain relevant, we need to tap the power of ALL of our citizens.  It is not enough to rely on the "top down" approach to governing citizens or to solving our social issues.  The real answers – the sustainable solutions – will come from the people themselves – from you and I.  And that is why I believe "Bottom up is the next big thing".  

Elinor Ostrom is a professor of political science from Indiana University.  Recently, she became the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Economics – for what she calls "Advanced Economic Theory".  Per a CNN report that came out after she won,

"Ostrom's work shows that local communities often manage common resources -- such as woods, lakes and fish stocks -- better on their own than when outside authorities impose rules, the committee said. "Bureaucrats sometimes do not have the correct information, while citizens and users of resources do," she said to explain the significance of her work."

She is focused specifically on conflict resolution surrounding "common pool resource problems", but I believe this "bottom up" concept is applicable in a broader sense as well.  

From a governance perspective, I believe this notion best embodies itself in something called "Open Source Governance".   We all know what "open source" means relative to software.  And "open source", when applied to innovation, has been around for some time, and Mike Finney at Ann Arbor Spark has been practicing "Open Source Economic Development" to our mutual benefit for some time, but I am suggesting something a little different.

This concept was originally developed as an organizational model for implementing a green strategy for the City of Detroit.  It was based on the theory that there were already capable, successful efforts within the city that are dedicated to achieving the same goals that would be embraced by a green effort within the city administration.
http://www.metromode.com/images/Blogs/ric%20geyer%20illustration.jpg

If power-sharing could be achieved, that transferred responsibility (and the accountability) for achieving our common goals to the community, theoretically the cities' goals could be achieved by the community, which would be beneficial to both groups.  The key to this arrangement is to get active community-identified members who will represent the interests of the entire community.

The role of the city then is to simply facilitate success.  In this case, the city would identify one individual whose primary task would be to remove the barriers in the administration that would inhibit success for these groups.   We can liken this to the thumb hole in an artists' palette.  This position would provide credibility for the group, but it would also provide a link back to the city – and would be responsible for meeting the needs, removing the barriers, and providing communication for the group.  It has recently been suggested to me that isn't as groundbreaking as I would have hoped, and that, for instance, you will see exactly this sort of thing in the current city administration, perhaps called by a different name. 
 
In this example, suppose we take Greening of Detroit.  They are focused on increasing the acreage of gardens and farmable land in the city.  Their success rests in part on their ability to achieve that goal.   Forgetting for a moment that it is against the law in Detroit to have a parcel whose primary use is farming (a temporary aberration being addressed at this time), if the Mayor's representative succeeds in helping Greening achieve their goal, then the city has achieved a very valuable goal as well and can do it without its own initiatives, bureaucracy, or resources.  And, as an added benefit, citizens feel an immediate sense of empowerment, belonging, and success.

It is our belief that this model can be expanded to included other "non-essential" service areas.  Energy, urban farming, arts and culture – many areas could lend themselves to this approach.  What if the Engineering Society of Detroit (or the US Green Building Council or the Institute of Architects) were to take on the responsibility of representing the green building community with the Mayor's office?  They clearly are committed to pursuing Green Building Technology and would be highly motivated to report back to the Mayor when issues arose that made it difficult for them to reach their goals.  And if they succeed – the city succeeds. 

Overall it seems like an interesting way to generate engagement and facilitate success.  The city saves resources, citizens get more engaged, and common goals become easier to achieve.  What's not to like…
 

Post 1: We Are Not Alone

2010 arrives – along with the hope of a political and economic recovery in the City of Detroit.  

Politically, if the Bing administration's recent inauguration and the speeches that defined it are any indication, we are in for substantive change.  We are in the midst of a serious cash crunch and major modification is obviously required to change the course of history for this city.  To those people who cling to the notion that we can keep doing the same things the same ways, we ask, "So, how's it working so far?" 

Clearly, change is required, but just as clear is that when change occurs, there will be shifts – sometimes huge shifts – in the power base, in the status quo and in the processes that define them.  I believe we are in for shakeups in each of these areas, and I hope you'll do whatever you can to facilitate their success.  This is our time – and we are fortunate enough to have a new start – both in the administration and in the council.  It appears we have leaders on all sides who are willing to step up to the plate and be accountable.  It looks like the window of opportunity is open, and if the knowledgeable veterans (Cockrel, et al) buy in and support the new administration, we have a decent shot at a fresh new start.

On the economic front, and on a more somber note, it is clear that any sort of recovery in Detroit will lag the recovery in the rest of the nation by at least a number of months.  And the notion that we may never fully recover is not lost on economists and forecasters as well.  But equally important is the notion that we are not alone.  

At a recent Brookings Institute Conference sponsored by a non-profit community-based policy group called Greater Ohio, we heard that of the 21 largest "shrinking cities" in the US, 20 are located within 100 miles of the Great Lakes.  Our region has been decimated by changing buying patterns and by our stubborn adherence to business practices and social customs that are no longer relevant in today's society.  Our issues of race and right-to-work continue to dog us, and we have been duped by history – left behind by the very strategies that proved so successful in the early part of this century.   

An article that appeared in DBusiness some time ago talked about the $100 trillion that the automotive industry in the Detroit region has contributed to the U.S. economy.  Part of me wants to get the Senators in the Southern states that seem hell bent on destroying our way of life to at least admit that their attacks on us are unashamed acts of economic self-interest.  But the truth is, it just doesn't matter.  

"What have you done for me lately?" is just as true today as it ever was.  The only difference is that yesterday, our region was able to produce the results the nation wanted.  We were not only the arsenal of Democracy, but also the arsenal of consumption.  We satisfied one of the greatest needs of the American people – the need for freedom.  Our automobiles, and the personal mobility they provided, spawned a whole new culture.  

So, how do we become great again?  I think the first point is to ask the right question.  As Jay Williams, the Mayor of Youngstown says, "Youngstown will never be what it once was.  But rather then bemoaning the fact that we can never be what we once were, why don't we ask instead, "How do we become the best we can be?"  It is clear that Detroit will be different than it was before – it is extremely unlikely that in our lifetimes we will see the population in the city exceed 1 million people.  We need to realize that smaller can be better.  

More importantly, we need to ask what I characterize as the John Mogk question: "How do we take what we have and work with it in a smart, organized fashion to craft the best quality of life we can for the people of this region?"  It is not about giving up, or considering ourselves second class citizens – it is about realizing the assets and advantages we have and leveraging them to our combined advantage.  

It means not building thousands of new homes when every home we build sentences another one to an early death.  It means finding the areas of the greatest population density and supporting them, but it also means deemphasizing other areas that have already lost the majority of their populations.

We can no longer afford to support a city with the infrastructure and land mass that formerly supported 2 million people.  We need to move on and realize that we are still a great city, in spite of the population we have lost, but we cannot provide the kinds of services the people need on the backs of the people that stayed.  We are doing so much more now with so much less money – but it isn't enough.  We need to have less to do – and that means reducing services to areas where people no longer live, or painfully, to areas where only a few people remain.  Again, to return to Jay Williams and Youngstown, they have developed a strategy that says they will close areas down through attrition.  No one is ever forced to leave, but when areas do close up, services get just a little better and a little cheaper for everyone else.  

Which brings me back around to my original point.  We are not in this alone.  This is true of individuals living in Detroit, but it is also true of all our cities as well.  Cleveland, Lansing, Flint, Buffalo, Scranton - the list goes on.  But the picture is the same.  We are all losing population.  Maybe it's the weather – maybe it is the crumbling infrastructure, maybe it is our inability to realize that our diversity is actually one of our greatest untapped strengths, or maybe it is our stubborn reliance on the anachronistic idea that management and workers are separate entities that keeps us locked down. 

But whatever the reasons, Detroit is not alone.  There are a number of other cities out there that are standing next to us in this battle.  Those cities, and the people that live in them, are our urban brothers and sisters.  We need to work with them to bring us all back – because the answer lies in working together to solve the greater problems that we all face.  


Post 2: Citizens for Cities

Citizens for Cities is an outgrowth of the Ten Living Cities Conference held August 8, 2009 in Dayton, Ohio.  Peter Benkendorf was a community activist living in Chicago who had an epiphany in front of a wine bar in Dayton last year and promptly moved down there, settling into the wonderful little St. Anne's Hill Historical District.

Benkendorf was upset about an article written in Forbes a year earlier which named Detroit and Flint in Michigan; Cleveland, Canton, Dayton, and Youngstown in Ohio; and Charleston, W.Va, Scranton, Pa., Springfield, Mass., and Buffalo, N.Y. "America’s Ten Fastest Dying Cities".  To demonstrate that these cities are not giving up, he organized a conference in Dayton to celebrate the positive steps each city was taking to move forward.

So, on August 8th, 2009, representatives from eight of the ten cities came to Dayton to address the audience, which included not only concerned Daytonians and other urbanists from the region, but also Josh Zumbrun, the original author of the article, as well as a reporter from The Wall Street Journal.

Josh, it turns out, is an articulate, apologetic Midwesterner who is both knowledgeable about the subject and concerned about the outcome.  The Wall Street Journal reporter, on the other hand, was upset that he had to "spend a day listening to a bunch of losers in Dayton".  The only saving grace is that after speaking to him for close to 30 minutes, he didn't include Detroit in his scathing report on the conference.  I can, however, attribute the following quote to him, explaining what his roommate had told him several years earlier after an internship at GM – "Detroit is where ideas go to die."  It colored everything else the guy knew of the city.

I was first up on Saturday morning, followed by a speaker from Canton, Ohio, and then Jay Williams, the Mayor of Youngstown.  In the audience were two people from Senator Sherrod Brown's office (D – Ohio). The presentations were all unique, with the exception that instead of being all "top down", there was a distinctly egalitarian feel to a number of the presentations, particularly that of Michael Gainer, founder of Buffalo ReUse.

Following the conference, Peter, Jay Williams, and I co-authored an article that appeared in Forbes.com. In it we said, "Much like President Kennedy challenged Americans in 1961 to put a man on the moon before the end of the decade and America responded like never before, it is time for President Obama to challenge America to re-imagine the possibilities for our cities and the citizens who reside in them."

At about the same time, Peter and I were invited to attend a CEOs for Cities conference in Grand Rapids.  It was an excellent gathering - there were thinkers, academicians, practitioners, and energetic, young high tech entrepreneurs, who are had very profound things to say about how to grow our cities.  But we felt there was a group that was missing – the people in the cities.  The folks on the front lines – doing the work and getting results.  
The conversations that came out of the article and of the discussions that followed the conference in Grand Rapids provided the seed for Citizens for Cities. 

Our core belief is that there are a number of people and organizations in our cities that are already doing GREAT work, and could be doing even more if they were given a voice at the table.  These are individuals and organizations who are already achieving results – in situations that are difficult at best.  The mission will be to advocate for cities, to serve as an innovation catalyst, and to develop and deploy replicable processes that promote economic and civic revitalization.  But the key audience is the people who are currently on the ground, pounding out the projects and the successes that will eventually add up to the resurrection of our cities.   

Detroit's new administration uses the phrase, "Renewing the Spirit of Detroit".  We need to leverage this idea and apply it across the region so that we can all emerge stronger, if not smaller, in the coming decade.  

Who are these individuals and organizations I am talking about?  I can start with one of my current clients – the SHAR House over on the Boulevard.  It went from a nearly one million dollar deficit just over a year ago to an operating surplus today by taking a close, hard look at its finances. 

The same rigor that resulted in SHAR's financial turnaround is now being applied to an idea for an urban farm in the city called RecoveryPark.  It focuses on providing employment for people in its program and in the surrounding neighborhoods, but also on expanding the value chain down the line so that many more jobs can be generated.  The trick is not to just grow food, but to prepare it, package it, and distribute it to people who need it, all the while creating jobs and value throughout the city.   Perhaps more importantly, however, is the methodology that is bringing together dozens of organizations in a joint process to achieve a common goal.  That goal is the recovery of the city, and the effort has already been joined by a number of impressive organizations.
 
Next, Rebecca Salminen Witt over at the Greening of Detroit – who continues to push for progress in the city, or Keith Young, who teaches middle schoolers the finer points of advanced chemistry through EcoTek.  His kids have represented the U.S. several times in international conferences.  These are middle schoolers from the city of Detroit who are playing with DNA and inventing new ways to utilize biofuels.  These kids are the future of the country, and they are here because Keith has decided to invest in the hearts and minds of these kids.

Or how about the development work being done by some of the unsung heroes of Detroit, who toil incredibly long hours to make progress in this city.  Starting with the late, great Colin Hubbell, but also including people like Bob Slattery, Julio Bateau, and Sue Mosey, Kathy Wendler; each a giant in their own right.  Or Carolyn Mosher, from Architectural Salvage Warehouse of Detroit, who recently passed, but whose spirit is still with us.  We need to help these people and the ones that follow them do what they do best – and thank them every day for their Herculean efforts to better the city.  I can only apologize that I can't mention all of the hundreds of other efficient, passionate non-profits who are changing the face of our city every day.

So, assuming we can find them, how do we empower them to increase their scale and accomplish even more?  We build a critical mass of these successful efforts, and leverage their talent and their results to make the results grow.  Working in the city, it has often felt like these groups spend a substantial amount of time fighting the bureaucracy that should be welcoming them with open arms. Imagine if that same municipal machine was in place to assist rather than hinder the efforts of these groups? 

Citizens for Cities is an admission by these groups that there is a problem.  We need to come together to reduce the barriers that confront us.  From the city standpoint, there needs to be a conscious and substantial movement to change the process and the mindset that erects these barriers.  We don't need more people inspecting dumpsters in the city – we need more people helping startup businesses navigate the bureaucratic path.
 
We are wasting time, talent and more importantly, money, trying to stop potentially successful efforts.  We need to get on the same page, find the talent that already exists and leverage it.   We will be officially launching Citizens for Cities in the new year.  If you are interested in getting involved, please write and let us know. 

 
Signup for Email Alerts