Blog: Sean Mann

Issuing the call for city champions is Sean Mann, director of the "Let's Save Michigan" campaign to promote core communities in the Great Lakes state. This week he wades into the sexiness of density and the need for better collaboration between Ann Arbor and Detroit.

Post 4: Advocating for Michigan and Appreciating What We Have

Maybe you won't start a parade in your city or a soccer league. That's fine. I'm fully aware that that's not everyone. But at the very least you could be a good advocate for your city.

Earlier this year I found myself reading USA Today, because that's one of the luxuries having a third grade education affords you, and came across a fairly mundane article about these tough economic times. The articles focused on small cities in North Carolina struggling to weather the current economic storm. It's an innocent enough until, for no apparent reason, the author decides to throw in:

“Main Street Mount Airy (N.C) itself looks nothing like the boarded-up downtowns in much of Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois.”

You gotta be kidding me. Is that sentence really necessary to tell this story about the demise of the textile industry in the south?

Without a doubt, the Great Lakes region has taken the brunt of the recent downturn in the American economy, with Michigan certainly suffering more than most, and it is easy to use Michigan and particular, Detroit, as the media's posterchild or exhibit A for whatever ails our republic and way of life. But are our main streets and downtowns really as bad as everyone makes them out to be?

The USA Today comment, and other similar media portrayals, are broad strokes of negativity that ignore the recent accomplishments of our cities. You know fully well that Washtenaw County has a promising downtown in Ann Arbor and a downtown with limitless possibilities and potential in Ypsilanti. But they are anything but lonely positive outliers. Across the state, Marquette, a city that the folks who consider this fly-over territory would write off for dead, was voted the most Distinctive Destination in 2010 for a contest by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Similar distinctions have been awarded in recent years to Holland, Marshall, Petoskey, and Saugatuck. Traverse City, Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids have made significant strides in reviving their downtowns—making them more walkable, denser, and, overall, more appealing. We are even seeing new signs of life in Flint and Detroit.

But this isn't the Michigan that is covered by the national media. Who do we have to blame for that? Sure, a part of it is because it's real and a portion of it is laziness on the part of media, but we also can't escape blame ourselves. As much as we may bitch about how the national media portrays us, in the end, their language isn't far off from what we say about ourselves.

We need to stop being our own worst critics and start taking actions that make the rest of the nation appreciate the state we love. All too often we are the ones who beat up on ourselves and are the ones that are first to point out our shortcomings and reinforce negative stereotypes.

As a young person that cares about the future of this state and its communities, it's frustrating to see friends flee the Michigan looking for things that they can often find here, if only their minds weren't already warped by popular misconceptions and stereotypes.

But what is ultimately most disheartening is to see people in Michigan tear down other parts of this state and feed the negativism. Yes, times are tough right now in Michigan, but they aren't nearly as bad as the talk radio and the comments sections of the local newspaper websites would lead you to believe.

I spend a good portion of each week in Washtenaw County, where it's not uncommon to hear people make disparaging remarks about our state's largest city. And while I think attitudes have improved, there are still misconceptions, stereotypes and general sentiment that Washtenaw County can thrive without a viable Detroit. FALSE. I won't rehash Lou Glazer's arguments, but Ann Arbor, because of its size and resistance to density and recent development trends, is simply not capable of being Michigan's economic hub. 

Michigan can't thrive without a viable Detroit. So instead of knocking the Motor City, go and explore it, understand it and appreciate it. And don't just go to a Tigers game and a bar afterwards. Get away from downtown and visit the neighborhoods and institutions that make it America's most distinctive city. And if you need help finding your way, let me know. There is nothing I enjoy more than giving tours of my city. And with any luck, hopefully you'll become an advocate for Detroit. Lord knows it needs more.

At the end of the day, no one will tell our story better than us. So what story are we going to tell? We can either speak amongst ourselves and to others of the positive things that are going on in Michigan and take action, address our shortcomings, and then build on our assets to bring about a revival of Michigan. Or we can continue the negativity and feed into and reinforce the media stereotypes that hold us back.