Blog: Sarah Szurpicki

Sarah Szurpicki is a Co-Founder of the Great Lakes Urban Exchange (GLUE), an online networking and journalism effort to build regional identity and share information among young urban leaders from cities around the Great Lakes region. 

Sarah is a Detroit area native who, in 2007, "boomeranged" back after eight years in Boston, DC, and New York, and now lives in Royal Oak.  She has developed expertise in operational and logistical planning and implementation through positions on various campaigns, and, most recently, as the Director of Finance and Operations of the Harlem Success Academy Charter School in New York, where she oversaw the operational startup of the school's first year.  

Sarah graduated from Harvard University with a BA in Environmental Science and Public Policy in 2003, where her studies focused on public participation and activism in environmental science. Sarah supervises GLUE networks in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.

She'll be writing on the need to recognize that Detroit is not alone and that it has potential partners, friends, and allies in its fellow "rustbelt" cities. She believes our leaders (both traditional and non-traditional) can benefit from exploring solutions that have been implemented in cities facing similar challenges and will be sharing some of those potential solutions.


Sarah Szurpicki - Most Recent Posts:

Post No. 5

Without performing any sort of statistical analysis, I'd bet that roughly 75% of previous MetroMode bloggers have commented on the need for Detroit to figure out what young, educated people want - and to try to attract those people. And I suspect that one of the reasons I was asked to blog for MetroMode is as a representative of those young, educated people - and one who decided to come back.

The curious thing is that, much of the work out there on what "young talent" want indicate parameters that, I think, are just the icing on a city's cake. I'm not just looking for cool bars and coffee houses (although I like those). I'm not just looking for a subway ride to work (although I would like that, too). I'm not just looking for easy access to outdoor attractions (though, again, I wouldn't mind it).

It's easy to look at cities that "work" and describe simply their amenities and spatial characteristics, and say, "This is why this city is successful - let's copy that." So that is, largely, what people have done.

What I want from a city is harder to define and even harder to create. I want a city that works for all of its residents – not just my young, educated, mobile peers. And I want to live in a city where I can be a part of making that happen.

I am not unique in this. When GLUE met in Buffalo, we represented 19 major cities in our region, around 11 non-profit and for-profit sectors, and a variety of racial, ethnic, class, and educational backgrounds. What we shared was: (1) our approximate ages – we're all post-boomers, (2) the drive to do work that benefits each of our cities; and (3) a desire to expand the definition of city "quality of life" beyond the amenities I describe above.

We want that definition to include, among other things: economic development that is equitable, neighborhood development that doesn't price current residents out, avenues for civic participation that are transparent and inclusive, and an overall feeling that diversity and tolerance are valued.

Great Lakes cities are incredible places to live if you want to play a role in shaping the future. I hope I demonstrated through my previous three posts that there are ways to be involved in change at every level - whether you have the ear of policy makers, run a business, or are just tired of witnessing violence. "Young talent" will respond to a city that recognizes their efforts to create a healthier future. Let's not fight them on that.

Post No. 4

My last two posts discuss potential solutions to some of Detroit's challenges that require a level of "top-down" support. Average community members can't access financing tools; organizations like the Elmwood Village Association couldn't get off the ground without the support of business owners.

Those among us who lack direct lines to decision-makers can hold our leaders accountable and find ways to get heard, whether by attending neighborhood meetings, voting, creating coalitions, or using the press. We have a responsibility to become educated enough about these top-down tools to recognize when they're being used incorrectly.

Too frequently, though, top-down change takes too long.  In Detroit, more insidious and pervasive problems require urgent and "bottom-up" action.

A movement taking place in a sister Great Lakes city reminds me that, no matter how disenfranchised and impoverished our citizenry, we still have tools for change-making.

GLUE team member Luqman Abdus-Salam is one of the founding members of One HOOD, a coalition of youth leaders from predominantly African-American neighborhoods in Pittsburgh. At the heart of their mission: solidarity against the gun violence that decimates the population of young black men in primarily black, urban neighborhoods.

One HOOD began when about twenty community leaders decided to witness against violence, by walking the streets together at 11:00 pm in the historically African-American, and historically poor and disenfranchised, Homewood District of Pittsburgh. According to Luqman, when they began this effort in 2006, policemen offered to escort them. The officers were gently told that they were not needed.  Now they walk monthly, and are considering expanding their patrols to other neighborhoods. 

When they walk, One HOOD members are greeted by residents; grandmothers come out on their stoops, people stop and talk to them. One HOOD claims that zero incidents of violence have been reported in Homewood on the nights they've witnessed.

Luqman told me, "One HOOD is a coalition of a diverse set of youth leaders with different spheres of influence. This diversity is how we maximize our impact." One HOOD operates with no hierarchical membership, no board of directors, no funding at all. They've been offered foundation support, but turned it down, for fear that funding would make them susceptible to outside influence as they determine their long-term direction. They know that their power stems from other resources: integrity, honest and brave leadership, and strength through community.

What Detroit currently lacks in financial resources, it must make up for with those more vital and more powerful characteristics. Fortunately, they're easier to come by than money.

Post No. 3

At GLUE's inaugural conference, we took an "alternative" bus tour of Buffalo, led by community organizers deeply familiar with Buffalo's vacancy problems, blight, poor historical planning, poverty, and political dynamics. After the tour, representatives of other Great Lakes cities reflected on how familiar parts of Buffalo seemed. I heard repeatedly, "I saw my city, over and over."

Fortunately, we saw some urban success stories as well. One of them was Elmwood Village, a charming, walkable neighborhood where far-sighted community development schemes have created a consistent and inviting atmosphere.

"You have to build and maintain a sense of place," said Justin Azzarella, Executive Director of the Elmwood Village Association (EVA). "When you break up the urban fabric, people leave." 

About ten years ago, Elmwood's sidewalks, streets, and curbs were crumbling.  EVA, then a fledgling organization composed primarily of area businesses, saw an opportunity. EVA wielded clout as a community coalition to demand that, when the City repair the infrastructure, it narrow the streets and widen the sidewalks.  Traffic slowed, and room appeared for sidewalk cafes.

EVA has since developed design guidelines, involving consistent building scale, planned mixed uses, building orientation, parking lot restrictions, and other parameters. 

They've built a broad base of support through the public planning process, that includes the people who live and work in the neighborhood - not just those who already have connections to decision-makers. They've also created initiatives, like the facade improvement matching program
, that help businesses follow these guidelines in a time when the economy makes it difficult.

Imagine if Woodward, Cass, and Warren were narrowed around Wayne State and the DIA - an area whose existing assets already draw a decent amount of pedestrian traffic. Imagine the area if cars weren't speeding through at 50 mph, if storefronts were consistently welcoming, and if all buildings were "oriented to the pedestrian." Design has been used in Elmwood Village to attack fundamental economic issues that face Detroit as well.

Some will argue that Detroit doesn't even have the resources to do more than patch its infrastructure, let alone take the next step on good design.  But there are little changes happening all over our city, and at all levels, we need to make sure that each of them is as far-sighted as EVA was ten years ago.

Post No. 2

Ryan Horton, a GLUE team member from the Public Policy Forum in Milwaukee, lobbied hard at GLUE's inaugural conference last week for creative usage of Tax Increment Financing (TIF) in urban redevelopment. TIF generally refers to this process: A municipality issues bonds to pay for aspects of a development. That development should lead to increased property values, which lead to increased taxes. The increase in property taxes is the "increment" in TIF, and can be captured to repay the initial bonds.
Historically, TIF has been used to help finance developments like industrial parks, shopping centers and housing developments, and has been the source of some controversy. TIF often suffers from lack of transparency. And because TIF projects are designed specifically to increase property values, they've also been criticized as direct causes of gentrification.

However, Ryan urged us to reconsider the power of TIF when used boldly and responsibly. He told us about an underutilized, elevated highway spur in Milwaukee – the Park East Freeway – and how it divided neighborhoods and left the dominant land use around it as – no shock to Detroiters – surface parking.  Milwaukee used TIF ambitiously: to finance $15 million of the cost of the spur's razing, which began in 2002. 

Now, according to the city's website, "The elevated freeway spur was replaced with an at-grade six-lane boulevard that is fully connected with the existing and newly re-created street grid. New block configurations opened up 24 acres of downtown property for redevelopment." The Park East Freeway's removal reconnected downtown Milwaukee with the largely African-American neighborhoods immediately to the north. (Highways dividing neighborhoods – sound familiar?)

According to Ryan, "The challenge is to stop thinking of TIF as a project-based tool, and start thinking of it as a way to achieve regional and community development goals." Detroit needs bold visions and can't wait for the government to catch up with new financing tools. I hope some of our planners and leaders are imagining a new transportation and spatial arrangement for the city – and are exploring existing models for making their visions a reality. 

The rest of us need to understand the potential gains and the pitfalls, so that we can hold our leaders accountable for using tools like TIF transparently, and for the good of our city's current residents.

Post No. 1

Detroit has long been considered part of the "Rust Belt," the broad swath of the US where 20th century industry left its profoundest mark. With our hulking, unused train station, dilapidated industrial landmarks, vacant lots, and the occasional car shell peppering our streets, we may even qualify as the Rust Belt capital. Some are proud of the descriptor, embracing our gritty, hard-working history; others are frustrated, pointing out that evoking an image of decay is no way to move into the new economy.

As the co-founder of a new story-telling and network-building campaign to strengthen Rust Belt cities, I spend a fair amount of time thinking about these divergent attitudes.  I'm also just back in southeast Michigan after eight years on the east coast, and hopefully bring a fresh ear to the stories we tell about our city.

On one hand, efforts to re-brand ourselves as some other city ("New York style lofts!") seem misguided. If you're living in Detroit, you are hopefully looking for some real Detroit style. Fix up some of our historic housing stock; eat at Lafayette; ride a bike on Belle Isle; listen to jazz at Cliff Bell's; visit Detroit's incredible galleries and art spaces. The term "Rust Belt" at least acknowledges that we have a history that's different from the cities of the coasts. Hopefully, our future will be similarly unique.

On the other hand, the economy of the 21st century, we all know, is not going to be heavily rust-related. Can computers even get rusty? Shouldn't we try to appreciate our past without being mired in it?  Let's reminisce less and re-imagine more.

Even if we're uncomfortable with the terminology, the Rust Belt moniker has something to offer. It reminds us that other Rust Belt cities can be our partners, friends, and supporters as we navigate a transitional period in our history. The challenges faced by Cleveland, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, and other cities should sound familiar to Detroiters: declining populations, high unemployment, vacant land, poverty, violence, and racial segregation. (See The Vital Center, a work of the Brookings Institution's Great Lakes Economic Initiative, for more information about these commonalities.)

I take encouragement in knowing that Detroit is not alone.  Fortunately, for all the challenges I mention above, we also share similar assets and potentially common solutions.  In my remaining posts, I'll be discussing some of those that I've observed in nearby metropolitan areas--which I prefer to call, more positively and optimistically, the cities of the Great Lakes.