Blog: Sarah Szurpicki

Sarah Szurpicki is a Detroit area native and 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 will be writing about how our region can benefit from exploring solutions that have been implemented in cities facing similar challenges.

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.