Thoughts on Civic Pride, German Journalists, and Serendipity in Detroit

6/7/12Follow @XconomyDET

I’ve had the pleasure of spending some time lately with Lu Yen Roloff, a German journalist visiting Detroit, gathering information for radio and magazine pieces about the state of social entrepreneurship in our city. If nothing else, she learned something about the social serendipity that seems to hide in every corner of Detroit, waiting to take its recipients on an adventure.

Lu Yen originally planned to stay with a friend in Novi. But a few days into her trip, she booked a night at Hostel Detroit and she never returned to the ‘burbs. The miles that separate Novi and Detroit are more than physical, she learned. Novi and Detroit are less like neighboring cities and more like distant solar systems.

On her first night at the hostel, a nearby house suddenly became engulfed in flames. Acting on her reporter’s instincts, she grabbed her camera and ran over to check it out.

“Oh good,” she thought as she saw other people carrying notebooks and video cameras rushing to the scene. “The local media is here. Maybe they can tell me what happened.”

But “the local media” turned out to be other German journalists; two documentary film crews, to be exact. The local media never showed up, but thank goodness the fire department did.

A few days earlier, I had warned Lu Yen not to schedule herself too heavily while she was in town or she’d risk missing out on the serendipity that seems to flow so freely around here (partly the function of a sprawling city that often feels like a small town). “Just talk to the people you meet and see where it leads you,” I told the skeptical Lu Yen. “The chances that something almost magical will happen are high. That’s sort of how it works in Detroit.”

Lu Yen thought that perhaps meeting the other German reporters at the fire was that magical thing I described. After all, they had access to a car and were willing to let her tag along. But as her trip progressed, all kinds of cool things kept happening to her. She watched a Tigers game from a suite in Comerica; she got an impromptu tour of the city after she met a biker club at a hackerspace and they offered her a spare moped and a spot in their crew for the night; she had lunch at a soup kitchen in Brightmoor; she danced part of an afternoon away at an party for the Movement Electronic Music Festival at the Old Miami.

On her last day in town, I asked Lu Yen what surprised her most about Detroit. “How friendly it is,” she answered without hesitation. “Come back,” nearly everybody said to her. “Come back, and I’ll make sure you get in free to the Electronic Music Festival/Grand Prix/Tigers game.”

She seemed surprised that so many of us wanted to trot our city out like a prized pony and serve as unpaid tour guides. Civic pride, I suppose, wasn’t what she was expecting to encounter here, especially given that most of the headlines about Detroit in recent months have been about our stunningly high crime rate, fiscal unrest, and our inability to accomplish things like mass transit and border crossings.

Civic pride and community engagement were also prevailing themes at the Detroit 24-7 town hall meeting I attended last night. The meeting was intended as a real-world meetup for the people who had participated in the online city planning game devised by Detroit Works and Community PlanIt (with Knight Foundation support) to help map Detroit’s future.

Community PlanIt’s Eric Gordon said he was surprised and pleased with the level of participation, noting that they had fulfilled their objective of appealing to the 18- to 35-year-old demographic. During the three weeks that the Detroit 24-7 game was live online, 1,033 primary players left more than 8,400 comments containing suggestions about what city planning officials should prioritize and anecdotes about their personal experiences living in Detroit.

Seventy-six percent of the players were Detroit residents; 53 percent were female; 75 percent were age 35 or younger; and 30 percent were white, 29 … Next Page »

Sarah Schmid is the editor of Xconomy Detroit. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or sschmid@xconomy.com. Follow @XconomyDET

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