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

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 percent were African American, and 23 percent were Latino—a nice balance that Gordon wasn’t necessarily expecting to see.

Gordon said he was particularly impressed by how innovatively the younger players were thinking about Detroit’s future. The enthusiasm of the participants also revealed something Gordon hadn’t expected: That when we discuss the digital divide in Detroit, we might want to include some basic Internet etiquette tips, such as don’t type things in all caps or you’ll sound like you’re shouting, and don’t leave the same comment on every message board or you’ll appear to be spamming the system.

Detroit 24/7 Game Finale Video from Community PlanIt on Vimeo.

Part of last night’s event involved splitting into small groups to further map the city’s future. In looking around the table at my group, I couldn’t have scripted a better cross-section of the city: an older African-American gentleman from the west side, two Latino activists from Southwest Detroit, a young white woman from Ferndale who works in downtown Detroit, a visiting architecture student from Germany (Detroit must be big in Germany right now), a young white man from Northwest Detroit, and a facilitator from Detroit Works.

There were a few ideas that came up repeatedly: That neighborhoods need better access to the planning process, because they do care deeply about how the city looks in the future; that city government needs to make an effort to recruit the young entrepreneurs flocking to Detroit so they participate in the planning process, and the mayor needs to pick their brains for innovative solutions to problems like public safety, infrastructure improvement, and job creation. Above all, the people in my group seemed to be saying stop talking and start doing something.

Priya Iyer, the director of digital engagement for Detroit Works’ office of long-term planning, says that city officials will incorporate the data and ideas generated by Detroit 24-7 into the “roadmap” currently under development. She points out that the meeting was meant to be the beginning of engagement, not a one-off event. (The next event to solicit community feedback will be a telephone town hall on June 19.) Rishi Jaitly, who oversees the Knight Foundation’s efforts in Detroit, says Knight plans to take the platform to other cities so see if the game will spark similar levels of engagement.

“It’s not about creating a new Detroit, because that’s already here,” Dan Pietra, co-leader of civic engagement for Detroit Works’ office of long-term planning, told the crowd at last night’s event. “We just need to blend our expertise with that of community members. Engagement is really all about establishing relationships, whether digitally or physically.”

Lu Yen Roloff swung by last night’s Detroit 24-7 meeting on her way to the airport. Her 11-day trip to Detroit had come to an end. As we hugged goodbye, I asked her to keep in touch, though I suspect—especially with all those offers of free event tickets—that she’ll be back sooner than she thinks.

After all, that’s how it happens. Something about the city’s promise draws those of us who are receptive like moths to a flame.  And then the next thing you know, you’re sitting on the 3rd floor of the Detroit Public Library’s main branch, mapping out the city’s future with a table full of your peers.

Sarah Schmid Stevenson is the editor of Xconomy Detroit/Ann Arbor. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or Follow @XconomyDET_AA

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