The problem with Detroit Homecoming

Detroit Homecoming, the effort to get former and native Detroiters to consider moving back to the city and investing in its future, is in full swing this week. The event is an attempt to generate excitement among the people who've left Detroit for better-functioning cities, such as New York and San Francisco, by bringing those who've left back to show them the changes that have been going on here. This afternoon's tour, closed to the media, will likely be reminiscent of the tours Castro gave visiting European Communists back in the 1960s, showing how Detroit is a model of capitalism and entrepreneurship that just needs a few more rubes … er, enthusiastic young investors to really get things going. Visiting billionaires are here to make solemn pledges that they're ready to "invest" in Detroit and help make it more like the cities that drew people away. It's an exciting week of events that is lighting up the media.

It's also a bunch of crap.

Why is it a bunch of crap? Because most of the people who loved this region but left it anyway did it because the leadership of Michigan and metro Detroit simply do not have their priorities in mind, and never will, no matter how many presentations and declarations of victory they trumpet. Many young professionals want to live in a dense thriving neighborhood, eschew car ownership, ride effective rapid transit, and live among all sorts of different people, and those who feel that way vote with their feet and depart for cities that actually offer those sorts of things. They gave our leaders a chance to provide them and decided they'd rather live in the city that wants to give those things to them than wait for the city they love to get its act together.

Also, when you bring in a bunch of people from New York and other ultra-gentrified cities where you can't be an artist or struggling writer anymore to tell us about how Detroit can be as creative as they are, we call bullshit on that too. Detroit may not be New York, but that's a good thing when you consider the scrappy creative people from both coasts who don't mind failed public services and want to live in edgy but affordable neighborhoods, tolerating social ills to move here and create. Apparently, the clueless boobs in charge of Detroit Homecoming don't realize that they'd sacrifice exactly the things that make Detroit interesting in their rush to plant a Whole Foods on every block.

In short, the leadership of Michigan and metro Detroit can't be taken seriously. 

We're in the midst of a huge dog-and-pony show, whose cost surely runs into the hundreds of thousands, and yet the priorities of state and regional leaders have not changed. They're still the ones who spiked a nine-mile light rail system in favor of a glorified bus system. They're still the ones pushing for a $1.8 billion freeway expansion that would slice apart two Detroit neighborhoods experiencing a resurgence. They're still the ones draining a city of its ability to fund police and schools so that billionaires can get tax breaks, free land, and public bonding for professional sports franchises. They're still the ones rooting for and subsidizing sprawl and siccing emergency managers on the cities sprawl leaves behind. They're still pushing for antiquated "silver bullet" cures for downtown Detroit that include superblocks, pedestrian tubeways, and more and more parking structures. They're still pushing for ridding the city of its historic street grid and grafting onto it the cul-de-sac, bigfoot mansion, and closed corporate campus they associate with prosperity. The leaders of Michigan and the metropolitan Detroit region have priorities that are diametrically opposed to those of the young people they hope to entice back to Detroit, and they're unwilling to change them.

So, as we do in America, they give the problem to the marketing department. And what we get is "Detroit Homecoming."

It puts us in the mind of a great blog post we read on the wonderful Rust Wire blog, called, "Cities: Rather Than Patronizing Young People, Give Them What They Ask For." That post was about a similar program in Cleveland called "Global Cleveland," which was another marketing firm's attempt to attract "boomerangers," "youngish, well-educated people that split for places like New York and D.C." As the blog noted:

Young creatives crave walkable urban places. I am one of them. … But somehow Cleveland’s [leadership] can’t recognize that this is its greatest asset. It continues suburbanizing the city — to a greater or lesser extent — and it embarks on a new marketing campaign to tell the world it’s not nearly as bad here as everyone thinks. ...
Example: If 75 young people show up at a public meeting and demand a bike lane: there — right there is part of your answer. Cleveland’s existing young people want bike lanes. But somehow, in the actual hierarchy of city priorities, 75 young people’s wishes rank far, far behind those of favored developers. A young professional attraction campaign that tackled that problem: that would be a campaign I could get behind.
Or what about when the city of Cleveland wanted to tear down a historic downtown building and replace it with a parking garage? And hundreds of young people expressed opposition? Again right there, young people who live in Cleveland were expressing their preferences very clearly: they want a dense, walkable downtown — not a car repository for suburbanites. Again, that is the moment the city had a chance to win the hearts and loyalty of young people, but again, young people’s clearly expressed preferences were outweighed by those of a favored developer.

Similarly, SEMCOG hosted a meeting last year about expanding I-94 at great cost, and hundreds of people, many of them young, showed up to explain why they opposed the plan. The powers that be patiently listened to them for two hours … and then approved the plan.

These are the reasons so many young professionals are leaving Detroit. And no marketing program can solve that. That would require leaders who actually listened and made decisions based on what young people desire.

About The Author

Michael Jackman

Born in 1969 at Mount Carmel hospital in Detroit, Jackman grew up just 100 yards from the Detroit city line in east Dearborn. Jackman has attended New York University, the School of Visual Arts, Northwestern University and Wayne State University, though he never got a degree. He has worked as a bar back, busboy,...
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