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Creative Conversations

Detroiters On How To Make It In Detroit

Detroit today is not just a tale of two cities. It’s a tale of two narratives: a city declining like no other major American metropolis and a groundswell of entrepreneurs creating a sense of hope for the first time in years, even decades.

How do you tell a story with so much complexity, so many layers and emotions? Through myriad perspectives—those of Detroiters and newcomers, entrepreneurs and artists, execs from the business and nonprofit worlds, a billionaire and scrappy novices, data and urban experts. I spent months interviewing dozens of people. (More on the story behind the story here.)

One version of the story appears in the May issue of Fast Company. Another appears in the above video—a "storytelling, radio/magazine mash-up." (That’s what Baratunde Thurston dubbed a similar session I did recently on New York’s tech response to Sandy.) Both feature the sort of creative and tenacious Detroiters whose insights could help the execs and politicos gathered at this week's Mackinac Policy Conference, an annual economic-development confab that addresses what ails the region.

"Detroit: A Love Story" was filmed at Erwin Penland’s recent Food for Thought conference in Greenville, South Carolina. Some highlights and lessons in urban reclamation:

Hustle and improvise.
In its deterioration Detroit has become ripe with opportunity. It’s the sort of place a 26-year-old college dropout can start a bus company. Andy Didorosi looked at the city’s sad state of transportation services and started a transportation business, despite his inexperience. "I thought, What can I do to fix this?" Didorosi says.

He bought five used school buses only to learn he needed $100,000 in insurance. The insurance company, "treated it like a transportation agency," he says. He tweaked his plans, and called back and asked about coverage for a bar-crawl bus. "They said, ‘Sure, no problem. We do that all the time,’" he laughs, "because sure, it’s less dangerous to bus around drunk people."

Now Didorosi’s changing things up again, expanding the Detroit Bus Company to provide service for an after-school program, commuter buses for downtown companies, and historical tours.

Bring your bull%&$@ radar.
"Amazing things can happen when it’s so cheap to start something" says Josh McManus of Little Things Labs. He’s helping develop Detroit’s entrepreneurial community through efforts such as D:Hive, an unconventional welcome and training center. The city, he says, is "this Warholesque compilation of innovators, entrepreneurs, and artists. But whenever you have innovators converge, you have exploiters. You need to have a tremendous bullshit radar. There’s also backlash. We had a meme pop up: white entrepreneurial guy."

Respect the city's struggles but resist cynicism.
True, other post-industrial cities lost manufacturing jobs and shrank from urban flight and were subsequently hit by unemployment, poverty, and crime. But Detroit fell farther than Philadelphia, Cleveland, Pittsburgh; roughly a third of families in Detroit live in poverty. Because only Detroit had been king. The auto capital of the world. A city of incredible wealth and nearly 2 million residents.

Now? Fifty years later, Detroit hovers around 700,000 residents. However, its physical size hasn’t changed. That disparity explains the 45,000 or so abandoned housing units throughout the city. "Keeping the people’s faith, keeping them believing we can turn the city around is a challenge," says John George, the head of Motor City Blight Busters. For 25 years, his group has been renovating or replacing empty buildings. "Our goal is to change the world," he says. "We just started in Detroit."

Take inspiration from Detroit’s roots.
In the early 20th century, it was Silicon Valley before Silicon Valley, a rapidly growing concentration of entrepreneurs and inventors that gave rise to a new industry that transformed the country and the culture. But, says Dave Egner, president and CEO of the Hudson-Webber Foundation, "We stopped innovating and started protecting. We had built paternal relationships between employers and companies, and community leaders and those companies that paralyzed us. And we didn’t know how to behave."

Egner heads the New Economy Initiative. It’s an unprecedented collaboration between 10 foundations that has pooled $100 million (so far) to "accelerate the transition of the economy" by focusing on nurturing entrepreneurs. The assets, he says, are there: a large creative class; "the most sophisticated logistics transportation distribution system in the world (because of the autos)"; a well-developed entrepreneurial ecosystem. But that ecosystem has been fragmented and under-funded.

If you think you know resilience, think again.
It took Alicia George 10 years to open a coffeehouse in her troubled neighborhood of Brightmoor. "I’m 20 minutes from downtown and midtown where all the excitement and buzz is going on," she says. "We wanted to connect it to our neighborhood." She sold candy and smoothies, took bags of change to Coinstar, whatever it took, only to see her first site burn down. In Detroit, she says, "Nothing comes easy."

John George helped her eventually open the Motor City Java House in 2010. It has spurred a mini-business district in Brightmoor. "The coffee shop is where the world meets," he says. It’s one of the most diverse pockets of the city. You see bridges being built, people talking about recreating Detroit."

It brings people together all right. Alicia and John got married last fall. (That’s one of the reasons this session's called "Detroit: A Love Story.")

Embrace the grime.
McManus is a student of innovation and its history. The city reminds him of a quote by Thomas Edison: "Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work." Working with Dan Gilbert’s team at Quicken Loans, McManus helped turn this idea into "Opportunity Detroit," a Super Bowl ad and campaign. "The great inventions didn’t come from these clean pristine places," McManus says. "They came from transitional places, things that were dirty and grimy and different. Detroit is very much like that. Detroit is what opportunity looks like."

Watch "Detroit: A Love Story" above. After a brief intro, it begins at the 3:44 mark: "This is Detroit. A basketball court in the sky and a hole in the ground."

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