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5 Years and 250 Issues Later

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Eight and a half years ago I moved from Portland, OR to southeast Michigan. It would be a lie to say I came happily or willingly. For over a decade the Pacific Northwest had been my home and I never thought I'd move. But marriage and job opportunities often throw us life-planning curve balls and so my wife, my son and I packed up and settled in the Mitten. Every day since I've felt good about moving here... and wished I could leave.

Such is the schizophrenic nature of my relationship with Michigan - deep and warm feelings of belonging spiced with the profound frustration of being here.

One of the greatest blessings of becoming the managing editor of Metromode is the perspective it gives me on my adopted home. While most transplants blunder their way around, discovering their community's assets by chance or, often, not at all, I have been given a insider's view. The talented writers, photographers, and videographers who work for our publication, and the subjects we cover, have given me the kind of crash course in metro Detroit politics, entrepreneurship, development, culture, and community that others can only dream about. And it has been a wonderfully rich education, deepening my respect and appreciation for Michigan while sharpening my criticisms and disappointments.

Over the course of my five year tenure with Metromode (and its sister publication, Concentrate) I have encouraged my writers to compare metro Detroit's policies, trends, and challenges with communities around the country. What are they doing that we are not? What are we doing that they don't? This is not because I think other places necessarily do things better than we do, but because we can benefit from their experiences and learn from their experiments. There are reasons some places attract young professionals and others don't. There are reasons some cities have diverse and robust economies and others struggle. Entrepreneurship, downtown vibrancy, quality of life, technological innovation, and cultural influence don't develop accidentally. In my opinion, they involve a concerted and thoughtful effort to honor the past, embrace the present, and invest in the future. It's difficult to balance those priorities and few communities do it well. Cling too passionately to one and you risk sacrificing the others.

With that in mind, I've decided to offer up my two cents about metro Detroit's assets, challenges, and shortfalls. Compliments and complaints, they are the things I tell my friends back West when they ask what living in Michigan is like. Whether you agree or disagree, I hope you'll respond below in the comment section about how we can strengthen our community today and provide for a more prosperous future.

Compliments

CULTURE- Metro Detroit is rich with a dizzying array of world-class cultural opportunities and offerings. To be perfectly honest, I never expected this, and it took me some time to get educated. Part of the challenge was overcoming the distances between these assets and events (we'll talk about accessibility later). To an outsider who was used to finding what he needed in his own urban backyard, I had to recalibrate myself to the region's far-flung sensibilities. I resented the drive but found the destinations more than made up for the inconvenience. The Henry Ford, is our own personal slice of Smithsonian-style greatness (and home to one of my favorite annual events: Maker Faire). The D.I.A.'s exhibits and collections never cease to inspire and astound me. Ann Arbor's Michigan Theater is a true cinematic treasure. These are assets any city would be proud to have... and few can compete with.

Similarly, Theater Bizarre, The Shadow Art Fair and Krampus Ball, Movement Electronic Music Festival, Hamtramck Blow-Out and Ypsilanti Mittenfest are authentic, no-hype celebrations of (mostly local) music and art that make clear our creative community is a force to be reckoned with.

I've also become a sucker for our unique enthusiasm for Halloween. Between the elaborate haunted houses and over-the-top events (not to mention the hundreds of trick or treaters that descend upon my block), I've managed to convince several friends to come visit me during October. None have been disappointed.

COMMUNITY - True story: In the six years I lived in my southeast Portland home I got to know exactly three of my neighbors by name. In Seattle, where I lived for three years, it was two. Within one week of moving to Ann Arbor I had met half the folks on my block. Some gave us welcome presents. Today, I know, by name or by face, 75 percent of the families who live within a five block radius. The same is true of my professional circle. I have quickly come to know many of my colleagues on a personal level, and most have helped me in one way or another. Having lived in cities all around the U.S. I can say, without exaggeration, this is a rare and wonderful quality. I understand the profound sense of loyalty and belonging that Michiganders feel about their communities. It's real and it's infectious.

ENVIRONMENT- While it's hard to compete with the grandeur of the Pacific Ocean, Mt. Rainier or Mt. Hood, Michigan has far more natural amenities than I ever imagined. Traveling north to Traverse City or west to the Michigan dunes, my family has enjoyed summer beaches that rival anything on the coasts. The elaborate web of lakes and rivers that thread through our region may not provide the kayaking thrills I experienced out west, but they offer a peaceful respite from the chaos of everyday life. Here, the changing colors of Fall are a slow-motion fireworks display of incredible beauty. Thunderstorms explode with poetic fury while fireflies create constellations on my front lawn. What I've come to appreciate about Michigan is that what it lacks in natural grandiosity it makes up for in variety and accessibility.

Concerns and complaints

It is inevitable that praise takes less words to express than critique. Nevertheless, these are what I believe to be the three greatest challenges to metro Detroit's future prosperity.

EDUCATION- When I first moved here in 2003 I was blown away by both the local school systems and, even moreso, the region's colleges and universities. The University Of Michigan is, of course, the 800 pound academic gorilla, and it's reputation for excellence is well-deserved. Working at Metromode, however, exposed me to the area's less famous but equally impressive higher education institutions. There is, of course, Wayne State, OU, and EMU. All are fine universities. But learning about Cranbrook, College For Creative Studies and Lawrence Tech convinced me that there was depth, variety, and sophistication in our educational resources.

Unfortunately, over the last eight years I have watched Michigan weaken its commitment to education. I've seen the effects at both the university and K-12 level. And while I poignantly understand the impacts of the economic recession, I have to question the wisdom of those who would cut our most important investment in the future in favor of other priorities. I've seen this dynamic before.

You see, while it's not hard to find people who sing the praises of Portland's progressive urban and environmental policies (all well-deserved), what they don't talk about is the state's long under-performing education system. Oregon has never made learning a priority the way Michigan once did. For years, its high schools were ranked near the bottom while at the university level, there was (and is) nothing that came close to U-M's excellence and influence.

Ironically, however, since relocating to Michigan, education has improved in Oregon while the situation has eroded here. It says a lot to me that the two states are now ranked neck and neck by the Science and Engineering Readiness Index (we are now 26th and 27th). Good news for the Beaver State. Not so much for America's "High Five."

ACCESSIBILITY- You could probably see this one coming from a mile away. And boy-oh-boy, I could talk about our lack of public transportation options for days. The obvious fact is that metro Detroit suffers from suburban sprawl and poor transit policies. What may be less obvious, however, is how profoundly this speaks to our region's inaccessibility (I told you we'd get to this).

In my opinion, too many people get bogged down in the physical attributes of mass transit --roads, rails, buses, trains, and cars-- and forget the intended outcomes and impacts.

Today's employees, particularly educated professionals, want to live, work and play in the same place. And if their community can't offer all three, they want easy access to places that make up the difference. Today's employers want to be closer to their employees ...and their competitors. This may seem counter-intuitive at first but if you consider the realities of today's job market it makes sense. Most high tech workers will change companies every few years. The best candidates will seek out communities that offer them the best personal and professional opportunities – which means the option to jump ship if their job isn't a good fit.

Similarly, a density of high-tech businesses means greater opportunities for networking and creative cross-pollination. This breeds a culture of innovation. The age of the single industry company town is going the way of the dinosaur. We are in the age of the economic ecosystem, and if metro Detroit can't figure out how to create greater professional diversity and connectivity it'll be left behind.

If there's a best opportunity for this dynamic to take root in metro Detroit it's by improving transportation options along Woodward Avenue. It is why I am so disappointed with recent decisions regarding the proposed rail line. While I think rapid bus transit is a good idea (though I seriously question the proposed funding levels), I suspect it will not be the kind of game-changing investment our region truly needs. Why? Because rail is permanent, and the market likes permanent. Light rail running from, say, downtown Detroit to Birmingham would bring with it the kind of investment and development that could transform the entire character of our community – for the better. I've seen it happen first hand.

See, I've lived in a city with rapid bus transit (Seattle) and a city that invested in light rail (Portland). Both systems have their virtues but only one fostered true transformation – Portland's light rail. Not only did development and redevelopment spring up along streets critics loudly claimed would suffer, whole neighborhoods were revitalized with people and businesses. A multi-use plan that included pedestrians and bicycles created even greater vitality.

Furthermore, Portland (Seattle followed in its footsteps about a decade later) committed to providing light rail to its airport. Though first planned for in the 1980s, the city's formal process went from proposal (in 1997) to completion in less than five years (2001). Five years! Compare that to DTW, easily one of the finest airports I have ever traveled through. Despite being a world-class travel hub it remains embarrassingly inaccessible to the region it serves. And there are no concrete plans to improve this situation.

I'll state my concern in the bluntest manner possible: Metro Detroit has been talking about improving public transportation since I moved here nearly nine years ago. Since then no significant progress has been made. To say that I am discouraged is an understatement.

FEAR OF CHANGE- Living out west I was frequently told how the Midwest was living a decade behind the coasts, how it was slow to adapt to new ideas, reluctant to change direction, and always risk averse. I never believed these statements... until I moved to Michigan.

Now, as is the case with most sweeping generalizations there is little proof for my conclusions. Tom Meloche wrote a terrifically witty blog on the subject several years ago but the evidence is, at best, circumstantial. Still, to my mind, it's enough to make a case.

Take for instance Ferndale's recent embrace then even more recent policy reversal on food carts. Prohibited or severely restricted by nearly every community in Michigan, these small business enterprises have found cultural, economic, and entrepreneurial success in cities like Portland, Austin, and San Francisco. Portland even conducted an economic impact study on the carts and found that they did not negatively affect neighboring brick and mortar businesses. And yet, because of complaints, Ferndale back-tracked on its support ...while other communities won't even consider their implementation. (You can read a fuller account here)

Michigan's film incentive followed a similar route. Within 18 months the state went from creating the most ambitious program in the country to effectively gutting of it any meaningful impact. Instead of finding an economic sweet spot, one that paid indirect creative and professional dividends at a cost that was judicious but impactful, we retreated from change in near-record time. Not surprisingly, the industry withered as quickly as it had taken root.

Whether it's transitioning from single-family homes to a high quality rental market, accepting urban density, creating more walkable communities, embracing regionalization, investing in local start-ups, or developing public transit, metro Detroit has strongly resisted recent trends and ideas. This is probably why we are losing our young educated talent in record numbers, and why we rank last among the 15 largest metro areas in entrepreneurial start-ups. To reinforce that point, Michiganders still haven't embraced the necessity for higher education, despite the undeniable rise of the high-tech economy. Though it was a significant improvement over past surveys, a 2010 statewide questionnaire found that only thirty-seven percent of responding parents said a college education was "essential" for getting ahead.

The funny thing about change is that it happens no matter what. Refusing to follow clear trends or rejecting new ideas only trades one kind of change for another. For instance, defy density and mixed housing options in order to preserve your community preferences and you could lose the generation that would inherit it. Evolution requires risk and experimentation. Yes, you might fail. But considering how much prosperity, youth, and influence our state has lost over the last decade what do we really have to lose?

I criticize because I love...

I am a critic by nature. Along with my editorial duties at Metromode and Concentrate I also write film reviews for Detroit's Metro Times. Anyone who has read my work knows how uncompromising my standards are. I try to bring that same mindset to the topics and issues we write about here. Hopefully they provide you with food for thought.

Whatever my biases, however, I am here for the long haul. Michigan is my family's home now and I have embraced this community, warts and all. More importantly, I am keenly aware of the profound relationship between asses and opinions. Everyone's got one ...and I am no exception.

Please feel free to share yours.
(opinion, that is)



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