Guardian and Buhl Buildings last week, both designed by Wirt C. Rowland
For decades, we’ve heard the platitudes coming out of Detroit: Detroit renaissance. Detroit pride. The new Detroit spirit. They aren’t wrong, and they’re not necessarily unhealthy, but over the years, they’ve rung a little hollow.
But I’ve recently experienced three occasions which demonstrated that those well-intentioned but at times vacant Detroit rah-rah platitudes are really no longer needed. The creative, smarter, and innovative Detroit I see is genuine.
The three things I saw which reinforced my understanding of the Detroit vibrancy all occurred within the past month. All three involved vision and energy, but most importantly, they proved to me beyond any doubt that there are many, many brilliant and creative minds working in and around Detroit, Michigan.
My first experience of new inspiration was the TEDx Detroit conference on September 29th at the Detroit Institute of Arts. (www.tedxdetroit.com) Literally a mini TED conference, this day-long annual event was filled with famous, semi-famous, and unknown minds, all presenting brilliant and creative ideas, many of which orbited around the prevailing vitality of Detroit. (And all to be absorbed and enjoyed without the $6000 annual membership fee of the national TED conference.) Presenter after presenter demonstrated, explained, preformed, described, delighted, and inspired. By the end of the day, my note pad was full, and my brain was beyond full. (By the way, the most inspiring presentation of the day was by Steve Kahn, director of Wayne State University’s Math Corps, a program bringing Detroit public middle school and high school students into a college setting to study and become enthralled with mathematics. Check out http://www.mathcorps.com, and keep an eye out for the video of his TED speech, hopefully soon to be posted on the TEDx Detroit web site and on YouTube. You will laugh and you will cry. Most importantly, you will learn about kids’ lives being changed in one way you probably never considered.)
Then, on October 9th and 10th, I attended WordCamp Detroit (www.wordcampdetroit.com), a 2-day conference on the WordPress web platform for local designers and bloggers. I was tremendously impressed by all of the high-tech brainpower found in Metro Detroit, and by the extraordinary knowledge of both the speakers and the attendees. (Personally, I felt like the most ignorant person in the room, but I left with a lot more energy and knowledge than I came with.)
(One does not have to travel to New York to Chicago to experience a great conference. They frequently take place in our own back yards. If you want to get inspired by attending cool local conferences and events that generate ideas, one way to start is to search for local upcoming events on EventBrite (www.eventbrite.com), sometimes referred to as the Ticketmaster of idea events.)
My third experience providing evidence that we can forgo the Detroit platitudes occurred this past week. I had a meeting in Downtown Detroit at the SmithGroup, the 7th largest architecture/engineering firm in America. What a treat. First, their offices are on the 17th floor of the Guardian Building, arguably the most beautiful 20th Century Skyscraper outside of New York City. The lobby of the Guardian Building is stunning, and if you’ve never seen it, make the trip. And when one gets off the elevator on the SmithGroup’s floor and turns the corner, you see the results of great creative thinking: Their “me” wall is giant three-dimensional 30-foot model of downtown Detroit (mounted vertically) with every building, from the riverfront to north past the Fisher Building represented. (Many of the structures in the model appear in a different shade…Comerica Park, Ford Field, the Penobscot Building, Hart Plaza, etc.…they’re the ones that SmithGroup designed.) The meeting was productive, but the heartening moment came by looking out the windows. Not a run-down ruin in sight. What one sees when looking out the windows of the 17th floor of the Guardian Building is true city vitality, traffic, commerce, and stunningly beautiful architecture.
These three experiences infused me with new energy and a new healthy dose of creativity. And that energy and creativity is available to everybody in Metro Detroit, all you have to do is seek it out.
We all know that the Detroit area has more than its share of problems. But perhaps our biggest problem is a national misconception that Detroit is nothing more than a giant run-down ruin. We—the ones who know—know that nothing could be further from the truth. The way to change minds, especially the minds of people who form their opinions about Detroit only from what they see in the media, begins with fewer platitudes and more stories. All of us who know the real Detroit must consciously and deliberately share our experiences and understanding of Detroit and the region with those who are ignorant. A platitude rarely convinces. But a first-hand experience or story, related by a friend, almost always does.