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Detroit News -  October 27, 2011 

 

Millennials will save Detroit
New ideas, fresh faces needed to quash recalcitrant politics and policies of the past

By Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais

The Millennial Generation is coming into adulthood and asserting its leadership just in time to engineer the rebirth of the city of Detroit.
These Millennials, born between 1982 and 2003, are people who believe in the rebirth of urban America. Many grew up in the suburbs but have found their way to the city and now are working to foster fundamental change through action and advocacy.
As John Gerzema and Michael D'Antonio wrote in their book, Spend Shift, they are people like Rachel Harkai, who a few years ago was a University of Michigan honors graduate who waited on tables at the determinedly optimistic Le Petit Zinc on Trumbull and Howard to help make ends meet while she pursued her writing career. Or Andrew Linn and his older sister Emily, whose City Bird shop on Canfield prospers by selling arts and crafts created by artisans from Detroit.
They and many more like them are bringing a bottom-up, let's-take-action-at-the-local-level energy that eventually will create a different, and once again prosperous, Detroit.
And they're doing it because they love the city.
"We're trying to dispel the notion that there's nothing going on in Detroit," says Kerry Doman, who grew up in Bloomfield Hills and moved to Detroit in 2005 because, like many postgraduates, she was "attracted to the urban lifestyle."
Once she got to Detroit, however, she realized that getting acclimated was more difficult than it should be, so she started After 5 Detroit, which connects young people with things to do after office hours as well as helps new residents.
Before a wholesale reincarnation will come about, however, city leadership needs to abandon beliefs and behaviors more suited to the 20th century and embrace the ideas and beliefs of a generation that will dominate Detroit and the rest of America in the first half of the 21st.
Doman agrees and says Mayor Dave Bing is onboard with that as well. She's a part of a group that meets quarterly with the mayor and monthly with people from his office to hear their concerns and take suggestions as to how to make Detroit better for young people.
Perhaps because the trajectory of Detroit's rise during the industrial revolution took the city higher faster than almost any other place in America, it might have been inevitable that Detroit would fall further when the good times ended. In its heyday, Detroit was the epitome of style and success for industrial American cities.
Whether it was building an international bridge and tunnel in record time (to expedite the flow of illegal booze across the border from Canada during Prohibition), or funding the ambitious, soaring architecture of Albert Kahn's skyscrapers to house the ever-expanding corporate empires of the auto industry, Detroit reveled in its wealth.
Unfortunately, the city's leadership became blinded by its success and could not see the need to change before it was too late. As Sue Mosey, the unofficial mayor of Midtown, put it: "However great the culture was when it grew that culture stayed around way too long."
Auto industry mistakes
It is the job of leaders to invent alternative futures and enroll others in the cause of making them come true. By that standard, the leaders of Detroit's Big Three automakers failed Detroit and its citizens by failing to anticipate let alone invent or invest in alternative futures as far back as the 1970s.
Attempts to encourage the auto companies to produce more fuel-efficient cars began during the 1973-74 Arab Oil embargo, leading Congress to establish corporate average fuel economy standards that have recently been raised to levels that will certainly test the ingenuity of the industry's engineers.
In the 1990s, the Clinton administration held out a helping hand in the form of the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles to provide more than $250 million for research that would make such standards easier to attain.
But when then-Vice President Al Gore met with the CEOs of Detroit's automakers to gain their support of the program, they paid only lip service to the concept, lecturing the government on the importance of profits coming from SUVs and heavy-duty trucks. As a result of this myopic approach, by 2009, Ford, for example, found that only 7 percent of Millennials considered its products when shopping for a small car.
Brand loyalty matters
Brand image also has become paramount in an age of rapid technological innovation, with customers taking the role of discerning designers. In this new marketplace, products generate value based on the experience of owning them, not their physical attributes.
Had the auto industry built a positive image among environmentally conscious Millennials, GM and its peers might have built sufficient brand loyalty to help maintain their financial footing.
Now, in an age of transparency and peer-to-peer communications, the future success of Detroit's Big Three rests on their ability to win over the largest generation in American history, whose members are searching for companies that convey a sense of purpose and meaning in their products, not just in their public pronouncements.
Unfortunately for Detroit, the organizations that are attractive to Millennials today are Google, Facebook, Apple, Disney and even NASA and the CIA, not the automotive brands car companies spend so much money advertising.
Fortunately, however, there is a new generation ready to restore Detroit's greatness, building from the bottom up, not from the top floors containing the C-level executive suites at GM, Ford and Chrysler.
Reinventing Detroit
Millennials innately behave in concert with the technology and beliefs of a new era. Younger Millennials are being educated at charter schools, such as University Prep, in formerly abandoned buildings that have been converted from their industrial-age uses.
They are attending college in record numbers and just entering the age when they will start families and settle down. This generation wants to live in communities with good schools in safe neighborhoods with jobs and amenities they can get to easily. Most of them grew up in suburbia and consider such settings to be the ideal place to raise a family.
Detroit has a unique opportunity, as envisioned in a study done by the American Institute of Architects, to create just such environments in an interconnected group of "urban villages," surrounding Detroit's downtown core. These would be places where people could walk to shops or restaurants and, along the way, pass by parks and even urban farms where acres of blight now darken the landscape.
The founders of City Bird and 10 other young Detroiters signed "The Detroit Declaration" in 2010, demonstrating their readiness to offer the city new leadership. They envision a Detroit that "welcomes and embraces our diversity, preserves our authenticity, cultivates creativity, diversifies our economy, promotes sustainability, and enhances the value of city living."
The signers, and many other members of the Millennial Generation, will use their values to build this new Detroit because of their commitment to civic life and the institutions that enrich it.
This reinvigorated Detroit will come to pass as soon as older leaders, still locked in the paradigms of the past, get out of the way and hand the reins of power to America's next great generation: Millennials.





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