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A Look at Detroit’s Soul (or lack thereof)

Lately, it seems like if you write a bunch of articles in a big-shot newspaper about Detroit or send some big-shot magazine reporters into the city (and take them out again), you’re guaranteed to get some press about it. My personal favorite is the heart-wrenching bloggers commenting on something about Detroit who inevitably add: “My body might not be in Detroit, but my heart sure is.”

Whatever. Get over yourself. Move here if you’ve got the guts.

Only the strong stay in Detroit. We don’t even like it here and we’re still here. In fact, a new survey from Gallup and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation makes it seem like we’re a pretty crabby bunch.

The Knight “Soul of the Community” project unveiled its 2010 findings this week, the result of three years of interviews with more than 43,000 people in 26 cities. You could read the weak reporting of the major local papers on the subject, but I sincerely doubt they took a look beyond the press release and read the whole report. If they had, they would have found some startling information.

Here’s what the press release said: The study found three main qualities attach people to place: social offerings, such as entertainment venues and places to meet, openness (how welcoming a place is) and the area’s aesthetics (its physical beauty and green spaces).

Here’s what the press release didn’t tell you: Detroit’s attachment score is in the dumper. It dropped to 3.08 out of a possible 5.00 this year. Check that: 61 percent of Metro Detroit feels detached! According to the full report, “This level of attachment is lower than the average score for the comparison group of other very high urban density, very large population Knight communities of Philadelphia (3.52) and Miami (3.43).”

Here’s our survey results on Social Offerings: “Few residents say that people care about each other in Detroit, with nearly 7 in 10 rating this dimension the lowest.” Our take on Openness: “No more than one in five residents rate Detroit as a good place to live for any of the demographic groups studied. Fewer than 1 in 10 say Detroit is a good place for young, talented college graduates.” Oh, it gets worse. Let’s talk about Education: “Less than one-fifth of Detroit residents are positive about the K-12 education available, and these ratings are down since last year.”

And don’t get us started on Aesthetics: “Residents are more negative than positive about the parks, playgrounds and trails available in the community and the beauty or the physical setting of the community.”

Tim Bazzinett

This survey SCREAMS the grim reality that is Metro Detroit. No wonder young people are leaving in droves; there is nothing to stay for when there is limited job growth, rotten parks, lousy education and disenchanted residents.

So what now? Well, here’s the optimistic part. Don’t look at this survey as wholly negative, says Paula Ellis, Vice President for Strategic Initiatives at Knight. It is a map of sorts – a way to find the problems, suss them out and fix them. Then, you’ll figure out why Detroit has no middle class, why the creative young people are leaving and residents feel so bummed out.

“It can be really quite mobilizing,” said Ellis, who will be in Detroit Nov. 30 at the Detroit Public Library to talk about the survey results, meet with community leaders and, hopefully, Mayor Dave Bing and others. The goal: To find some real ways out of the hole we’re in, emotionally. The New Economy Initiative for Southeast Michigan is involved as well, which even gives me hope this thing has legs.

“Sometimes, data can cause you to say, ‘This is something we ought to look at. Let’s understand this.’ It gives us new insights to try some stuff,” Ellis said. “So when I look at the report in this area of openness, one thing leaps out to me: Young talent is perceived as the least welcome group. That can be changed. That is such an entrepreneurial group. … There’s such creative DNA in this community. Help these young new homesteading folks come here.”

Ellis said she was in town two weeks ago for a CEOs for Cities meeting, and she saw a presentation on Detroit’s RiverWalk. That project, she said, is exactly the kind of development that engages people, makes them feel connected to their community and more likely to stick around.

Maybe we’re crabby. Maybe we’re nuts to live here. But we’re here. Let’s make the best of it.

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3 comments on “A Look at Detroit’s Soul (or lack thereof)

  1. Hmm. As someone who's lived in Michigan her whole life, I'm proud to live here and I like it quite a bit. I guess they didn't interview me.

  2. There are some stark stats in the study, but it's true – you have to want to help yourself. If you want to find a good Detroit, you can find it. If you want to find a bad Detroit, you can find it.

  3. Some facts to consider, however I belong to this "millenial" generation of creative people, and we seem to be making it just fine. In fact I would think the opportunity to "change the world" so to speak is right in our back yard. The people choosing to leave are wimps that are looking for their perfectly packaged life to be handed to them on a silver platter, if thats the case your right that doesn't exist in Detroit. Try using your creativity and try starting a niche business in a market that needs it.

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