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Artists, creatives key to Detroit’s future success

The “creative class” is often talked about in glowing terms – Detroit needs to attract them, the city needs to tailor its plans to bring  those who are typically “willing to take a chance” on the city here.

But, really, what does that mean? Who are these people? How do we encourage them? Cue the Rust Belt to Artist Belt conference.

After all, we have a real conundrum. $100 dollar houses, at least for now, attract those oft-described “pioneers.” But the way forward for Detroit’s long term success isn’t in keeping home prices cheaper than an iPod.

Without a doubt artists were an intrinsic part of the revitalization of many other cities including areas of New York, Chicago, and Pittsburgh. They’re willing to take a chance where others aren’t. There’s international interest in our city like we’ve not seen in years. The anecdotal evidence (at least from observing the attendees at this conference) is that we’ve attracted people to move here to take advantage of the perceived creative opportunity. I met a man who moved here to start a theater because he saw opportunity, whereas in Chicago the market was full (hopefully more to come on that story).

There’s even hard evidence of a shift: the city core has had a 59% increase in college-educated residents in the last ten years.

But how can we help this trend continue? How do we encourage more creative people to start contributing?

Day one didn’t have all the answers, but there were recurring themes from the doers on the panels and those who gave presentations.

One theme was that artists and creatives really need the government to streamline the processes to help them make things happen in areas like permits or inspections. That theme seeped into many presentations and panels. Frankly, this is a process improvement that the city needs to handle in the scope of delivering services… and it’s a customer-service support that requires no costly incentives.

Another theme touches on the creative community itself. Tim Smith, CEO of Skidmore Designs had a couple points. First, that we need to focus on just doing great work, and secondly, we should stop apologizing for being from Detroit (especially when compared to east and west coast creative centers).

There’s something to be said for that. So far much of the success of Detroit projects has been because of people who persevered despite all odds. When Peter Kageyama delivered his presentation about attachment and creating love for neighborhoods, it was clear that the organic acts of people as well as public art were part of what fostered attachment to places around the country. This attraction simply retains people. It’s all the doers, the lovers of an area who are the ones who encourage the most change. But that thought doesn’t apply just to Detroit… it can apply anywhere to any place.

Detroit is way past the point of collective boogeymen and conspiracy theories. To say X person or Y company or Z union was the “sole ruin” of this town not only is flat out historically wrong, but a functionally useless debate.

If there’s anything that day one of the Rustbelt to Artist Belt Conference reinforced, it was that we have to live in the present and honestly talk about the challenges that we face today. We need to do the hard work now to make a positive future for the city happen. The artists in our community, and the ones who are yet to come, are prepared to contribute to that future.


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