City Transformation, Creativity, Giving Back

The Fight to Eliminate Blight Has Taken Hold, and Partnerships Like This is How it Happened

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If you had a nickel for every Detroit headline that referred to or contained the word “blight,” you’d be ready to buy a Shinola right about now.

Stories abound, whether it be from local newspapers to national think tanks to international magazines. The conversation tends to center around the huge impact the city will see when it finally removes the empty, burned out hulks from its landscape. Perhaps by lancing these horrors, we somehow can mend and, perhaps, regenerate.

photo 1“Home demolitions turn Detroit into blank canvas.” “Blight Authority Shifts Operations to Detroit.” “Detroit, feds talk up to $100M for blight funding.” “Detroit to auction vacant homes online. Starting bid: $1,000.”

Not every story has to do with tearing things down. This tale we’ll tell here today is about building something – relationships as well as partnerships that will change Detroit for the better. Refreshing, no?

That’s where SapientNitro and The Blight Authority in Detroit are these days. Together, the advertising and marketing agency along with the city and Bill Pulte’s organization created a dynamic website where people can learn more about what the Authority does, its approach to issues such as preservation and sustainability as well as where they can donate to the cause.

Some background: With its recent shift from the solely focusing on Detroit, the Blight Authority will have a greater role in both consulting and working with other cities as they try to clean up the age-old issues of aging homes within neighborhoods. Giving Mayor Mike Duggan the reins on blight provided Detroit additional opportunities to raise funds, especially essential federal funds, to help removal efforts. And that’s a good thing.

But that doesn’t mean the Blight Authority is going away. Rather, it is still persuing Detroit’s recovery but with more of a supporting role. And having a forum like the Blight Authority website allows people to find an accessible place to learn about what needs to be done. And, more importantly, how it will be done, by whom and for how much.

photo 2But I digress. Back to the story at hand. The tale began when Alyssa Altman of SapientNitro met Susan Hall, the Executive Director of The Blight Authority. One of the agency’s clients, Chrysler, introduced them because it seemed like the two might find a common connection. That was a deep interest in Detroit and its growth potential, Altman said.

SapientNitro saw the potential because it, too, was growing. It basically had doubled in size from 40 to 80 people since opening up in 2011. Its Detroit team was diverse and vibrant, Altman said, and  there was a creative energy that was ready to be used in the right direction.

It worked out that The Blight Authority needed a website – something that would engage people and get them thinking in new ways about Detroit, Hall said. They met with SapientNitro’s creative team, and they came up with a story that would tell the Authority’s story.

“There are so many picture of blight in the news. There are so many negative images. But people are sick of ‘blight porn.’ (The Authority) wanted a chance to show what might happen if the blight wasn’t there,” Hall said.

So here’s what you see when you go to the website: It starts with the typical cartoony image of Detroit – gray skies, black clouds, rain and distressed homes. There are abandoned possessions in the yards. There is no visible hope. The skyline on this website couldn’t be more pessimistic.

But with each mouse click on the page, the scene changes. Click on “Help Detroit,” and the sky becomes brighter. Here, you learn about the huge challenges the city faces in terms of how many blighted structures are out there and the decline in population that created the issue.

Click again. Now you hear about what cleaning up the blight could do. Some debris is moved away, the sky seemed slightly blue. One more click, and now construction vehicles appear and start demolishing the run-down houses, boats and tires. A final click and the sky is alive with color. The skyline is clear. The potential is huge.

Alyssa Altman

Alyssa Altman

“It very visually captures where we are now and where we’re going,” Hall said. “It highlights our news. It highlights our partnerships. It lets people know everything they need to know about us, who supports us and who believes in us.”

For Altman, the challenge of illustrating the change from “blight to bright” was a good match for SapientNitro. Its best known for bringing stories to life. It also hopes to develop moods where the participants feel excited about becoming involved in the fix, in finding a way to help.

“We try to give them the ability to understand the massive impact this organization is having and what they can do as individuals,” Altman said. “We looked at pictures of the transformation as we were developing the site, and it showed how if you clear the way for the city to change, that’s really the first step in turning this all around.”

The work has given both women a huge sense of pride – and it was all done altruistically and without concern for payables, billable hours or the like. It is another partnership that took Detroit from inactive to active. And that’s amazing when it comes to the massive fight against blight.

For all of us, role that SN plays with BA – telling that story. Making it an immerse experience, do that across their business. How do you tell that story? How do you get people excited about particpaint? Learning about it; giving them the ability to understand the massive impact the organization is having, but what they can do as individuals.

“The website helps people feel like they’re part of the story; that’s what our work is all about,” Altman said. “We really break the boundaries between technology and telling a story.”

And that works for telling Detroit’s story.

“We work here, we live here, we love it here. We want to be a part of the change. We’re in it for the long haul,” Altman said.

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