Detroit’s Urban Consulate has two unofficial slogans. The first goes something like this: “Locals + travelers welcome.”
The second is my personal favorite. It’s short and hardly sweet. And the incredible Claire Nelson probably wouldn’t condone it as the sole description of this otherwise welcoming project. But it’s pretty symbolic of what she does and what the Urban Consulate is.
It’s on a plaque that sits inside the Urban Consulate, which organizers including Nelson describe as “a network of parlors for city dwellers and travelers seeking urban exchange.” What does that mean? Whatever you want it to mean. You can use the space for meetings, for working, for conversation, for a respite.
But, most of all, please use it. Nelson, who has long been one of my favorite Detroiters, wants this place to serve as a spot for debate, discussion and more. Read on to hear about her dreams for the Urban Consulate, which is hosting many great events this weekend and beyond.
Q: I love the term “urban curious,” which has been used to describe your wonderful project. What kind of people do you think will use the Consulate: Those who are curious about city life/needs? Are newbies welcome?
A: Absolutely! I was new in Detroit once too, so I have a soft spot for newcomers. I remember how much I didn’t understand when I first came to Detroit! It’s kind of embarrassing, actually. I owe a lot to patient and merciful teachers. I think I first heard that term “urban curious” from Brian Boyle or Toby Barlow, and it stuck. People are interested in how cities are reimagining their futures, and that curiosity isn’t going away anytime soon. It just needs to be steered in the right direction. “Be not inhospitable to strangers, lest they be angels in disguise.” (Yeats gets credit for that, but I think it appeared in the Bible first!) And listen, cities everywhere (not just Detroit) are feeling the tension between old and new. It’s part of why we started the Consulate. It’s not really about whether you’ve been in a city a day or a lifetime, the question is: Are you open to learning? Are you willing to have your mind changed? To me, that’s what being “urban” is all about. It’s a curiosity and wonder, and a willingness to dive into the complexity that makes cities interesting.
Q: Why did you feel Detroit needed such a space?
A: Well, we all know Detroit is a “curiosity” to many. And not always in a good way. The interest can feel voyeuristic or opportunistic sometimes, yes? So we wanted to create a place for deeper conversations between people across cities and neighborhoods. And we wanted to learn from other places, too. We’re intentionally old-school – old building, intimate gatherings, analog dialogue — ala the salons and parlors of yesteryear. We all can stand to slow down and share space and listen and ask questions and learn. The Green Garage has already done a lovely job establishing this vibe next door, so we’re following their lead.
A: There are so many meaty questions to chew on: What should be protected and preserved, and what is open for rethinking and redesign? What are ways we can develop cities more equitably? These are challenging questions, and we’re suspicious of easy answers. We hope the Consulate will be a place for really smart conversations and not just about the shiniest new ideas, but the fundamental ones we sometimes forget. We’re experimenting with lots of different formats to see what people enjoy. To be honest, I’m tired of panel discussions where people are talking AT an audience, so we’d like our gatherings to be more conversational and convivial – a true exchange. So far we’ve hosted teas, dinners, parlor talks, book clubs, walking tours, co-working hours – and we’re open to other ideas. I’m sure we’ll mix it up over time!
Q: With the Consulate, how could people turn talk into action? What are your goals for 1-5 years down the road?
A: Really good question. So here’s the thing: Some people are really uncomfortable with just talking, right? They roll their eyes at conversation without action, it feels unproductive. I used to be one of these people — l hated leaving a room without concrete steps and a plan for what’s next. And in Detroit, a lot of challenges feel very urgent, they require immediate attention. But you know what? The pressure to produce has created some of the worst disasters of our time. For real. Quick fixes, fast-growth, not always the best results. And personally, I think my best learning has happened when I stopped long enough to really listen, or encountered a new idea I wasn’t seeking — and maybe it didn’t sink in right away, but revealed itself over time. So it’s okay to have a conversation today, and let it wash over you for a while. If something inspires or surprises you, it will show up in your work. Trust.
A: We have a poster hanging in our foyer that says “Never Stop Learning.” It seems simple and obvious enough, but I look out at the world and I see a lot of people who think they’ve got it all figured out. The number one principle in Bruce Mau’s “Incomplete Manifesto for Growth” is my favorite: “Allow events to change you.” The prerequisites for growth, Mau says, are the openness to experience events and the willingness to be changed by them. This is HUGELY important in cities – we see it time and time again. Urban designers and planners and investors and developers will be on some course, determined that their ideas and solutions are making places better. And then some time passes and WAIT…hold up…we have a new set of problems. We saw it with urban renewal, and suburban sprawl, and we’re seeing it now with gentrification. And if you keep on keeping on, pushing that same agenda you were a decade ago, without stopping to listen to a protest, or a poem, you are no longer a problem-solver, you are the problem. But if we keep on seeking out different perspectives, and let them influence our thinking – we’re gonna be alright.