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Discovering Detroit with Cole Grisham and John McCarter

Posted on August 25, 2014


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Welcome to the first installment of Discovering Detroit, ELGL’s all new column aimed at uncovering the truth behind some of the Motor City’s tallest tales. ELGL contributors Cole Grisham and John McCarter will be your tour guides as we get insights from people living and working in the Metro-Detroit area. Our goal is to give you a first-hand look into what is really going on in Detroit.

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Detroit has been a running headline in local government for years.  We have all read the New York Times articles and the malicious Tampa Bay tweets but are we getting the real story? Is the national image of Detroit really what Detroit is? Each installment of Discover Detroit will feature a guest contributor from Southeast Michigan giving us their take on what is really going on in the region. We want to address the myths, rumors, and facts you hear about the City every day.

In our first installment please allow us the opportunity to introduce ourselves and give our take on living in Southeast Michigan and the future for the region.

Cole Grisham – Connect via LinkedIn

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To start, I am not from Detroit. I’m from Portland, Oregon, the Mecca of planning and progressive politics in the US. I moved to Southeast Michigan to study urban planning a few years back and in so doing, learned a lot about how the region views itself, the rest of the country, and most importantly, about the many innovative practices people are using to combat the region’s challenges. Planners and policy makers have much to learn from Detroit.

For me, Detroit has the exact opposite problem of my hometown. News stories show images of Detroit with burned out, vacant buildings; mayors sent to prison for corruption; and a region fragmented by political infighting. In reality, while these challenges certainly exist, grassroots groups reinforcing stable communities by rehabilitating homes, energetic politicians committed to improving city government, and innovate regional partnerships gain little attention. In Portland, the positives of regional governance and consensus politics overshadow the negatives of gentrified communities and intraregional conflict.

I hope to show, then, that there is no single silver bullet policy to address urban and regional challenges. Instead, cities and regions can be and are laboratories for innovative urban policy. As the City of Detroit has faced unprecedented challenges in recent decades, often beyond their capacity to handle, private, non-profit, and other groups have filled the vacuum in a truly ad-hoc manner. In the Portland area, the central city and region have centralized so much authority that the smallest scale of representation seems to go unnoticed. The two cities have the opposite problems, but provide each other best practices to address one another’s challenges. By comparison, we as local government leaders can better understand what can work in our regions. We should be looking at other regions not as categorical successes or failures, but as laboratories for better urban policy.

John McCarter – Connect via LinkedIn and Twitter

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I am your stereotypical metro-Detroit ex-patriot. I moved to the region when I was in kindergarten and left three months ago at the age of 24 to take a job with the City of Sugar Land, Texas. Die-hard ELGL fans may remember me from my Pure Midwest days.  In spite of my decision to leave the region after finishing my MPA, I remain an unapologetic, enthusiastic, and uncompromising supporter of all things Detroit. It has resulted in more than one heated conversation since starting my career here in the Lone Star State.

When I try to describe Detroit to people who have never been there I often find myself lacking the ability to get my point across. Ruin porn has so permeated the world’s perception of the City that it’s hard to get past the City’s challenges and have a conversation about what I love about the City. It’s not the negativity about the City that bothers me; I’ve spent the last 18 years in suburban Detroit and everyone has their opinions. What bothers me is that so much of people’s opinions outside of the region aren’t based in experiential knowledge or a firm understanding of what the bankruptcy in Detroit really means; they’re based on a few headlines covering Detroit’s juicy scandals over the last several decades. It’s like a giant game of telephone and no one is getting the real message.

I guess I can’t really blame them. It’s so hard to understand the dynamics surrounding the City without being there. To me, Detroit’s flag sums up the City best. In 1805 the entire City burned to the ground. Then they rebuilt. The City’s flag has two Latin phrases on it; “Speramus Meliora” (we hope for better things) and “Resurget Cineribus” (it will rise from the ashes). You will see both of these phrases in action across the City, whether it be Heidelberg Project overcoming arson to remain a world-wide arts & cultural attraction, pop-up shops replacing empty storefronts, or any number of community gardens popping up on vacant lots around the City.

Our goal is not to paint the City through rose-colored glasses, there are no shortage of problems to discuss. Our goal is to allow those living in and around the City to tell their story of what they experience every day. Our goal is to provide you with an accurate portrait of what’s happening in the City. Can you safely walk after dark? Does anyone from the suburbs actually spend time in the City? Where is the best place to get coney dog? We encourage you to e-mail us your questions and we’ll find the answer for you.

Supplemental Reading

New Sensation with John McCarter, City of Novi (MI)

Ben Affleck Helps Boost T-shirt Sales for Pure Detroit

Detroit’s Drought of Democracy

‘Detroit Was Like Cheers: Everyone Knew Your Name’

Is Michigan really the ‘comeback state’ yet?

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