Growing up in the suburbs, Allyson McLean was always fascinated by what went on in Detroit. Even in the 1990s, when urban theorists predicted that places like her hometown of Troy--called "Edge Cities" because of their high concentration of shopping, offices and entertainment--would soon replace core cities as the heart of metropolitan life.
"For someone from Troy, I got a fair amount of exposure to Detroit," McLean says. "Both my parents worked in the Renaissance Center and we went down there a lot, seeing the holiday lights from the People Mover and going to the Thanksgiving Day Parade every year."
"Still, it wasn’t until I left Detroit that I really began to want to know more about it," she says. "Detroit was in the press so much while I was living in other places that I began to follow the city’s story much more closely."
Although she went away to Kalamazoo College, studied in Mexico and Spain, headed to Carnegie Mellon University for graduate school in Public Policy, held a job at Pittsburgh’s economic development agency, followed by two years in D.C. working at a leading public sector consulting firm, she never wavered from her plans to come back. "I became pretty tired of hearing people talk negatively about Detroit without ever having been here, and I knew that I wanted to apply what I was learning about economic development and other fields to the place that meant the most to me."
"Now that I am back, it’s frustrating to hear from friends I grew up with who have no plans to ever return. In many cases they aren’t necessarily staying in places like Chicago because they’ve landed great jobs," she says, "they simply think it's a cooler place to be. They have no idea what they’re missing in their hometown."
McLean’s experience seems to refute the Edge City theory that a booming suburb can thrive indefinitely, even if the nearby center city withers from disinvestment and middle-class flight. She believes it’s crucial for the future of the entire Detroit metro region to revitalize struggling neighborhoods in the city and suburbs. That’s why she was happy to return home to work with the Community Investment Support Fund (CISF), which facilitates capital investment into Detroit’s low-income communities, offering technical assistance to nonprofits in the form of business planning, sustainable financial modeling, cash flow management and other consulting services.
So, what finally lured McLean home from Washington, where she was helping develop strategic plans and performance metrics on projects for the Pentagon and Department of Homeland Security? She was named a Fellow in the Detroit Revitalization Fellows Program--a Wayne State University project (funded by the Kresge Foundation, the Ford Foundation, Hudson-Webber Foundation, the Skillman Foundation and Wayne State) that matches rising professionals with organizations working at the forefront of Detroit revitalization efforts. Since September 2011, 29 fellows have been working in key positions throughout the city.
"Allyson was a natural fit," says CISF/Larson Realty Group founder Eric Larson. "Her public sector and strategic planning experience, exposure to other markets, and genuine passion and ambition to effect change in her hometown of Detroit have provided new energy and focus to all that we touch."
A few months after McLean joined CISF, Larson was appointed Non-Executive President of Olympia Development of Michigan (ODM), one of the companies owned by Mike and Marian Ilitch, providing McLean yet another opportunity to put her imprint on Detroit by helping to oversee ODM’s real estate development projects and managing real estate services of Ilitch-owned properties.
Once just a visitor driving in from Troy, she’s now immersed in the life of the city, working on the front lines of new real estate developments and exploring all the great venues popping up. "I really like going to Café D’Mongos downtown. The atmosphere and the owner make it a very special place. And the Sugar House in Corktown has mastered the art of mixology. These are some of my favorites, but every place in Detroit has people and environments that are incredibly authentic, which is probably the quality I like the most."
Detroit is starting to remind her of Pittsburgh, where she worked on economic development issues at the time it was bouncing back after the steep decline of the steel industry. McLean sees many of the same positive trends underway in Detroit--opening up the riverfront to the public, converting one-way streets back to two-way, intensive efforts to improve the neighborhoods.
"I lived near the East Liberty neighborhood, which had been hurt in the 1960s by urban renewal," she says. "But when I lived there it was once again becoming a walkable area with multiple new developments, transportation improvements, and entrepreneurial activity. Many of these same elements are now present or at least being discussed in Detroit."
Another thing she thinks the two cities have in common is their small-town feel. "Among young professionals, everyone seems to know everyone. Both cities are very inspiring because you meet and work directly with people who are making a huge impact on these places at a young age.” McLean hopes that this opportunity will soon draw her friends who have left Detroit for bigger cities back home.
Jay Walljasper, author of
The Great Neighborhood Book and All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons, is a Senior Associate with Citiscope and Senior Fellow with Project for Public Spaces.