Talking about the city: Say hello to new Model D publisher, Claire Nelson

Anyone who knows me knows that I love talking about the city. Like some people can’t stop talking about their favorite sports team or pet, I can’t stop talking about Detroit. Not about politics, or even the best new restaurant. My favorite thing to talk about is how we talk about Detroit.

I used to have these conversations from behind the counter of Bureau of Urban Living, the little neighborhood shop I ran for over four years in Midtown’s Cass Corridor. That’s where I discovered that maybe this wasn’t just idle chit-chat, but threads of a meaningful dialogue about what we all want our city to be.

Now, lucky me, I get to keep doing this with the lovely team at Model D. I know it sounds corny, but the Model D community has always felt kind of like family to me. Maybe this is because my own family lives in Chicago and Portland. Or because for years I received emails intended for esteemed founding editor Clare Pfeiffer Ramsey. (People often got us confused, which was AOK by me. I got my nickname, C2, and a gig organizing the monthly Speaker Series. Which was great because -- see above -- I love talking about the city.)

I haven’t worked in media since I wrote for my high-school newspaper. I didn’t study journalism or marketing. But in my last decade in Detroit, I have come to learn how important good storytelling is to civic engagement and a vital public realm.

In her 2009 TED talk, writer Chimamanda Adichie warned of the danger of what she called "a single story."

"Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign. But stories can also be used to empower, and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people. But stories can also repair that broken dignity."

She was speaking about her experience growing up in Nigeria, but I found her message to be particularly relevant at a time when "The Tragedy of Detroit" was on the cover of a major national magazine. 

Adichie concluded her talk by saying, oh-so-wisely:

"When we realize there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise."

This was one of the most beautiful things I had ever heard.

When I arrived in Detroit in 2002, it was pretty clear that Detroit’s dignity had been broken by a single story. Incomplete and unbalanced media coverage had really messed with the city’s mojo. You could see evidence of it everywhere -- and really, how could you blame the loss of faith? When the headlines speak only of decline and decay, it’s awfully hard to make the case for living here, let alone opening a business or raising children.

Not that there weren’t problems. There most certainly were -- and are. But this single-story situation begged the question: What would happen if we started telling our own stories instead of relying on others to shape our narrative? What if we gave as much ink to the rich community and culture we have here as we did to the well-known challenges?

I think we all know what happens. Attitudes begin to shift. Misperceptions come undone. We see complexity and ambiguity where we once saw a single story. Problems become possibilities, case studies reveal solutions.

Then slowly but surely, we start talking about valuing our assets instead of managing our liabilities. We start inviting artists and activists to meetings formerly reserved only for city officials and CEOs. And we start noticing a culture of collaboration, opportunity and equity emerge.

This is what I’ve seen Model D do over the last six years. I know it, because I am one of the converted. I wasn’t a die-hard Detroit fan from day one, I needed a little help. Model D changed how I saw the city and my place within it. The weekly issue arrived in my in-box every Tuesday as if to say, "This is your city, these are your neighbors. Will you doubt from the sidelines or be an active participant?"

A lot has changed since Model D published its first issue in 2005, and that’s no coincidence. Thanks to hundreds of talented contributors and subjects, a fuller picture of our city has emerged, changing not just how others see Detroit, but how we see ourselves.

We’re not done yet. Miles to go before we sleep. While the New York Times may recognize our burgeoning arts or food scenes, we still have a crisis of faith in our own region. Until we can all ride on a regional transit system, or send our children to public schools, or promise equality and environmental justice to all of our residents, we have our work cut out for us. And part of that work is to make the case that healthy cities are fundamental to a strong state and nation.

Some call Model D "positive" news, but if you really read it, you will understand that the city is not all sunshine and rainbows. Model D has reported plenty of frustration and tension in our community over the years. I remember when we launched the Detroit Declaration in 2010. It wasn’t exactly a "yay us!" moment -- it was a demand for change. Contentious issues like gentrification, regional cooperation, preservation and demolition, governmental reform and our ongoing challenge to be an open, welcoming city have all been covered in the pages of Model D with smart, thoughtful reporting and commentary. It’s what has kept me reading.

But if you say Model D is interested in ideas and solutions, you’re right. Creative people and projects, emerging trends, best practices -- this is the zeitgeist of our city, the spirit of our times. A hundred years from now when we look back on this era in Detroit, I’m fairly confident it won’t be about stagnation or resignation. It will be about chutzpa and imagination. It will be about saying no to segregation and sprawl, and yes to diversity and sustainability. 

Model D is a driving force for that conversation, which is why I’m excited to help, in the words of former president George W. Bush, "catapult the propaganda." If Fox News can do it for the Tea Party, then we can do it for our city. And maybe, together, we can regain a kind of paradise.

Claire Nelson is the new Publisher of Model D. She is a co-founder of Open City, Declare Detroit, and Mind the Gap. She hates sprawl, has probably never included George W. Bush, Fox News and the Tea Party in the same sentence and thinks Jane Jacobs was right about pretty much everything. 
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Claire Nelson is the founder of Urban Consulate, a network of parlors for urban exchange. Most days you can find her in Detroit or New Orleans.