Talent Pool

Our leaders have their eyes on talent. All you smart kids, budding entrepreneurs, artistic types – they want you to stay put.

There’s no doubt that Detroit produces talented people, and Detroit talent has produced some of the coolest stuff around. We have a history of innovation, and it continues, whether it is in music, cars, advertising, or the new industries churning out of places like TechTown.

The problem is that too many of our bright people leave, and those who stick around often find a fractured support network, bits and pieces of scenes, and no real epicenter of cool to reel them in. For a lot of people, that works just fine, but for the overall economy, it’s not enough.

Maybe they’ve been spending late nights with Richard Florida books,  because city leaders, academics, policy wonks, state government types and business folk are all figuring out that when the cool kids sit at your proverbial cafeteria table, economies prosper.

For Detroit to succeed, the city needs to build areas of creative density – places where a critical mass of artists, designers, musicians, techno whizzes, entrepreneurs, and maybe even a few writers reside – places economists say will spark the economy of the future.

“For the region it’s essential. The conclusion that we’ve reached is that in a knowledge economy, metro areas that have the largest talent win. And obviously young talent’s part of that,” says Lou Glazer, president of Michigan Future Inc., a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank of business leaders from around the state dedicated to figuring out how to move Michigan forward.

It’s a tough job, because once you start to brand something as being cool, it’s automatically less so. It’s like Joan Rivers on the red carpet commenting on celebrities’ “bling”: There’s just nothing authentically cool about that.

But “creative density” happens. It happens in the areas you want to visit when you go to a new city. In Atlanta it’s Five Points and Little Five Points. In Seattle it’s Capitol Hill. In Chicago, Wicker Park.

In Detroit … where do you go? There are lots of places, kinda — Woodbridge, Corktown, Downtown, Eastern Market and to a greater extent Midtown – that are showing signs of creative density.

But Glazer correctly points out that there’s nothing in Michigan quite at the level of the hot spots in other cities, not even his own, much-lauded Ann Arbor.

“These places (in other states) are 24-hour. There are people out on the streets all the time. It’s much younger, much more affluent and much more diverse than anything in Michigan. We’ve got a long way to go,” he says.

And we care, because?
Who wants to be like hot, sweaty Atlanta, anyway? We’re Detroit. We’re the gritty city. We’re different, praise be. But if you look at where the growth is in this country, you’ll see that the cities with the most talent are on top.

One thing economists look at is education. The regions with the highest percentages of bachelor degreed adults (according to the Census) are some of the fastest-growing economies in the country: Seattle, San Francisco, the North Carolina Research Triangle, Austin, San Diego, etc.

“The places that keep (educated people) have the strongest economies,” Glazer says. “If you’re a 55-year-old construction worker, you want a strong economy because it creates more construction jobs. Everybody wants a strong economy, and this is what makes a strong economy.”

Too many young, bright people leave the state because we’re not doing enough to keep them here, says Glazer.

David Knapp, a 26-year-old architect with Albert Kahn Associates, agrees.

“A lot of kids go to Michigan schools then jump ship and head out somewhere else,” Knapp says. “It’s harder, because it’s not an attractive place or climate. Or there’s not a community. There’s not a niche for them.

“You go to Chicago and it’s identifiable as a kind of place where this kind of community and this kind of demographic is apparent – same thing as New York or any city for that matter. And here it’s scattered. It’s not as unified as it could be.”

Richard Florida, the
Carnegie Melon professor who helped to inspire the state's Cool Cities initiative, says in his latest book, The Flight of the Creative Class, that there will be a global fight for creative talent that will be the pivotal issue for economies this century.

For Detroit, the question of how to keep the creative girls and boys here poses a chicken-and-egg quandary:  which comes first, the creative jobs or creative people? Glazer says researchers are working on that question, and likely it’s a combination of job opportunities and quality of life that feeds into creative people’s decisions to locate somewhere.

Detroit and the entire region, he says, need to make building the creative class a priority, and a key way to do that is to build vibrant, vital places for young, talented people to call home. Building neighborhoods “is actually something government can do, as opposed to creating new enterprises, which is something government really can’t do,” he says.

What the cool kids want

So how can Detroit build its creative density? Where is it starting to build already? And just what do those creative kids want out of the city?

“Transit,” answers David Knapp, who is working with nonprofit CreateDetroit to survey young architects about what would make Detroit more attractive.

Eric Kogelschatz, an assistant account executive at Ogilvy & Mather, agrees.

“Mass transit would be the lifeline for Detroit,” says Kogelschatz, 24.

Austin Black II, a sales associate with Detroit Urban Living, says that real life is what young people want out of city life.

“They need to see that something is happening, that the city is an exciting place to be,” Black says. “It takes one person to make a move into a neighborhood, then other young people follow each other there. You need to keep that momentum going.”


There is some of that momentum rolling in Detroit.

Midtown is just plain filling up. Density is happening, thanks in no small measure to the efforts of groups like the University Cultural Center Association, which has fostered development of lofts, encouraged new businesses and helped form a more cohesive neighborhood. It’s catching on. “There’s more younger people, more younger professionals. And I think  they are trying cater to that,” Knapp says.

Black, 25, grew up in the Detroit area and attended Cornell University, where he studied urban planning. He says he is moving into a loft at The Ellington, the new 55-unit residential building on Mack and Woodward.

“I think that neighborhood (Midtown) has an opportunity to build a density of creative, talented people,” Black says. “I see more and more people walking up and down Woodward. There are more options for shopping. You have potential to build a community there.”

But imagine if there were 5,000 more young professionals and artists living there. Businesses would pop up to cater to them. The new residents would want 24-hour amenities.

Elizabeth Tintinalli, who also works for Detroit Urban Living, grew up in Lafayette Park but attended high school in Birmingham and college in Colorado. When she graduated in 1996 she moved back downtown. She currently lives in a loft in Brush Park.

She says to attract young people to Detroit, the city needs to plug the gaps — made up of parking lots and demolished building sites — and make the city visually more interesting.

“We need to connect all the dots,” Tintinalli says, “and keep it going between the Fox and the Majestic. It has to feel safer to build community. Security is definitely an issue, but it’s getting better.”

A network

Young creative types say they need support from the city, the neighborhoods, patrons and each other.

To build a community filled with creative people, Tintinalli says, “You have to keep showcasing what we do best. We have artists and musicians that make this city culturally strong. We have to keep allowing our creative people the opportunity to perform or display their work.”

Elizabeth Isakson, an artist who also curates the online gallery www.cubegallery.com, says that to help build a creative community in Detroit — where she says “the environment is so inspirational” — artists must work together better.

“We tend to do things on our own,” says Isakson, 25, who lives in Hamtramck and attended the College for Creative Studies and Wayne State University. “We need to communicate with each other, show our work in lofts together. If the art scene was more stable, we would have a stronger community.”

That’s happening in some areas. Woodbridge, for instance, is home to CAID, 555 Gallery and Studios and 4731 Gallery and Studios, all places where artists and supporters work together to create something bigger.

Glazer says that civic leaders need to listen up. They need to support talent, and help build neighborhoods where the kids will want to stay. “It’s clear that those neighborhoods do matter,” he says.

What leaders must see, he says, is that the future of the state is at stake.

Detroit’s neighborhoods could be a positive part of driving that future. For Michigan to change, for its economic engine to heat up, entrepreneurs, artists, and all kinds of talented people need to feel supported, and they need a place where they feel welcomed to come together.


Video Stills from Create Detroit event at the Hub

David Knapp

Austin Black

Liz Isakson

All Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger