My place in Detroit

I recently read a thoughtful article by an 18-year Detroit resident about the folly of youth moving to a city down on its luck. Much hay has been made of the influx of young people to Detroit lately, and as a 28-year old home buyer (now 31), I fit fairly neatly into that pile. The author shares portions of an idyllic letter he wrote as a 25-year old to then-Mayor Dennis Archer and squirms as he tries to reconcile his present-day perspectives with the ones he brought with him in 1996.

I’m here because, like the author, I wanted to live in a place that wasn’t done being built. I am, at my core, a builder. A place like Detroit is irresistible because it just screams out the opportunities for a builder. And indeed, I quickly found my little corner on which to build. I have a grand vision for my little corner, and on this corner my ideas and efforts are boundless.

I don’t have any such vision for Detroit. I know one day I will inevitably be on committees and leading efforts and so on and so forth. But I have no idea what those things will be yet. I’m barely even involved in my neighborhood yet, let alone the city at large. And that’s fine, because Detroit’s future will be written over the next decade, not next month.

We’ve spent the last three years building on this corner. We’ve poured an amazing amount of time and energy and money into this building, and we’re not done yet. The house has proven itself a useful focus (distraction?) for my building instincts and will continue to do so a while longer; I expect it’ll be another year until we truly feel close to done.

And so, all I’ve really been able to do in the context of my neighborhood and city is shut up and listen. Neighbors stop by, and I walk my dog by them; I eat and shop in the city, and find new destinations; I read what my neighbors are talking about on Facebook; friends visit and we tour the city together. Soon I’ll start attending block club and district meetings and see what they’re talking about.

The nascent tech startup scene in Detroit is a very interesting thing to me, as I’m tangentially involved in it (I actually work remotely for a startup based in Montreal). The ethos of the venture-capital industry is to throw money at young visionaries and watch them “change the world” by the power of the code & apps they write. It’s extremely empowering to young people, and I think it can’t help but color their world view about how things work: pitch yourself and work hard enough, and your vision will win. If only it were so.

Something that informs my approach to the world is my time in the Boy Scouts. I’m an Eagle Scout and held every leadership position available at some point, but the more time that passes I realize it wasn’t those things that mattered most. It was how I got there.

Every troop has a plethora of secondary “positions of responsibility” and early on in my time in the troop no one wanted to be the Librarian. The librarian’s inglorious job is to organize and take stock of the merit badge books, scouting magazines, and reference materials. Typically, the job was a title only; no one actually did anything when they got assigned to it. As I looked around the room I realized whoever raised their hand would get the job with zero expectations or fuss, it took about two seconds for my hand to shoot up.

By the end of the year, we had an organized & labelled library with fresh books and outdated material removed. I knew the names of all the books and where to find them, who had books checked out, and anticipated when we’d need to get more based on demand. I did the job no one wanted, listened to what was needed, and did it damned well. A year later, I became Scribe (think “secretary”) and did the same thing: the troop got meeting minutes and a monthly newsletter for the first time.

I went on to do a lot of leading in my troop in the years that followed, but it was those first two jobs that still give me the strongest sense of pride. Do the job no one wants, listen to what’s needed, and do outstanding work. That’s a great way to start leading. And one day soon I’ll find that job for me in Detroit.

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