It is easy at first to become depressed about Detroit: the cratering population, diminished automotive sector and swathes of empty homes and buildings. At the same time, the Motor City is showing green shoots of rebirth with sustainable businesses, tech startups, massive reinvestment downtown and the influx of young workers looking for a new and different life experience.
Speaking of the new entrepreneurs arriving in town, Jason Lorimer sparked quite the buzz a week ago with an op-ed in which he waxed philosophical about the city’s potential. Unfortunately, his essay was laden with heaps of jargon and cliches more appropriate for a graduate course in sustainable business or social enterprise. Lorimer’s cloddish essay, in turn, inspired White Entrepreneurial Guy Detroit, a Facebook-based meme that at first was good fun and silly satire before it devolved into rabid bitterness.
So do these entrepreneurs, many of them white, who are moving into Detroit really get the problems of a city with a population that is 83 percent black? Are they really going to be part of the solution, or are they in it for themselves while turning their back on the huge structural problems Detroit now confronts?
Lorimer did fall into this trap–perhaps on purpose to score some exposure for himself and his startup–by his trail of digital dysentery over all the “good” he and his firm, Dandelion, was going to do without diving into specifics. True, those who define themselves as “social entrepreneurs,” or by a similar term, can come across as smarmy and self-important, consumed by their belief they can swoop into a city and inspire change just because they are being . . . themselves.
But the stubborn fact is that Lorimer, Dan Gilbert and Phillip Cooley did not have to invest in Detroit. Plenty of other cities, or suburbs, would have gladly benefitted from having them in town. So what if a 10-person consultancy or a barbecue restaurant is not enough to solve the problems of horrid schools, sclerotic bureaucracy or pot-holed-filled streets? The results are still dozens more employees hired and two more businesses launched than by the crowd taking potshots at Lorimer, et al.
Never mind the fact Detroit, in part, fell into its difficulties by electing buffoons such as Coleman Young and Kwame Kilpatrick–or the all-too-typical stories of white flight during the 1950s and 1960s that, in turn, helped sow the seeds of many American cities’ decline. Now people, either professional, creative, or both–are moving back into urban areas because they enjoy the benefits of living in a city’s center core.
In addition, these “white entrepreneurial guys” are moving into Detroit because the city still has the bones to support a thriving community: universities churning out graduates, great buildings that need some (or a lot) of TLC and access to one of America’s most beautiful states with its endless recreation and outdoor offerings. Where they aren’t moving to are regions still pockmarked by the ongoing foreclosure crisis, such as the suburban areas of Nevada, California, Arizona and Florida.
Finally, the assumptions many of those on the “White Entrepreneurial Guy” bandwagon make are that every entrepreneur (in the old days people said “businessman” or “businesswoman”) is a clueless white person, or privileged, is absurd. Many of the most adroit entrepreneurs have such an affliction for a simple reason: they had to be because of the circumstances in which they grew up. And wanting to give a struggling city a chance is hardly a reason for someone to take offense. Incidentally, many of the comments on the various blogs defending or giving Lorimer a pass are long-time Detroit residents.
Satire can be brilliant and cheeky fun because it reveals elements of truth about a controversy, but it can also delve into bitterness: in the case of the crowd mocking Lorimer, it is masking the fact that they do not have a better idea and would rather attack someone who’s hustling and making a difference simply by investing in a city and people. And for a city with almost no people, a hundred Lorimers are better than the current alternative, which is no one moving into Detroit and giving the city yet another chance.
Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye is the editor of GreenGoPost.com and frequently writes about business sustainability strategy. Leon also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business; his work has also appeared on Sustainable Brands, Inhabitat and Earth911. At Better4Business in Anaheim on May 2, he will join a panel discussing how companies can present their CSR initiatives to the media. You can follow Leon and ask him questions on Twitter or Instagram (greengopost).
[Image credit: Leon Kaye]