Behind the debate over the White Entrepreneurial Guy meme was the actual Guy, Jason Lorimer, who suddenly became the icon for a lot of pent-up resentment. Over drinks it became clear the biggest issue Detroit has isn't people like Lorimer but rather the media that covers them. Often poorly.
Sometimes it's necessary to make an example out of someone just so we can get to a deeper discussion about the way we see ourselves — and portray ourselves — in the larger media space.
I met up with Lorimer, the example here, the other night thanks to a meeting arranged and moderated by Yodit Mesfin Johnson, who works in the nonprofit sector connecting businesses and Detroit residents. We met at the bar at the Hotel St. Regis in New Center. Surprise, there are places in Detroit to congregate and imbibe in spirits not in Corktown!
Lorimer wasn't upset over the meme (though like he said in his response in a HuffPo column, he wishes he wasn't the face of it) and he didn't come with guns drawn over my posts here and here about it. Even before our drinks were served, we found out we had a common thread: Both of us were raised in single-parent homes in urban areas — me in Detroit, him in Philadelphia — and both of us are driven by wanting to do good for the people we live around.
Lorimer did realize that his message of "do good work" was lost in translation. The first thing we got out the way was what exactly Lorimer and his consulting firm, Dandelion, does. And Dandelion is just that: A consulting firm. But between the jargon-laden mission statements on Dandelion's website and the equally frustrating column Lorimer wrote on Model D, he understood that it went over a lot of people's heads — and was ripe for mocking.
Perhaps even more erroneous, which Lorimer acknowledged during our talk, was his writing that he'd been in Detroit for 14 months and already built connections between the public and private sector. He said he didn't realize that not only could it have been misconstrued (and it was) that he had all of the Detroit's long-running issues solved in less than two years, but it could also be perceived as an insult to Detroiters who have been on the front lines for decades who don't have the same kind of access.
What I learned from our conversation was that Lorimer is far more humble in person than any of the jargon implies. He is by no means a Dan Gilbert, a shiny suit with endless capital churning out aspirational lookalikes through such entrepreneur factories like Bizdom U. He speaks English in person, not buzzspeak, and just wants to use his business skills for making Detroit a better place. Alas, anyone in business in Detroit could always use publicity to attract clients and income, and if publications like Model D and The Huffington Post are at the ready, it would be foolish for Lorimer to not take advantage.
And there's where we both agreed is where part, if not most, of the problem lies: Press, locally and nationally. The three of us at the table each described our experiences with the media, as readers, observers, participants and as reporters.
Johnson mentioned the difficulty in recent years of pitching to publications entrepreneurs, community activists or simply anyone who wanted to make a difference who were all but white and male. Even women, Johnson assessed, have only recently gotten a seat at the media roundtable, despite the number of women working around the city — many of whom had been here before the revival.
Even now as women start to be heard, there's still a regular blueprint that seems to fit: A "hipster" bike-riding woman (this was cited an example) who opens a boutique, makes art or something perceived to be feminine. The reporting seems to indicate a breezy, easy-going girl making it seem flawless, as if she were lifted from the pages of Real Simple. The reality, Johnson says, is that the work is hard and dirty, the rewards aren't guaranteed and the risk of failure is high.
Before the Model D piece, Lorimer said he had begun to hear similar concerns about non-white guy inclusion the more and more he started to venture beyond downtown. Lorimer makes clear that he didn't put on any shining armor to save Detroit, but he does ask whether he can use some of the connections he's built to put forth some of the hard-liners and the do-gooders not concentrated on the Woodward corridor.
My view has always been this: Ten years ago, someone buying a skyscraper wouldn't have been a big deal. For years, there have been publications steadily covering businesses and communities on all levels, ranging from the Michigan Chronicle (full disclosure: My mom worked there in the '90s), Crain's Detroit Business, Metro Times, the now-defunct Detroit Monthly, Hour, the TV and radio stations, the Detroit Free Press and The Detroit News.
Somewhere along the line, something happened in journalism. Ads weren't as plentiful. Books shrunk. Magazines shuttered or re-branded. Circulations plummeted at the dailies and layoffs made institutional knowledge disappear. Community news increasingly vanished, and business happenings became less of a priority. All of this, compounded with an overall drop in population and tax base.
Something else happened. As corruption wrought by black leaders came to the forefront, combined with an inability of newly elected black leaders to get it right, reporters began to notice the influx of people who, statistically, did not look like the majority of the populace that elected those leaders. Thus, the share-worthy, pageview-grabbing narrative of "old" Detroit — in essence, black residents — against "new" Detroit began to play out.
Anyone who has lived here knows that "old" Detroit is more than just black. It is a melting pot of ethnicity from around the world. But when stories are boiled down to white flight being the sole cause of Detroit's decline (it's not), then surely an oft-repeated notion of white residents coming back home, so to speak, starts to sound pretty. (Is there any other reason why the News, Freep and Crain's repeatedly rolled out glowing interviews with white mayoral candidate Mike Duggan before he even filed the necessary paperwork to run at the expense of two other black candidates whose formal, previously announced intentions were wound up in three-graf wire briefs?)
Coverage of Detroit's first wave of new business was not as nuanced, hence why folks like Phil Cooley immediately rose to the forefront. If longtime residents were pissed about a white guy making barbecue in Corktown and getting lots of attention for it, they had a right to be, as there's a dozen or more BBQ joints that had been here for years without the same adulation.
Because of that lack of nuance, all white guys — entrepreneurial or not — began to feel threatened by the rising concern, and perhaps felt a need to start doing damage control. Look no further than when The Huffington Post first launched its Detroit edition, beginning with two white guys arguing about what makes a Detroiter most.
All this back-and-forth, and here we are stuck in a giant ball of string tied by race, class, influence, gender, politics, age, experience and fear. Fear on all sides, from the residents who fear exclusion and media gentrification — maybe not as much physical gentrification — and fear from the people new and old wondering if their opportunities will dry up amongst such tension.
It's not the only solution, but Johnson, Lorimer and I agreed that we could all move the needle a bit by not just "conversation" (and the more I see this term, the more I dislike it and wonder when the action begins), but by changing how Detroit is perceived not only among its own residents, but by those from the outside looking in.
In the midst of last week's boil, Model D publisher Claire Nelson posted a short rant on Facebook about Detroit becoming a "high school cafeteria" because of the meme — as if we weren't all sitting at different tables before. She followed that up with a repost of the publication's Urban Innovation Exchange project, which featured a wide variety of innovators from all backgrounds.
Though the project was valiant, I wonder if it's too little, too late: That same week, Fast Company, The New York Times and Business Insider offered windows into the Detroit entrepreneur scene, all sprinkled with the same common elements that have been boiling over for some time: Savior complexes, familiar names and places, and underlying implications that until new people came around, everyone had been sitting on their asses since 1967.
Gilbert, the focus of the NYT piece, was hailed as a missionary — saving the poor, soulless Detroiters from themselves? The Business Insider piece was pure flyover journalism; two of the "coolest businesses" aren't even up and running, one closed last month and several of them have only been open for less than a year. And Fast Company just had to go to Slows, didn't they?
As I write, people are passing around an Atlantic Cities piece about squatting in the hardscrabble Brightmoor neighborhood, but according to the folks in Brightmoor, nobody at Atlantic even talked to anyone there. The narrative has been written, and it will take time for the story to change.