Category Archives: Ambition

Vision for Detroit, 1807

There was a time when Detroit was in worse shape than today. In 1805, the entire settlement burned. There may have remained remnants of buildings and streets, but for the most part, Detroit was simply a memory.

Just a few years before this fire, America invested in the idea of a completely master planned city: Washington D.C. There had been many American cities planned out of the raw earth, but none compared to the beauty and design of D.C. When Detroit burned, Augustus Woodward looked east for inspiration and found this new vision for the city called Detroit:

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In the two centuries that followed, this city grew to nearly 2 million residents and has now shrunk to a little more than 700,000. It’s easy to look at Detroit today and marvel at its losses. But we have to remember that fire. When Detroit lost everything, before the world knew her name, one person rose to draw this vision. He found inspiration in another great American city and drew a plan that became the backbone of an empire. It remains mostly intact to this day.

While bulldozers roam the city demolishing abandoned buildings by the 10,000s, as the earth returns to prairie as it was found over 300 years ago, residents of the city are wondering what could possibly become of this place. When I visited in 2013 I met so many people excited to tell me about the recent improvements: new jobs, new businesses, arts and culture. A few months later, the city declared bankruptcy and Kevin Orr took control of the city’s fate.

I’ll be going back to Detroit this summer and I can’t wait to see what has happened in a year: to walk around and experience it for myself. There’s so much to learn in that place: inspiration, caution, fuel for my endless curiosity, and context for the situation in Richmond and other American cities.

Until then, I’ll be wondering how a Shinola watch can cost $950 while this house was recently listed for $100. Until then.

Everybody’s doing it

When Richmond was debating whether to construct an urban highway, one argument used in favor of the highway was the citation of other cities with urban highways. Here are two prime examples from June 4, 1950:

june 4 1950-eight cities with highways say they're good-news-propoganda

june 4 1950-First ad-Forward Richmond Highway Committee in favor-Political ad

To read an opinion article related to this topic, click here.
For more artifacts like this, check out my page, “Highways in Richmond?

Book review: How Children Succeed

I love books written by journalists. In his latest, How Children Succeed, Paul Tough weaves together delicate personal stories and obscure academic research into a nonfiction that reads like the biography of a life I would be proud to live.

Beyond a student’s GPA and SAT score,  there is an entirely different measure that determines whether a they have what it takes to succeed. These “hidden” strengths are called a range of terms including non-cognitive skills, socio-emotional intelligence, soft skills, and character. Without a critical mass of these character traits, which range from self-control to optimism, an individual has a significantly lower chance of success. The research on character forces us to look past academic knowledge to something deeper that guides our choices and drives our behaviors. While the new psychological research is fascinating, the idea of character isn’t the most revolutionary.

But there’s another concept that I find to be more eyeopening and important: the idea that stress in life causes harm to the body and the mind. I first wrote about this topic in a blog post a year ago in response to a This American Life episode. In it, Ira Glass (also a reader of the book) interviews Tough and others  about the emerging research on the relationship between stress and the brain. As I listened, I memorized the phrase, “the biology of stress.”

As in, the biological response to the stress of life.

You see, ever since I graduated from college I’ve followed a meandering path of books on topics such as leadership, therapy, and growth. But none of these books made a biological connection between life and the body. In his book, Tough more clearly describes this connection as the HPA Axis which stands for the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (the chemical) response to stress. It’s this system that senses stress and responds in an attempt to protect the person involved. When these chemicals flood your brain, you lose the parts of your brain that house the executive function and revert to a “fight or flight” response and a more reactionary animal nature. Sadly, the more often you’re in stressful situations, the more likely this will be your primary response to life.

It’s this connection that most influenced me when I heard  Tough speak about his book at the Sabot School in Richmond. (I’m also proud to say I shook his hand and spoke with him when sat down at the end my row before the program.) While he spoke, I diagramed his speech on my bulletin:

Notes from Paul Tough event

As you can see, I found two main ideas: The Biology of Stress and the Psychology of Growth. It’s clear from the research that trauma and stress (and especially chronic stress) wreak havoc on the human brain, stunt learning, and prevent growth. But there is also incredible research in the field of psychology about the antidote to this stress: a secure attachment to parents who are are comforting and who help children manage their stress. For those who are older, a caring adult and a safe support group can also provide opportunities for people to feel accepted and to accept themselves.

This acceptance is the first step to growth.

But there also is a surprising third point that connects both stress and growth: that is the believe that growth is enhanced by, indeed requires, the presence of stress. And on the affluent end of the spectrum, Tough and others believe there is even a deficit of adversity which prevents students from ever fully developing into themselves. They simply pass from one institution to another seeking stability and a straightforward path of rewards for their work. In contrast, students in poor communities have a much higher risk of failure, but the students that get out have something their wealthier peers lack: the knowledge that they have achieved something great and the determination to do it again. I drew another diagram while trying to explain this concept to my girlfriend and simultaneously trying to understand it myself:

Notes on Class and SuccessThe point is not to be naive about poverty (especially extreme poverty) and it’s also not about “success” in monetary terms, but in the more personal sense of achievement. Tough writes that the point is to be more understanding of the role of adversity. For the high school student I mentor in Richmond, it wouldn’t help for me to remove all adversity from his life. That would stunt growth as well. Instead, I need to give him a safe place to feel accepted, to know he is loved, and to enjoy life for a moment. He can go to school or the basketball court and know that I’m only a phone call away. And, of course, when he needs something that he definitely can’t get on his own, I’ll do my best to help him out.

Which brings me to Fatima.

I first met Fatima while she was walking home from work one day this summer. I am friends with her roommate, but I had never met her so I made the connection and asked her about her life. I quickly realized that Fatima has a goal: she is determined to get her driver’s license. So I agreed I would teach her how to drive and do whatever I could to help her. A month or two later, I got a call and for the past two weeks, her roommate and I have been riding in the passenger seat while Fatima, timid and incredibly nervous, has been learning how to drive.

This morning, I picked her up to go to the DMV and take the driving test for the first time. She told me she has three chances to get it right before her learner’s permit expires on October 14 so she wanted to get an early start. “I want to drive,” she said when I picked her up. “I want to drive to the DMV.” Aside from a few “dad moments,” I kept my cool on the way and she got us both there with relative skill. As expected, the place was crowded so Fatima got in line to get her number (to wait in another line) and I sat in a seat nearby.

As she stood there, a short, middle-aged Moroccan woman, I was amazed by her courage. No mother or father was there to help her. No husband, partner, or lifelong friend was there with her for support. A stranger (me) was her only chance to get this right and to accomplish her goal. But to Fatima, none of that mattered. It didn’t matter that the woman behind the counter was a little rude or that she was surrounded by people speaking a foreign language. She was focused on one thing: getting a driver’s license to get a car to get a job.

And at first I thought she was incredible for her courage, ambition, and resilience (qualities she certainly possesses in great measure). But, as Tough writes in his book, that is never the full story. While we were waiting in her third line of the morning, I asked her about her family. She told me that she has three younger brothers: one who lives in Rhode Island, and who two live in Morocco with her mother. Her father has passed away. “How is your mom?” I asked mostly to be polite.

“She’s doing good,” Fatima replied.

“Do you get to talk to her very often?”

“Oh yes, I talk to her everyday.”

Every day. I don’t quite know what drives Fatima, but I know it’s somehow connected to the relationship she has with her mother and her brothers. She is loved. And every day when she goes out into this stressful, foreign world she knows that she can return home to a conversation with her mom, a peace, a calm. She’s even told her mom about me, about her goal of getting her license and the stressful test she has to take. And from this loving relationship she goes back out into the world, ready to fight every step of the way. Tough writes that this is the fundamental difference between stress that harms and stress that results in growth: a chance to be restored.

This book may make you think about your life, your kids, your students, your friends. It’s a study that pushes the conversation about “education reform” to a new and more meaningful place: failure, success, and the perilous journey in between.

Sadly, Fatima did not pass the driving test today. I don’t even think the instructor let her out of the parking lot. She very gently told us that Fatima needs more practice. She was just way too nervous and unable to complete some basic tasks as a result. I know she was devastated. After months of work and hours of waiting, she her license was still out of reach..

If that were the end of the story, if Fatima went home and gave up on her dreams, it would be a pretty sad story. But I am sure that she is Skyping with her mom as I write this post, telling her all about this morning, the lines at the DMV and the events of the day. And as she shares with her mom, Fatima is slowly replacing her own stress and fear with her mom’s love and acceptance. She even called me a few hours later to make sure I would let her know when I found a time to take her back for her second test. I believe that through her experiences today Fatima will move forward more prepared for the test and determined to pass.

And that is how anyone succeeds.

Grad school brainstorm

For me, grad school is a foreign country. Below is a brainstorm I wrote down after having a clarifying conversation with a friend last weekend. You may notice that I use the word “clarifying” relative to what my thoughts were before the conversation, but I’m nowhere near clarity. These are the topics that I’m interested in, not the path.

Having a blog has given me momentum through this process since I’ve had a chance to “try out” different topics and disciplines. While “trying out” is fun, it will soon be time to choose. For now, I have the intersection of three areas of interest and the title of my hypothetical grad school thesis:

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The difference of an early bloomer

There is so much truth to this Mozart quote I found on The Meta Picture:

Mozart

I personally don’t identify as an early bloomer/genius. Crazy, I know. If you’re the same way, check out this article about a late bloomer for some inspiration: “Discovered at 64, a Brooklyn artist finds his place” and definitely read through Malcolm Gladwell’s article related to the topic: “Late Bloomers: Why do we equate genius with precocity?

Naming New Worlds

Behind the house where I grew up there is an undeveloped lot of trees and grass. As a child, my neighbors and I often climbed over the back wall into this untamed world. We constructed imaginary realms and a gateway to the outside. We even gave it a creative name: Trocourba.

Always fair (even as children), I remember we pulled the name from fragments of each of our respective school mascots: Trojans, Cougars, and Braves. As children, we saw this lot as an empty palate for us to fill with our imagination. Much of what we built has been lost, but I still walk through those woods when I’m home and remember the days spent claiming and naming that empty space.

***

This post is about the attitude of the explorer: the belief that discovering a place makes it “new.” And if it’s new then it’s never been named. We name things every day in order to claim them and make sense of them. In order to understand a place, we give it a name. It makes it familiar.

What first started me thinking about the idea of “naming and claiming” was a conversation I had with my high school students last year. I was teaching the “pre-European” section of a class on Richmond history and we started to discuss the word “savage.” This post is a follow-up to my fascination with the word “savage” over a year ago.

The concept and conviction of savagery, I realized, is a necessary precursor to the process of “naming new worlds.” There are two primary steps in this process. First, discovered lands are proclaimed “new” simply because nothing there is familiar and, second, the existing names for that land (and all inhabitants) are deemed illegitimate. In my class, we discussed the British invasion of present-day Virginia, but that’s not the only example of “savage” places being invaded. Many years after the US gained independence from the British monarchy, the kingdoms of Europe made similar claims on land in Africa. Much of this continent was subdued by the military might and shameful brutality of early Europe. As tribes and kingdoms in Africa fell, new nations were formed.

It was time for some new names:

Many of these names have been changed in the past 50 years of independence, but the legacy of colonization, of course, lives on.

In my search to understand this connection between mapmaking and empire, I remembered one of my favorite sections in the play, Tamburlaine, by Christopher Marlowe. Tamburlaine is a play about a man that seems superhuman in his ambition and his strength. In one scene, Tamburlaine discusses the growth of his kingdom by using the metaphor of a map and a pen:

“Zenocrate, were Egypt Jove’s own land,
Yet would I with my sword make Jove to stoop.
I will confute those blind geographers
That make a triple region in the world,
Excluding regions which I mean to trace,
And with this pen reduce them to a map,
Calling the provinces, cities and towns
After my name and thine, Zenocrate”

(Marlowe, Tamburlaine, I, iv, 72-79).

Here Marlowe conveys the dreams of a new map for a new kingdom with a new king. Tamburlaine connects the map of the world to his goals for military conquest and his desire for increase. With these words he boldly speaks the future into existence. He, like many leaders throughout history, desires to claim the earth as an extension of himself and his power. His kingdom will be as large as his desire because his strength will not be stopped in his pursuit.

This confidence is not unique to Tamburlaine or fiction at all. There are many examples of powerful men looking over other people’s land with greed. These days we all understand this idea of a “nation” as if it is the way that we’ve always structured the world, but that is not the case. As we shifted to nations from the former powerful families, kingdoms, and empires, many voices of dissent were silenced as neat maps were drawn by powerful hands. Here’s a few examples (with dissenting factions in parenthesis):

  • The United States of America (The Lakota, The Sioux)
  • The Democratic Republic of Congo (The Banyamulenge)
  • The United Kingdom (Northern Ireland)
  • China (The Uighur, The Tibetan)
  • Iraq (The Kurds)

In America, we expanded our borders with military victories and the conviction that God Almighty had ordained our growth. In other nations, it was a colonizing force that created new borders with little regard for indigenous territories or cultural differences. While the colonizing or invading forces subdued, they claimed the land and it’s “inferior” inhabitants. In nearly every single case, it went something like this:

“Sorry, that place you call home isn’t your home any more. Oh, and stop calling it that. It’s not called that any more. You’re pronouncing it wrong. How could you be so stupid?”

***

This is the power of names. When a name is given, it becomes familiar. When the name of a place is changed, natives become foreigners. Dignity is stripped. Identity is lost. And there is a deep unquenchable resentment that lives on in hearts and minds.

We are all a part of this legacy. We are all naming or being named.

Labor Lost

There is something that’s been bothering me since I left Detroit. It’s a lingering question: What would America be like today if auto workers throughout the Twentieth Century had rioted and protested against the American government rather than corporations for benefits and a fair wage?

What if the corporation was the wrong target all along?

Today, many people look to Detroit as a failure of unions demanding too much of corporations: health care, pensions, company cars. I disagree with this opinion, but I do see the point: residents on that frontier town were struggling too locally. This made Detroit a formidable industrial town for corporations looking to do business. But their struggle didn’t benefit or protect the rest of their nation with federal policy.

I think one reason workers demanded help from their employers was their perceived permanence. From the nineteen teens to the 1950s the auto industry in Detroit seemed as permanent as the nation itself. I think that it was also a matter of proximity for disgruntled employees: Workers in Detroit could march down the road to Ford’s River Rouge plant more easily (even with the fire hoses and armed guards) than they could drive 10 hours or so to D.C. Unlike Paris and London, our nation’s Capitol wasn’t the heart of industry and labor reform.

Ford was close and he was rich. The businesses in the city also had the most to lose and so it was here that employees felt they had the most leverage. With sit ins and riots they demanded their humanity and their health. And won. As their employers rose to global prominence the quality of life for middle class residents of the city continued to increase.

And then Martelle writes that two things happened: globalization and vertical integration. New factories were increasingly being built abroad and auto parts were increasingly being manufactured on site rather than purchased from suppliers. Neither of these is the fault of Detroiters. And then there was the flight to the suburbs and the Sun Belt, encouraged by federal policy and grants to decentralize defense industry and connect the nation with highways.

In sixty years, the city flipped in every way imaginable.

Today, the Big Three have taken their factories elsewhere and acquired or driven out many of their parts suppliers. With their departure went their jobs and salaries as well as their accompanying healthcare and other benefits. The classic quick-one-two jab of American unemployment.

We’ll never know what America would be like if we had demanded more security from our national government as we industrialized. Perhaps we’d be falling like France or maybe we’d be rising like Great Britain.

While we benefit from the labor struggle in Detroit, we continue to blame the city for demanding more. When really I think they should have demanded differently.

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A Day in The D

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The trend

“The trend toward division of labor and specialization is one of the most universal and one-way trends in human history.”

(Roy Baumeister, Is there Anything Good About Men: How Cultures Flourish by Exploiting Men122)

Detroit Preflection

“Have fun in Detroit!” a friend said to me today. Then added, “I never thought I’d say that.” I laughed and thought, “I never thought I’d hear it.”

In one week, I’ll probably be eating lunch in that infamous American place: MoTown, The Motor City, The D, former home to the Arsenal of Democracy, and the historical heart of the global automobile revolution. Today, it’s a bleeding heart, to be sure, but it’s a crazy American story and I’m ready to see it for myself.

•••

I don’t remember the first time I heard about Detroit. I don’t think it really factored into my elementary, middle school, or high school educations. If it did, it wasn’t a prominent stop along the way.

Actually, I think my first connection to Detroit was in the movie, The Jungle Book (1967). As King Louis sang “I wanna be like you,” the rhythm of Motown filled my young ears. It’s a somewhat dubious scene in the movie, but a good example of Disney capturing the musical genre that Detroit sold to the world. It would be most of my life before I would even begin to consider it’s context or implications.

I didn’t grow up dreaming about Detroit, but I’ve always been interested in cities. This particular city has been calling my name since I first read Tom Sugrue’s Origins of the Urban Crisis for a class five years ago. As I read Sugrue in horror, I learned about the racism and violence that ruined the city in the twentieth century. My classmates and I watched a moving documentary, “Goin’ to Chicago,” that introduced the story of the Great Migration and its role in changing many northern cities (definitely click the link to watch the video if you’ve never seen it). The following summer, I had a layover in the Detroit airport and talked to a woman who told me that she was proud of Detroit despite it’s national perception, but then added that she preferred to live in “nearby” Windsor. I remember the airport was pretty cool too.

That same summer, my boss at Partnership for Smarter Growth gave me a copy of The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape as if it were a coming-of-age ritual. She said that someone had given it to her and now it was time for me to have it. Around that time (or earlier), my parents enthusiastically told me about the documentary “Standing in the Shadow of Motown” and I later watched and was amazed. Here’s a link to the trailer. What a place! This music changed the world, but many of us forget it or were never taught in the first place.

For the next few years, I spent almost all of my time learning about Richmond and New York City. But last summer I watched (and really enjoyed) Eminem’s movie Eight Mile and was reminded of my fascination with the city. More overcoming, more amazing music, more fight, more attitude. I have to go there.

Last year, I started to read the book The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration and once again I became incredibly interested in the story of the Great Migration. The title is not hyperbole. The story is epic. It’s a huge book and I had to put it down, but I’ll finish it some day. It’s impossible to understand race in Detroit without understanding where everyone came from. This is the story of African American migration from the rural south to northern cities such as Detroit.

I have seen three brief videos that have connected me to Detroit in different ways. First, the Chrysler Super Bowl commercial, “Imported from Detroit.” I was totally moved by the gospel choir, dramatic shots of the city and phrases such as, “you see, it’s the hottest fires that make the hardest steel.” It was bombastic, yes, but you can’t deny that attitude. It is unique. You could not make a video like that about Richmond, or Austin, or San Francisco. More recently, I watched the trailers for the documentaries Burn and Detropia, both jarring insight into the reality of Detroit’s profound decay and loss. I continued to feel the drama of this city from 1,000 miles away.

I recently stumbled upon one last video that I have grown to love over the past year. It’s a beautiful piece about the Michigan Central Station in southwestern Detroit titled, simply, “Michigan Central Station.” I like this video and I choose it to conclude this post because it’s not sad, but it’s a real portrayal of an abandoned place. It’s also connected to a Web site, “Talk to the Station,” where we’re encouraged to share “ideas and love” for the dilapidated structure. The ideas are great and the energy is exciting. Fifteen ideas in the last two weeks!

As I look forward to my visit, I am most excited about this kind of creativity and stubborn ingenuity in the face of a raw and bitter history. My pilgrimage has been brewing for almost five years and I’m ready to see the place for myself.

Detroit, I’m on my way.