Contrasts in Perspective: The Future of Detroit

Native Detroiters don’t have any doubt; The city of Detroit is making a comeback. Do outsiders recognize the beginnings of its revival too, though? Unfortunately, they may not – and it’s not their fault. Differences in media portrayals of the city are immense, so one’s perception of the city is likely not only related to proximity, but also source of news. This project explores what those news media differences are, how native Detroiters are using their position to do their very best to make a positive impact on locals and portray Detroit positively, and what a positive reputation actually looks like for the city.

  • Introduction
    • What are the perspectives?
    • “Old” vs. “New” media
  • Viewpoints
    • Mike MacKool – Slow Roll
    • Mary Martin – Mayor Duggan’s Office
  • Visualization – Eastern Market

How Detroit is Perceived

Local Perspectives

Downtown Detroit Partnership did a survey about locals’ perceptions of Downtown Detroit. They wrote that “not surprising, Downtown residents had much more favorable opinions followed by residents of the City of Detroit, with non city residents trailing overall.” While this is pretty much a given, just how favorable these opinions were was surprising. The following graphs depict the change in perceptions since 2013 and the overall perceptions in 2014.

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Furthermore, city residents almost completely agreed that 1) Downtown Detroit has lots of potential, 2) a healthy Downtown Detroit is important to the region, and 3) Downtown Detroit is improving every year. Detroiters’ perception of their own city, therefore, is very largely positive.

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Outside Perspectives

Last month, the Skillman Foundation and Model D facilitated a conversation on Twitter through the hashtag #YourDetroit in which Detroit residents shared misconceptions and stereotypes about their city that they commonly faced from outsiders. None of the opinions were particularly positive.

The general consensus was that outsiders consider Detroit to be unsafe, crumbled, uneducated, and apathetic, among countless other criticisms. Long story short, people think Detroit is bad. Really bad.

The differences in opinion between the two audiences are pretty clear. Proximity (i.e. Detroit pride) is an obvious explanation for the disparity, but how does one explain the generational difference in opinion as well? After all, the DDP survey found that “Millennials between the ages of 18 to 34 are the most favorable. They are the most likely to have positive attitudes regarding overall impressions, improvements, potential, safety and other aspects.” The answer can be found in media.

Legacy vs. New Media

I’ve spent a lot of time comparing these two this semester. For those that don’t have the fortune of being in three media-related communications classes at the same time, legacy media refers to newspapers, magazines, TV, and radio networks that have been producing content since before the birth of the internet. New media refers to news outlets that exist online or are accessed digitally, such as Twitter, YouTube, Buzzfeed, and Vice. There is a clear divide in the audience for legacy and new media. The American Press Institute found that “While younger Americans are interested in a wide variety of topics at levels similar to older generations, the device they turn to and the way they discover the news is more clearly influenced by age. Older adults are more likely to rely on television, radio, and print media for their news than are those in the youngest adult cohort, who are more likely to use mobile devices.”

Alongside differences in audience, new media ethics (in the traditional journalistic sense) may vary from legacy outlets and their content can be considered less serious. Does their spin regarding Detroit differ too?

To answer this question, I started off with a simple Google search of “New York Times Detroit.” (Searching “Detroit” in the NYT homepage led to articles that were overwhelmingly about sports or the auto industry. Not what I wanted.) The results, just based on headline, were not particularly positive.

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The first is an interactive timeline that sports the heading “Once a great American metropolis, Detroit is still struggling with a costly pension system, emptying neighborhoods, crime, insufficient city services and immense blight.” The second is a photostory (an admittedly fantastic photostory at that) that contrasts the wealthy suburbs to the north with the crumbling and empty neighborhoods of Detroit. The other 4 were not much better. After reading these six articles, I rated each one as portraying Detroit in a positive, neutral, or negative way (1, 0, or -1 respectively). The average for the six New York Times articles was -.5.

Screenshot of NYT

Screenshot of NYT “Detroit by Air” photostory

Buzzfeed DetroitBuzzfeed, on the other hand, was a totally different story. The resulting articles had a much more positive spin. The first article pictured, written by a man who built his home by hand in the city, said that “There’s another Detroit, too, of which I am but a small part. It’s the Detroit that’s saving itself. The Detroit that’s building something brand-new out of the cinders of consumerism and racism and escape.” I rated the top 6 results (not counting the unfortunately irrelevant Ryan Gosling article and the Detroit news tag page at the top) and the average was significantly more positive than NYT at 0.66.

I did the same rating process with the top 6 results of two other media outlets, the Wall Street Journal and Huffington Post, for a total of two old news sources, two new news sources, and 24 articles in total. (For anyone that is interested in exactly what articles I saw and how I rated them, (here are my numbers.) The results were surprisingly clear.

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The Legacy media outlets, New York Times and Wall Street Journal, had a very negative portrayal of the city, while new media outlets, Buzzfeed and Huffington Post, had very positive portrayal overall. On average, the ratings were -0.415 and 0.583, respectively. Based on this test, it’s fair to conclude that there is a clear contrast between the negative legacy media portrayal of Detroit and the positive new media portrayal. Therefore, the type of media outlet that one accesses can also likely explain a positive or negative perception of the city.


How Change is Implemented

In the face of substantial negative portrayals of Detroit, many locals have come up with creative events and practices that associate the city with more positivity. From mass bike exploration to municipal policy, I asked a few Detroiters about change – what they’ve already accomplished and what their projects mean for the future of the city (and not just for the locals).

Slow Roll Detroit – An Interview

Slow Roll Detroit is a weekly bicycle ride that meets at various destinations around Detroit and takes different routes through the city. Its slow pace and massive crowd make it a welcoming event for participants of all ages hailing from a variety of cities around southeastern Michigan. Though it has been popular from the very beginning, the weekly rides currently top 3,000 bikers every week, thanks to a feature on a popular Apple iPad commercial that aired last summer.

In it, Slow Roll co-founder Jason Hall says, “We started Slow Roll because we wanted to show Detroit in a positive light to help repopulate. This summer, we hit 2,000. That was when I knew something was crazy and something big was happening in the city. Detroit is diversity at its best, and Slow Roll is that. Attitudes are changing, and we’re moving forward.” I had the opportunity to ask the other co-founder, Mike Mackool, a few questions about Slow Roll, Detroit, and how the two have influenced each other.

Jason Hall (left) and Mike MacKool (right), co-founders of Slow Roll. (Photo: Apple)

Jason Hall (left) and Mike MacKool (right), co-founders of Slow Roll. Photo: Apple

Delaney: What is it about Detroit that has allowed this project to become so successful?

Mike: Detroiters love nothing more than Detroit. When something genuine like Slow Roll comes around and shows people the city, while at the same time bringing everyone together and building community, Detroiters will get behind it.

Delaney: Where do you think the benefits of Slow Roll lie? (With the city, the suburbanites, etc.?) 

Mike: A harder question is to name just one. There is so much to be gained, and it can be different for everyone. Whether someone rides with us to improve their health and be more active, or someone is looking for that purely social experience. The biggest benefit that we love to see is people coming together, to bond and build a community over the simple pleasure of riding bikes. 

Delaney: How do you think this has changed the perception or stereotype of the city?

Mike: When people started moving to Detroit because of Slow Roll, we knew we had done our jobs in sharing this wonderful place with everyone. We get people out of the metal cages of their cars and ride at a pace that allows you to take it all in, giving you a chance to get a real perspective on Detroit, its neighborhoods and its people.

Delaney: Has Slow Roll changed your own views of Detroit?

Mike: Riding bikes in general has given me the best perspective on Detroit. In the first few years it was really great for me to learn more and more about the city, its history and all the great places we could take our riders to. It was historical research week after week.

From the Mayor’s Office – An Interview

Mary Martin has worked closely with Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan since she graduated from University of Michigan with a Master’s degree in Public Administration. She was a project manager for Wayne County when Mike Duggan was Deputy County Executive, then when he left to become President and CEO of the Detroit Medical Center, Mary followed him into the healthcare world to become Vice President of Performance Improvement. Finally, Duggan became Mayor in 2014 and he hired Mary to be the Director of Lean Process Management. Though Mary very recently left the mayor’s office when she accepted a position at the University of Michigan Health System as Associate Hospital Director, she is still very close with Mayor Mike Duggan and extremely familiar with the steps the municipality has taken in the last year.

Delaney: What is the importance of rebranding the city under Duggan’s administration?

Mary: While I don’t believe there is a formal rebranding strategy, the general strategy remains the need to stabilize the neighborhoods. Getting people to stay in Detroit and return to Detroit grows the city’s tax base and allows for investment and growth.  We need safe, livable communities – not just a vibrant downtown.

Delaney: What, if anything, has the mayor’s office done to actively change the city’s appearance?

Mary: The department of neighborhoods has had a big influence.  Putting people within the community to address blight and other issues.  The landbank has certainly had an influence in accelerating the removal of blight – a subject near and dear to the Mayor’s heart since about 1998. His focus on public safety has also been important – driving down EMS and police response times to near national standards.  Lastly- introducing Lean to improve city processes to serve citizens better has been a very positive step.

Delaney: Do you think that Duggan has changed the perception of Detroit for those that aren’t locals, whether they be suburbanites or much farther away? If so, how?

Mary: Absolutely.  People see progress.  They see a competent and creative leader that demands the best for the citizens of Detroit.  Much progress has been made – probably slower then Mike wants but very impressive for both insiders and outsiders alike.

Delaney: What does good press and bad press mean for Detroit?

Mary: Bad press limits Detroit’s ability to attract residents – people to move to the city. Good press means suburban families coming to Detroit for events, etc. It means people wanting to visit and see the rebirth.


What New Detroit Looks Like

Humans of Eastern Market – A Photostory

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Just like the contrast in media portrayals of Detroit, the people in the city fall into all extremes across the spectrum in term of age, ethnicity, economic statues, and every other imaginable category. In a sprawling city, perhaps the most dense collection of all these differences occurs every Saturday (and more often during the summer) at Detroit’s Eastern Market. Vendors from all across Michigan, as well as surrounding states and Canada, come into the city and set up shop for a couple hours every weekend. The crowd, hailing perhaps about half from the city and half from the suburbs, are attracted to the fresh (and ridiculously cheap) produce, flowers, apparel, and goods. Click through the following photo story for a series of portraits of the diverse Eastern Market crowd.

(Sidenote: I didn’t notice until editing the photos that the woman in 15 is Oneita Jackson, a former Detroit Free Press editor and columnist who quit her job to become an adventuring, storytelling cab driver. She’s an incredibly interesting person who I highly suggest reading about. After finishing this, of course.)

Interestingly, Eastern Market started in 1841, making it 174 years old (and it has been in the same location for 124 years). It certainly speaks to the idea of “contrast” for such a historic place to be a model for Detroit’s future. Whether that future starts in the shift to digital media, in the goals of the people in the Mayor’s office, or simply on a bike covered in glowsticks, well, that’s a matter of perspective.

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Is Facebook a force for good?

Tricky question. Firstly, what is “force”? Does Facebook as a network actually possess power? But secondly, what is “good”? What kind of online behavior is “good” and does Facebook enable it? Who knows, quite frankly. But I’ll see if I can answer.

Facebook has about 1.4 billion monthly active users and shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon. Screen Shot 2015-04-06 at 9.24.53 PMThis is absolutely immense, especially when compared to other social media like Twitter (290 million users) and Instagram, which just recently passed 200 million. With this number of users, Facebook networks, especially in my demographic, can be pretty large. The average American 18-24 year old has 649 Facebook friends. Instead of facilitating a wide variety of discourse, opinions, and conversation, I think that this can amount to too much information. In my experience, its difficult to separate interesting and meaningful posts from posts made by removed friends who presumably never passed middle school english. Furthermore, irrelevant posts (and their creators) are fairly disposable. I have no problem unfriending someone who makes idiotic comments (those “men’s rights” people…). Therefore, I am also very conscious of what I post. While I don’t really care if some marginal “friend” deletes me for something controversial I may discuss, I do understand that such content is not at all likely to get as many likes as a selfie. Substantial posts just don’t gain traction on Facebook. So that is this supposed “force” – large, but subject to unwritten and restricting social guidelines.

Now, I think that “good” can mean a lot of things. Though cat pictures certainly have their place, I think social movements and the like are probably more relevant to this debate. Off the top of my head, some of the larger online social movements include Yes All Women, Black Lives Matter, and Ferguson.

All of these primarily took place on Twitter, not Facebook. Along with the aforementioned social guidelines, I think this is because of the much broader audience. I’d guess that I personally know half of the people I follow. The other half consists of news aggregators, celebrities, etc, so my newsfeed is much more diverse. Oftentimes, I also see lots of retweeted content (Facebook didn’t enable “sharing” until much later). The information I get from Twitter is therefore more global than my immediate circle on Facebook, regardless of whether I follow the participants or engage in the discussion myself. Therefore, I think its easier for movements to spread on Twitter than on Facebook.

To (finally) answer the question, therefore, no. Facebook is not a force for good, because 1) This “force” does not exist on Facebook, and 2) Other social media enables much more “good” than Facebook does.

Camera Jesus

Camera Jesus is the alter ego of a Detroiter, photographer, and music fanatic named Joe Gall. Both personas are big names – Joe in the entertainment industry across the country, and Camera Jesus in Metro Detroit. One is flashy and current and exciting, while the other is much more intimate.

Lenny Kravitz
Joe Gall – Lenny Kravitz

Camera Jesus – Brick Mansions

If there’s anyone who is comfortable and familiar with the city of Detroit, its Joe. He travels all over southeastern Michigan, often on his bike, checking out every nook and cranny, every angle, all possible vantage points. (He’s a self professed “thrill-seeker as well.)

Because of his experience and his love for the city, I reached out to Joe to ask him a few questions about the profession, Detroit, and his passions. We’ve been in contact through both Facebook and email, but unfortunately I haven’t gotten everything I wanted yet, so our correspondence will be posted at a later date. (Luckily he’s an interesting enough person to justify two posts on the same subject.)

Joe did share some relevant thoughts a previous interview, however: “Photographing Detroit right now is important because it’s changing so fast. I’m documenting history and creating a positive representation. Detroit’s beautiful, and I want everyone to know it.”

Keep an eye out for the interview and more about the prominent and acclaimed photographer Joe Gall, soon to come.

Noor Ahmad and The Loft – A Photostory

Crowd 313 is an organization at the University of Michigan that is “dedicated to bringing students to Detroit and creating involvement in the amazing urban culture around the city. The goal is to expose our peers to the city and let them develop their own relationship based on their interests.”

I wanted to portray this organization in my photo story, which holds its meetings at the apartment of one of the members. In an unfortunate turn of events, however, this week’s meeting was moved from the usual gathering place to the UgLi. Therefore, rather than cover the members of Crowd 313 sitting in a library, I chose to profile the usual meeting space of Crowd 313, as I think it is not only incredibly cool, but also very representative of the young, creative, and original population that is currently moving into Detroit. This is the unconventional and curious apartment of Noor Ahmad.

Sidenote: My very first photostory as a photographer for The Michigan Daily was published last week! I highly encourage you to check it out because it may be the coolest thing I’ve ever done.

Body Cams for Detroit Police

About a week ago, Detroit city officials announced that they began a pilot program on Friday to test body camera systems for the Detroit Police Department. 20 officers will wear one of three different cameras until June in order to test which type best suits the needs of the department and the city. Mayor Mike Duggan, who was former Wayne County Prosecutor, is very much aware of the importance of trust in the police system and is concerned about interactions between the people of the city and the police.

body camFurthermore, with the future implementation of one of these systems, he hopes that Detroit emerges at the forefront of the use of this technology. “What we are going to be proposing is to be one of the leaders in the Unites States in putting body cameras on police offices so we can see the interaction,” Mayor Mike Duggan stated. Previous attempts to use body cameras were not successful due to cost issues. Now, the necessary funds apparently exist due to bankruptcy adjustment plans, though with each camera costing between $300 and $500 each, Sheriff Michael Bouchard of nearby Oakland County estimated the costs to equip 315 officers to be between $1.5 million and $1.9 million.

After recent instances of police brutality such as the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, national attention to the actions of the police have been huge and accountability is more important now than ever. Body cameras would not only be important for the wellbeing of the citizens of Detroit, but for increasing the faith in Detroit police and city government. If the city is recognized as being one of the first major areas to implement a system as well, then even better.

Satirical News and the Love of My Life (Jessica Williams)

Jessica Williams will always and forever be my hero, so I could be a bit biased here, but I will take a satirical news show such as The Daily Show over straight news any day. In The Daily Show’s Water Hoarding segment about the water cutoffs in Detroit, the tone is obviously lighter than in a normal network news show, even though the content is the same. The benefit, in my opinion, is that the satirical news shows seem to actually be very unbiased. Even in this clip, Jessica Williams presented both sides of the story. On one hand, she interviewed a supporter of the water cutoffs with a look of complete disbelief on her face. On the other, she also dressed up a Detroit resident in a vest covered in plastic cups, suggesting that there was more that Detroiters could have done to help their situations. I don’t think that segments from satirical news shows require a lot of background knowledge, so even though the tone is sarcastic, this simultaneous presentation and critique of multiple perspectives of the same story is much more straightforward and complete than the manipulative and less conspicuous bias of network news shows.

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I think that because segments from satirical news shows are more engaging, they can persuade viewers to follow the story in the future or perhaps look more into the background information. Even for people that were already familiar with the topic, as I was, the segments are entertaining enough to hold the attention of previously informed viewers. Really, I think that satirical news shows are just all around better.

NBC Nightly News: A Case Study

This weekend, I watched the February 21st episode of NBC Nightly News to study the content both in terms of the type of story and the treatment it received. Firstly, there was a point about the choice of stories that was painfully obvious after only five minutes or so. This was that the coverage focused largely on national events. In fact, of the ten stories that were covered by Peter Alexander, who stood in for Lester Holt, who is standing in for Brian Williams, nine were national. This translates to 18:23 minutes of national news and 27 seconds of international news in the episode that was 18:50 minutes long in total. I expected the majority of the coverage to concern American news, but I did not anticipate the proportions being quite so drastic.

A screenshot of Peter Alexander on February 21st's episode of NBC Nightly News.

A screenshot of Peter Alexander on February 21st’s episode of NBC Nightly News.

Furthermore, about a quarter of the entire episode was about the weather. The very first image and headline that the show presents to the audience portray NBC’s dismal attitude about the dull and repetitive choice of topic: this year’s brutal winter. Coverage on this topic ranged from statistics regarding the death toll, traffic issues, local water main breaks, and even problems with commercial transportation through frozen waterways. The range of stories were broad, but they were mostly local and often personalized. This five minute segment included a number of reports from journalists across the country, as well as plenty of interviews with members of the effected population that gave insightful commentary (Ha!) such as “After a while it just gets old and you just want summer and spring.” Well, NBC News, another thing that “just gets old” is this monotonous and repetitious non-news subject.

The tagline of the NBC Nightly News episode I watched.

The tagline of the NBC Nightly News episode I watched.

On the other hand, more consequential stories that I had previously heard a little about and was interested in, such as the three British girls that travelled to Syria, were barely discussed at all. This event in particular was only allotted 27 seconds and consisted only of Peter Alexander’s brief description and a couple pictures flashed on screen. The treatment of this story and other important events was severely lacking and quite bare compared to the winter coverage.

That being said, I think that the role of this show and network TV news in general in the current digital information era is declining and becoming less important. Local news stories that I find out about through local sources were given much more weight than the kinds of larger international topics that I would have expected to find on a major news outlet such as NBC, which I don’t think is at all fitting for their niche. Furthermore, the very fact that I accessed this clip online after it aired live speaks to the inaccessibility of network TV news as compared to online media. Perhaps NBC Nightly News could use a little more updating than just the addition of another white male anchor.