DETROIT – When cities take a restrictive view on gay rights, such as Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick going on national television to talk about his distaste for the concept of marriage equality for gays, “it’s like holding up a great banner that says, ‘creative people unwelcome,'” said Richard Florida, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University and author of the best selling book “The Rise of the Creative Class.” “If you can’t get past that issue, you’re not going to be able to create the kinds of communities that all of us want.”
Florida was in town for two days last week to present at a “regional transformation process” March 3-4 at Orchestra Hall and The Max M. Fisher Music Center. Florida has presented such seminar-like events previously in cities such as Greensboro, N.C., and Green Bay, Wis. The Detroit RTP was organized by CreateDetroit, a local organization founded to capitalize and enhance Detroit’s existing creative and entrepreneurial community in order to attract a dynamic new work force and foster economic development in our region.
“Cities that are more friendly to gay and lesbian people will tend, having all other things equal, to be better positioned to prosper economically,’ said Florida at Wednesday’s press conference. “That pretty much speaks for itself.”
Florida’s book theorizes that the creative class will become the blue collar worker of the computer age, and the key to attracting the best of the bunch is to promote the three Ts: technology, talent and tolerance.
“Obviously, for the Detroit community, this third T is critical, and it involves race, it evolves ethnicity, it involves age and the value and contribution of young people, and critically it evolves viewing gay and lesbian people as full citizens,” Florida said. “And I don’t want to give a lecture here, though I am a professor, but the long legacy of our country has been that we have been open to every person, people who felt religious persecution, cultural persecution and political persecution. We opened our arms to them and they made our country great and we’ve expanded rights to African Americans, to women, to all sorts of groups, and it will be a natural progression that we extend basic rights to gays.”
Cities that choose not to risk suffering a fate similar to Cincinnati’s.
“When Cincinnati enacted an article that allowed people to discriminate against gays, companies left town,” said Florida. “And if you read the Cincinnati newspapers, they have now quantified the effect of that. Companies said, ‘we can’t recruit because not just gay people get insulted by this, but straight people get insulted,’ and they often ask when they go for an interview, ‘do you offer domestic partner benefits?’ It’s because it’s a perspective on a company that’s open.”
Following Florida’s press conference and a cocktail reception, he addressed nearly 2,000 Detroiters in Orchestra Hall, but not before being introduced to the crowd by Kilpatrick himself.
“This is an amazing day for the city of Detroit,” said Kilpatrick. “I believe it’s the beginning of the day when we can not only confirm that we are Detroit, but that Detroit is all of us. Detroit is ready to engage this new century. We’re ready to engage vitality, economic, social and cultural development and we’re ready to rise up as a creative class.”
‘Strange and cool and weird’
Detroit may be ready to rise up, but Florida’s research indicates it’s going to be one hell of a long climb. Detroit ranks second to last on Florida’s creativity index, which rates 49 cities across the country with populations over 100,000.
At Thursday’s facilitated session, more than 300 folks split up into mini think tanks at tables of nine. They discussed Detroit’s issues, voted on plans to address them, and would have reviewed the results had the computer that processed them not repeatedly crashed. But while participants appeared encouraged, they were not as enthusiastic as the mayor.
“This is probably the toughest market to be creative,” said Dominick Pangborn, a designer and artist who participated in a panel discussion at the start of the afternoon session. “I would like to see Detroit have more respect for all the talent that is here.”
Still, all agreed there was hope.
“There’s something strange and cool and weird about this city,” said panelist Phillip Mason, of the firm Design Council. “It’s the biggest little town.”
“Anything is possible,” added Jackie Victor, who co-owns Avalon International Breads with her partner Ann Perrault. “We’re so underserved in this community.”
Some more than others, as comments during the open discussion portion of session demonstrated.
“This region, the whole region, not just the mayor, is going to need to become more tolerant of LGBTs,” said Johnny Jenkins of Detroit Black Gay Pride. “I think we need an LGBT liaison to the mayor’s office.”
Jeffrey Montgomery of the Triangle Foundation concurred.
“In the city of Detroit, we should be embarrassed that we still don’t have domestic partnership benefits,” he said. “My challenge to you is to call [Mayor Kilpatrick], write him and challenge him to support DP benefits.”
In the meantime, attendees said all the ingredients for success are in the city, assuming anyone ever learns to mix them up.
“I think we have a long way to go to be cool,” said developer David Farbman. “But we have the roots to be cool, and when you have that you have everything.”