The More Things Change, The More They Stay the Same: Life in the City

It may have been twenty years ago, but I remember the day as if it were yesterday: My wife informed me our yearly family vacation would include a few days in Manhattan. To say I was disappointed would be an understatement; I will not write what I really felt. I’m keeping this a clean article.

I had absolutely no desire to visit Manhattan. I’d seen enough pictures to convince me to stay away from the crowds, the noise, the traffic and all the rest that makes taking a bite of the Big Apple so hard to swallow. My idea of visiting a great city meant a trip to Chicago. Chicago was – and is – a big city with a big Midwestern charm to it. New York, to me, was a city too big for its own good. It’s on the east coast, which is a place where the world’s population of ornery people had somehow settled. It was overrun with everything, from people, to cars, to garbage and everything in between. New York had too much of it. To top things off, I had a number of friends tell me to bring plenty of money, because things are “so expensive there”. That was all I needed. I like to think I’m frugal, but ask anyone who knows me and the word cheap will come-up. And this was supposed to be a vacation!

We made our trip to the “City that Never Sleeps” by car; we arrived in Manhattan in the middle of rush hour traffic. It wasn’t bad. An Atlanta rush hour makes Manhattan’s look like a drive in the UP on a Sunday afternoon. When we found the hotel, and parked the car, I could have lost the keys: we didn’t drive again until we left the city for the rest of our trip. The weather was beautiful, so we walked everywhere; had we wanted to take the subway, it would have been easy. So much for too much traffic.

The first day of our traversing the city by foot was an adventure. To be sure, people were everywhere: the sidewalks were teaming with people going back and forth. There was a vitality to the place. The diversity of people – their dress, the differences in how quickly or slowly they walked, everything about them – was a wonder in itself. There was some sort of transcendent energy to all the movement – an un-anxious urgency. Everyone had somewhere to go, something to get done. Idleness had no place; standing still wasn’t happening.

Life in Manhattan is teaming with diversity and resilience. People from all levels of the social-economic ladder liver there. The warnings about how expensive things are in Manhattan was forgotten when I bought my first cup of coffee, bagel and a banana, and paid a little more than two dollars for the meal. I would have collapsed in a stupor, and on the verge of starvation, had I tried to find the same meal somewhere in and around Detroit for under four dollars.

My trip to Manhattan gave me a glimpse into what Jane Jacobs, author of, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, understood about the dynamism of cities. There is something truly alive and wonderful that emanates from a city. I was only a visitor to Manhattan, and yet this reality was a palpable thing. The city’s residents experience this dynamism in a much different way: those who live in Manhattan and call it home have a sense of familiarity, community and belonging. They’re also very friendly and willing to help visitors find their way – I was lost on a number of occasions and found help within minutes.

With the shift in desire for urban life taking hold among many, the City of Detroit will continue to see its population climb. Communities will undergo transformation, and if the city’s stakeholders manage things in a healthy and transparent way, diversity and vitality will continue to evolve and grow in Detroit.

On February 23rd at the Roberts Riverwalk Hotel, which is located along the beautifully revitalized Detroit Riverfront, the Southeast Michigan Sustainable Business Forum, in partnership with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, will host, “Nurturing Sustainable Communities from the Ground-Up”. Join us for an event that will explore what it takes to nurture diverse and vital communities, ones that offer healthy environments, accessibility to meaningful work and accessible options for cultural activities that build social capital. To learn more, visit our events page by clicking here.

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