Promoting the virtues of the Grand Rapids with a “lip dub”

This commentator raises some good questions about the validity of “Best Cities” lists. But he then goes on to cite an example of why Grand Rapids is not a “dying city“:

A fantastic example of a community taking the negative by the horns and turning it into a community development opportunity comes from Grand Rapids, Michigan. Number 10 on the Newsweek list, Grand Rapids responded in creative kind with the world’s largest “lip dub” in May of 2011 (a lip dub is a continuously shot video of people lip synching to a song). The Grand Rapids lip dub involved over 5,000 people, and necessitated the closing of downtown for an entire day as the amazing video was shot. The project was produced by event guru Rob Bliss, the man behind a world-record-breaking zombie walk in Grand Rapids, as well as a 500-foot waterslide and 100,000 paper airplanes in downtown Grand Rapids over the past couple of years. Bliss brilliantly taps into the creativity and fun within his community to produce events that create immensely lovable moments that bind people to their place.

“We disagreed strongly (with Newsweek), and wanted to create a video that encompasses the passion and energy we all feel is growing exponentially, in this great city. We felt Don McLean’s “American Pie,” a song about death, was in the end, triumphant and filled to the brim with life and hope” said Rob Bliss, Director & Executive Producer of the event.

The lesson for cities everywhere is to expand their definitions of growth, progress, and of what success looks like to them. Using someone else’s yardstick usually leaves you coming up short and feeling like you failed. Creating your own success metrics is not cheating especially when you then challenge yourselves to meet and exceed those measures. Communities that look deeper will likely find surprising vitality and opportunities in unexpected places and perhaps change what the world believes about them and more importantly, what they believe about themselves.

I’m not sure that a “lip dub” is great evidence that a city is not dying. It does suggest some kind of “community spirit” and it is impressive to pull all of these people together and coordinate their efforts.

But I’ve always thought “community spirit” is kind of a vague term and often applies to a relatively small segment of the population. How can it be measured and included in an index? What exactly is community “passion” and “energy”? For example, Naperville claims to have a lot of community spirit and they have some projects to prove it: the Centennial Beach was a citizen’s project and opened in 1933 for the city’s centennial and the Riverwalk started as a citizen’s project for the city’s sesquicentennial. This may be remarkable compared to a lot of communities but how many people are truly regularly involved in community groups and civic efforts? Many communities claim to have such a spirit and I wonder whether this simply reflects the booster efforts of a select few. And how does “community spirit” correlate with factors like employment, crime, and amenities?

Seeing this list again of “dying cities” reminded me that this list could be the inverse of the “most affordable” lists that are occasionally printed. Affordability could be a major factor for people to move (though they often need a job) – but who wants to live in a “dying city?” I can see the pitch now: “We may be dying but we’re affordable!” (Or” You’ve been told we’re dying but we have lip-dub and we’re affordable!”)

Reaction to Newsweek’s list of “dying cities”

Search for “dying city” and “Newsweek” and what you will see in the Google results is not the original article but rather reactions from some of the listed cities. Newspapers in South Bend, Rochester (NY), and Grand Rapids have voiced their displeasure.

This recent list from Newsweek is based on Census data and the cities that experienced the greatest population declines from 2000 to 2009:

We used the most recent data from the Census Bureau on every metropolitan area with a population exceeding 100,000 to find the 30 cities that suffered the steepest population decline between 2000 and 2009. Then, in an attempt to look ahead toward the future of these regions, we analyzed demographic changes to find which ones experienced the biggest drop in the number of residents under 18. In this way, we can see which cities may have an even greater population decline ahead due to a shrinking population of young people.

Here are the 10 cities that had the steepest drop in overall population as well as the largest decline in the number of residents under the age of 18.

Some thoughts about this data:

1. All of these cities, except two (one in FL, one in CA), are in the Rust Belt. Many of these cities are not surprises.

2. The local reactions seem to be expressions of civic pride. People in these cities can’t ignore the population loss but they are right in saying their cities are not going completely to waste. There are some good things going on in these places but broader population trends are working against them.

3. “Dying city” does not equal “dead city.” Dying doesn’t mean that everybody is leaving, just that these cities lead the country in percentage population loss. A real “dead city” would have no population left. These cities are from that point.

4. Perhaps what angers locals most is that articles like these can further negative stereotypes. These places already suffer from perception problems and lists like this do not help. For example, it is any surprise that Detroit continues to lose population after years of commentators saying how bad of shape Detroit is in? People probably leave places like Detroit for reasons more important than punditry (reasons like jobs, opportunities, etc.) but it could play some role.