City Disrupters

154 years ago, Charles Dickens, in A Tale of Two Cities, wrote in part:

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,
It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness,
It was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity,
It was the season of light, it was the season of darkness,
It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair."

Those words could just as easily have been written today about the critical crossroads America stands at today.

Today, there is a tale of two futures.

One of foolishness and darkness; the other of wisdom, light, and hope.
One of top down dysfunction; the other of bottom up change.
One of self-important status quo; the other of creative reinvention and disruption.

First, the foolishness, darkness, top-down dysfunction, and self-important status quo.

Not long ago I moderated a panel at the Clinton Global Initiative, and the President of Iceland, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson said something that really struck a nerve with me.He observed, “the problem with you Americans is that you spend too much time waiting for Washington.” 

As recently as 2010 when I ran for the U.S. Senate, I thought that Washington D.C. was the best place to bring about change. But President Grimsson was right. I was wrong. Washington is not the place to change the world today. Today, if you’re not angry about what’s going on in Washington, D.C., you’re not paying attention. Our federal government has never been more dysfunctional. Too many of our federal elected leaders have driven themselves into politically partisan  corners and are trapped in their own rigid ideologies. Ideological purity has trumped common sense and compromise. Our federal government is going from one self-inflicted manufactured crisis to another, with no end in sight. Every day, Washington proves the old adage that the difference between genius and stupidity is that genius has its limits. As one Mayor told me, “we don’t have the luxury of doing nothing, and neither should they.”

In my position with CEOs for Cities, I have the rare opportunity to travel to a different city almost every week. And what I’m seeing is lots of wisdom, light and hope in our own backyards. The change in the world is coming not from the top down, but from the bottom up. It is what is called “change by us.” It’s happening in our cities where rubber meets the road and risk meets results. Cities are the new ground game. Tip O’Neil famously said, “All politics is local.” I’ve come to believe that “All change is local.”

I find it particularly ironic that at a time when our federal lawmakers talk about the need for jobs, so few seem to understand that cities and regions have become the true engines of economic growth.  
As Tom Friedman has noted, cities are “the job factories of the future.” And as Jim Clifton, the Chairman of Gallup and author of The Coming Jobs War has observed, “fixing America’s  biggest problems and re-winning the world can only be accomplished one city at a time.”

The hope and wisdom that I’m seeing is not just in the brain hub cities you would expect like New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Austin, San Jose, Portland, Seattle and Boston.
I’m also seeing it in Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Memphis, Detroit, Grand Rapids, Des Moines, St. Louis, Kansas City, San Antonio, Pittsburgh, Miami, Greensboro, Richmond, Columbus, Cincinnati, and Cleveland.

Most of all, I’m seeing the hope, wisdom, and light in a diverse new mobile generation, often called the “ young and the restless”(ages 25-34). They are moving twice as fast as all other age groups into close-in urban neighborhoods. The number of college-educated young and the restless has increased two to three times faster in cities than in the overall surrounding regions.

In my home town of Cleveland, for example, we are seeing that exciting trend in many neighborhoods such as Tremont, Ohio City, University Circle, Kamms Corner, Edgewater, Old Brooklyn, and Detroit Shoreway.
Among these young and restless are a growing group of remarkable new leaders who are reinventing cities and disrupting the status quo. They are city disrupters.

They lean into the city and grab it. They don’t wait for permission and they refuse to sit at the kids’ table until another generation gets off the stage. They’re not angry; but they are impatient. Most of all, they see possibility where others see barriers and roadblocks.

Everywhere I go, I’m discovering these city disrupters and changemakers hidden in plain sight.

Jack Storey and Gina Prodan are two of many city disrupters throughout Cleveland who are not waiting for Washington, or anyone else. They are leading from the bottom up.

Jack played guitar and sang in a Cleveland band called “Reasons for Leaving.”  Unfortunately, that’s exactly what every member of the band eventually did. They left Cleveland. Jack left in 2000 and for the next 10 years, lived in St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Orlando. But he always wondered whether he should return home and give his hometown another chance. So he did. Jack returned home and bought the house his great grandfather first purchased in North Collinwood in 1936 for $8,000 cash. He got together with some Afghan War veterans and decided to start a new organization called “Saving Cities.”  They raised $20,000 to make a film about so-called “rust belt” cities and the film had its debut this week at the Cleveland Film Festival.

Gina grew up on the near east side of Cleveland and moved around for years, her sights set on a sparkly life in New York. One day, as she was ready to wrap up her Cleveland life for good and store it in a memory box, she heard a NPR radio story on brain drain in Northeast Ohio. It made her stop and think. She turned her car and her life around and came back home to Cleveland. Gina has made it her daily mission to help people make the most of Cleveland every day. She helps people understand how to navigate the city, to get out of their boring everydays and get into new places. 

There are city disrupters everywhere.  Eric Wobser, who’s leading the renaissance of Ohio City ; Cleveland Councilman Matt Zone (my brother-in-law) who’s leading the renaissance of Detroit Shoreway, the neighborhood where the Zone family grew up in ;Jennifer Coleman, who founded City Prowl, an audio walking tour of Cleveland neighborhoods that can be used according to your own schedule and lifestyle; Dan Brown, who started a community garden on a vacant parcel of land in the St. Clair Superior Neighborhood; Rachel Downey, who is fast becoming a nationally known expert in placemaking, wayfinding, and branding that invigorates public spaces; Graham Veysey, who bought the Ohio City Firehouse and renovated it as a business incubator, coffee shop, florist, and his own company; Hallie Bram and Eric Kogelschatz , the founders of TEDx Cleveland. This year, they sold out all 685 seats in 24 minutes.; and Andrew Samtoy, the founder of Cash Mobs, a creative crowdsourcing platform to encourage people to go into small, local businesses and spend their money, en masse, to give the business owner a little bit of economic stimulus.

Civic engagement is critical for a city’s success, but the stories that I’m discovering in cities throughout the country are much more than that. These are stories of a new generation,  reinventing and disrupting what it means not only to engage, but to lead.

I’ve never been more pessimistic about the ability to make change from the top down, but I’ve never been more optimistic about the power to make change from the bottom up.

On the ground. In our cities. Led by city disrupters.

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