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October 20, 2003

What Makes a City Cool?

By Byron LaMasters

The Austin American Statesman had an interesting editorial today about what makes Austin cool:

Austin was considered one of the cooler cities in the country before cities were graded on cool. It had Willie, Hippie Hollow, Barton Springs Pool, the Broken Spoke and the Armadillo World Headquarters when no one much knew about them.

The technology boom in the 1990s gave Austin and its cool factor an international profile. Austin was gaining in reputation even as some of the institutions that made the town a center for hipness were declining and dying. But some still hang on, and other people and places have arisen as new Austin icons.


Cool cities did not become cool overnight, so creating them from scratch will be a challenge. Cool cities did not become the way they are because some person or group said they were going to make the place hip. They became that way because they had a critical mass of young people, a hot local scene and an economy to make them work.

But most of all, they were authentic. And that you can't get from a task force, think tank or formula.

The editorial was in response to the "cool cities" initiative pushed by Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

Gov. Jennifer Granholm is pushing a "Cool Cities" initiative to make people want to live, work and shop in Michigan's cities.

"Cool cities mean hot jobs," Michigan's 43-year-old freshman governor said at the Digital Detroit conference on Wednesday.

She launched the project last month, after a Census Bureau report that listed metropolitan Detroit as first in the nation in the flight of young adults between 2000 and 2002.

The report said 33,371 people ages 25-34 -- one of every 20 in that group -- moved away in those two years.

"When young people leave Michigan, they take their talent, entrepreneurial spirit and job skills with them," Granholm said. "How is it that we can make a magnet for that kind of work force?"

The answer, Granholm said, is creating cool cities around the state.

Cool cities are places where people with talent and imagination can find work, along with rich cultural, social and recreational opportunities -- ingredients for a quality lifestyle, the governor said.

In other words, places like Austin, Texas.

The Statesman editorials says that the plan won't work, because "cool cities" are authentic, not planned:

Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm has launched a "Cool Cities" initiative to bring a little of Austin to the Wolverine state, according to The Associated Press. She's pushing the idea because the Detroit area leads the country in the number of young adults leaving the state.

Granholm said she wants to make Detroit a place that will attract and keep young people and their "talent, entrepreneurial spirit and job skills." And she wants to create cool cities throughout the state, where talented and imaginative young adults can work and play.

The first thing an Austinite might remind the Michigan governor is that Austin is a cool city, not a cold one. A Michigan winter is not conducive to long bicycle rides through the hills, outdoor barbecues and canoe excursions on a local river or lake.

A second reminder would be that Austin didn't set out to create a hip city; it simply allowed it. Trying too hard to be hip can easily backfire, because the first test of a cool city is its authenticity. A Six Flags-Disney-Seaworld version of Austin, San Francisco or Boston simply won't fly.

Michigan can build a Broken Spoke or a Continental Club, but they can only become local institutions after decades of showing people a good time. Michigan can court Starbucks, but it will never have the soul of a Little City or a Jo's. Michigan can create an inner-city hiking trail or a bicycle route, but walking and biking aren't the same on ice.

Well. Some of the criticism here is a little unfair. While many Texans, Floridians and others would object, it is possible to have a "cool city" where there's ice. Take New York, Boston or Chicago for example (or even Madison, Wisconsin, which is often compared to Austin), but the authenticity arguement is on the mark. "Cool cities" don't just pop up. It takes decades to make a place where people want to call home. Then again, a lot of making a place "cool" is rebuilding that authenticity. And that's what Detroit is trying to do:

"Places also are valued for authenticity and uniqueness," Florida said.

For Detroit boosters, that means fostering and publicizing its musical creativity, from the Motown sound of the 1960s to its place as the techno music capital today, officials say.

And it means encouraging entertainment magnets such as suburban Royal Oak and Ferndale and similar urban districts developing near the Wayne State University campus, they say.

In recent years, Ferndale's Nine Mile Road strip shopping district has sprouted with coffee houses, clubs and music stores.

Typical is Xhedos Cafe, with its outdoor seating and an indoor stage that features a nightly open mike for poets, singers and guitarists.

"It's nice to work here," said staffer Kevin Peyok, 30, of Detroit. After work, he frequents the area's restaurants, clubs and music stores.

"I think it's a pretty cool place," he said.

I think they're pretty much on the mark. No, Detroit will never have people biking to work in the winter, but Austin will never have people taking out their cross-country skis to get to work, so you take what you've got. I'll give Granholm credit. She's done more than just look at jobs. What good are jobs if no one wants them? What good is a job if people don't want to move to your city or state? Will Detroit ever be as cool as Austin? Hell, no, but if Granholm can make enough young people willing to stay there or come there, she's done a great service for the future of her state.

Posted by Byron LaMasters at October 20, 2003 11:43 PM | TrackBack


Detroit (including Ann Arbor) birthed Motown, the MC5, the Stooges and the White Stripes. That's pretty cool. (Let's leave Bob Seger, Eminem and Kid Rock be for now.)

Posted by: omit at October 21, 2003 12:12 PM

? and the Mysterions were also from around there, weren't they? COol in their own flash in the pan way. Cool that they were latinos in a place not known for it, even today (as far as I know).

Posted by: ERic at October 21, 2003 12:25 PM
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