Sunday, August 18th, 2013
Among post-industrial cities in America, one of the things I observe is a sort of malaise in the civic character. Many of these places have been beaten down so hard for so long that a sort of defeatist attitude has set in. This can include bitterness about what was lost, a self-loathing mindset, and cynicism and negativity about any proposed efforts to improve things.
Our Backyard Rhode Island
This negativity has inspired efforts in some places to first change local perceptions about their community before trying to market to the world. One such initiative was recently unveiled by the Rhode Island Foundation and is called “It’s All in Our Backyard.” This effort grew out of a civic brainstorming event from last fall called “Make It Happen Rhode Island.” While the name makes it sound like an internally focused tourism campaign, the idea to sell residents on the positive side of their community in order to provide an uplift to the civic spirit.
I was apprehensive about this when I heard about it, as most place-based marketing campaigns out of officialdom anywhere are dreadful, tending towards the generic and the earnest, and are often actually counter-productive. So I was glad to see that It’s All In Our Backyard is actually pretty good.
Here’s an example of one of the videos, which is a company feature of textile business Hope Global, based in Cumberland (if the video doesn’t display for you click here):
This example works on a variety of levels. It’s a historic business in the textile manufacturing business that has been core to the state’s economic identity. There are nice shots of a historic building and a WPA-style mural along with modern machinery, a female CEO, and discussions of globalization that show a piece of authentic Rhode Island’s character successfully repositioned for the 21st century.
I might have suggested some tweaks. It’s not exactly clear what this company actually does, though the one example was given pretty compelling. (Hope Global is adding workers while exporting shoe laces to China for premium branded products in what appears to be an example of re-shoring). But my lack of familiarity with the company doesn’t diminish the quality of the piece, which comes across as solid and convincing in contrast with so many place marketing videos that can easily be picked apart like a bad action movie plot.
At the more grass roots level, Andy Cutler and some associates have been trying to put out a positive word as well, but aimed at external as well as internal audiences. He laid out a vision in an op-ed piece on GoLocalProv. He also convened a small gathering of folks to brainstorm what’s great about Providence. This resulted in two online efforts branded “OurPVD.” One is a Twitter account @OurPVD (and #OurPVD), which is designed to get out the word on cool things in Providence. Similarly, there’s a Pinterest page that is pretty good. Cutler is also trying out a bit of “citizen diplomacy” with an effort called “Smaller Cities Unite!” that led to a trip to Copenhagen and at least one mention of Providence in Copenhagenize, arguably the world’s most influential urban bicycling blog.
Rockford, Illinois: Our City, Our Story
An interesting initiative out of Rockford, IL called “Our City Our Story” is another example. This one is a sort of intermediate level initiative between the two Rhode Island ones. Filmmaker Pablo Korona was tired of Rockford taking a beating, such as in a major New York Times feature called “Portraits From a Job-Starved City.” He launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund a video community storytelling project to give a different perspective on the city. While still an outsider effort that local officialdom seems not yet to have fully embraced, in a sense it has “gone legit” and gained quite a bit of traction as well as national press. (See, for example “How a Branding Vigilante Is Saving His Town With a Rogue Website” in Fast Company).
There are 16 videos so far, each featuring some interesting character from Rockford. These range from a tailor who in a previous life was a singer, songwriter and owner of a record label that took a pass on signing the Jackson 5 to a kid jailed for tagging become a legitimate street artists lauded by the very mayor who bragged of having him arrested.
Here’s one that is similar to the Hope Global story above. Called “Our Curiosity”, it’s a look at a local machine shop that cut all the gears on the Mars rover Curiosity. (If the video doesn’t display for you, click here):
Again here the “our” motif reveals the inward focus of the piece.
Thanks for Carl Wohlt for pointing me at this.
When a new CEO takes over a company that has struggled, one of the things he has to do is rebuild corporate morale. These various efforts show examples of how local people are trying to initiate an improvement in their region’s civic morale and break the cycle of self-loathing, a very important task.
As a post-script, I’ll highlight one more Rhode Island video. The typical “What’s so great about your community?” video is terrible. Again, usually it is either generic items most communities would likewise brag about, or comes across as exaggerated. This one, which appears to be mostly sort of outtakes from the various other videos produced, shows how a small community can pull this off. This is because the producer and the people in it have some fun with the state. For example, the guy who in reference to the small size of the state says, “Well, I feel like the size one is one everybody’s going to talk about. What are other people saying?” Or the guy who says, “First of all, my wife’s from Rhode Island, and I absolutely love her.” . (If the video doesn’t display for you, click here):
When you’re small, you can’t take yourself too seriously or you’ll look like you’re trying to hard. Not being afraid to have some fun with yourself is a great way to disarm that. Not bad for what appears to be an “extra” production, though the claim of diversity is a bit of a head-scratcher.
This post originally appeared in GoLocalProv on August 12, 2013.