Sunday, August 18th, 2013

Building Civic Self-Esteem

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.

OurPVD

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.

Post-Script

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.

7 Comments
Topics: Civic Branding
Cities: Providence, Rockford (Illinois)

7 Responses to “Building Civic Self-Esteem”

  1. Rod Stevens says:

    It’s hard to tell others what you make and sell the world if you don’t have strong self-awareness of this. The easiest way to do this may be with these specific stories, biographies and company profiles long on facts that instill a “really?” factor? But the stories have to be at the level of impressing an outsider, as if they were to say, “that’s really different and special”. Otherwise they become more of the “donut shop opens down the street” news.

  2. I love this topic and the perspective put forth in this post. Therefore I’d like to share another example!

    Newark, NJ was recently named the most unfriendly city in the entire world by Conde Nast traveler- talk about a hit to our civic pride. I live in the city and work in economic development in the city and couldn’t believe the ranking. Neither could my friend who had been born and grown-up in Newark. We got together to start this blog: themostunfriendlycityintheworld.tumblr.com to harness the city’s greatest asset, its people, to rebut this silly ranking!

    So far nearly 1,200 people have visited the site and seen a more personal, individual level of Newark. We tried to put faces to a place often painted with a broad, often very negative brush. This initiative took ZERO money (ok, like $2) because we used our own cameras & printed signs at a local computer cafe. I’d like to encourage other cities that have faced such rankings or perception issues to harness what they have already- their amazing people and free resources like social media to make a change.

  3. Emily, thanks for sharing. Took a quick look and I love it!

  4. Josh says:

    Too much pride and you’re a city full of boosters. Too little pride and you’re a city full of self-loathers. I guess its kind of difficult to tell where the line is drawn, even with some of the previous articles on this topic…

  5. Matthew Hall says:

    I agree Josh. There is such a thing as too little social capital as well as too much social capital. Think Phoenix versus Boston. Orlando versus Cincinnati.

  6. Robert Munson says:

    Aaron–
    As often happens from your efforts, this piece was telling.
    I was drawn into by the section on Rockford which is, by most standards, a town struggling in its first stages of rebound.
    National media recently beat-up on Rockford and — like Newark from an earlier comment — the media “verdict” was not a death sentence because the city’s heart is still full. Much of the success of Newark’s Mayor Booker and Rockford’s Mayor Morrissey is because they are able to tap into the fullness of their citizens’ heart.
    Mayors help, but they don’t succeed unless they tap this key ingredient.

  7. Robert Munson says:

    While your post is about self-esteem largely built by daily entrepreneurship and crafts, it is useful to bring this micro-ingredient into synergy with the macro-picture of urban revitalization. I just read and recommend the 8/17 issue of The Economist. Offering a quasi-formula for revitalization criteria, this “Free Exchange” column entitled “Down towns” has a good summary of macro- contributing factors such as a diverse workforce and research universities. For cities disadvantaged without enough of that criteria (such as Rockford or Newark), your post on Micro- self-esteem, it seems to me, helps those cities rebuild their advantages that first put them on the map.

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