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Aaron Foley
Photograph: Supplied

How storytelling can save a city

Aaron Foley, chief storyteller of Detroit, has a message for you: start listening to your neighbours

By Native Advertising

Hipsters are moving in and don't understand locals' culture, traditions or neighbourhoods. Die-hard locals are resistant to change, entrepreneurship, business and progress.

Sound familiar? It's happening in cities all over the world, but nowhere is this more apparent than in Aaron Foley's hometown of Detroit. 

"One of the bigger issues going on in Detroit right now is this sort of divide between old Detroit and new Detroit," Foley said in a 2015 TEDx Talk. "[New Detroit] has been used as an insult to a lot of the people moving here, that a lot of ‘new Detroit’ people don’t really leave downtown or midtown, they are only concerned with restaurants and bikes and startups and pop-ups and things like this, a lot of these things that may or may not have been in Detroit for the last 100 years or so.

"When people say old Detroit, they talk about the poverty, the crime, the blight, everything that’s not midtown and downtown. That’s also used as an insult."

He says the way for these two diametrically opposed worldviews to connect is for people to start listening to each other and hearing each other's stories. 

"We’ve got to start listening to people outside downtown and midtown. When we look at other cities, like Portland and Austin and especially Brooklyn, people have moved into these cities and then they start dictating to the older residents about what they think they need… We have to start treating them like our neighbours.“

Foley is particularly well positioned to do some of that listening, as he is now inaugural chief storyteller of Detroit. The former journalist was appointed to the role by Detroit mayor Mike Duggan in 2017 and now runs The Neighborhoods, which is dedicated to telling the stories of Detroiters who might otherwise be ignored by the media. He also executive produces video for a local TV station with the same remit.

"A lot of the natives were wondering, ‘hey, when do we get to see stories about ourselves?’ That’s where we’re trying to fill in the gaps," Foley told The Guardian  

The website and TV channel tell the stories of everyday Detroiters doing everyday things – adopting a dog, practising dentistry, playing lacrosse. It's designed to showcase the positive sides of the city and combat the narrative of poverty and crime that dogs Detroit. 

He says redundancies in journalism in part made the position of chief storyteller necessary. "The journalism industry has lost a lot of bodies, and when you lose a lot of bodies, you lose a lot of coverage of these neighbourhoods," he told Bloomberg Cities. There used to be a community weekly that was an insert in the daily paper. And now the daily paper is so thin — it’s a lot of wire stuff, a lot of sports stuff. It’s never a knock on the journalists who are working in those newsrooms, because they do good work. There’s just fewer of them.

"We’re not trying to overtake or supplant local media. But we do see an opportunity where we can support coverage of Detroit. We already had public-access cable channels, so we already had people doing this to some degree. Now we’re just taking it to another level."

Foley will talk about how storytelling shapes cities and why it's important for civic life at the Creative State Summit, June 14-15 


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