Over the past year, at an ever-increasing rate, a number of interesting conversations have been taking place about Jewish Community, Jewish communities, and urban renewal.
I have had the opportunity to speak on a number of these topics, from the Birthright Next Conference in New Orleans, Synagogue 3000's Next Dor conversation in New York, and the recent conference on Rebuilding Jewish Communities in Detroit.
It certainly seems as though these conversations are coming to a head.
Recently, the Editor of David's Voice (my brother), wrote an interesting article about the role and responsibilities of the Jewish community in Cincinnati to the city itself, its history, legacy, and future. He writes:
And now the challenge is upon us again. I feel like it is our responsibility, as Jewish Cincinnatians, to help our city at large and help save another part of what gives our city its definition, the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. In short, we can’t let the past slip away. I implore you to learn more about the history there, to take one of the brewery tours (which are fantastic - http://www.otrbrewerydistrict.org/) or even just take a stroll down one of its enchanting streets. I think you will begin to see why what we have there is worth saving.
In many of the conversations I have been a part of, this idea has constantly resurfaced; Jews have often played a large role in the development of the cities in which they find themselves, but what about the redevelopment?
As young adults today, we have more mobility than ever, that when coupled with the allure of bigger cities, is often irresistible. And why not? Bigger cities mean more jobs, more culture, a larger dating pool, and a sense of adventure.
How can cities like Cincinnati, Detroit, and St. Louis stand up to all that New York, Chicago, and San Francisco have to offer?
The first way, as the David's Voice piece alludes to, is the there actually are quite a few interesting things already happening in our cities, but we are often so out of the loop that we have no idea. I spoke with a girl from St. Louis who is currently studying in Texas yesterday. She group us where most of the Jews did, hearing the same tired refrain that the city was dangerous, and as a result, never learned much about it. I started telling her about some of the neighborhoods and haunts I like and she responded with a bit of bewilderment. She hadn't even considered St. Louis as an option, because she knew nothing about it.
The second area in which smaller cities can compete is by emphasizing the functional gaps that do exist and presenting them as opportunities for willing entrepreneurs. I spoke with a friend yesterday who received a prestigious fellowship that will set him up for success in a new educational venture he hopes to launch. If he can be properly connect to venture capital, mentors, and human capital in St. Louis, he might be willing to start the company locally. We need to look to Washington University, among others, as a resource to connect him with young programming and leadership talent. Not only will this help him access the talent pool he needs, but it will also keep that talent in the area.
But the responsibility doesn't just rest on the secular leadership of the city. Jewish communities must take leadership roles by creating and contributing to:
1. venture capital available for young entrepreneurs
2. job placement services for both graduating students and local young professionals
3. local internship opportunities to give students a chance to see St. Louis beyond the ivory tower
4. the preservation of the unique historical character of St. Louis
5. encouragement of urban resettlement of community members
Entrepreneurs go where the opportunities are, and in a world of web-based products, the opportunity is often ease of access to capital. St. Louis, for example, ranks 3rd in dollars in trust funds. These funds do very little for the local economy because they aren't put into action. Combined with a conservative investment climate, and most harmful, a fear of failure, people are simply less likely to take chances. By putting up dollars, and creating a culture of supporting innovation and learning from failure, St. Louis can and will draw more entrepreneurs, who will create jobs.
The economic recession has created an very interesting phenomenon in which post-college children are moving back into their parents' houses. This influx of young adults, who might otherwise be elsewhere, should be seen as an immense opportunity. It is imperative that we make every effort to provide this group with productive employment opportunities while we have access to them. Additionally, it is important that we connect with university students in St. Louis in order to provide them employment opportunities post-graduation. St. Louis has already attracted top-tier talent to the city as students, but it has not retained them. Many St. Louis employers actively avoid transplant students for fear they won't stay. This must change.
Piggy-backing on this, we must create internships that will provide students with positive and appealing opportunities to spend a summer in St. Louis and get to know the city while gaining valuable experience. In a conversation hosted by a Wash U dean with alumni who had stayed in town, the one commonality was that all of us had spent a summer during college in St. Louis. That summer showed me an entirely different side of St. Louis that was exciting and enticing.
Beyond interchangeable jobs and internships, there is a character of the city which should be celebrated and preserved. The urban neighborhoods of red brick are unique and high quality (so much so that abandoned buildings are often stripped of this brick). Now, we shouldn't go overboard, requiring materials so expensive that they all but prohibit developers from rehabbing the property, but neighborhoods with character are attractive, particularly to younger buyers and should be protected.
Finally, and perhaps most controversially, is advocating on behalf of urban resettlement. Sure, the suburbs seem safer, have better public schools, and are 'great places to raise kids', but they are also unsustainable in their density and fragmentation, and tend to suck resources from their urban core. If this urban core collapses, so too will the suburbs, as we have so vividly witnessed in Detroit.
You see, quite simply, if the cities in which our communities reside collapse, our communities will surely follow. Rebuilding our cities will require the coordination and resources found in the Jewish institutions, combined with the ideas, resourcefulness and brazen idealism of our young adults.