Monday, December 13, 2010

Think Tank: Rebuilding Communities

Most people think of Detroit as the first failed major American city, but if anywhere has a chance of totally reinventing what an urban community looks like, it is this very same place.

This past Sunday and Monday, the Jewish Federations of North America convened a conference entitled "Rebuilding Jewish Communities by Attracting and Retaining Young adults.

St. Louis was an obvious candidate to participate in this conversation. The population of the city itself had been in decline for a long time, with businesses packing up shop, airlines dropping routes, and natives young adults often not returning after college.

The conference sought to present case studies of the efforts being made in several cities across North America including Montreal, Cleveland, Columbus, Pittsburgh and STL. In addition to leaders in the young adult movements of these cities were representatives from the Schusterman Family mega-Foundation, PresenTense, Moishe House, and Jewish Federations of North America (with yours truly representing Moishe House, Next Dor STL, and JFED STL's Concierge model).

Every city is a bit different, but what united those in attendance is that they are, by and large, losing young adults to more major markets. Overwhelmingly, this population flight has been from smaller communities to larger ones, from the Midwest outward to the coasts. Richard Florida even wrote a book or two about this.

The conference showed that people are indeed troubled by this trend, and that these boom towns of the 18-1900's want to have ensure they have futures well into the 2000's.

While the conference started out with some excellent information about young adults as a demographic and the overall urban renewal strategies needed to revitalize neighborhoods and cities, the majority of the conversations focused on Jewish young adult engagement.

Some of the recurring themes included creating social venture capital, investing in Jewish young adult ideas and supporting the resulting ventures, shifting the culture from focusing on young adult philanthropic giving immediate towards building identity and community first, and then letting the value of both naturally lead into support. Many of the presenters spoke about helping connect people to the city, beyond merely the Jewish community, so that people feel a part of the city life and can see the location as a long term destination.

Speakers pointed to the fact that we live in an era of 'Jewish by choice' as well as increasingly fragmented identity, which is more fluid than previous generations. This led to the point that Judaism and Jewish community is no longer motivated by paranoia and fear, but must rather be championed by values, joy, and service.

One of the interesting points that came up in the course of the discussion is that young adults, Jewish or otherwise want to be where there is a perception of opportunity; opportunity for creating a social life, a professional life, and a romantic life. If young adults abandon smaller cities and don't return, the cities will fail under the weight of a decreased tax base and lowered density. If the cities fail, the Jewish communities will fail. It is therefore essential that any community development/engagement strategy understand that it fits into the broader goal of urban revitalization.

If you are from St. Louis and find yourself elsewhere, why did you leave? What would bring you back? And if are already here, what do you need to keep you here and excited to be here?

No comments: