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Urban Social Assembly

1514 Washington Blvd.
Suite 200
Detroit, Michigan

Chad Rochkind

By Danny Fenster
June 20, 2014

A vast continent of mountains and plains lie between Detroit and San Francisco’s Dogpatch neighborhood—a small enclave of rolling hills tucked between the sprawl of Silicon Valley and the core of San Francisco’s urban center. Still, with the attenuated ear, certain echos between the two can be heard.

For a few years, in that brief stretch of time between tech bubbles at the century’s start and the close of it’s first decade, Chad Rockind lived In San Francisco. “It was a really good time to be there for artists and creatives,” Rochkind says. In Dogpatch he helped start and lived in the Treehouse Gallery, a “live-work community art space“ that hosted poetry readings, workshops and gallery shows.

“Dogpatch is sort of this post-industrial section of San Francisco,” Rochkind says. He “started to see the way in which an art presence and the processes of other creative people can change a neighborhood, for good and for ill.”   

Rochkind always kept one eye homeward. “From afar,” he says, “I saw what was happening in Detroit, and it was similar to what was happening in Dogpatch.”

It would still be some years—in New York, in London—before he’d eventually make it home to head the Urban Social Assembly, formerly known as Detroit Harmonie, but he spent those years honing keen insights from those larger cities into the context of future, more innovative Detroit. In New York, his entrance essay for a graduate degree in Historical and Sustainable Architecture focused on revitalization here, and his thesis was both a macro look at global urbanism trends and a micro look at Detroit’s urban and social innovation movement. He concludes, “Detroit can be uniquely positioned to be a leader in what I call alter-urbanism—alternative urbanism.”

After graduate school, Rochkind worked for Ari Wallach, an acclaimed thinker and technologist, at Wallach’s New York-based social innovation consultancy Synthesis Corp. Among much other important work—with the UN High Commission on Refugees, with the State Department—Synthesis Corp. gained attention with their Sarah Silverman-featured “Great Schlep” and Samuel L. Jackson-featured “Shut the F*** Up” videos, both for Obama campaign Super PACs.

European cities can offer Detroit a profound and inspiring lesson, Rochkind learned in London. “Going to Europe,” he says, “the bottom of history really drops out from under you. In America, 1776 is a really long time ago; in London, most of the buildings were built before 1776.” America, the immigrant nation—so the popular narrative goes—is comprised of people leaving home to seek their destiny here; Europeans trace their lineage within their own cities and nations for thousands of years. “What goes along with that is that cities have also been around for thousands of years,” Rochkind says, “and they’ve gone through many cycles of death and rebirth.”

Rebuilding the city from ash is a given in much of the world. “London was destroyed by fire many times,” he says. “Detroit is maybe the first big city in America to go through a kind of major fall. That doesn’t mean that that is the end of the story. It’s the beginning of a new story.”

Rochkind found his work fulfilling, but something was missing—“It wasn’t in Detroit,” he says. When Detroit Harmonie (now the Urban Social Assembly) contacted him looking for an Executive Director, it was a no-brainer.

“I think I was a little green when I arrived,” Rochkind says of returning to Detroit two years ago. He had a grasp on some things, “but the reality is always completely different than what you read in the paper.” He had vision. Big ideas. He learned quick: “A lot of people have arrived in Detroit with grandiose ideas,” he says. He learned not to think he had all the answers. He began by meeting as many people as possible, he says, to “understand who is doing what, what is gaining traction, where the needs were, where I could play a role.”

That role is taking shape. Detroit is shorter than most cities on the sort of public spaces—walkable neighborhoods, subway cars—that foster key interactions and community cohesion, he says. “There’s a lack of serendipity in Detroit.” He worked as part of a team on a report called Detroit and the Innovative City, which culled from disparate disciplines like business and psychology a detailed and placed-based view of the process of innovation, and how Detroit can foster this process.

People have a faulty view of innovation as an end product, rather than a process, says Rochkind. “A computer is not an innovation; the process that gets you the computer is innovation, because the computer will not be innovative a year from now.”

So the goal is defined: build the infrastructure in Detroit to foster the key interactions and creative processes that lead to innovation. An early glimpse of this came in the wake of the failure to capture the X Games. When Rochkind met Garret Koehler and Kevin Krease—the folks behind the X Games bid—they quickly realized their combined efforts could better achieve shared goals.

They started a speaker series called ASSEMBLE. As the largest and arguably most important statewide policy conference approached, the annual Mackinac Policy Conference, young people from ASSEMBLE wanted to attend Mackinac. “We went online to register and, it’s, like, 2- or $3,000 to register. I don’t have that—I don’t know anyone who has that,” he says. They tried to use collective buying power to purchase packaged and discounted tickets, but to no avail.

Rochkind was determined. “The people I know are the future of the state. So, if the future of the state is going to be talked about and determined up there but the real future of the state is not going to be there—” Rochkind cuts himself off, frustrated, and begins again: “We needed to find a way to inject ourselves in this conversation.”

In 40 days, Rochkind, Koehler and Krease organized an affordable gathering of innovative makers and doers in northern Michigan to conference in tandem with the Mackinac Policy Conference. Called ASSEMBLE@Mackinac, it was a huge success.

Policy conferences can be exactly the sort of forums for the key interactions Rochkind finds necessary, but, he laments, everyone goes home before any action occurs. “You get all these brilliant people together but you waste that opportunity.”

They created a methodology wherein seven teams compete to solve a challenge posted by one community actor. The community actor at an ASSEMPLE@Mackinac competition was Recovery Park, a nonprofit that integrates people with traditional barriers to employment into Detroit’s food economy.

Recovery Park representatives left the conference with three concrete solutions for building deeper roots in their community, Rochkind says. “Now, imagine if we did that on a massive scale and with the people who actually hold the levers of power. You’d see a lot less posturing and bickering and a lot more getting shit done.” This is the challenge of the generation now coming into adulthood, Rochkind says, because established institutions have lost the faith of the people they are supposed to serve.

To understand the grand terms in which Rochkind speaks, it is helpful to know where his thinking comes from. Rochkind is a follower of a generational theory of history called the Fourth Turning, developed in the 1990s by William Strauss and Neil Howe. History repeats a cycle of generational archetypes, the thinking goes; the social worlds that recurring generations are born into effect their experience of and reaction to existing orders.

Millennials, born in a time of great abundance and coming of age in a time of crisis, spend their professional and adult lives building the foundations for the next cycle. It is a compelling idea, and one that, criticisms notwithstanding, young people in Detroit can only benefit from adopting.

“In no other city can the next thing be built,” Rochkind says, “because other things are still in power. Here, we’re building a new infrastructure.”

It is hard not to be galvanized by the grandiosity of such a vision, and Rochkind is nothing if not inspirational when talking about Detroit. We are perhaps best left quoting his own words, at length:
"Any time I travel around the country, when I say I’m from Detroit, there’s a circle of people that forms around me that wants to know what’s going on in Detroit. To me, that’s something that we need to tap into.

‘One thing I say a lot—there’s always a city that kind of represents the cultural moment. I think Detroit is almost there. Not yet, but I think within the next few years Detroit will be kind of like what Seattle was in the 90s, what Williamsburg was in the early 2000s, what maybe Berlin is today. Not to say that Detroit is the next Berlin, because Berlin was not the next Williamsburg, which was not the next Seattle.

‘It’s just—there’s always a city that captures the zeitgeist, that captures the imagination of alternative thinking. And I think Detroit is very well positioned to be that."

All photos by Doug Coombe.


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