The Long Hard Slog of Community Revitalization (and how media fails us): A close observer’s perspective on the Downtown Project, Las Vegas

If it were easy, you would have done it already.

—Me, to a couple thousand community leaders nationwide over the last whole lot of years.

I often tell the groups I work with that I think I ended up in the community revitalization business because I wanted to take on the most complex and meaningful challenge I could get my hands on. For a Rust Belt kid who came up in a world of economic fallout and deep, painful community-wide losses, the kinds of issues I chose to take on aren’t surprising. And over the last couple of decades I’ve coached hundreds of communities, community leaders, volunteers and, yes, naysayers, through the tangled mess of figuring out how to make their communities better.

It’s grueling work. Not for me –I get to go home at the end of the meeting, after all – but for the people who fight hard, over and over and over, to make that Big Difference. They get abused, they get bloodied, they make mistakes and the fall on their faces – only to get up again and wade into the battle one again.

But few have had to do that recently while sitting under the klieg light that’s been shining on the Downtown Project in Las Vegas.

I’ve written about the Downtown Project before, and that writing has come out of a somewhat selfish objective:

I see something going on with the Downtown Project that is significantly different from the way we old-line downtown revitalization folks have been doing things for the last 30 years. And…what they’re doing is complex. It’s got more moving pieces than a mechanical watch, and sometimes it looks like chaos in action. It’s following a significantly different way to get to the usual downtown revitalization objectives than I’ve seen before.

In my writing and speaking I’ve said more than once that I think the Downtown Project represents an important, emerging paradigm shift, the bleeding edge of a potentially transformative new approach to the wicked problems that face downtowns and urban communities nationwide. And after a lot of years of getting increasingly frustrated over our well-intentioned but somehow often inadequate strategies for helping communities do what I want to help them to do, I’m on the hunt for new ideas.

So I’ve spent as much time as I can in Downtown Las Vegas, with DTLV people, following DTLV events from a distance, and trying to untangle in my own head how what the people in Downtown Las Vegas are doing is similar to and different from what I see everywhere else. I’m going back next week in part for that same reason. I’ve written about a few pieces of that puzzle here, here and here, and I’ve got other elements in outline form that I haven’t had time to fully work out yet.

Caveat #1: I’m not a member or a consultant to the Downtown Project. I’m no more than a persistent lurker.

So I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the last couple of days following the news (and quasi-news) about a supposed or apparent turmoil within DTLV. Some versions sound like total misread (it’s hard to resign as a CEO if you were never the CEO to begin with), some versions sound like incredibly painful internal struggles (phrased differently, but eerily similar to what I’ve seen in other communities) and, perhaps most disturbingly, some versions sound like they are drawing from some older, more deep-seated aggravation. Sometimes a new irritation opens an old festering sore.

And a lot of the published versions seem to revolve around one person.

Caveat: #2: I’ve never met Tony Hsieh. I think I rode an elevator with him once. I might have said hello. So much for that.

But as I read the materials flying around today – professional media and personal bloggers, dispassionate, bitter or clearly aching, well written or a sloppy mishmash of other peoples’ information, as well as the Downtown Project’s attempt to put its own version out there – I’m realizing anew how little most people understand about the brutally hard work of revitalizing communities.

After all those years of crawling through the trenches with folks who are trying to reach fundamentally the same objectives that the Downtown Project set out to address, it’s a bit of a shock to remember how little of that process most people understand.

I’m usually reluctant to throw in on specific community issues, but in this case I don’t think there’s anyone else who can provide this point of view. I have meant to write a more comprehensive analysis of how the Downtown Project works for the benefit of my readers nationwide, who I’ve sometimes identified as the People Who Give a Damn. This isn’t the way I planned to do it, but so be it.

Caveat #3: No one has perfect insight. Including people who work to make communities better. Including me. Sometimes we have no choice but to do the best we can.

Points for your consideration:

1) Revitalizing a community, especially an urban, disinvested community, is an unbelievably long-haul process.

Come with me, and I’ll take you to hundreds of cities and villages that have been working on their downtown or neighborhood for decades. As in, 20, 30, 40 years.

Why so long?

Sometimes it’s because the organization doesn’t work well. Sometimes it’s because they didn’t have the money or the people to do it right.

But in most cases, it’s because no one started trying to make it better until 30, 40, 50 years after the place started going downhill.

Enabling a real revitalization of a community is a process of crawling, excruciatingly, from handhold to handhold, up a sheer rock wall out of a very deep abyss. In the Main Street downtown revitalization world, where I first cut my teeth as a professional and still work a lot, we use a common refrain:

“Your town didn’t get this way overnight, and you won’t get out overnight either.”

For most downtown or neighborhood revitalization programs, two or three years flow under the bridge before the general public starts to see a difference. Those first years are spent doing crucial, and grindingly un-exciting, work:

Understanding the community. Learning how to work with the local government. Developing plans, whether formal or not. Finding the right people to fill needed roles. And this is the most important task of those early years: building deep, trustful, working relationships with others in the community.

When you look at a downtown revitalization initiative that does anything beyond window-dressing, you will see a core of community relationships that cross boundaries and interests groups and types of work, and you will see a level of trust, of confidence in their ability to work together.

More money can make the physical clean-up go faster, it can allow an organization to grab the obvious low-hanging fruit more quickly, but it can do very little to speed up that relationship-building process.

I can say as authoritatively as I can say anything: the organizations that don’t build these relationships, that don’t put the time and the effort into building deep and trusting relationships, don’t last and don’t generate anything except for some brief flashy fun, pretty pavers, a few temporarily filled cleaned-up storefronts.

I first saw Downtown Las Vegas long before the Downtown Project started. This was a tough place. Disinvested. Few community-supporting businesses. Few jobs. Lots of deterioration. It looked as bad as the beat-up neighborhoods I knew so well from back home in the Rust Belt. And that was in the Vegas Economy Glory Days of the mid-2000s.

Whatever led to the downtown area’s decline, it started before Tony Hseih was born.

The Downtown Project has been active for just over two years. The much-ballyhoo’d Container Park has been open less than a year. The majority of the businesses and places and organizations associated with the Downtown Project have been in operation for less than 8 months.

When I did a tour of the Downtown Project in July, I found that most of that “tour” happened in Tony Hseih’s apartment (more than that in a minute). When I asked why, the answer both surprised me and reminded me of how young this organization is:

Until about four months before that day, most of the things that they would have put on such a tour in most cities… only existed as conceptual drawings. Until very shortly before I arrived, a real tour would have taken you mostly to dusty vacant lots with some construction equipment. On the usual hot Vegas day, not such an appealing prospect.

In an article in GigaOm that surprised me in its claws-out fury (given that the very clearly opinionated article was nowhere identified as an editorial.) the author accused the Downtown Project of not doing enough to address the very significant social and cultural problems facing Downtown Las Vegas and Las Vegas in general. From the very poor quality of the public school district to the lack of living wage jobs in the downtown area, the author accused Downtown Las Vegas of self-absorption, of not attempting to solve the biggest issues facing the city.

Advice to entrepreneurs and tech start-ups, including much of what is published on sites like GigaOm, admonish them to keep a laser-like focus on their core products. Don’t add a line of code that isn’t necessary, they insist. Don’t add a feature that you don’t have to. Focus on your core business and ignore all other distractions. Stay lean, lean, tight, tight. You can take a dozen expensive seminars on doing a lean start-up.

And yet the Downtown Project, a start-up itself, is supposed to become the Wal-Mart of urban solutions.

There is no downtown revitalization effort of any size, in any size city, that has thrown itself into providing full-blow solutions to the deepest problems facing their community. At least not within its first decade. Most never do at all.

I have a reputation among economic development professionals for getting on their case about being too comfortable in their silos – too glad to say “not my problem” when it comes to the needs of the poor, of failing school districts, of the human impacts of massive, generations-long disinvestment.

But if you think that a downtown revitalization organization can single-handedly undo all these damages in less time than a car lease, I can only assume that you have never actually worked in a real disadvantaged urban place, with real disadvantaged urban people before. Money isn’t the biggest issue. Deep, trustful partner relationships are.

From following the stream of events and information, it looks to me that the Downtown Project has done a better job of reaching to, hosting, including, connecting with organizations that are directly tackling social issues, urban health, mental health, and so, on than the vast majority of conventional downtown revitalization programs in the U.S. And as the comments on the GigaOm article indicate, a very large number of other organizations would like you to remember that they’re making important contributions, too. When you don’t attract the hero worship or the hero hatred, it’s a little harder to get the national media to see that you exist.

Most comparable organizations nationwide insist that their job, their laser-like focus, has to be on the businesses and the real estate deals and the like. And that the tougher urban issues, like homelessness and mental health, are someone else’s problem, not ours. And so you find downtown organizations nationwide that give lip service to “inclusion” while at the same time trying to remove the poor or homeless from their commercial districts. Not our problem.

Because of that, I have found the Downtown Project’s consistent hosting and inclusion of these organizations’ events…refreshing. And healthy. Not magic, but a healthy. And that’s a healthy step from a very young organization. They have chosen not to go to the default that so many much more established, much less experimental, much more predictable organizations have done: they have acknowledged that, even though they can’t do everything all at once, they can contribute to the solutions. And as they mature, I suspect we’ll see much more.

Interestingly, both the GigaOm author and I have posted a picture that looks a lot like this:

The wall of Post-Its represents one of the first stages of the Downtown Project: the results of a meeting with the community (before the waves of tech illuminati that the author sneers at arrived – read: regular downtown residents). The Post-Its identify projects, businesses, ideas for improving the neighborhood.

A surprising number of them have been done in the two (two!) years that have elapsed.

It’s not clear to me what the GigaOm author saw in this. What I saw is one of the most honest, taking-you-seriously public engagement efforts I have encountered anywhere.

2) If you’re serious about trying to find genuinely new solutions, you still have to pay for it — and the usual channels won’t be much help. One of the protests leveled against the Downtown Project in the GigaOm article is that the project’s attempt to rethink education, through an initiative known as the 9th Bridge School, is private and has a high-priced tuition.

Let’s set aside for a moment the basic fact that this is the only downtown initiative that I can think of that has actually made an effort at trying to improve the education options for families with young children – the ones that most downtown programs say they would love to attract but, you know, we just can’t change the schools. Sorry.

If you are a city person who made the decision to raise children, you may understand what I mean.

Trying to find solutions to the mess we have made as a nation of education (and health care, subject of another Downtown Project partner), represents one of the most vexing, vicious, seemingly intractable urban problems that anyone, anywhere, is undertaking. Millions of dollars in public grant funds have been expended across the country, and although bright spots sometimes appear, the overall conclusion among hundreds of experts on urban education is that these systems, overall, are continuing to fail.

The Downtown Project earned the GigaOm author’s vitriol because the 9th Bridge School is private and expensive. Which makes me think that the author has never tried to fund an innovative search for a solution through the typical education innovation grants.

As a writer for a business publication, I would presume that the following should not be a shock to him:

When you use the usual funding tools available for “educational innovation,” you face a huge number of constraints. Rules. Limitations. The GigaOm author accused the Downtown Project of insincerity and insularity from the real problems of the city because its experiment around developing a better education program means that a small school with highly qualified teachers has to charge very high tuition rates in order to keep itself afloat.

But money to do good work does not magically appear. If you are serious about doing something, you have to find a way to pay for it. And I assure you: the usual funding streams used for public school “innovations” seldom allow you to do much beyond fiddling with the margins. A little time around people who are furiously trying to improve public education makes that apparent. Too often, the program requirements and strictures tie at least one of their hands behind their back.

If you’re truly serious about figuring out a new way to address education, and you suspect that a variation on the Usual Ways isn’t going to enable the kind of sea change that you think is needed, then you have to find a way to pay for the initial experimental work. That’s Econ 101.

3) You cannot rely on a sugar daddy forever, even if the sugar daddy assures you that he will never leave you. Of couse, the GigaOm author might argue, Tony Hsieh and his rich buddies could just give every kid in urban Las Vegas a free Third Street School education. Or free health care. Or ponies, for that matter. They’re rolling in it, right?

Gifts are fine if your objective is to make immediate solutions to immediate needs. But if you are serious about building a deep, substantive, sustainable transformation of the core issues underlying education or health, we should know by now that throwing money at it will create no more than temporary, surface change.

We have 40 years of doing exactly that, in all manner of state and national public policy, through grant programs whose total spend is almost beyond comprehension. These were well-intentioned efforts to address deep systemic urban needs, promoted and used by well-intentioned, dedicated community professionals all over the world.

And in far too many cases, the changes they paid for never reached below the surface.

Because of that, they didn’t last after the initial funding ran out. The deep benefits that those Big Programs were supposed to deliver never fully materialized because the community surrounding the project could not or did not own the work enough to grow it, to evolve it, to keep it going.

We have wasted, as a nation, exorbitant amounts on Big Gift Projects that gave a politician an easy victory, but engendered precious few deep long-term improvements.

My guess is that Tony Hsieh could give every nickel he earns for the rest of his life to downtown Las Vegas (or Cleveland, or Philadelphia, or any city), and when he ran out of money, the core problems might well remain.

We have a national legacy of communities where Big Fixes were done _to_ them, not with them. Come visit me in the Midwest, and I will take you to urban neighborhood after urban neighborhood that are grappling today with not just the problems they’ve had for decades, but with the unintended consequences of Big Projects that were done To Them.

You’ll see neighborhoods where fancy park equipment rusts, where storefronts butchered by moderization programs crumble, where businesses that relied on subsidies folded and left intractable vacancies when that support was abruptly removed.

And you’ll see communities where generations of residents have grown up with almost no experience of a functioning local economy.

When the money went away, there was no local capacity to keep the momentum going— and where what connections and self-sufficiency might have existed before had been all but killed off by the professional brush-aside and the resulting learned helplessness.

I encounter dying communities still waiting on the Big Gift every day.

Those Big Gifts were supposed to solve a whole lot of problems. Most people who work with urban communities would say that most of the time, they made the situation worse.

I can’t see where a private sector sugar daddy could avoid the same fate.

4) Organizations, whether business, downtown or community – focused, go through change. And change sucks. The lead for the stories written lately about the Downtown Project (and the apparent source of much of that cackling noise you seem to hear in the background of the stories) is that the umbrella organization laid off a whole lot of people. To David Gould, who gave a very heartfelt and articulate account of his sense of betrayal at this situation, the root cause appears to be mismanagement, or at least managerial mistakes. In the official response from the Dowtown Project, the layoffs have to do more with transitioning into a new phase of operations (following a very clearly laid out plan of action that the Downtown Project published but for some reason hasn’t been referenced in any of the media articles).

Which is true? I don’t know. Maybe neither. Maybe both.

The Downtown Project as a whole employs more people than any other downtown or community revitalization program that I know of. Most downtown programs have to make do with much less staff, but of course most aren’t directly running so many initiatives.

But here is an unavoidable fact:

Every program I have ever encountered has laid people off at some point in its existence.

Sometimes that’s because of funding, but sometimes that’s because they need to change what they’re doing. Because something that worked in the past doesn’t work anymore, because some part of the work plan has been taken over by another agency, because something changed in the local environment and something else is needed.

The difference is that when most programs have to change like that, they lay off one person, maybe two. It might make the local paper. But it’s not a big enough story for anyone else to pay attention.

Layoffs suck. I watched my own father get laid off in the early 1980s, which transformed my life. I lost my own staff to layoffs and cried myself sick in the middle of an office. I narrowly escaped layoffs more than once in my corporate career, and left to go on my own when it looked like it could happen again. Every layoff is a personal tragedy, and David Gould articulated that as well as anyone I’ve ever read.

But if you’re serious about building a meaningful, lasting change in a community, sometimes you face hard choices. Downtown organizations are no different than businesses in that regard. A double standard that says that just because you’re not a business, you never have to change, consistently leads to a soon-to-be-dead revitalization program

We’ve all been told over and over again that businesses that don’t figure out how to pivot (for cryin our loud, there’s a GigaOm word if there ever was one), then they will not succeed. And given that even the most well-intentioned sugar daddy cannot become a healthy long-term strategy, maturing downtown programs almost always face this crossroads at some time.

For every one of those organizations that I have ever encountered, laying off someone has sucked. Gould is exactly right. It sucks for the laid off staff and for those left behind.

It’s awful.

But that does not mean that sometimes it doesn’t have to happen. Especially if you intend for your program to be able to stand on its own after its start-up days are done.

One thing that other community revitalization initiatives probably can learn from the Downtown Project on this front: even in the otherwise highly transparent statement about why the layoffs were undertaken and how that fit into the long range plan, the language describing the actual layoffs sounds like it was written by an HR lawyer, full of corporate-style obfuscations. My hunch, looking on from a distance, is that this shift from transparency to HR-talk didn’t help build support and understanding. I realize that there’s no shortage of legal requirements and lawsuit fears and what all surrounding any layoff, whether corporate or organization, but a more forthright comment about “these are the kinds of positions we are changing and here’s why” might have helped.

4) Cults of personality don’t work. We have this weird desire to want stories of revitalization to revolve around some kind of a Big Hero (who sometimes turns into an anti-hero). We keep eating up these stories that imply that This One Guy made this great thing work — or single-handedly made this mess. Tony Hsieh has been cast in that role for Downtown Las Vegas. Dan Gilbert plays this role right now in Detroit. I can show you developers, mayors, gadflies in cities all over the country paying that same role.

But it’s a role. It’s almost never the actual story. But we keep slurping up the fairy tale.

The Downtown Project has sometimes, perhaps inadvertently, fed that cult of personality. Gould’s letter and the GigaOm article indicate that the cult of personality took hold in at least some corners. That tour in the apartment definitely gave that impression (I did give some advice to the Downtown Project along those lines afterward).

In my own head, I chalk that up to growing pains — you start by working with what you have to work with, and Hsieh’s apartment was probably what they had to work with at first. But that and other subtle gee-whiz references to Hsieh probably have had the unintended effect of allowing a perception of a cult of personality to take effect.

There’s no question that Downtown Project supporters have bought into Hsieh’s vision. But one of the first things I noticed as I got to know the Downtown Project was that the leadership, the activity, the ownership of the work, was actually much more diffused that the mainstream media had ever indicated (I wrote about that at length here).

Most downtown and community revitalizations programs operate in a highly top-down manner. The Board of Directors sets a policy, the staff figures out how to do it, and everyone else in the community either does what staff assigned them to do or sits back passively while the organization does its stuff. If you’re not already part of the sanctum sanctorum, your ability to get the organization’s blessing to try something new under their aegis is limited at best. Community organizations tend to be pretty work-plan-oriented, focused, closed circles, often to their detriment.

What I saw in the Downtown Project was fundamentally different. I saw people who had no committee memberships, no formal roles, no job descriptions, coming up with initiatives that they thought fit into the overall game plan…and going and doing it. Taking it at least as far as they could go on the resources and support that they could cobble together under their own power, and then coming to the umbrella organization when they reached a point where they knew that the idea had legs but they needed more help. When I wrote my earlier essay about that, I theorized that It might have to do with the holocracy theory that was floating about at that time, but another Downtown Project participant told me later that she thought this was simply the start-up approach at work in the community. Which is probably much more interesting.

Either way, it was a fundamentally different approach from what I was used to seeing in community revitalization programs – one that I thought that other community revitalization advocates nationwide could learn a great deal from.

And it was jarringly different from the Downtown Superhero comic book that I was reading in the mainstream press.

5) Meaningful revitralization efforts are more complex than you will ever learn from conventional (crappy) media coverage.

Caveat #4: My own media cred consists of a bunch of articles, mostly in professional publications, managing a couple of niche publishing platforms, and 6 weeks in the Medill School of Journalism.

In other words, not much.

But because of the work I do, I have the privilege of encountering a lot of media. And I get to read a lot of excellent, insightful reporting on pretty complex topics.

And nothing like that has shown up to date in the coverage of the Downtown Project.

GigaOm and CityLab are two publications that I go to regularly. I trust them to give intelligent, thoughtful coverage of issues relating to technology, urban development, urban livability issues. The core stuff of my professional life.

But both of these publications ran – there’s no other way around it – crap coverage of the Downtown Project story. GigaOm, as I’ve noted, ran an article that so dripped with snarky self-justification that the potentially legitimate claims in the article could not be differentiated from whatever unspoken axes the author had to grind. And CityLab, to my great dismay, ran a mash-up of other people’s regurgitations on the topic with almost no apparent questioning or critical thinking or research or independent evaluation at all.

Both these and more general media seem to want to give us nothing other than a tabloid-level story – “Oooh, The Big Guy is falling!!! Lookie Lookie!” The fact that there was a Big Name associated with the story seemed to make it OK to throw out reasonable reporting standards and go straight to as close to the gutter as you can get on this topic.

As I hope you’ve gotten a sense of by now, that version of what the Downtown Project bears about as much resemblance to the original as my stick figure drawing does to the Mona Lisa. It’s a gross disservice to readers, especially readers who might care about the related topics. It’s media laziness at its worst.

But here’s the bigger issue: publications give us this kind of coverage of complex urban revitalization projects because they don’t think that we can or want to understand the full breadth and complexity of what it actually takes to make a difference in a struggling community. As I said at the beginning, this stuff is complicated. It’s not easy. There are no magic bullets. And no one, not even Tony Hsieh, can make it happen by himself.

But it’s one of the most important challenges that we as a nation have to address in this generation. CityLab knows that better than anyone.

And it’s not a case of a couple bad editorial decisions: in city after city, from interns and from reporters who have deep history in a community and should know better, I’ve seen the same exact over-simplified, distracting, un-thoughtful, un-insightful coverage. Over and over again.

The deep, vicious, pernicious damage that this kind of coverage causes really isn’t just the black eye it might give to an organization, the hurt feelings of well-intentioned people, the mean-spirited swing at a public figure.

The deep damage, and the damage that makes me so angry, is what it tells us, the readers:

You can’t really fix these problems. Even the Superhero couldn’t do it (snicker, snicker, snort).

It’s hopeless. Don’t even try.

And if you do try, we’ll drag you through the mud next.

No wonder so few of our communities have made the kind of deep, pervasive improvements that we really want. Most of us get the message loud and clear: you can’t.

And you can’t. Tony Hsieh can’t, either. The difference, as far as I can tell, is that he knows that. And so do several hundred other people in Downtown Las Vegas.

Which is what gives them a fighting chance.

If you are serious about helping make your community better, please stop reading general media articles about downtown revitalization projects, whether it’s the Downtown Project or it’s the downtown project in your home town. What we need to do in all of our communities, whether you’re in Nevada or Rhode Island or Ohio, is far more complicated than a comic book storyline. It’s got more needs, more participants, more tangled-up issues, more truly wicked problems than most of your standard news articles will make any attempt at indicating.

And there are people out there who are diligently, furiously trying to figure it out. Most will never get the press spotlight that the Downtown Project has. And that might not be an entirely bad thing.

If we are, across all of our communities, going to finally, finally make a real dent in revitalizing our communities, we have to stop accepting this kind of fatalism. Go learn what they’re actually doing instead.


One more note to the Downtown Project’s supporters, friends, participants, etc.:

A lot of you know details that I don’t, and that I shouldn’t. I have no idea who did something right and who did something wrong. I’m not a member of your community and I won’t claim to be.

But here’s what I do know:

You, all of you, are doing something important. You know from your own businesses and lives that when you choose to do something important, it’s not always easy. Sometimes things go badly. Sometimes it’s confusing and frustrating and it hurts. And sometimes you wonder if it’s worth it.

It’s the same when you’re doing downtown revitalization. You’re just taking on something a hell of a lot more complicated.

Hang in there. You’re fighting the good fight. I’m pulling for you – for all of you.

See you soon.