I was interested to read that Detroit is hiring a chief storyteller. As the city emerges from a long period of decline, Aaron Foley has been appointed to produce stories and first-person accounts about life in the city. The stories will feature on social media and a new city website. Foley says local residents deserve better and more diverse stories about the reality of living in the city than the usual tales of doom and gloom.
I live a couple of miles from a city that, like Detroit, has a reputation problem. A classic English seaside town, Southend-on-Sea’s amusement park, beaches and fish and chip shops attract day trippers from east London. As is typical in such towns, away from the seafront, empty shops and vacated office blocks show signs of dilapidation and neglect.
But that’s just one side of the story. Looking beyond the seafront and empty office blocks there is another side to be found. In the town’s back streets and alleyways, there’s a thriving creative community of independent cafes, record shops, music venues. Of entrepreneurs who’ve chosen to launch their start-ups here.
Last year local creative agency Grow Co approached me and asked me to tell some stories for a book project for Southend Council called ‘Salt’. I felt it was important to shine the light on the non-obvious stories away from the seafront ice-cream parlours and amusement arcades. I chose to tell five stories that demonstrate the creative and entrepreneurial flair of people locally:
- Lin Gunn and Steve Holford, the owners of Utopia, an independent coffee shop that’s a welcome alternative to the homogeneity of the high street.
- Dave and Fi Dulake, two musicians who run The Railway Hotel, a well-loved Bohemian pub with a vegan menu that’s home to a vibrant music scene.
- Alan O’Rourke and Neil Adams, the entrepreneurs behind Ruark Audio, a family-owned electronics company that makes digital radios and music systems.
- Sarah Parmenter, a digital designer and entrepreneur who speaks at conferences around the world.
- Michael Woodford, the former CEO of the Olympus Corporation who is best known for exposing one of the world’s biggest financial scandals. Today he is founder of The Safer Roads Foundation.
My storytelling work has taken me around Europe and across the Atlantic to the U.S. But here on my doorstep I found that there are still surprises to be had about a town I thought I new well. The project reminded me the importance of going beyond the obvious stereotypes, to dig deep to find the interesting stories. We think we know somewhere, but just like Detroit, there’s so much more going on when you scratch the surface.