Devon Haynie is an Indiana-based newspaper reporter and freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune and other publications.
Haunted by negative top ten lists, the Indiana city tries to convince kids it's a place worth making a life in.
Fort Wayne, Indiana, a heartland city of 254,000, is haunted by top ten lists. It was named the dumbest city in America by Men’s Health in 2005, and has since experienced the dubious honor of being named one of the fattest cities in the country as well.
So it's no surprise that local leaders have spent the past few years trying to give the city's image a makeover. They’ve expanded its trails system, invested in math and science education, and marketed the city as among the country’s safest, most family-friendly places to live. Still, college graduates leave in droves.
A nonprofit group called A Better Fort is trying a different approach—one it claims is the first of its kind in the country. Last fall, the group gathered 12 of the city’s hip-hop artists together to record a rap video called “My City”:
If it sounds like a cheesy concept, it is. The tone is unabashedly optimistic and the rhymes occasionally groan-worthy ("I was born in Indiana, so listen when I say there's more than corn to Indiana"). But there's also something kind of ... awesome about it. The video is filmed in iconic locations throughout the city and features back-up singing by Fort Wayne’s Voices of Unity, an award-winning children’s choir. The producers hoped the song—played on local airwaves—would instill pride in the city and encourage young people to stick around after college.
So far, more than 165,000 people have watched the official video on YouTube. The rappers say some of their most ardent fans are middle school students, who fawn over them as if they were Jay-Z or Lil' Wayne.
"My City" is the brainchild of 25-year-old Alex Smith, who co-founded A Better Fort in 2006. His group sets up young people with volunteer opportunities throughout the city, hoping they will forge a deep connection with Fort Wayne that will make them want to stay.
A year ago, Smith wanted to do something big that would expand his volunteer base and boost the city’s image. What better way to make Fort Wayne seem cool, he wondered, than to get a dozen leading hip-hop artists to rap about their love for the city?
Smith’s team reached out to the community and held dozens of auditions before it found 11 rappers who made the video cut, along with Voices of Unity. The music video took about eight months to produce. And by the time it was finished, about 200 residents, including college students, business people and community leaders, had contributed to the project.
"The younger generation, they need to see people who are not much older coming together and taking pride in where they’re from," says Dinero Moneybagz, a 25-year-old hip-hop artist who appears in the video. "When you’re in a smaller town, pride is everything. … You have to take responsibility for your own greatness."