“Can Detroit come back?” One can hardly have a conversation about Detroit without that question being asked. No longer a premiere destination, Detroit has come to be associated with blight and ruin. Detroiters, however, love their city, and are working to bringing it back. They are coming up with creative ways to engage members of the community to make a real difference and change lives in different ways with varying degrees of tangible results.
A good indicator of a city’s health is the real estate market and, in that area, things are looking up. People of a variety of demographics are moving to Detroit and staying there. No longer just a city for young urban professionals, people are choosing to move into the neighborhoods when moving into a single family home rather than heading to the suburbs. Empty nesters are moving in when they’re ready for a change from the suburbs, too. Home values are going up and inventory is going down, leading to bidding wars in some areas of the city. Why is this? According to Austin Black of City Living Detroit, it’s because people are “confident in the city’s direction and want to be part of the revitalization.” This not only comes with living in Detroit, but working to make a real difference in local communities, which comes in many shapes and forms.
Some are working to make Detroit an area of creativity and collaboration, a place to educate and inspire. On the eastern side of the city is the Heidelberg Project, an open-air art environment founded in 1986. While some see this just a house covered with teddy bears or polka dots, they do much more. Their mission statement says that the Heidelberg Project exists “to inspire people to appreciate and use artistic expression to enrich their lives and to improve the social and economic health of their greater community.” They do this in three ways: art and education, community development, and as a tourist destination which brings visitors to Detroit. By providing forums to emerging artists to show their work and give kids opportunities to learn art outside of the classroom, they are working to make a difference in the community. As a tourist attraction, it works to bring people into the city.
There are many who think the Heidelberg Project is silly, and it’s not hard to see why. Detroit certainly has big problems, and those can’t be solved by an art installation consisting of shoes in the street. In a dangerous city plagued by poverty, concept art might not be the top priority, but the Heidelberg Project is actively working to make a difference. The same can’t be said for groups which might seem to be doing more important work.
Take the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative (MUFI), for example. The organization adopted lots in the city and is now in their second growing season. Surrounded by homes which are in disrepair, many of which are abandoned, it seems like a great way to engage the community to make Detroit better while providing fresh food, an oasis in an urban environment. However, the farm is not in a food desert. There are grocery stores nearby, meaning that their farm stand gets very little traffic. According to MUFI’s Alix Boulard, the close proximity to grocery stores meant that, in their first growing season, there was too much produce. Rather than donating this to locals in need, much of it ended up in the compost pile.
One would hope that the farm, at least, gave opportunities to those in the direct community to have a common project. Rather, the president and co-founder Tyson Gersh, lives in Ann Arbor, although he regularly comes into the city to check on things. Boulard said that there is a degree of distrust within the local community, as a group of “young white people” have come into a predominantly black area and started farming. When asked if neighbors come to volunteer, she responded that the neighbors didn’t really know what they were doing. Meanwhile, Boulard said, they are “deconstructing” a local home which does not belong to them (citing an inability to get a response from the owner of the home for permission, they decided to take it apart anyway) and tapping the fire hydrants to water the crops (in a fire-plagued city) certainly cannot help to build this trust.
Gersh seems like little more than a dilettante. He couldn’t tell us a specific vision for the project, except to say that he started the project based on “part interest, part need” and that he chose Detroit because “it’s glamorous and gets all the attention.” Perhaps a better goal than attention would have been to help locals in need and build communities. Boulard cited a lack of manpower as the reason there is not more outreach with the community and schools but, with a Facebook community of nearly 16,000 likes, the problem seems more in awareness of the need. MUFI is undeniably disappointing, a project that could make a real difference in a community but simply doesn’t. One cannot help but assume that their funding would be better spent on groups that really change lives. The good news is that groups that do change lives are also thriving in the city of Detroit.
Walking in the door of Rebel Nell “Defiant Jewelry With a Purpose,” is a breath of fresh air. Co-founder Amy Peterson came to Detroit for a dream job in baseball, and wanted to give back to the city which made that dream come true. Their mission statement is to “employ disadvantaged women in Detroit, educate them on business and life skills and empower them to transition to an independent life,” and that mission statement is clearly being lived in every corner of their studio space and in themselves.
The magic is in who creates the jewelry. Peterson has a background in jewelry making, and hires local disadvantaged women to create. While employed, these women learn a skill and are educated in business and financial management. Peterson is working on adding cooking classes, and they also have a lifestyle component with things like Zumba or yoga sessions. Rebel Nell makes a tangible difference in lives while supporting a business.
That business of Rebel Nell, of course, is jewelry and it is pure Detroit. Graffiti is collected once it has fallen off a building, and the layers are worked to create beautiful designs which are made into one of a kind pieces. “I wanted to make a product that supports the business,” said Peterson, “I don’t want to ask for handouts.” She noted that, as the local government doesn’t have money “private citizens are stepping up to fill the void” to help each other. To that end, she has created a successful product. “You can be a sustainable business with a really good social mission,” said Peterson, who has proven that through Rebel Nell.
Detroit is certainly a city in transition. Groups are popping up to make a difference and doing so with varying degrees of success, but all are making a true effort to revitalize the city. With a community dedicated to change, that change can’t be far behind.