Saturday, August 8, 2015

Something out of great Detroit experience

One of the best parts of my job is getting to really experience the cities I visit for meetings and conferences. Working for an organization that helps build strong cities, I love the chance to explore a city's story beyond the everyday tourist sites.

A conference I attend every summer typically takes us to locations that aren’t at the usual conference sites like New Orleans, Seattle or Orlando. In recent years, we've met in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, a state park in South Dakota and downtown Minneapolis  - places that never would have hit my radar for travel otherwise.
Original interior of
the Guardian Building
in downtown

This year, the meeting was in Detroit. I’ve never been to Michigan and, other than checking my bucket list item of visiting every state, I probably would have had no real reason to visit the state. I will admit my perception of Detroit was that it was unsafe, dirty and with no real attractions to make it an interesting destination.
Part of the decaying
former Packard plant 
Was I wrong.
Unlike most conferences I attend, this one gave us opportunities to experience the real city - its struggles and its hope for a new future.  We saw shiny architectural gems of the city's past glory.  We saw what it became through years of neglect and decay. But best of all we experienced the blinding light of future hope.
During our time in Detroit, we learned about decades of a crumbling economy that left behind crumbling infrastructure and crumbling buildings. We saw street after street of abandoned mansions, shotgun houses and apartment buildings that had once made up welcoming and safe neighborhoods. We learned about creative public/private redevelopment efforts that were transforming these abandoned properties back into neighborhoods, restoring buckling sidewalks back to welcoming paths and connecting various parts of the city with a new trolley system.
This scene is everywhere downtown
as the new trolley system is built
Construction detours, orange cones, incessant drilling and traffics jams caused by all of this building and construction activity usually results in annoyed pedestrians and impatient drivers. In Detroit however, I got the sense that folks welcomed these distractions as their currency of hope and growth.
As one of our Detroit hosts pointed out several times, this city is good at making something out of nothing -- a simple idea...a creative solution...a spirit of collaboration...a willingness to take a risk. All were evident as we learned about this city's demise and its ongoing rebirth.
Motown music struck me as one perfect example of how this city made something real and enduring from nothing but a simple idea and an $800 investment. More than 50 years ago, the Motown sound was born in a tiny house in a questionable neighborhood and grew into one of the defining movements in American music. Its success remains a symbol of this city's legacy of possibilities.
Spot to stop and relax
on the River Walk
For generations, the Detroit riverfront was nothing but industrial warehouses. Today, the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy is responsible for converting the city's industrial waterfront into a stunning River Walk drawing both locals and visitors.People of all ages and walks of life stroll, run, bike, play volleyball, dart through dancing water features or just chill in one if the many hubs of lounge chairs dotting the path.

When I biked the 5.5 miles of this wide welcoming path along the sparkling blue river, I had to detour off a couple of times onto a busy thoroughfare with cracked sidewalks, industrial warehouses and abandoned storefronts. These pockets of the riverfront that hadn't been redeveloped vividly illustrated for me just how far things have come over the years.

Rotary dial telephones
are art
At one of our mobile tour stops, we learned about art that grew out of the nothingness of abandoned homes, empty lots and garbage piles. In some contexts, this art may be mistaken for junk or random graffiti, but for 26 years a local artist has been transforming this discarded and unwanted stuff into art through an effort called the Heidelberg Project.

On Heidelberg Street where the artist lives, the buildings themselves have become the artwork exploding with color. Decaying wooden fences have become a gallery wall hung with canvasses fashioned from plywood. Empty lots on the street are the display case for urban sculpture made from discarded items such as shoes, rotary  dial phones and vinyl records.

His art stands just blocks from the Detroit Institute of Art that houses masterpieces by the greats like vanGogh and Picasso. This city welcomes and embraces both ends of the artistic spectrum.

We experienced the creative entrepreneurship of two locals who saw a need and filled it…again creating something out of nothing. One converted an abandoned warehouse in a sketchy part of town into a successful entertainment venue that appeals to a quirkiness I found in abundance around this city.
A conference session on the topic of leadership and innovation took us to this warehouse. The route to get there illustrated the Detroit I had envisioned - abandoned buildings, overgrown lots, chain link fences protecting shells of warehouses from more abuse. But it turned out, this session on innovation couldn’t have been planned for a better space.

Entrance to the Fowling
We walked into this old warehouse that is the home to a football/bowling hybrid game called fowling. This game created by the warehouse's owner is a perfect example of creative entrepreneurism in a recovering economy…picture bowling pins knocked over by a thrown football. There’s also a full bar, a music stage and lots of high round tables surrounded by bar stools. Apparently the place is packed every night!

The fowling court
Our group’s session on innovation started out with pizza, treats from the bar and a lively game of fowling (sure beat the typical conference session in a cold stark hotel meeting room). It put us in the perfect mindset for innovative thinking and learning.
The second example of this creative entrepreneurship that built something from nothing was the bus that transported us during our stay. I knew we were in for an experience when the bus picked us up for the session on innovation and leadership.
Our transportation
This was no typical air conditioned (freezing cold) conference bus. The windows were down on this balmy afternoon, and let’s just say I felt like Laurie Partridge boarding the bus that looked like it came straight from the Partridge Family tv show.
The driver was engaging and clearly proud of his city. Turns out the bus company is owned by a young entrepreneur who got tired of the fact there was no public transit in the city. He started buying old busses and moving people around town. The Detroit Bus Company now owns more than 40 of these buses that serve locals and visitors.
Urban playground
I'm always drawn to urban green space, and I loved the dozens of parks that dot downtown. My favorite was a block from the hotel, Campus Martius Park. It is a cool welcoming space that serves as a hub and gathering space for downtown.

The dancing fountain
The park sports a sandy beach where the kids stop and play by day and young professionals can later celebrate happy hour. A stage for daily music performances, a beautiful dancing fountain and a tiny gelato stand join dozens of tables and chairs for eating, working or just visiting.
Over the course of our time in Detroit, we also got to see urban gardens with urban scarecrows tucked into pockets in neighborhoods of all types. Urban agriculture is big here…and this movement has again created beauty and hope from abandoned land.

Detroit is clearly a pro sports team city, and we enjoyed an evening of Tiger baseball at the beautiful stadium nestled right in the middle of downtown. But the best baseball story I heard wasn’t about this shiny modern stadium. It was the story of how the neighborhood around the original Tiger stadium is reinventing itself after the team moved.
The team moved downtown in 1999 and the old stadium structure itself was demolished in 2009. But the field was left intact. Neighbors and volunteer lovers of the Tigers took it upon themselves to keep the field in shape as the landscape of the surrounding neighborhood changed. Recently a developer announced plans for retail and residential construction surrounding the field. Plus the Police Athletic league will take over management of the field, and it will again be the focal point of a thriving neighborhood that's coming back to life.
When I travel, I always love to take something home with me as a reminder of places I visit. It seems appropriate my remembrance from this trip picks up on the spirit of my Detroit friend who said the city is good at making something out of nothing. 

My new travel bag is made from recycled seatbelts - how appropriate for Detroit!

Published on August 21 in Midlands Life


  1. Reba, well done. I knew Detroit was amazing, and horrific, depressing and inspiring, all at the same time. I've made two trips there this year working on a documentary about The Empowerment Plan, an extraordinary Detroit non-profit. I love going there, even though sometimes I'm not sure why. I just do.

    1. How cool! Doc sounds interesting

  2. Nice report, but technically, Detroit (like any other Northern city) doesn't have "shotgun houses". I don't think I've ever seen one north of the Ohio River.