Bridging the Gap: Part II

On Friday the 13th, January 2012, about 30 community leaders and activists from Grand Rapids boarded a charter bus for the great and greatly misunderstood city of Detroit. It couldn't have been a worse day to make this trip, as West Michigan's first snowstorm of the year bore down on the area the night before and into the morning. Spirits and anxieties were high that morning as the bus rolled out of Grand Rapids and made its way down the slippery, harrowing highways.

What was all this about? Why put all these people on a bus together and take a trip to the beleaguered city of Detroit? It was a follow up to Rapid Growth's trip to Detroit in April of 2011. The trip had been so well received, and the people involved had been so inspired by what they saw, that it was inevitable that another one was in the cards.

The intent of these trips is not to impart Grand Rapids' success onto Detroit (we wouldn't pretend to know what Detroit needs to be successful). Instead, it's to learn from Detroiters about how they became successful, how they are working to transform the city and its battered reputation, and the challenges they continue to go through to try and change the world around them. Sound ambitious? It is.

First Stop: Detroit Institute of Arts, "Detroit Revealed: Photographs 2000 - 2010"

No better way to start off a trip than the Detroit Institute of the Arts on Woodward Avenue. From the ornate Roman architecture (a mixture of styles), to the bigger-than-life Diego Rivera murals, this institution is one of Michigan's true artistic gems. Through April 29 of 2012, the DIA is exhibiting Detroit Revealed: Photographs 2000 - 2010, an amazing collection of photography by seven photographers and videographers from around the world. 

Our group was fortunate to get a guided tour by the the curator of this exhibit, Nancy Barr. As Barr pointed out to us, photography has played a vital role in branding Detroit's identity going all the way back to the early part of this century. But with the explosion of online photography and photo sharing sites like Flickr, the number of photographers descending on and cataloging the city and its rapid transformation has reached an all time high. The great majority of the photography has been at the expense of Detroit, as professional and amateur photographers from around the globe have come to see the unique decay of a city that has lost half its population in 50 years. But not all of it has been "ruin porn."

The exhibit of over 50 photographs beautifully displays the people and neighborhoods of Detroit. Carlos Diaz takes us on a tour of Mexicantown in the Southwestern part of the city, where all of the homes proudly display statues of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Native Detroiter Scott Hocking gives us an ethereal tour of abandoned factories that are slowly being reclaimed by mother nature. And don't forget to inquire about the story behind Sweater the Sheep, by Corine Vermeulen.

Lunch at Seva at the N'nambdi Gallery

A relative newcomer to the Detroit scene is Seva Detroit, located in the back portion of the building that houses G.R. N'nambdi Gallery in Midtown. This clean, modern and art-adorned restaurant is the second for the Seva restaurant, the first being in Ann Arbor. Though service was a bit rough at times (they opened in mid-December), the mainly vegan cuisine was very good and worth a return trip.

While at Seva, our group was welcomed to Detroit by Rebecca Mazzei and Katie McGowan of MOCAD (Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit). Mazzei and McGowan briefed the group on the mission, exhibits and educational programs going on at MOCAD, as well as invited us to reach out to MOCAD for possible collaborations in 2012. 

Next Stop: Pony Ride

No, not the 1 cent pony rides at Meijer. Detroit developer, entrepreneur and rock star Phillip Cooley is at it again. You may know Cooley as one of the founders of the world famous Slow's BBQ of Detroit, but what a lot of people don't know is that he's slowly and methodically working to protect and grow the Corktown area of Detroit (home of the former Tigers stadium and iconic and vacant Michigan Central Station). Cooley's brother lives just a mere block away, and his parents live five blocks away, so it only makes sense that he'd be working to restore in his own family's backyard.  

As outlined by the mission of Pony Ride, it's a "study to see how the foreclosure crisis can have a positive impact on our communities." Cooley and his partners purchased a 30,000 square foot warehouse for $100,000, and provide rent subsidies to upstart companies, artists and socially conscious entrepreneurs in a collaborative work environment.

The building houses a boat builder, a hip hop dance troupe, a printer, a woodworking shop that can be used by the community, a fencing academy, a granola company and The Empowerment Plan, a company that produces waterproof jackets that double as sleeping bags for the homeless.

Play Time in Corktown

After listening to Phillip Cooley talk about his adventures with Pony Ride, it was only fitting to spend some time exploring in Corktown, including Slow's BBQ. Nothing quite like a pint of a Michigan-made IPA from Founders or Bells mixed with a big, steaming plate of shredded pork. 

Some of the group also used the time to do some exploring around Roosevelt Park and Michigan Central Station, including the interesting Imagination Station redevelopment project. Others took the short jaunt over to John K King Used & Rare Books, a six-story labyrinth for literary fans of all stripes.

A School? A Theater? An Incubator Space? Yes.

In the heart of Midtown along Cass Avenue sits an unassuming, early 20th century school building. If not for the signs out in front advertising the theater, you might still think it was being used as a school. But following the signs to the "Burton Theater" takes you around the back of the building, through a small opening between chain link fences, past shop lights attached to fence posts that blink in regular intervals, and into the back door of the school.

You're suddenly transformed back to the 1930s or 40s, where virtually all of the schools floors, walls, fixtures, doors (and lockers!) are still intact. The theater itself actually sits in the school's auditorium, outfitted with what seemed to be the original theater seats. 

No amount of writing by this author will do the owner, developer and somewhat eccentric Joel Landy justice, but Hour Detroit gives it a pretty good shot. The school itself also incudes attorneys, artists, a Montessori program, and a wide variety of other tenants all banding together in a way that seems to permeate much of Detroit. As Landy summarized, "Detroit is like a small town. Everyone knows each other."

Greektown, People Mover and Cafe D'Mongo's

After a long day of taking in the sites and sounds of redeveloping Detroit, it was time to let loose and experience the food and nightlife of Detroit. Most of the group headed to Greektown to get their fix of Moussaka and Pastitsio at the old standbys like Pegasus Taverna. Others also took in Motor City Wine bar on Woodward.

But if you really want to experience a great slice of Detroit, take the People Mover from Greektown to the Grand Circus Park station and head to Cafe D'Mongo's Speakeasy on Griswold, where you can sample chicken, collared greens and black-eyed peas in a restaurant that is as unique as its owners. Most likely, Larry D'Mongo himself will stop by your table to see how your meal was, or ask where you're from and how you found his little place.   

As it states on Cafe D'Mongo's website, Detroit is a "village" with a rich history and a rich future, as long as people like the ones we met continue to defy the critics and blaze their own paths. Here's a short video of some of what we saw and heard:

Video and photos by Adam Bird Photography
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