G-Sync: The Road Taken (Why Travelers Still Matter)

On a recent bus trip to Detroit, I more or less acted as a guide to a group of West Michigan art lovers. Their participating in the trip via the Grand Rapids Art Museum was in conjunction with the museum's timely exhibition, "Cities in Transition." As I walked the aisle, microphone in hand, blurting out anecdotes and insights about the city we were visiting, I had one individual stop me.

“Are you going to write about this in Rapid Growth?” the rider inquired.

My initial response would have been no. I felt I had covered this topic of cross- state pollination for more than three years in G-Sync. For me, this was just another trip to Detroit, one of many completed in nearly eight years of doing business there.

The farther closer to Detroit we got, I started thinking about what I was seeing. And, by God, she was right. I did need to write about it, but I needed to do it my way.

One Detroit individual who never ceases to amaze me is Phil Cooley.

Cooley was recently featured in the very first installment of Vice Magazine's "Jefes," a video series about the "most interesting men in the world." Cooley is a natural first choice as he has been transforming the way we look at Detroit project by project in his Corktown neighborhood. He is one of the many individuals taking bold steps in transforming his city.

And while many in our time make great efforts to harness, capture and retain at all cost individuals like Cooley in their region, I like that his story about the importance of travel is one that should calm the big minds seeking to slow the brain drain in any city.

Cooley calls Detroit his home, but he spent many years away from the city. He studied filmmaking in Chicago and walked the runways of the world as a male model before returning back home to survey the landscape of his city.

His first Detroit project would gain worldwide coverage. Slows BBQ, his community-focused restaurant, creates a center for neighbors to gather, but also a destination for those curious minds who would probably never venture this deep in the city without the sweet aroma of BBQ that fills the air.

Cooley’s action and boldness in this area has captured the excitement of others in his neighborhood as people in the community come together to support each other in the many endeavors that now pop up and down the street in Detroit’s oldest neighborhood.

Without travel in his life, I doubt he would be what he is today.

In our own region, we too have witnessed those who have hit the road. This week, I want to check in with three travelers making a mark as they transform our region.

The first is Luisa Schumacher, executive director of the West Michigan Center for Arts and Technologies (WMCAT). In the eight years she has been in West Michigan, Schumacher has really connected with many of the people and projects happening in our community. She's also a really good friend of mine.

A few months ago, Schumacher surprised many of us -- from the WMCAT board to very close friends -- when she announced her resignation from WMCAT. If there were lingering questions, she explained, “I am buying a Jayco trailer, calling it the Mitten Kitten (aka ‘The Kitty’) and heading across the country to explore how other cities are experiencing innovation.”

“Some people go to graduate school, but I was seeking something different and more condensed in time,” says Schumacher. “Nothing feeds one’s urgings like travel, and first-hand exploration almost always brings unexpected learning opportunities.”

This trip, to begin August 3, her last day at WMCAT, has been titled Operation Sorbet. Her excursion’s name represents that fine dining item used between courses to clean the palette. The next stage will be presented and documented on her blog, On The Road…

And while some folks’ concerns might be masking their own fears about Schumacher’s cross-country journey, she is up front about the need to just do it.

“I think what made me do it was a close friend who suggested he felt I had never failed at anything,” says Schumacher, “So I am leaving the comfort of my home state as I seek to draw inspiration from the places I will encounter along my journey that ultimately enormously different than us because they are not us. I am looking for inspiration in uncommon places.”

For Schumacher, this is a bold move. She does not know where or what her journey of 8,000 miles and 10 weeks will reveal to her, other than her planned end point: the rich city of New Orleans – a place Schumacher feels a strong connection. We will have to keep in touch via her blog to unlock clues of what she is discovering and then let time do the rest as she repurposes the experience and  knowledge into her next stage of her life.

Another person who has spent many years coming and going from his hometown of Grand Rapids is Nicolas Mika. His work experience is in commercial real estate, but he has the itch to create something more. His latest project (with his partner, Mike Dykstra) has garnered a lot of buzz not only for what it brings to our region, but for how it is transforming that region on many levels.

Mika revealed The Intermodal Project at the Friendly Corp' The Salon, a monthly, self-organizing project named for the salons popular in 17th and 18th-century France. What attracted me to Intermodal was its uniqueness.

Intermodal will result in a 13-space complex of re-used shipping containers serving various types of food and drink around a center gathering space. Now, reusing metal shipping containers isn’t anything new. In fact, for some time, the pages of design-porn publications have dazzled us for years with an array of uses -- homes, offices, even pools. But with Mika’s project, the up-cycle of these containers that once traveled the world have an ability to transport us right here by not moving at all.

When these retrofitted and decked out containers will finally debut in Eastown (a neighborhood funky enough to welcome a startup of this nature) on a plot of land where the young developer has indicated he is in the final stages of buying the land, Mika will not only be upping the ante in our local food and retail culture, but also introducing a much-needed street food culture.

“At this point, it is unclear if the city will become food truck friendly," Mika says. "But what I have discovered in this process is that the city officials I am working with to make this unique project happen are transforming their department in the process of making The Intermodal Project actually happen. It is exciting to see this stereotype that many hold to is simply not true in my experience thus far.”

The care he has given to his design is reflected also in the care he is taking to secure the right balance of offerings, focusing all his energy in securing the right food vendors. To date, vendors include a crêperie, a gelato maker, an Asian restaurant and a tea shop.

Looking ahead and beyond The Intermodal Project’s projected 10-year lease in Eastown, Mika hopes to pick up the space and relocate it to another neighborhood in the city that could benefit from this type of low overhead for young startups.

Mika has spent much time traveling around the world exploring other cultures, but always manages to return to Grand Rapids, finding this area a rich place to fail.

Yes, to fail.

“I have to say that I probably have witnessed about 90 percent of my ideas fail,” Mika says. “But The Intermodal Project is the first one that has progressed this far and always bringing more and more excited people along for the ride. Yes, in West Michigan there is always a risk, but it is a good place to risk.”

If the project works early on, Mika is looking to take this concept of revitalizing a neighborhood while creating a low-cost entry restaurant and retail space to other cities. Our reputation for incubating or accelerating ideas will get out there.

Many cities are experiencing tremendous change. We see it in places like Detroit, but we see new systems developing here through the people who come and go here. The ability to travel is important not just for the journey, but for the things we will encounter and pick up along the way.

It is important in some ways to always stand at beginnings, to be at that place where we give it our all with an eye on the possibility of failure, but also knowing it is not the end. We can always start over again.

And as we set our feet free, some may leave and never come back, but others return home.

“I have come and gone from Michigan many times already in my young life,” says Schumacher. “My love for Michigan is so deep. This will not change.”

I will be closely watching Luisa and Nick as they evolve their projects in and outside our city. Their stories represent the change many are seeking.

So, if you have any questions or comments on these two ventures, I welcome your emails.

When the time is right, I plan to check back in. I will be monitoring these ideas as they progress and producing a postcard-like report about their journeys.

The Future Needs All of Us.

Tommy Allen, Lifestyle Editor
Email:  [email protected]

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