Next Stop: Detroit City

Why would a group of 52 people from Grand Rapids get on a bus and take a trip to Detroit? A city that has lost so many people that it has been (incorrectly) compared to bomb-devastated Berlin after World War II? And what was the inspiration behind it?

The group spent the day enjoying the sites and sounds of Detroit, including the renovation of the historic jazz club Cliff Bells, Earthworks Urban Farm and the Capuchin Soup Kitchen, the Cass Corridor and Midtown, the Rust Belt to Artist Belt Conference, the Rattlesnake Club and the opening reception of ArtX Detroit.

Here's what the people behind the whole idea, Jeff Hill, Tommy Allen, Terry Johnston and Juliet Bennett Rylah, had to say:

What was your inspiration for the trip?

Jeff Hill: My thought was that this would be a great opportunity to show people a side of Detroit that maybe they hadn't seen before, or even heard about. To have "agents of change" in Grand Rapids meet people in Detroit who were toiling away every day trying to make it a better city, and to highlight the success stories and creative processes going on.

We also wanted it to have a broad appeal for our travelers, which is why we strove to hit multiple focus areas: art, small business owners and entrepreneurs, creative practitioners, bars and restaurants, urban revitalization pioneers, urban farmers (which also hit on homelessness and poverty) and both blight and revitalization in Detroit.

Tommy Allen: Over the years I have been lucky to be able to work on both sides of the state. As I went about my job, I was always amazed at the disconnect between the headlines and the work I was seeing performed on the ground.

I witnessed people attempt great feats much like I see back in Grand Rapids, but I also recognized that within both sides of the state there were these stereotypes that are attributed to each community.

So for me, it was always about breaking down these false walls that keep us apart and looking for ways that we can partner on projects to change the face and reality of our state. Since we are the two largest metroplexes in the state, it was a no-brainer for me to begin this process.

Why were you willing to get involved, Terry? And what were your impressions afterward?

Terry Johnston: I really wanted to get involved because this is a trip that I make every week and living part of my week in Grand Rapids and the other half in Detroit has changed my outlook. I see weekly a different picture of both our cities, a view that I felt needed to be shared by others. After the trip I felt energized, seeing the look on the faces of everyone throughout the day as they "got it" was amazing! I also felt that this trip opened up not only the eyes but the brain power of others to a new way of thinking -- a new approach that can be used to help not only further Grand Rapids, but to help bring our art, culture and businesses to a new level.

What do you hope comes out of the trip? Are there any plans to continue the theme?

Jeff Hill: I wanted people to come away with a new-found appreciation for Detroit and its struggles and successes. And to not only make some connections with peers there, but also to make new connections with peers here in Grand Rapids, to share ideas and possibly collaborate on future projects. And to find inspiration in projects going on in Detroit and try new things here.

We also are working with one of the attendees on a speaker series event that will bring Detroit entrepreneurs and urban pioneers on stage in Grand Rapids with their peers working over here.

Tommy Allen: The next steps for me are to work with my Detroit contacts who have encouraged this first trip. It is hard to say when that day will be, but I am betting it will be sooner than I expect.

What Rapid Growth did was not remarkable in that we booked a bus and filled it, but I do realize that it takes time to change stereotypes. It is my hope that those who I work with on the other side of the state will recognize the boldness in doing something like this and fire up the bus.

When they do come, we will be more than willing to show them around town...and maybe a good party or two at the end of their day.

You've spent a lot of time recently in Detroit, Juliet. Has your perception of the city changed recently?

Juliet Bennett Rylah:

It never fails that when I say that I am going to Detroit, for whatever reason, someone responds with some snide comment about how it isn't safe or it won't be a good time. Some people simply respond with, 'Why?' These are also usually the same people who haven't been to Detroit in years, and know only what they know about Detroit from ruin porn and cracks on sit coms.

Detroit isn't easy to get to know, but it's still a city and people still live there. It might seem empty at times, and you will pass boarded-up buildings covered in graffiti, but if you spend a little time there, you will find good restaurants, crowded hipster bars, good local art and music and prime displays of culture.

There was a joke on the Simpsons where Moe says to take it easy on Detroit because they're living in Mad Max times. The really sexy thing about Detroit is that while some people view it as this sprawling dystopia and the horrors of what happens to a city built on one industry, some people are bright enough to develop this Tyler Durden mentality of 'when you lose everything, you are free to do anything.' For the entrepreneur, the artist and the ambitious, this city is an experimental playground. This city is what you make of it. Imagine being a 20-something artist trying to make a big difference in New York City. It won't happen. NYC doesn't need you. It doesn't appreciate you. It won't care if you come or go. People in Grand Rapids get so excited when someone comes in and repurposes a building. In Detroit, creative people are repurposing an entire city. 

Check out this great video by Michael Cook of Grand Rapids Social Diary, who traveled along with us to document the trip.

We're hoping you take a trip to Detroit soon to experience the city like we did. If you'd like to retrace our steps, here are a few links to the stops we made:

Park Bar
Cliff Bells
Earthworks Urban Farm
Shop Midtown Detroit
Slows BBQ
College For Creative Studies

Video by Michael Cook of Grand Rapids Social Diary

Photo by Terry Johnston. You can see more photos of the trip by Terry Johnston on his Facebook Page.