What’s to learn from Detroit? Spirit, determination, and action

Apr 7, 2011

More than 50 community leaders from Grand Rapids got on a bus this week to find out what they can learn from Detroit. The trip’s organizers hope to build stronger bonds between Michigan’s two major population centers.

Check out Terry Johnston's awesome photos of the trip here.

6:30 a.m.

54 people board a roomy commercial tour bus. Some passengers are covered in blankets, trying to grab a little extra sleep. Others pass around mini donuts and swap stories about their experiences in Detroit.

Erwin Erkfitz is a graphic artist and community activist in Grand Rapids. He grew up in Metamora, a small town about an hour north of Detroit. He moved to Grand Rapids to go to college.

His biggest exposure to the city was in the late 1990s when he was in high school, taking classes at the Center for Creative Studies. Erkfitz recalls tagging along with his wife to a conference in Detroit last summer. It was his first visit in about 10 years.

“I was there on a Friday and Saturday and thought it was quite odd the amount of people just on the street walking around and driving around; there was barely any.”

Erkfitz says he still has hope for the city.

 “I think it could definitely be a birthing ground for something. There’s a lot of history there that shouldn’t be neglected at all. There’s a lot of strong people there, and it needs some attention.”

Johannah Jelks has many titles, but is on the trip on behalf of the East Hills Council of Neighbors and for her own growing organization, Generation X & Y for Michigan. Jelks says she developed a strong bond with Detroit last year through the Michigan Political Leadership Program. Growing up in Grand Rapids, she says she she rarely went to Detroit.

“We didn’t think about Detroit often. Most of the time if we were doing shopping or any vacations we’d go to Chicago. As I get older I see how that’s affected Michigan overall.”

Jelks hopes to see more people in Michigan considering how Detroit’s success will affect the state as a whole.

7:30 a.m.

Dottie Rhodes sips a cup of coffee. She says she never imagined she’d be on a tour bus bound for Detroit. The Grand Rapids entrepreneur admits her impression of the city has ‘not been that great’.

“I think probably most people – I mean when I tell my family that I’m going to Detroit, they’re like “Why?”

Rhodes grew up in South Carolina. She’s been living in Grand Rapids for 13 years, but she’s only stopped in Detroit a couple times.

“What I’m starting to hear from people in the last year is that there’s these little pockets of inspiration around, these areas that people are starting to take hold of and really make them their own.”

Rhodes hopes to tap into that creative talent. She’s always looking to work with freelancers at her design and marketing studio – Plenty Creative.

She finds inspiration right away at our first stop; Cliff Bell’s, one of the oldest Jazz clubs in the city.

9 a.m.

Jerry Balenger owns the building that houses Cliff Bell's. Up on the second floor, piles of ply-wood lay under a maze of extension cords powering a few dim lights. This space is why he bought building seven years ago, but it’s the last one left to renovate. He wants to create a theater here that would operate throughout the day.

Belanger told the GR crowd being a student at Grand Valley State University shaped his life. Balenger says he had a corporate, office-type job for 15 years. He hated it but, he managed to save enough to buy the 76 year-old-building after he fell back in love with Detroit (while studying at Wayne State University). He says the lack of heavy government and police oversight is one of the things that attracted him.

“You know one aspect of the blight and vacancy is it’s an open range. You can pretty much stake a claim here. It takes a lot of work and sweat equity and you know you’ve got to have some guts.”

Balenger confesses at one point his bank account got down to $86.

The group from Grand Rapids applauds Balenger for taking on such a risky project. Downstairs they spend a long time admiring Cliff Bell’s art-deco interior with brass trim and mahogany arched ceilings. Someone congratulates Balenger on his success. But he quickly replies it’s still a work in progress. 

Joe Kvoriak is the General Manager at Park Bar, located directly downstairs from the theater. He says most of the people who are left in Detroit are willing to put in the work to turn things around.

 “We have a very strong group of people that live in the city, have stayed in the city, and continue to support the city because I think they see that there’s a lot here. It just needs a little love.”

11:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.

We visit at least a dozen other people attempting to reinvent the city. We check out the Rust Belt to Artist Belt conference that moved to Detroit from Cleveland this year. The bus also stops in the Cass Corridor, Motown, along the river front and at one of Detroit’s first urban farms (check back for a separate post I’m planning for the visit to Earthworks Urban farm Friday). These are the pockets of the city that have been brought back to life by people who’ve put in years of work. And there’s still a lot of work left to do.

8:45 p.m.

After dinner (at the Rattlesnake Club during Detroit Restaurant Week - delicious), I catch up with Dottie Rhodes. This time she’s sipping a cocktail at MOCAD, the Museum of Contemporary Arts Detroit. It’s located in a spacious former auto dealership in the up-and-coming Midtown neighborhood. (Great read by my editor Sarah Hulett on Mid-Town is here.)

Rhodes says this nearly 20-hour-long-adventure allowed her to make new connections with people working to reinvent Detroit.

“At the end of the day what I’m really feeling right now is that we really are the same community. And we really need to reach out to each other more”

Rhodes raves about Avalon Bakery, The Majestic Theater, and other places she’s visited and people she’s met.

“It was a really crappy, rainy day outside but we still had a wonderful experience. So, has my impression of Detroit changed? Absolutely. Would I come back? Absolutely.”

12:30 a.m. (now Thursday morning – we had to stop for pizza)

Back on the bus, everyone shares cheese pizza and their thoughts about the trip.

Tommy Allen is a lifestyle editor at Rapid Growth Media, a weekly online economic magazine in Grand Rapids. He’s one of the organizers of the trip.

“We put these people on a bus together all day since six this morning. It is now after midnight and they are still talking and they are still plotting and they are planning. This bus trip does represent possibilities – the possibility if you just do something, something may happen. And that’s what my hope is.”

Allen says the group definitely got a better look at the blight in Detroit. But more important than that, he says they saw the power of individuals to take action and reshape their community.

Allen says Rapid Growth Media is already planning their next trip – this time bringing people from Detroit to check out what West Michigan has to offer.

Follow the twitter feed at #gr2detroit.