Tell someone you’re going to Detroit, and you’ll get quizzical looks and most likely an eyebrow raise. They’ll ask ‘Why?” or “Are you staying somewhere safe?” You will then most likely get warnings about the through-the-roof crime rates, boarded-up buildings, endless trash thrown around, and astronomically high foreclosure rates where homes literally sell for $1. ‘Detroit’s a shit-hole. You’ll get shot there.’
While the above attributes are true, and the city does give off a sort of post-apocalyptic vibe, it’s these very qualities that fuel a raw urban energy I have never experienced anywhere else. Entrepreneurs, artists and young people are moving in and the DIY culture of urban renaissance pushes on. Vacant lots are being converted into urban farms and abandoned buildings into museums and hostels. Detroit IS America. And wherever you live, you wouldn’t be there or who you are in the same way – without Detroit.
What constitutes a place as safe or unsafe? To me, there is no such thing. There are only crazy people, not crazy places. And there are crazy people in every city and town, no matter what state or country you go to. The majority of people who I told that I was going to Detroit, or told them I was just in Detroit at the beginning of the month, were taken aback as to why I went. And the majority of them haven’t even been there. So the people I know, and most people in America in general, are speaking about a place they have never experienced.
Two months ago at the Women in Travel Summit, I met two amazing girls named Anise and Samantha, who started a not for profit together in Detroit called Atlantic Impact. This organization helps at-risk youth participate in and experience local culture and history as well as to travel abroad. They emphasize how important travel can be, especially when most of these kids might not have anyone else or anything else to inspire or excite them. In society and culture, education is stressed as being a “way out” for kids coming from troubled families and/or poverty. Education can break that cycle, and travel can open their minds even further to the possibilities that are out there for them. Travel is just as, if not more important than traditional education. You can read information in a book all you want – but until you touch, see, smell, hear and taste a new place, converse with people of a different culture and experience life, even if only for a short time, in another country – then you are truly able to take your learning to a new level. The amount of gratefulness, growth and well-roundedness you gain from travel is something I (and I’m sure all my eternally wanderlust-stricken friends) can attest to.
I kept in touch with both Anise and Samantha after the summit and they gave me upcoming dates on when they would be having field trips for the kids and different events that I would be able to participate in. I decided to go the first weekend of this month, where a trip was planned to historic Fort Wayne. The kids would get tours of the army barracks and air museum, as well as see a reenactment of World War II.
As I was getting ready to leave for Detroit, I asked myself why I had never been there before. After all, it was only about 3 hours from my house. I suppose I never really got around to it or had any specific reason to go. But this was the perfect opportunity to help with a great not for profit and explore the city.
On Friday, after I got into the city, I drove over to The Heidelberg Project where the AI girls would be meeting me later. The Heidelberg Project is a delightfully looney, roughly 2-3 block radius of abandoned houses that was turned into an outdoor art installation. The two artists who started this are Tyree Guyton and Tim Burke. I was fortunate enough to serendipitously run into one of them, Tim, as I was walking around checking out all of the art. “Hey can you do me a favor?” he asked, “Could you just make sure to tag me in your photos when you post them? I’m @DetroitIndustrialGallery.” Sure!” I said and then we just got to talking. Tim invited me into his work space, which was one of the super bright, yellow houses that was a part of Heidelberg Project and connected to his little corner of the art he created for it. He showed me some pieces he was working on for an outdoor art fair that would be held the next day, called the Palmer Park Art Fair. He invited my friends and I to come. It was him and about 50 other artists that would be bringing back this art fair that had not been revived for three decades. Awesome.
On Saturday morning, I made my way to one of the schools which Anise and Samantha run their program through and met the kids before we went out on the excursion to Fort Wayne. We went around and introduced ourselves, told a bit more about our background and even shared some fun/random facts! (I said, “I LOVE pigs!”) After we got the kids together, we made our way in a mini caravan over to Fort Wayne, which is about 10 minutes from downtown Detroit. We ended up taking one car, and also a cab for the field trip. I had a super interesting conversation with the taxi driver, Ed, on the way. We talked about everything from religion to Mother Teresa, Cosmos (Neil deGrasse Tyson is a rock star!), engineering, Isaac Newton and India. Even this short conversation further solidified to me the amount of diverse and extremely intelligent people which can be found in Detroit. I was meeting uber-interesting people at every turn!
Once we got to Fort Wayne, we started off the morning by watching one of the historic battles reenacted, then were able to wander the grounds to explore. We could see Canada right across from the Detroit River and Samantha was even getting roaming notifications on her cell phone for being “in Canada.” I never really realized how close Canada actually was to Detroit! The kids got to take a break to have lunch, which was a perfect time to sit and talk with them more about my journey and background in travel, my experiences and how they shaped me into who I am today. I told them stories from volunteering, working and studying abroad and they got to ask questions. This was a seriously sharp group of kids. Post-lunch, a tour guide was taking us around the rest of the fort and he kept commenting on how bright and great of a group they were. He said that if all his tour groups were like them, he would have so much fun each day. He asked us which group this was that we were with and we explained to him that we were working with at-risk youth to help them get cultural experiences both locally and internationally. He looked surprised and said that there was no way these kids could be at-risk youth. I thought the same thing when I met them too. We watched one last World War II reenactment before leaving Fort Wayne and when we got back to the school, I surprised the kids by giving them some suitcases that I brought for them for their August trip to Barbados. They were super excited to receive these bags, specifically carry-ons to take with them on their trip!
On Sunday, Anise took me to Atlantic Impact’s communal workspace in downtown and then we went over to the Detroit Institute of Arts. It was such a beautiful space, and it was very special to see the mural created by Diego Rivera as a tribute to the city’s manufacturing base and labor force of the 1930s. The mural depicts industry and technology as the indigenous culture of Detroit. It is, to this day, considered the finest example of Mexican mural art in the United States and Diego Rivera thought it to be the best work of his career.
We ended off our evening, and my entire weekend in Detroit with a bang. We went to a monthly dinner which funds micro-grants for creative projects in Detroit called Detroit Soup. Basically, each person who comes to soup donates $5 at the door for soup and dinner. You are able to check out local Detroit vendors in one area, and dinner and pitches in another. Soup is held at a beautiful, old warehouse which used to be the location for countless automobile ads and commercials – very appropriate if you ask me! Four projects/businesses will each have a timed few minutes to speak on what their project is and how it helps and empowers people in the Detroit community. They get to make their case for how they would use the money if they won and what kind of a difference and impact it would make for them. At the end of all of the pitches, you can put your votes in for who you want to win, and they take home the donation bucket! Another way to speak, is to make a dish and bring it to share with everyone, and you too will get a few minutes to speak. No one is a loser here. Even the projects that don’t win the donation still get opportunities to connect with other people and businesses that they might not have had the chance to otherwise.
The night that we went to Soup, there were some seriously incredible projects and it was hard to choose just one to vote for. There was a dance school which aimed to empower youth through performing arts, no matter the socioeconomic background. They spoke about how they were able to send their dancers across the country to compete in dance competitions and were frequently winning first place. All the girls were maintaining nearly perfect, 4.0 GPAs also while in school. There was a bike and skateboard repair shop started by two friends who wanted to take kids off of the streets and away from negative peer pressure. The kids would come in and work on a bike for themselves or help friends fix their bikes. They would log hours and receive parts for those hours. There was a woman who used to work in the recording industry pitching her coffee shop that did open mic nights every Thursday and her goal was to produce and record music for up-and-coming artists in Detroit who might not have the resources to do it themselves. She encouraged young musical talent from a city that is known all to well for artists such as Alice Cooper, Eminem, Kid Rock, The White Stripes, Aretha Franklin and Diana Ross. We all know of these incredibly talented people, but we sometimes forget where they started out – Detroit. There was also a karate school who talked about how they were also able to take the kids on national competitions and keep them from getting involved in negative things such as gangs, drugs or drinking. One of the boys who went there to practice and learn karate talked in depth about his life – being raised with 12 other brothers and sisters by a single mother, how his family was always looking to “make a quick buck” and how depressed, angry and lost he felt before he was able to do karate there and find a place that he belonged. After he told his story, I was nearly in tears with a huge lump in my throat. So you can see how it would be incredibly hard to vote after hearing about all of these amazing community projects. I have never felt so uplifted and hopeful after going to an event. Detroit Soup shows us what you do when you are pushed to your limits – you get creative. When you aren’t given much, that’s when you start to think outside the box.
I found out that Detroit Soup has chapters that have started now in many of the surrounding suburbs and is continuing to grow. There is also a special chapter called Youth Soup which is specifically targeted to, you guessed it – youth! Many other cities around the country are now trying to take this format and implement/recreate this for their city as well. Detroit Soup was even covered by national news outlets, and afterwards people were busting down the doors to get in, which of course has helped them tremendously. So if you’re ever in Detroit, make sure to look and see if a Soup event is going on when you’re there. It is not to be missed!
Now how can I sum up Detroit into words? It’s so hard because I feel so many different emotions when I think of this beautiful and unique city. When people dismiss a city like Detroit and say they don’t want to go or choose to ignore what’s going on there, they are missing the bigger picture. Detroit’s problems are America’s problems, and the same neglect and incompetence that lead to its current state of affairs has left us with a cityscape that, even now, taunts us all with the not-so-distant memories of our outsized dreams. You have to have a thick skin to live in Detroit, yes, but you also have to have a huge sense of humor too. Being a Detroiter means digging your heels in, even and especially when the going gets tough. It’s easy to leave when things are bad, but to stay requires a lot more courage.