This weekend, I left my New York City abode, and went to Detroit. When telling most people where I was going, the response I usually received, was "Why?" or "What's in Detroit?" or my most favorite, "Be careful." I love to travel, explore and say yes to most opportunities, so when I was told 100 inspiring entrepreneurs were going for the weekend to sleep in tents (with extremely comfortable mattresses), and check out the revitalization of Detroit, I didn't even hesitate to jump on a flight.
I knew very little about Detroit before arriving besides the general stigma that Detroit is an unsafe city that is filled with poverty. I found however, when looking deeper past the surface and the stereotypes, there is a hidden gem of creativity, beauty, expression, and community.
My friends who grew up in Detroit as children, moved away, earned success and are now back helping to revitalize the very city they grew up in. (I have pretty amazing friends.) They created an entire itinerary for the 100 out-of-towners. I was shown to my "room" a tent with a mattress, chocolate on my pillows and an entire bag of treats. We stayed in a parking lot next to a huge warehouse called Ponyride. I was shown around this huge warehouse and saw the most beautiful working spaces; I witnessed everything from steel, to paper to denim, to metal. I walked through and saw areas with denim patches that were being made into pants, jewelry stations with hammers to mold pieces of metal into the hand crafted necklaces each of the 100 attendees for the weekend received in their goody bag, and old school sewing stations with awesome Edison bulbs hanging over each desk.
I am used to seeing co-working spaces in New York, but nothing like this. Usually individuals sit next to each other in silence, sharing small conversations at the snack counter or in the quirky conference room, but this was a different animal. This co-working space was focused on fostering individuals' gifts/their craftsmanship and skills. It allowed for these young entrepreneurs to work with each other to create, ideate and collaborate, and actually produce products together. With the "go-go-go" mentality of New York City, where schedules are booked back to back with networking meetings, it was so amazing and refreshing to see individuals focusing so deeply on their gift to the world and on inspiring each other.
We then went on a tour of Detroit, seeing everything from the farmers market with fresh fruit and vegetables and some really addicting cookies, to the beautiful green landscapes behind the Cranbrook Art Museum. There were times when I looked around and literally felt like I was in Oxford, London. We all kept looking at each other and saying, are we really in Detroit?
We drove around and I can't say it was all nature and crafts. There were abandoned buildings, dilapidated structures, left behind train stations, but while the normal visitor would see this and make assumptions about Detroit, we were brought in deeper. While the Cranbrook Art Museum was beautiful, I felt that it was synonymous with my experiences in other city tours, seeing the most well known monuments, but I really fell in love with Detroit when we started to be shown the deeper crevices by the individuals who were Detroit natives. We were lucky to be guided to the hidden pockets of creativity nestled in the alleys, and behind the seemingly dangerous areas of Detroit. We were navigated towards an alley way filled with paint cans, bright colored sprayed walls, and a garage filled with splattered paint, chalkboards that turned into tables and creative minds, otherwise known as the "Alley Project." The youth of Detroit came together to figure out a way to shed light on the darkness of the idea of an "alley," creating murals and inspiring artwork on the doors of everyone's house. The garage in the middle of the alley is a space for collaboration, always open for individuals in the area to come and create.
The early-30s man in charge, Erik Howard, explained to us the importance of this graffiti garage to the community, it's in the middle of an alley and it exists just as it is. He recounts a story of a news channel who previously came to report a story on the Alley Project, and asked, "Can't you stop the dogs from barking?" in which he answered, "Hell, no." He is proud of the barking dogs, the cracked shutters, this is Detroit, and it is beautiful and real. He goes on to tell us the importance of the Alley Project, it differs based on the community, it respects the community it is a part of, and none of the artwork gets destroyed by the local gangs in the area because its something that was created by the community in the area. He tells us about "creating things out of nothing" and how they are creating an "economy through their energy."
At one point of the tour, him and his team pass around a sheet of paint, which seemingly looks like one layer. He tells us to look deeper, "It's actually 50 layers," he tells us. I stare at it for a while, thinking about how it perfectly describes the way most people look at Detroit. One layer of paint, poverty, and disparity, one layer of an abandoned city, and yet look deeper. Past the poverty, underneath the broken roofs, and the cracked economy is a city waiting to be unleashed, waiting to show their creativity, their art, their voice, and their gift. We can all learn a little bit by looking past the first layer of paint, there is a lot more potential to be discovered.