Detroit Revitalization Fellow: Abir Ali

Ten years ago Abir Ali left Detroit to attend grad school in Toronto, not sure if she would ever be back. 

Her roots in the city were strong. Ali grew up in the Warrendale neighborhood of Detroit, and studied architecture at the University of Michigan. Her parents, immigrants from Lebanon and Pakistan, had met and married in Detroit. Her father worked 30 years as an engineer for the city. 

"I really wanted to work in Detroit when I got out of grad school. My thesis was on Detroit." But she found no jobs that were right for her.  

So Ali and her husband, who had met in Ann Arbor and started a furniture design studio there, moved to Chicago where she joined Landon Bone Baker Architects, working primarily on affordable housing. 

Meanwhile Detroit’s weak economy, the downward spiral of the auto industry, the real estate crash and recession made her hopes of finding the right job in southeast Michigan even more dim. Then last year Ali heard about the Detroit Revitalization Fellowship Program--a Wayne State University project (funded by the Kresge FoundationFord FoundationHudson-Webber FoundationSkillman Foundation and Wayne State University that matches rising professionals with organizations working at the forefront of Detroit revitalization efforts.

It was a crazy time to move back, she admits. She had a good job doing work she found meaningful. She and her husband Andre Sandifer were seeing their furniture business grow in Chicago, plus they were settled in a gorgeous apartment with Andre’s two sons and a baby on the way. But Ali kept thinking, "I'm from Detroit, and even after six years, Chicago doesn't feel like home." 

So Ali is now back as a Program Fellow for the Hudson-Webber Foundation, applying her architecture and project management skills to revitalization initiatives in and around downtown. Hudson-Webber’s Vice President of Programs Katy Locker says, "Abir's exceeded all our expectations. She’s helping us grow the very kind of capacity we need and she’s making the vital connections we have been missing. She’s brought a whole new skill set to the work of the foundation."

“Some people have asked why did you hire an architect?” Locker adds, "She’s interested in building urban spaces and sees how philanthropy plays a role in this. The heart of our work is young talent and placemaking for the future, so it’s important to have the eye of someone who understands design and architecture."

Locker, who is an advisor to the Detroit Revitalization Fellows Program, notes that while the 29 Fellows offer a lot for Detroit, the city also offers a lot for their careers. "The unique thing about being here right now is that you can show up and go to the front of the line right away."

Ali and Andre, who moved to Detroit in 2011, discovered how true that is when they opened their furniture studio in the Russell Industrial Center on Chrysler Drive. "So many showed up at the Open House to show support, it was the largest crowd we’d ever had. That was very encouraging." 

Ali Sandifer Studio specializes in handmade tables, chairs, credenzas and entertainment centers designed in the simple lines of the Dutch modern style out of walnut, oak and ash sustainably harvested by a farm family in Indiana that has been in the lumber business for five generations.

The Ali-Sandifer family of 5--including new son Rami--has now settled in thanks to her extended Detroit family. Rami is a fixture at Fellows gatherings, earning the nickname "Baby Fellow." 

Ali notes they all appreciate the welcoming and friendly nature of Detroiters. "My husband, who is from Grand Rapids and never lived here before, was really surprised by that."

Looking around her hometown, Ali is surprised too. "It feels different than when I left Detroit. It was so much quieter then. You could drive down Woodward Avenue and hardly see any life. Now there’s more energy. People are more positive about the city, more upbeat."

Jay Walljasper, author of The Great Neighborhood Book and All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons, is a Senior Associate with Citiscope and Senior Fellow with Project for Public Spaces.
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