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From Eastern Europe to Eastern Market


As a teenager, Jela Ellefson never imagined coming to Detroit.  

When the University of Detroit Mercy (UDM) offered her a fencing scholarship she knew nothing about the city except that it manufactured cars. "My grandfather kept saying it was part of Canada," she remembers.

Ellefson’s only experience in the United States had been as a Slovakian exchange student in Marblehead, Massachusetts, an affluent seaside town where she won a state fencing championship. 

"My Dad thought it was a great opportunity to study in Detroit and was the main force behind me going," she says. She experienced major culture shock upon landing here. "I am from Bratislava, which is a picturesque old city, so Detroit looked very empty. I was not prepared for that." 

"After a while I could not help but love Detroit," she adds. "It gets into your blood. Even today I can be driving on Jefferson in the morning with the sun behind from the east shining on some of the buildings, which look so beautiful."

After college, however, opportunities in Southern California outshined her love for Detroit. "I became part of the brain drain," she says. Her finance degree translated into a well-paying job at a bank while her husband, a Minnesotan she met at UDM, pursued his graduate degree in architecture and urban design. 

They settled into the Mid-City neighborhood of Los Angeles, which they liked because of its walkable character and central location. After a few years, however, Ellefson grew weary of corporate finance and went back to school at the University of Southern California for a master's in urban planning, with a concentration on transportation and land use. "That way I could use my business training for something I was passionate about -- better cities."

She joined Civic Enterprises Associates, a real estate and urban planning consulting firm whose specialty was parking. "We liked to point out the ridiculousness of parking ordinances cities have. They require way too much parking for businesses in urban neighborhoods, and we helped clients deal creatively with those requirements while promoting economic development and walkability."

Yet even after a decade in Los Angeles, Ellefson and her husband kept thinking about Detroit. "We always followed what was happening back here," she says, "and noticed that the urban planning world was paying a lot of attention to Detroit." 

"Life in Los Angeles had come to feel very stressful in terms of time, distance and money." Raising a young son and daughter figured prominently into the equation. "In our fields, we felt a lot of pressure to prioritize work before family."

"It got to be that we hardly saw each other," she says. "But now that we’re back in Detroit we have dinner, all four of us, at seven every night. We can do more with the kids than we did there. We see Tiger games, go skating at Campus Martius, bike on the Dequindre Cut trail and walk along the Riverwalk, which is beautiful. We go to family events at the Detroit Institute of Arts and absolutely love Belle Isle."

What brought them back was the Detroit Revitalization Fellows Program, a Wayne State University project (funded by the Kresge Foundation, the Ford Foundation, Hudson-Webber Foundation, the Skillman Foundation and Wayne State) that matches rising professionals with organizations working at the forefront of Detroit revitalization efforts.

Ellefson now applies her planning and financial savvy at the Eastern Market Corporation, where she is Grants and Special Projects Coordinator. "Jela came at a critical juncture for us," says President Dan Carmody. "She’s very professional and has a great work ethic. She’s also helping us on broader planning projects and going after new rounds of grants."

Eastern Market, which covers six city blocks, is one of the largest public markets in the U.S. "People come here for healthy food, for entertainment, and just to hang out," Ellefson says. "We are an economic engine for the surrounding neighborhoods and we want to increase that role to help boost the city, but without changing the authenticity of the market." 

A big goal is to build a network of neighborhood markets across the city. Carmody was part of a tour of Kresge Foundation-sponsored tour of Turin, Italy -- a city once dominated by the auto industry that bounced back to create a diverse economy.  "There are 45 public markets in Turin," he says. "That’s something we’d like to emulate here."

Returning to Detroit after 10 years, Ellefson noticed a lot happening. "Like Midtown. And I like the amount of great restaurants downtown, especially their vegetarian choices. The culture scene is easier to access here than in Los Angeles too. You hear about so much every weekend: a poetry slam or a gallery opening or something at the DIA."

"We’re happy with our decision to move back, and while the past 10 years in Los Angeles will be remembered fondly," she says, "we’re glad to be back in Detroit."

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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