For Katy Wyerman, Detroit is one big string of surprises.
What excites her most about living here is that first impressions count for little. "There are a lot of hidden gems," she says. "Your initial look at the exterior of a restaurant or business may not be all that promising. But once you’re inside you say, 'Wow.'"
"You really need a Detroit local to show you where to go--to show what’s behind the doors," Wyerman says.
Case in point is the Old Miami Bar, which she first visited after moving from Washington D.C. last summer. "It looks like a typical dive bar from the entrance and interior, but once you step into the back patio, you find a huge outdoor area with lots of people enjoying drinks and lawn games. It’s like someone’s massive backyard attached to a bar."
Same with Miller's Bar in Dearborn, which she says serves an unsurpassed burger. "You’d never think much of it driving past; it looks like nothing has changed since 1946."
She discovered Detroit’s elusive qualities the day she interviewed for the Detroit Revitalization Fellows program at the Book Cadillac Hotel. "I had heard about the restoration of the hotel, but as I approached it for the first time, driving past a desolate Capital Park, numerous vacant storefronts along Woodward Avenue, and a boarded up sandwich shop directly across the street, I started to wonder just how elegant this hotel would be. But when I stepped inside, I was blown away by its elegance and beauty."
Wyerman is surprised to find herself back in Detroit. "When I graduated from the University of Michigan," she says, "I really did not see Detroit as a promising place to find a good job and a great neighborhood. That was true for most of the people I knew."
She took off for the University of Cincinnati to pursue a Masters in Community Planning. After grad school, she snagged a dream job for someone curious to see the world--a planner and studio coordinator for AECOM, a large architecture and engineering consulting firm. She was fortunate to work on projects that took her to Italy, Spain, Greece, Bahrain, and Djibouti. At AECOM, she focused on strategic planning and sustainable development for Department of Defense sites. After nearly four high-flying years, however, she wanted to get back to "her roots in the Midwest."
What made her decide on Detroit was the Detroit Revitalization Fellowship
program, run by Wayne State University
with funding by Kresge Foundation
, Ford Foundation
, Hudson-Webber Foundation
and the Skillman Foundation
. The Fellows program matches rising professionals with organizations working at the forefront of Detroit revitalization efforts. Since September 2011, 29 Fellows have been working in key positions throughout the city.
Wyerman combines her planning and economics background in her job at Next Energy, a nonprofit that supports the City of Detroit with implementation of green technologies. "Our team is working with a variety of city departments," she says, "looking for opportunities to reduce environmental impact and operating costs as well as improve public services. Most of all, every project has to demonstrate cost savings because of the city’s financial state."
Jean Redfield, Next Energy’s Vice President for Public Policy Programs, says "The Fellows program has allowed us to bring in people like Katy with backgrounds we would not ordinarily be hiring--critical skill sets we need for our work with the city, but skills and experience we would not likely have been able to attract." The interconnection among all the Fellows in the program, Redfield adds, "is having a positive effect on the tendency for our organizations to collaborate."
After a long search for a place to stay (there’s a housing shortage in Detroit’s Midtown and downtown), Wyerman finally settled into an apartment downtown. "Where else can I live right by pro stadiums and restaurants for half of what I was paying for rent in D.C.?"
Besides work, she’s busy getting to know the city by volunteering with Detroit Public Schools’ Reading Corps, playing in a recreational volleyball league, and discovering even more surprises. "You see things unfolding right before your eyes. It's exciting to experience all the up and coming businesses growing here. You see these abandoned buildings now being filled with people."
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.
Photo by Dara O'Byrne