Now voyagers: Grand Rapids urban explorers revisit Detroit

It has been almost two years since I was on Christina Shockley’s "Three Things" program on Michigan Public Radio’s Morning Edition. I was asked my thoughts on what I thought could revive our state. There were three essential points made that day. 

We are clearly understanding point one: Greater engagement with the younger generation of our state.

My second point continues to require greater understanding: What inclusion really looks like, and why it is important for all.

The third point appears to be finally bearing fruit as the interurban connection we sought to facilitate begins to take hold: Create a meaningful cultural exchange between Michigan’s two largest cities.

Our concept was fairly simple:

  • Nominate a variety of folks from public and private positions in Grand Rapids
  • Put them all on a bus where dialog could develop between people who may not have met before
  • Connect this group with others in Detroit who are also seeking to engage a new vision for our state

A bus trip sometimes can just be a bus trip, and other times it can be a vehicle to the other side.

For any program to be a success it requires more than mere words. We wanted to make this GRR2DET (Grand Rapids-to-Detroit) concept work beyond just being seen by others as some glorified version of a childhood field trip. The planning demanded careful navigation between our two eco-systems and had to produce real results as we moved forward.

Rapid Growth and other media outlets, including Michigan Public Radio, covered our first foray into these uncharted waters last April 2011.  

Our aggressive hands-on approach to smashing stereotypes and geographical boundaries began to show up in the speeches used in places like the Mackinac Policy Conference. This past fall, a group of business leaders led by the Detroit Chamber of Commerce headed over to Grand Rapids. Clearly, our bus trip to Detroit started something.

It was great to have the attention, but even greater that others were now taking notice. In an era where Twitter Klout points and Facebook share stats were appearing to replace good old-fashioned face time, our staff decided to return to Detroit with a more organic and from-the-street approach for round two on Jan. 13, 2012. 

So, during a day that included a very special Detroit Institute of Arts curator-led tour of the impressive and insightful Detroit Revealed: 2000 – 2010 exhibition, an insider’s talk with Ponyride’s Phil Cooley, a visit with the man who held the keys to the heart of Midtown at the Cass City Cinema and plenty of extra appearances from leadership at MOCAD, Visit Detroit and a new restaurant Seva, the trip and thread connecting this new bus trip proved to be a resounding success.

In keeping with the "Three Things" model resulting in our team’s first trip, I want to offer my three takeaways in the hopes that others who also embarked on this trip will begin to share insights on their social platforms.
1) Your City’s Story Is Still Worth Telling (but curation helps edit and shape the message others may miss by being an outsider).

The Detroit Revealed exhibition spoke volumes about the city’s majesty during its transitional state, something often not documented by visiting photographers whose plethora of urbex (urban exploration) photos crop up on sites like Flickr. These soulless images depicting extreme urban decay only tell one story. As proved time and time again, whether in Detroit, Grand Rapids or any other area, the people are the city -- not the buildings. By showcasing all these diverse voices, we begin to truly understand who we are. This exhibition showcased the changing face of Detroit, utilizing people, places and the results of actions that mark on our time.  

2) Providing a space for innovation is not enough. You have to provide ease of entry for all.

Phil Cooley, known to many as the man who brought Slow’s BBQ to Detroit’s oldest neighborhood, Corktown, is not a man willing to rest on his laurels. From our time at Ponyride, his incubator housed in an abandoned factory in an industrialized section of Corktown, Cooley clearly walked the talk. He shared with us how he could create a new balance sheet that allowed him to attract new tenants to the space. He also found a way to outdo what other cities have tried by offering rock bottom prices to bring his community’s brightest minds into a working incubator space where people could invest sweat equity as well as operate in a group think operation. The whole nest-like quality of this space, frequently remodeled with materials once slated for the landfill, clearly shows what is possible when people find a way to marry social justice and art into business. This family-like atmosphere created for birthing the "next/new" whatever is truly inspiring.

3) Be The Change By Being The One

While at the Cass City Cinema in Midtown, Joel Landy reminded me of a theme I already have seen at work in Grand Rapids where people like Carol Moore of East Hills impressed upon me to be the change agent if no one else will assume the role. Landy has employed this hands-on approach over the years and it is why he carries around one of the biggest sets of keys I have ever seen. He may not be successful in transforming every old building as evident by the glorious mansion that is crumbling away in the shadow of his cinema’s door, but it is not because of his lack of trying. It is the realization that even with hard work, there is no guarantee that some outside forces are just stronger. Sometimes, it just comes down to bad timing. The trick is to remember that time is fluid and not to allow it to become an anchor.

The last part of the day, our group was turned loose in the city for dinner, where conversations ranged from serious to downright silly as folks shared insights from the day and engaged in talks about the future.

Finally at about 1:30 a.m., the bus the bus exited the expressway and returned to Grand Rapids. I wiped the sleep from my eyes and was amazed that through my sleepy Julee-Cruise-Director eyes, I could still see people conversing about the plans they were making as a result of the previous day.

I have no crystal ball for Michigan’s future, but I know this as fact: When you step up to provide opportunity and the space for education and growth, the path is paved with hope.

The Future Needs All of Us.

Contact Tommy Allen here. Read more, and watch a video, on the Grand Rapids crew's adventures in Detroit here.
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