In Detroit, we are constantly dealing with an overwhelming scale of problem solving. The issues that Detroit faces -- issues like emergency financial management, neighborhood quality of life, and a lack of transit alternatives to the automobile -- often feel insurmountable. Working as many of us do to try and solve all these problems creates a palpable setting of stress and anxiety.
Last Monday and Tuesday, a diverse group of Detroiters were brought together and challenged to move away from organizing our work on these massive problems. Instead, we were asked to think of joy as our organizing principle.
The impetus was the Van Dusen Urban Leadership Forum, created through Wayne State University with the Van Dusen family to honor the memory of Richard C. Van Dusen. Van Dusen worked as a prominent Detroit lawyer, Michigan state representative, Chair of the Detroit Regional Chamber, governor of Wayne State University, and undersecretary for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. His career was dedicated to enhancing the quality of urban life. With his memory in mind, the Van Dusen family created an Urban Leadership Forum whose purpose for the last 20 years has been not just to listen to a lecture, but to motivate action.
So it was with joy in mind that a group of us gathered for a two-day design workshop at Ponyride -- a space that radiates joy and resourcefulness itself-- eager to figure out what this all meant. We were introduced to the members of Little Things Lab (a sometimes local and sometimes galactic design group who organized the workshop) and Archie Lee Coates IV, half of the design group Playlab based out of New York. We were told to deconstruct our notions of possibility, and through a series of idea-generating exercises, we reached lunch of the first day with five lumpy but tangible concepts of projects that may somehow bring joy to our city.
As Megan Deal of Little Things Lab told me later, the purpose of this workshop was not only to understand our own capacity for imagining. The city of Detroit has no shortage of fresh ideas. The challenge for her team was to help us move from coming up with something joyful to actually getting that off the ground in one way or another. Towards the end of day one, each of the five groups were pushed to make their ideas come to life in one tiny productive way. How would we make that happen? The mood was frenetic.
Tuesday morning, the result was five distinctive but interrelated outbursts of joy throughout the city. "Detroit Water City" led us all to think of ways to activate the riverfront. A pop-up parade marched with makeshift instruments from the riverfront carousels to Hart Plaza. There they were greeted by a team of Hustle Ambassadors encouraging everyone that walked by to (quite literally) hustle. And spontaneous hustlers might have spoken with a team that asked them, "What does Detroit sound like to you?" The responses have since been released in a Tumblr where you can hear five news sounds of the city each day. Finally, a group of workshops constructed hammocks on the riverfront, creating a "hammock huddle" to peacefully address the anxieties of life and bring a smile to the faces of those who happened to pass by and were offered a chance to lounge.
A few hours later, a crowd gathered on Wayne State’s campus to hear from Kemi Ilesami of The Laundromat Project, Archie Lee Coates IV of Playlab, and Candy Chang, the exceptional artist/urban planner who is known for her joyful interventions on the urban landscape. The three artists reflected on their own paths to their current work, how they interact and engage with a range of human experiences, and the powerful effect of finding a shared sense of meaning in public space. In one way or another, each of them had found a way to bring joy to the center of their work; not always knowing what would come of each experiment, but always willing to risk vulnerability in order to start new conversations.
So what was the result of this two-day emphasis on joy? Perhaps Detroit resident Dana Miles Frost put it best when she unknowingly stepped into the Van Dusen experience: "On my bike ride downtown for lunch, I got stuck behind a parade, watched Detroit literally hustle harder, relaxed in a hammock, put my feet in the sand, listened to live music, and ate lunch from a beach shack. Where do I live? Detroit!"
Follow the Van Dusen Urban Leadership Forum on Facebook to find out more about the next two upcoming events. Sept. 9-10 with the theme of "Beauty" and Nov. 11-12 around the theme "Welcome."