The Detroit hustle: When love for the city goes beyond the 9-to-5

Allandra Bulger and Michael Forsyth know what it means to hustle. 

Both are part of the Detroit Revitalization Fellows, a two-year leadership program of Wayne State University that matches mid-career urban professionals with partner organizations in the city.

Forsyth is a member of the inaugural cohort, which began in 2011. Bulger is in the second group of fellows, which began in 2013. The next cohort of urban leaders will begin its two-year fellowship period next summer.

While the work Forsyth and Bulger do inside the program has been impressive, it is outside the formal boundaries of the fellowship that the two have used skills for what we call "the Detroit hustle." 

Those skills will come in handy in sustaining projects, artistic and entrepreneurial, long after their tenure as fellows is over. Forsyth is a partner in the Detroit City Distillery, which opened in Eastern Market at end of this summer. Bulger does her hustle as a writer, rapper, and emcee. She is part of the Detroit hip hop community and involved with an emerging group of women artists in the scene.

Michael Forsyth in the production area of Detroit City DIstillery

Impressive credentials

Forsyth is originally from Bath, a small Michigan town outside Lansing. He attended Michigan State University and graduated in 2005 with a B.A. in environmental studies, followed by a master's in urban planning in 2006.

Two years later, he left the state for Seattle, where he worked as an urban economic development consultant. In 2011, he moved back to Michigan and was selected as a Detroit Revitalization Fellow ("I wanted to come back home, was looking at a few job possibilities when I got word that I got the fellowship," Forsyth says.). 

He began working for the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation (DEGC) as a business development manager. His credits include helping to launch the REVOLVE Detroit program, which he says evolved out of a relationship with the Villages Community Development Corporation.

"We teamed up with (Villages CDC executive director) Brian Hurtienne and began working with building owners on Agnes Street," Forsyth says. "We helped create retail energy on that block with Craft Work, Vegan Soul, Red Hook, and on Van Dyke with the new record shop, Paramita Sound."

Meanwhile at Detroit Future City, Bulger was beginning to make her mark as civic capacity program manager/convener. What is that exactly? "I help coordinate and build relationships between Detroit Future City and community stakeholders," she says. As a convener, she says she provides oversight to a working group made up of community and economic development leaders.

Bulger grew up in Detroit's western suburbs, in Inkster, and attended the University of Michigan-Dearborn. She graduated in 2003 with a B.A. in psychology. In 2008, she completed a master's in public administration at Oakland University. 

Her first professional interest was in the area of juvenile justice. She worked as a foster care case manager, a youth counselor at a residential home and family services center, and as a court intake specialist and then manager at a juvenile assessment center in Detroit.

Prior to becoming a Detroit Revitalization Fellow, she also worked as a consultant for DEXDesign Associates/New Heights, where she co-developed a project to deliver educational services to Detroit's African American LGBT community.

Allandra Bulger at home in New Center

Do the Detroit hustle        

For Forsyth, the decision to become entrepreneurial seemed to come naturally. After all, at REVOLVE Detroit he helps connect building owners and people with ideas for business. A self-described "work addict," Forsyth owns Detroit City Distillery with eight total partners -- seven of whom come from Bath.

"I've known most of my partners since we were about 3 years old," he says. Most now live out of state, making him the most visible owner of the business. He spends his Saturday mornings at the front area of the tasting room, where he tells Eastern Market day visitors about the product and the history of the space (it once was a slaughterhouse and meat packing facility).  

Forsyth says Detroit City uses local grains sourced from small Michigan farms. The distillery currently produces four products: Bloodline Whiskey, Two-Faced Bourbon, Gilded Age Vodka, and Railroad Gin. Bottles are sold at the tasting room or are mixed in various craft cocktails (the Boulevardier, an Old Fashioned and Manhattan are but three). There is food, including a charcuterie plate made of meats and cheeses.

Forsyth sees the business as part of an overall spike in sophistication in Detroit's food and drink scene. He says he can see this trend as part of his day job at DEGC and as a business owner.

"The level of quality here has risen tremendously just in the last three years," he says. "I think to do it right, you have to combine the history of the place with the energy of the present. Those things are essential for Detroit to grow in the right way."

"Always writing"

For Allandra Bulger, Insite the Riot is a way to stay connected to things that really matter to her -- music, art, words, community, and social justice for all. 

"I was always interested in real social work and working for juvenile justice on behalf of at-risk kids," she says. "It's important that the community has a voice. I wanted to lend my voice to advocate for those who might not have a voice."

While her days might be spent coordinating and convening meetings with shareholders of Detroit Future City, a group tasked with leading the implementation of a long-term framework for development in the city of Detroit ("I love what I do there," she says), her free time is spent with pen or computer in hand, writing words that she can turn into performance.

"My parents are both writers and my uncle was a DJ. They influenced me to become a writer and a rapper from when I was really young," Bulger says. "I learned about the power of words and music by listening to them. Now I'm always writing."

Allandra Bulger, also known as Insite the Riot

Like Forsyth, Bulger believes in making a difference in Detroit by raising the bar on quality, and working with talented artists. She has collaborated with other writers and musicians in the city, including Miz Korona, Invincible, and Nick Speed.

"Artists can be positive community role models," she says. "People, especially kids, can learn a lot about life from us -- that if you get knocked down, you can back up again and keep on doing what you love."  

The program

The Detroit Revitalization Fellows matches mid-career urban leaders with organizations at the forefront of civic, community and economic development in the city and region. Revitalization Fellows work full time at these organizations for two years while engaging in intensive leadership development. 

This Wayne State University program aims to strengthen the city’s talent pool while building the capacity of local organizations to take on innovative projects. Revitalization Fellows have played an active role in numerous high-impact initiatives, including REVOLVE Detroit, Motor City Mapping, the Detroit Lighting Authority and Source Detroit. 

Support for this series is provided by Detroit Revitalization Fellows, a program of Wayne State University. This is the first article in a four part series.

Project editor Walter Wasacz is former managing editor for Model D.
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Walter Wasacz is a writer and the former managing editor of Model D. You can find more of his writings here.