Garage Cultural director Amelia Duran aims to help Southwest Detroit's kids hang onto heritage

When Amelia Duran was growing up in the '90s, in Southwest Detroit, she remembers her mother, a now-retired DPS art teacher, struggling to buy supplies to be able to teach the things that she wanted to in her classroom.


"There wasn't a whole lot of focus or energy or resources being poured into art and music in the public schools because they were strained," Duran recalls. "And so having a space that is focused on uplifting traditions, art, language, and our music is really important to us."

Amelia Duran


Duran's mother is a fourth-generation American (her family came to Detroit from Czechoslovakia and Ireland in the late 19th century); her father, Ismael Duran, a Latin American folk musician, immigrated from Chile. The two met in France, where Duran's father had fled to escape political unrest. So Duran grew up with a range of cultural inputs. On her maternal side, she saw how much of the culture had already been lost. And on her Latin American side, she witnessed the process of losing.


Duran's father had established Garage Cultural on Livernois in 2013 in Southwest Detroit in collaboration with Lydia Gutierrez of Hacienda Mexican Food, a tortilla manufacturing company, who donated usage of the building that was primarily used as a warehouse. The goal of the organization is to help spread arts and culture in the neighborhood while incubating local artistic and creative talent. And they do it by raising the culture of the residents in the neighborhood.

Ismael Duran


"Having a space that is rooted in Latin American art, culture, and language is really important because it allows the children of the people who are migrating to continue to explore those things in a way that feels a little bit more organic than I think sometimes the structures that they're exposed to within their schools," says Duran.


Duran, who has previously worked in housing and community development and college access work, became the Co-Directora of Garage Cultural in 2013 after being laid off from her full-time job. The organization had, since its inception, been operating seasonally and sporadically; the lack of a proper heating and air conditioning system made year-round programming difficult. After reflecting on her options, she decided that if Garage Cultural was ever to reach its potential, it needed a focused strategy. So instead of taking another full-time job, she decided to devote herself to Garage Cultural.


"I kind of took a moment to pause and decide what I was going to do next," she says. "And that's when I took on the role of Co-Directora and really started doing long-term strategic planning and project development."


In the last three years, she's been able to make the organization more sustainable by diversifying revenue streams and has begun to lay the foundation to eventually have paid staff. She began to believe that if Garage Cultural were able to secure funding to redevelop an additional space in which they could operate in the building year-round, then the synergies and support from the community and other partners would be able to eventually sustain the organization and additional economic development through the lens of arts and culture in Southwest Detroit.

The Garage Cultural building is covered in murals.


Her major hurdle was getting the building to the point where it could sustain that kind of capacity. But without some kind of major investment, Duran realized, that goal was out of reach.


"The reality of an organization like Garage is that we don't have large operating budgets or support," she says. "Our revenue from the summer program is very low. So that alone was never really going to get us to the point where we would be able to have consistent revenue or operating funds."


Duran realized that to succeed, she would need to look to national funding streams for support.


In 2017, Duran secured a $250,000 grant from ArtPlace America to plan a new community art and creative incubator space called NOIS, an acronym for Neighborhood Office and Incubator Space that plays off the name of Livernois Avenue. (There's also a creative tagline: Community equity, by making noise together.) The organization was one of 23 awardees that year out of more than 1,000 applications nationwide.


It was by far the largest grant the organization had ever received.

Summer programs help kids in Southwest Detroit connect to their culture through art and music.


"That was a huge leap for us," says Duran. "We really were doing the best we could with meager means. And our building showed that. Our roof is leaking, we have no heat. Things like that make it really challenging. But that was the first vote of confidence that any large national or even local funder put in us — based on their belief that there was value in this place, that that was created basically out of nothing but our own communal sweat equity."


The funding goal is to create a space that will be dedicated to cultivating an arts and cultural economy in the community, with an emphasis on building on the social fabric and interpersonal relationships that help retain the cultural traditions of neighborhood residents. It's something Duran points out that the neighborhood has been sorely missing since the closure of Cafe con Leche near Clark Park in 2017.


"Southwest Detroit is one of the areas in the city that throughout the last 30 years had a gradual population increase every year, which for most areas of Detroit was not the case," says Duran. "And so having that portion of the population to be able to continue to express themselves through a kind of collective identity is even more relevant now as new development comes into the city."

Garage Cultural is also crowdfunding to expand its Art on the Block public mural partnership program. Read more on that here.

The series is supported by the New Economy Initiative, a project of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan that's working to create an inclusive, innovative regional culture.
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Read more articles by Nina Ignaczak.

Nina Ignaczak is a metro Detroit-based writer and the editor of Metromode. Follow her on Twitter @ninaignaczak.