This ability to choose where we want to serve is an immense privilege. In each of the nearly 40 different programs, students can expect to be well fed, safely housed, and fully supported by a community of other Duke students and program staff for the entirety of the two or so months they spend in service. We glean new skills, relationships, and networking opportunities. We drop in and we drop out. These privileges, along with the fact that most of us are outsiders, remove us from the diverse realities that residents can’t just fly away from at the end of the summer. To what extent we acknowledge and choose to approach these troubling truths, I think, will largely define the quality of our service. My hope is to pursue that sort of valuable awareness so that, when it’s all over, what we did here isn’t denounced by those who we had promised to serve.
I chose Detroit because I wanted to return. Last summer was given the opportunity to visit Detroit not just once, but twice. The occasions could not have been more different. Up first was my 10 day stay in the luxurious Renaissance Center during the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s 221st General Assembly. Every two years the PC(USA) flies thousands of church delegates to discern the future of the church. Kept in the good auspices of Downtown, and walking back and forth along the river to debate in the grandiose COBO Center, we saw what some claimed to be the glowing return of the great Motor City. My second stay happened only a few weeks afterwards. Hired by my former teacher and mentor, I drove solo from California to Detroit to transport a Honda Civic. It was the road trip of a lifetime. The family who had purchased Ghandi (I named the Civic somewhere along the 2400 miles of traversed asphalt) lived in an intentional, activist community on Larkins Street in Southwestern Detroit. They showed me the urban farms, told me stories of protesting for water rights, and made me aware that the real plight of Detroiters is still very much alive.
My journey began last Sunday when I flew into Detroit Metro Airport. Already, things were looking up. Tommy Airey, my former High School teacher who – in an act of deep conviction and faith – gave up the comforts of California to move to Detroit last year, was on both of my flights. Ravaged by a cold that wouldn’t go away, I couldn’t relish as completely as I would’ve liked to in the few moments we shared during out layover in Phoenix. But his face, spirit, and encouraging words were exactly what I needed. I also met a guy named Elvin. “Like Alvin with an ‘E’”, he told me. When I asked if people ever quipped “Elvin and the Chipmunks”, he replied, “My daughter shouts that every day!” He asked a lot about DukeEngage, smiling at what he heard. Though my memory isn’t perfect, his last words to me went like this:
“A lot of people think Detroit is full of blight, that it’s a failed city. And don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of blight. But the city is coming back. It will probably be a bit different. It’s the people like you, who are coming in, that are making it true.”
Elvin’s words are one side of the story. Monday morning, I got to see exactly what he meant. The ten of us, along with our program Director and Coordinator, got bussed around the city by the Detroit Experience Factory (stylized, DXF). Calvin, the tour guide spoke spiritedly about the history of the City. We saw the oh-so-famous GM Renaissance Center, a “city within a city” complex of skyscrapers whose construction was supposed to bring life back to the city in the 1970s. Let’s just say that goal still hasn’t seen fruition. We walked into beautiful Art Deco atrium of the Guardian Building, a structure dedicated as the “Cathedral of Finance” and lavished with Native American artwork. We also walked down the Heidelberg Project, a street “once riddled in drugs and deepening poverty” until artist and former resident Tyree Guyton breathed into it a different life through painting, sculpture, and found art. Lastly, we ran around the bustling Downtown in a scavenger hunt meant to familiarize ourselves with the history and “what’s where” in the city. Daylight, private security financed by Dan Gilbert (whose presence in the city and ownership of around Downtown 70 properties is not without controversy), and fun made the city glisten.
Tuesday was all about Midtown. This section, about 1 mile north of Downtown, is home to Wayne State University, our apartment complex, and numerous “co-working spaces” and entrepreneurial ventures. It is also where most of us have our internships. To me, it almost felt a bit like Berkeley. Sure, a chain or two like Tim Horton’s (Canada’s Starbucks) have storefronts, but most everything else is small businesses. Here you find people passionate about what they do. Millions of dollars in grants and investments have funneled into this area to give new birth. If anything, it can be said that the glimmer of Downtown and the number of entrepreneurial small-businesses peppered throughout Midtown are the face of Detroit’s Renaissance.
Wednesday was workday number 1. Angela, my work partner, and I arrived at 9am. Yup, we’re working 9 to 5. Unlike the other Engagers with 20-minute foot commutes, our walk is only a block away. The DFA is housed in the Green Garage (GG). This co-working community houses 53 small businesses, all of whom commit to living and operating in a sustainable manner. The GG is heaven for someone like me who has, little by little, moved toward living my life in a manner that. Once an old car display warehouse, the entire property was renovated with sustainability in mind. The floorboards are reclaimed ash that, due to the presence of emerald ash borer marks, generally would have been minced up for sawdust due to lost aesthetic value. The use of high efficiency lights, skylights, and friendly reminders has reduced overall energy usage to 1/10 of that of a normal office building. And, unlike a normal office that produces 13lbs of waste per person per week, the Green Garage averages about 1lb. There’s more to tell, but I’ll let you read about it yourself here!
Our job is a decent mix of “on the ground” operations and behind the scenes marketing work. From redesigning the DFA webpage and farmers’ market stall to revising different operational systems, our work is cut out for us. But Jen, our boss, is fantastically encouraging. Every time she drops by our work booth she fills us with encouragement.
The relationship I share with the other students in Detroit is something I cherish the most. The 10 of us are nearly inseparable. Things as simple as charades and movie nights (Life of Brian was a recent hit) keep our community strong. Everyone wants to be the first to share with the others, to help out or finish the dishes. This isn’t just a livable community, it is a lively, thought-provoking community. My roommate, Chris, will always delve into deep conversations when we’re on the cusp of falling asleep at midnight. But those conversations are the best, keeping us both in check while also learning about each other’s pasts.
The rest of the week was filled with fun events, organized by Matt and Katherine (our DukeEngage coordinators), which continued to educate us about the happened and happening of Detroit. Friday night included a visit to the Social Club Grooming Company. There, a Shop Talk hosts local entrepreneurs on a monthly basis who are committed to Detroit. Saturday immersed us into the world of fresh, low-cost (thank god) produce for sale at the historic Eastern Market farmers market. We then traveled to the neighboring city of Dearborn to explore the Henry Ford Museum and Ford Rouge plant. Completely redesigned, the plant is LEEDs gold certified, featuring a “green roof” and pumps out 600-1200 F150s a day, 7 days a week. I was overwhelmed with amazement at this marvel of American industrialism, and it is a must-see for anyone who has a chance to stop by.
The Motto of Detroit sits chiseled onto the wall of the Spirit of Detroit, a sculpture featured near the International Riverfront. Speramus Meliora; Resurget Cineribus — “We hope for better things; it shall rise from the ashes.” This is the hope. Something is definitely happening in Detroit. In places, there are the hints of renaissance. But in many others, land is desolate, people are hungry and thirsty, and it feels as if the people in power have turned their backs. I’m not sure what the real narrative is. And it is difficult to think that all my work might not actually, to steal from Steve Jobs, make a dent in the universe of Detroit. These next weeks will be a journey to discern just how to do that, grasping onto the opportunity afforded me by this program while grappling with the many narratives of Detroit that each compose the spirit of this beautiful city.