Of course I also found myself nervous during the months leading up to DukeEngage, as people would make the same concerned face when they asked what I was doing this summer. “Detroit will be interesting…” “Why would you choose Detroit when there’s so many cooler international programs offered?” I didn’t have a very convincing answer other than the glowing recommendations from last summer’s students.
Before arriving, I saw Detroit’s reputation from the media mainly encompassing stories about the failed public transportation and education systems, rampant crime, and economic devastation. Driving through many areas and witnessing some of the vacancies, poverty, and crumbling infrastructure has certainly been reflective of this judgment many cast upon Detroit. (Plus a few concerning emails about my dorm possibly having lead in the water and a cockroach infestation). However, just 8 days of living here has exposed me to the increasing innovation dominant in entrepreneurship and small business all across the city.
When I arrived at the airport last weekend, I couldn’t have even begun to imagine the opportunity that has been presented to me thus far. To flash forward, today Ben and I attended a Downtown Detroit Partnership Stakeholder Meeting where Mayor Mike Duggan addressed a room filled with individuals invested in the rebuilding of Detroit into a bustling and prominent city. He spoke of Detroit’s comeback, featuring a “historic transformation” from a practically uninhabited downtown area in the 1980s that people only showed up to from 8am-5pm M-F to go to work.
Now, a new spirit of optimism persists as hundreds of restaurants, retail stores, and public parks/destinations emerge, finally drawing residents and visitors alike to “work, live, and play” as Mayor Duggan explained. The resilience of this city and the unfaltering pride of its people has struck me in nearly every interaction I’ve experienced so far. (I really like this article detailing some of the exciting developments in Detroit: http://www.theatlantic.com/sponsored/jpmc-scenes-from-a-changing-detroit/)
The Detroit Experience Factory tour was a great way to start off our summer here and get us oriented with some of the basic history, culture, and landmarks. During the scavenger hunt, I was surprised by how many curious passer-bys asked about our search and offered directions. A few even laughed at Mabel, Ashka, Caroline, and I, telling us it would ruin the fun if they gave away any clues. If a group of students were stopped somewhere confused in the middle of New York City, they’d be glared at and probably shoved.
At our Innovation, Entrepreneurship & Civic Engagement mixer in TechTown on Tuesday, there was an incredible atmosphere in the room filled with entrepreneurs and change makers. Each person I met excitedly mentioned another Detroiter with shared interests I needed to meet, a restaurant I had to try, or a park I couldn’t miss out on visiting during my 8 weeks. I don’t think I could finish this growing bucket list if I had a full year to live here.
The generosity and excitement has also blown me away. I mentioned to my Venture for America mentor at the mixer that I love running and within an hour of meeting him, he had introduced me over email to his friend who frequently runs in the city. She enthusiastically responded at length about her favorite routes and an offer to try some group runs with me. On Sunday, she picked me up from Wayne State and drove us to Belle Isle, a beautiful park on an island between the U.S. and Canada that features lots of running paths (among many other things) with amazing views over the Detroit River. We immediately counteracted our run with a visit to the famous Sister Pie bakery, started by an entrepreneur who took business planning classes through my internship site placement, Build Institute.
An amazing first week interning at Build, the tour to the Ford Rouge Factory, and a visit to Eastern Market have helped me in contextualizing Detroit’s complex history and the ups and downs of its economic development. While I would love to hope that my 8-week internship will produce sustainable results and truly make an impact in the city, I know my time here is extremely short in the larger context of the revitalization efforts. Nonetheless, I am realizing more and more each day what an exciting and vital time it is to be a part of Detroit’s spirit and growth.