Today officially marks a week since I arrived here. Prior to DukeEngage, I had never visited Detroit and truthfully had very limited knowledge about the city. Our first blog post’s prompt has us voicing our thoughts about the city. And though I’ve only been here for a week, I can already see what a resilient, creative, and thoroughly inspiring place I’ll be immersed in for another 7 weeks.
I hail from the town of Tenafly, New Jersey, a suburb of the greater New York City area. I’ve always considered myself a typical East Coast suburbanite; in the month between the last day of finals week and my first day in Detroit, I ate sushi and diner food an inordinate number of times, crashed every afternoon in my backyard reading and napping, and took my little sister to the playground on cool evenings. Admittedly, Tenafly provides me with a very cushiony lifestyle.
Detroit is different. The general global perception of Detroit as a very much non-cushiony place rings true – on my first day here, my toilet broke down (a problem that has yet to be fixed, and that was exacerbated just this morning, when the other toilet in the two-bathroom suite I share with Ashka, Caroline, and Keiley broke down as well); the Wi-Fi is spotty and requires me to log in multiple times a day; and two days ago, I received an email titled “IMPORTANT NOTICE” stating that the Office of Environmental Health and Safety would be testing our water over lead and copper concerns.
But it’s not like I wasn’t somewhat prescient to these issues already. Back in December, when I told my mom I had applied for a summer program in Detroit, she pretty much summed up these sentiments in one quick, disgruntled question – “Why Detroit?” Needless to say, Detroit has a less-than-holy reputation as a place ruined by economic hardship and political unrest. So I wasn’t exactly surprised when I was told, for example, that the Detroit Police Department takes over 20 minutes to respond to a 911 call.
What I was surprised by, though, is a spirit of enthusiasm, generosity, innovation, and resilience that feels impossible to capture in a short blog post but that is very evident in Detroit’s rapidly changing landscape and culture. On Monday, our first official day of orientation, the cohort and I took an interactive bus tour of Detroit. The day began at 9am, and one of our first stops was the Heidelberg Project on Detroit’s East Side. The Heidelberg Project is two blocks of eclectic, intriguing art – the neighborhood was ridden with crime for many decades until the Heidelberg’s founder, Tyree Guyton, began decorating the area with everyday discarded items. Most importantly, Tyree opened it to the community so that they may add their artistic input as well. By creating an expressive and valuable space for community members, the Heidelberg Project effectively reduced crime in the neighborhood – and created a truly unique work of art.
[To the left: a picture of the Heidelberg Project]
This sort of creative, innovative spirit to help the city grow is deep and pervasive, as I discovered not just through more stops in the bus tour later that day, but in my continued interactions with Detroiters in the days to come. I began my internship on Wednesday at TechTown, where my partner Raymond and I were immersed in a day of non-stop meetings and interactions with people at TechTown. TechTown is a startup accelerator, but its mission isn’t just to help startups succeed – TechTown seeks to develop the Detroit neighborhood and economy by helping startups that will help Detroit. One of the first meetings we sat in on was with TechTown’s client Recovery Park, a startup in its final stages that employs returning citizens (ex-inmates) to grow and sell local produce. Recovery Park’s economic impact is thus multi-fold: it is developing much of Detroit’s abandoned land into a high-tech, sustainable farm; it is creating jobs for the countless members of Detroit’s recovering citizen community to help them lead better lives and contribute meaningfully to Detroit; and it is creating a network for Detroit restaurants to purchase produce locally.
TechTown’s clients are truly dedicated to giving back to Detroit, but the people who work at TechTown are equally so. In the past few days, I’ve continuously voiced with excitement to my cohort just how “nice” and “wonderful” the people I’ve met are. But in all honesty, these are just platitudes that belie the deeply compassionate and enthusiastic nature of those I’ve met. At TechTown, nearly every person I’ve spoken to has engaged in long conversations with me about interesting and cultural places to see and things to do in Detroit. These same people pour their efforts into carrying out TechTown’s goal of economic development. It could not be more clear that they not only care deeply about Detroit’s well-being, but are extraordinarily proud of the place Detroit has become.
So how can I hope to contribute to this huge catalytic movement? I’ll only be here another 7 weeks, an amount of time that already feels far too short. During the bus tour, our tour guide told us what many consider to be Detroit’s mantra, a quote that has been in the back of my head since: “Detroit is large enough to matter, but small enough that you matter.” I truly hope that what I do here will matter. At TechTown, I’ll be working on evaluating TechTown’s economic impact on Detroit and assisting with the acceleration of several startup clients. Because I’m here for just one short summer, I can only hope to “matter” by leaving something that is both meaningful to TechTown and that can be used in the future. For me, this means thinking critically about how to translate my discoveries and ideas into things that are sustainable. This is by no means an easy task, as I have already begun to witness in these first three days at TechTown, during which Raymond and I have narrowed down and changed our project scope vigorously through extensive thought and discussion. But I am so excited by this challenge and by the opportunity to learn from a community of resilient and inspiring people.
"Today is the day to make it happen."