Motor City Mission

Motor City Mission

COMMUNITY SERVICE: Elevate Detroit staff members and volunteers serve area residents during one its CommuniD Barbecues last year at Detroit’s Robert Redmond Memorial Park.

Is Detroit coming or going?

The conventional wisdom is that the once-bustling Motor City is the epitome of a metropolis in decline, a remnant of a bygone industrial era. But for many of us who have decided to intentionally make Detroit our home, we choose to believe that the city has a future.

It’s in our nature, I guess. We love to root for the underdog, and Detroit is definitely that. As politicians, businesspeople, and sociologists ponder the city’s chances, it takes faith to see a bright future for a city that has lost so much of its luster. But over the last few years, the city’s been gaining notoriety as a business incubator (see Detroit’s Future: From Blight to Bright), a destination for good eats, and the slow (but steady) revival of America’s number one auto manufacturing center. It’s home to four professional sports teams, including the Lions who went from serving as the laughingstock of the National Football league to finishing with a 10-6 season and making their first playoff appearance since 1999. Most recently, Detroit was even rated as having one of America’s top ten best downtowns. Detroit’s full of previously unrecognized promise. It’s resilient, tenacious, and on the verge of exciting change.

VITAL SIGNS: An attractive waterfront, competitive sports teams, and fine restaurants give Detroiters reason for hope.

However, a lot is still broken. Detroit’s also been synonymous with present-day notions of urban crime, decay, and impoverishment. At the height of its powers in 1950, Detroit had 1.8 million residents and a thriving economy that helped drive the fortunes of the rest of the nation. Now, 60 years later, the population has dropped to just 700,000 and is in a desperate struggle to recapture its cultural and economical relevance.

Over the past few years, Detroit has become a case study in what ails American cities. In 2010, Time magazine set up a special outpost in the city for a year to chronicle the city’s challenges. And a new book, Detroit: A Biography, finds former Detroit News reporter Scott Martelle analyzing what led to the city’s current misfortunes. Though a sobering read, a strength of the book is that it doesn’t live in the past by romanticizing the bygone glories of the auto industry or the Motown era. Instead, Martelle drills deep into the troubling factors that contributed to Detroit’s decline. Endeavors like Time’s reporting project and Martelle’s book are important reminders of Detroit’s challenges and possibilities.

Detroit is a city begging for educational reform and financial restructuring. And though Michigan’s unemployment rate has steadily decreased over the past year, Metro Detroit’s rate remains higher than state and national averages at 9.2% as of April.

Still, we hope.

Let the Sonshine

With unemployment rounding out at over 50,000, Detroiters have begun exploring other employment options. Detroit residents have begun to reimagine how to create a more sustainable economy — one that isn’t dependent upon a single industry. Through the diversification of business endeavors, some see slow progress.

Historically, a bottom-up, micro-level approach to local economic development has proven to be the most effective. According to the World Bank in a recent report, “Local economic development is about local people working together to achieve sustainable economic growth that brings economic benefits and quality of life improvements for all in the community.”

THE ROAD AHEAD: Downtown Detroit as seen along Woodward Avenue. Strapped with the fallout of crime, poverty, and political corruption, city leaders are in a desperate search for answers. Meanwhile, a cadre of Christian visionaries hope to become part of the solution. (Photo: Rebecca Cook/Newscom)

Some Detroit entrepreneurs have even begun to use their business ventures in order to combat joblessness in their individual communities. Take, for example, Café Sonshine, a local eatery in the New Center neighborhood which employs local residents and provides a community gathering space. Or examine Wayne State University’s Tech Town, an organization that trains and equips fledgling local entrepreneurs with the tools they need to foster a successful business.

Following are the stories of three entrepreneurs who are working to address poverty and stimulate the metropolitan Detroit area through local business. Though all significantly different from each other, these individuals share the same passion and enthusiasm to eradicate poverty, share the love of Christ through community, and see Detroit become healthy and whole.

Community Elevation

GO-GETTER: Elevate Detroit’s Mike Schmitt

Mike Schmitt, director and community architect at Elevate Detroit, has a very intentional vision for his corner of Detroit. He’s firmly planted himself in the geographical area called Cass Corridor. The neighborhood — a small grid of streets located in the Midtown district — has been coined by some as “the Jungle.” It’s a high crime area rife with prostitution, drug dealing, and a strong gang presence that dates back to the early twentieth century. The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre was even partially plotted in Cass Corridor by Detroit’s Purple Gang, associates of Al Capone.

“It’s entirely likely that the same people who may have smiled at you earlier in the day have been up all night making drug runs, selling crack and heroin,” said Schmitt. “Though there are more churches per capita in Detroit than in any other city, there’s an unfed hunger here for community and love.”

Four years ago, Schmitt started Elevate Detroit and a related outreach event called CommuniD BBQs. To date, Elevate Detroit now organizes five BBQs in four different cities — Detroit, Flint, Pontiac, and Mount Clemens. Each week, people come from across the metro Detroit area to join in fellowship with people of different ethnicities and socio-economic positions. On these Saturdays, it’s a piece of God’s kingdom here on earth.

“I’ve tried to move away a couple of times now, but Detroit is my home. Once you see God moving in so many different ways, it’s impossible to leave,” he said.

SERVING THE WHOLE PERSON: Community residents wait in line for food and other resources during Elevate Detroit’s CommuniD Barbecue and mobile health clinic events.

Schmitt also is the primary visionary behind Dandelion’s Café, a new business and community outreach model in the heart of Cass Corridor. Though not officially off the ground yet, Schmitt and his team are in the process of raising capital and hope to get started soon. The hope is for Dandelion’s Café to serve the dual purpose of a coffee shop and concert venue in the building directly adjacent to the park at 2nd and Seldon in Detroit. Schmitt dreams of hosting open-mic nights, karaoke nights, local music nights, and even bring in national acts for concerts. Schmitt and his crew envision this venue becoming a center for community in the neighborhood and creating jobs for those who are in disadvantaged situations.

To complement this model, Schmitt hopes to purchase a nearby house or small apartment building for his previously homeless employees to live in with other residents — families, singles, and the elderly alike. He sees this partially as an antidote to the “No ID” problem. Without a permanent residence to reference on employment applications, it’s impossible for many transients to nail down a job. And without a source of income, the cycle of poverty repeats itself.

“I believe that by doing life together, we’ll create a support network for those who don’t have one,” said Schmitt. “The more that I came down to Detroit from my suburban home, the more I started to realize how much we all had in common and I wanted to do something to help cultivate a support network for those who didn’t have one.”

Harriet Tubman in Detroit

Similarly, Mark Wholihan of The Car Whisperers, LLC yearns for Detroit’s “second chance.” Wholihan began praying for a purpose from God immediately after he became a Christian. After praying for more than eight hours straight one day, he began to envision a new kind of auto repair service, an opportunity that would allow him to use his business to employ people in his community with a lack of resources.

VEHICLE FOR OUTREACH: In this ad for his auto shop, Mark Wholihan stands out in his red suit. He launched the business as a way to connect with people in his Detroit community while aiding the city’s restoration.

The Car Whisperers, LLC opened in February of last year in Livonia, Michigan. This mobile mechanic auto repair facility services western Wayne County. Because it’s largely connected to other cities through an infrastructure of highways, the city of Livonia is an ideal base of operations for any largely mobile organization. Additionally, with easy access to cities such as Farmington Hills, Detroit, Canton, and Allen Park, its socioeconomic range of customers is widely varied and diverse.

“When God put this business on my heart, I nicknamed it The Harriet Tubman Mission,” said Wholian. “Through using this business, I’m trusting God to help me bring people from slavery to freedom.”

Like Mike Schmitt, Wholihan envisions his auto repair service as a stepping stone to a larger organization designed to provide clients with total rehabilitation. In the case of The Car Whisperers, he has dreams of founding a residential long-term rehabilitation program in Detroit for people in need of holistic recovery. This projected program, called Second Chance at Life, will include a homeless shelter, drug and alcohol rehabilitation program, job placement services and an education center. As they continue to develop the micro-economy that will help to fund such an endeavor, Wholihan and The Car Whisperers are partnering with the YWCA community centers in order to expand how they meet the needs of their community.

“Reducing drug and alcohol abuse, unemployment, homelessness, crime, poverty and the return to previous lifestyles will make the program successful,” declares a blurb on the ministry’s website. “[It is our hope] to help Detroit and the surrounding communities to become a better, safer place for everyone.”

Repairer of Broken Walls

Like the Wholihan and Schmitt, Lisa Johanon and her non-profit ministry, the Central Detroit Christian Community Development Corporation (CDC), are targeting poverty and joblessness in Detroit through a grassroots movement. Johanon lives and works several blocks north of the burgeoning New Center district in Detroit. Located adjacent to the Midtown neighborhood and about three miles north of downtown, New Center was developed in the 1920s as a business hub that could serve as a connecting point between downtown resources and outlying factories.  Today, New Center is slowly developing into a commercial and residential success. From the summer-long event series in New Center Park to the growing headquarters of the Henry Ford Health System, New Center is making its mark on the Greater Detroit area.

FRESH VISION: Lisa Johanon (right) and her daughter Emma. (Photo: Cybelle Codish)

But blocks away in the neighborhoods north of New Center where Johanon lives, it’s another story. Though only separated by some city streets and skyscrapers, this area hasn’t been able to grasp the same commercial success that its evolving counterpart has enjoyed. Rooted in a chronic, generational poverty, these residential neighborhoods have more than just economic obstacles to overcome. The community’s struggles with drug abuse and mental illness are visibly prominent. It’s been calculated that up to 72% of the households are single-parent families. Johanon said the amount of tragedy and injustice has led residents to ask God, “Why?”

“You can’t talk about Jesus when your neighbors are hungry and don’t have a job,” said Johanon. “Long term impact happens because someone is walking beside them.”

So, that’s what Johanon made plans to do. She moved to Detroit in 1987 after helping plant a church in Chicago’s notorious Cabrini Green housing projects. During her first seven years in Detroit, Johanon established and oversaw the Urban Outreach division of Detroit Youth for Christ. From there, she went on to become the executive director of the CDC, which she co-founded more than 15 years ago. She’s been planted there ever since.

The CDC aims to be a well-rounded resource for the central Detroit area. They organize and administer educational programs, orchestrate employment training, and create opportunities to spur job growth in the area. With their outreach initiatives and organic structure, the CDC takes Isaiah 58:12 to heart — “Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.”

“The CDC is the model for economic development in our community,” said Johanon. “Walmart isn’t going to come to our neighborhood, so we have to create the job opportunities ourselves.”

Of the three Detroiters highlighted, Johanon has the most business experience to date. The CDC has launched five businesses in their community — Peaches & Greens Produce Market, Higher Ground Landscaping, Café Sonshine, CDC Property Management, and Restoration Warehouse. Each business has a twofold goal — to meet the needs of its community members and simultaneously provide them with jobs.

ON THE MOVE: Lisa Johanon (far right) and her Central Detroit Christian Development Corporation team received a May 2010 visit from First Lady Michelle Obama, who was encouraged by CDC’s Peaches & Greens venture, which provides Detroit neighborhoods with access to low-cost fruits and vegetables through a produce truck and store which are clean and safe. Mrs. Obama, whose “Let’s Move!” initiative targets the problem of childhood obesity, hailed the CDC’s efforts.

But it’s not just about providing community members with a sense of dignity that financial stability can bring. Johanon understands that there needs to be a holistic approach to the restoration of dignity – an approach that includes attention to a person’s physical, social, and spiritual needs.

“The CDC believes that education empowers our community to grow and thrive. Employment equips our community to sustain families. [And] economic development transforms our community,” said a source on their website.

It’s easiest to understand what the CDC aims to do by looking at individual stories. “When we hired people from the neighborhood to work for Higher Ground Landscaping, not a single one could pass a drug test. Now, we only have two who still fail,” said Johanon. “The minority has pressure to change their lifestyle. We want to show that we’re committed for the long term.”

And she’s right — it’s consistent commitment that’s going to change the DNA of Detroit. Each of the entrepreneurs featured in this piece have committed their time, experience, and vision to making their little corner of Detroit more sustainable. In essence, they’ve surrendered their lives to God and His mission for them. And this is something that no politician or urban developer will ever be able to replicate — God using ordinary people to bring about change and renewal. Ultimately, Detroit’s revival — and the resurgence of any ailing city — will start and end with these kind of committed efforts.

Detroit’s Future: From Blight to Bright

Detroit’s Future: From Blight to Bright

GHOST TOWN: The abandoned ruins of Detroit's once-bustling Packard Auto Plant.

Over the last month in Detroit, the blighted Motor City has recaptured a bit of its civic pride with the success of two of its pro sports franchises. The winning ways of the Tigers (who went deep into the American League baseball playoffs) and the Lions (who started the NFL season 5-0) are exhilarating.

Sports teams can serve as symbols of hope for big cities, and at least for a moment their accomplishments helped take the focus off of Detroit’s primary narrative these days — its anguished economy and decaying manufacturing sector.

The excitement over homeruns and touchdowns is a welcome distraction, but the ubiquitous ruins of what used to be a vital and bustling industrial hub is still a more accurate measure of the city’s current fortunes.

Take, for example, the sprawling remains of the Packard auto plant. It can be seen spilling over East Grand Boulevard — east of Mt. Elliot and south of I-94 — its missing windows like a large gaping grin. On any given day, the Packard Plant is host to filmmakers, urban explorers, and photographers alike, trying to capture the beauty in decay. Unfortunately, it’s also a backdrop for car theft, prostitution, and dogfighting. Today, the abandoned plant showcases crumbling staircases and discarded property. But it wasn’t always this way.

The now lifeless automobile factory was once the pinnacle of extravagance, producing luxury cars for wealthy purchasers, both in the United States and abroad. The Packard Motor Car Company opened its doors in Detroit in 1903, the same year that Henry Ford perfected the assembly line. The company pioneered a number of design innovations, including the modern steering wheel and, years later, the first production 12-cylinder engine. At the height of its success, the plant provided more than 40,000 workers with employment.

But in 1956, only one year after auto production in Detroit soared to an all-time high, the Packard Plant halted production. When compared to other larger automobile companies, including the Big Three, this plant was pulling in less than 1 percent of the market share during the 1950s. Unable to compete with a slew of foreign and domestic rivals, many companies merged, disbanded, or changed location to be closer to the competition. Automation soon swept through assembly lines, replacing employees in these plants. By the 1958 recession, 20 percent of Detroit’s workforce was unemployed.

“Detroit’s economic decline began much earlier than most people think that it did,” said Daniel Clark, an associate professor of history at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan. “There were many contributing factors — decentralization of the auto industry, increased automation in the factories leading to fewer available jobs, even rules surrounding federal government housing loans. In actuality, the decline began right after World War II.”

Clark stressed the impact that racism and segregation played in Detroit’s economic decline. Exclusionary zoning practices reinforced economic and racial tensions in the city, and hindered many non-white Americans from moving into the suburbs. Additionally, bank redlining established standards for evaluating risks of mortgage loans. According to the standards of the Federal Homeowners Loan Corporation, black, integrated, and radically changing neighborhoods were defined as credit risks and therefore prevented occupants from obtaining federal government housing loans. Consequently, many nonwhite Americans in Detroit at this time struggled to build a life for themselves outside of poverty.

The story of Detroit’s economy is a complicated one; a story laden with corruption and racism, greed and even some technological advances that set the city back rather than propelling it forward. It’s a story of a city that failed to diversify its business portfolio, leaning too heavily on one industry.

But there’s also a secondary narrative of optimism and hope emanating from a grassroots movement of entrepreneurs. These tenacious women and men, many of them inspired by their religious faith, have refused to give up on the city.

DETROIT INNOVATOR: Margarita Barry is the founder of 71 Pop, a social entrepreneurship venture that helps creative entrepreneurs obtain their own retail spaces. Photo by Karpov The Wrecked Train (Kenny Corbin).

Young Detroiters Leading the Way

The culture of entrepreneurship in Detroit is a multifaceted and diverse. From clothing designers and fledging venture capitalists to foodies and shop owners, the Motor City is abounding with people who are striving to create their own sense of the American Dream. They’re the Grassroots Entrepreneurs — people who are organizing their businesses on the community level rather than flocking to a single industry. They’re not afraid to work from the ground up — to hang up posters, hand out business cards, and employ fundraising campaigns (like Kickstarter) to get their company going. They’re the networkers. The social media mavens. The people voted most likely to quit their day jobs.

One such example is Margarita Barry. She embarked on her first venture at the age of 18, launching a multicultural web-based and print magazine for women called Tint. Ever since then, she’s been hard at work. As a seasoned Detroit entrepreneur, Barry grasps the importance of working to create something that will positively influence the region, while also potentially generating a profit.

At the end of July, Barry opened Detroit’s first-ever collaborative pop-up retail store, 71 POP. From the beginning, Barry wanted to use this outlet to supply new designers with an affordable and hassle-free retail space to sell their products. Many of these creatives would not have otherwise had the opportunity to sell their products, had it not been for Barry’s latest undertaking.

She’s also the founder of I AM YOUNG DETROIT. More of a movement than a blog, this website offers news, profile pieces, and video media about Detroiters under the age of 40 who are shaking things up in the Motor City. It’s served as a mouthpiece and a platform for Detroit’s younger generation.

Like Barry, Ben and Dan Newman are part of Detroit’s next generation of entrepreneurs. Both brothers graduated from the University of Michigan, Ben with a master’s degree in urban planning and Dan with his bachelor’s in business. Opening a bakery was never on their agenda.

But all that changed last November when they made their first batch of bagels. “Bagels are like pizza. Everyone has an opinion on them,” said Ben. “Up until this point, no one has really experimented with bagels. We want to make bagels that you can’t get anywhere else.”

So, that’s what they set about to do. Currently, they’re baking out of their Corktown flat and selling bagels every Tuesday at the Eastern Market through their business, the Detroit Institute of Bagels. On average, they pack up about 200 bagels to bring to the market, selling out within two to three hours. Their offerings run from the traditional to the unique, from plain and poppy seed to more experimental flavors like cherry chocolate and, most recently, blueberry lime. Soon, they hope to be moving into a permanent establishment.

“It may be a small thing to offer Detroit a bagel shop, but we’re providing conveniences that weren’t available before,” said Dan. “It’s the unique spots that are going to drive visitors and residents to stay in the city.”

BAKERS' VISION: Ben Newman (left) and Dan Newman are the brothers behind the Detroit Institute of Bagels.

Similar to Barry’s vision, Ben and Dan Newman hope to use Detroit Institute of Bagels to positively influence the Detroit region. As their business grows, they plan to offer residents jobs in the company and use it as a platform for teaching and training business practices so that employees will have the skill sets needed to start their own ventures some day.

“When you open your own business, you expect the hurdles, but realize its part of getting to the goal,” said Ben. “Here in Detroit, we’re building on the businesses that are already established. The community support is unbelievable.”

TechTown, Detroit’s research and technology business park, is one such support for those looking to start their own businesses. They describe themselves as “a community of entrepreneurs, investors, mentors, service providers and corporate partners,” and actively work to provide resources to fledging businesspeople and administrators through programs such as SmartStart (their business accelerator program) and NextEnergy (an alternative energy incubator). As the most prominent business incubator in the Detroit area, TechTown hopes to be one of the main driving forces of stimulating economic growth in Detroit and Michigan as a whole.

Churches in the Mix

The churches of Detroit are rising up as well to help stimulate economic growth in their community and devise ways to care for the neighborhoods around them. Rev. Kevin Turman of Second Baptist Church of Detroit spoke recently of how they’ve made a conscious decision to “adopt” the Lafayette corridor to the east of the downtown area as their geographic area of mission.

COMMUNITY CONNECTOR: Detroit's Second Baptist Church, led by Rev. Kevin Turman, seeks to make vital connections with both the residents and businesses of its downtown neighborhood.

“We’re working on connecting the resources of the surrounding business community with the needs of the residents,” Pastor Turman said. “There’s been some hesitance on both sides of the equation… but we intend to [have even more community involvement] and to do better.”

Second Baptist Church of Detroit has championed for the city for more than 150 years. Prior to the Civil War, the church served as a station of the Underground Railroad, providing about 5,000 slaves with clothing, food and shelter before passing them onward to freedom in Canada. They also established Detroit’s first school for African American children; one of its members — Fanny Richards — went on to become the first African American career public school teacher in Detroit.

Second Baptist Church is located in the heart of downtown Detroit. They’re four blocks away from the landmark Renaissance Center and only five blocks away from the Detroit River. The congregation is comprised of a mixture of professional and labor workers, many who have been members for 50 years or more.

“The future belongs to those who prepare for it,” said Pastor Turman. “We are looking at our worship services, ministries, and outreach efforts to ensure that we will remain a vibrant part of Detroit’s present and future rather than a beautiful relic of its past.”

Coming Back (Like the Lions)

But the question still remains: Can post-industrial cities like Detroit pull themselves up by their bootstraps? Maybe not completely. No city can replace an entire economic infrastructure and replace tens of thousands of jobs on its own. But you have to start somewhere.

“Cities can start [repairing] roads, the water system, schools — all things that are essential to communities. It may also just be that all Americans have to learn to live with less and buy locally,” said Clark. “Detroit needs to do these things in order to strengthen its economy.”

From the era of Henry Ford and the Model T until today, Detroit has possessed a legacy of tenacity and creativity. By continuing to provide a business climate that is conducive to startups, Detroit can stimulate its business community, while providing resources to the neighborhoods within it.

At the risk of wearing out the sports analogies, perhaps the journey of the Detroit Lions can serve as inspiration. In 2008 the Lions became the first NFL team to go 0-16 in one season, and then a year later they could only manage a 2-14 record. Now, just two years later, they’ve gone from being the worst to one of the best teams in the league.

Now is a time in Detroit’s history for big dreams and small steps. And sometimes, all it takes is just one step to begin bringing about transformation. As the Peruvian proverb says, “Little by little, one walks far.”