The Lost Art of Transformation

For most suburban kids, exploring Detroit wasn’t exactly encouraged. Whether your parents sold you on its bad reputation, or the city just never gave you a good reason to visit, the skyline was always just looming (safely) in the distance.

But for local artist and Avalon anthropomorphic sign-painter extraordinaire Gabby Buckay, Detroit had plenty to offer.

“I have hazy memories of things that have a nostalgic appeal now. I remember going to the original Hudson's when it was on Woodward… I remember going to Santa Land and being absolutely terrified... I remember going to Eastern Market… Then when I was a teenager and we got our licenses, my friends and I would drive past the Heidelberg Project or go to the D.I.A., thinking we were very cosmopolitan. I just remember it felt special because we were seeing things a lot of people in our high school weren't, and it was fun to be able to explore something that was a little bit taboo.”

Those experiences galvanized Gabby’s reverence for Detroit early on, and ultimately inspired her to move to 1217 Griswold in Capitol Park. The building was a cornerstone of the Detroit creative community, rising to cult-fame for its critical role in the birth of Detroit techno music and as a live-workspace for countless artists over decades.

“I still have a nostalgic feeling for it, but that building was a total shit hole. The previous landlord had done virtually no maintenance, so it was completely doomed.”

She lived there happily for 16 years, until developers purchased the building in 2014 and evicted Gabby and her fellow residents. Turns out Capitol Park was slated to become the center of a new arts district, complete with modern galleries, luxury apartments and retail.

The evictions made headlines and thrust both the developers and tenants into a gentrification debate that was growing particularly heated at the time.

Developers defended the decision, citing the fire marshal’s assessment that the building was unfit for occupancy and that the change would give the artists and musicians at 1217 Griswold a new and better platform to present their work.

The tenants argued they were losing not only their homes, but also their work spaces and doubted they would be able to afford what was sure to be significantly increased rent. Above all though, they were simply upset and confused by the inherent irony in giving artists the boot to make room for an arts district.

In the end, Goliath won and the glory days of 1217 became mere memories for those who called it home. And though the evictions were a serious blow, Gabby was more concerned with the larger implications of Capitol Park’s transformation.

“It was cool they bought it, but the way they handled the evictions and the plans they had for 1217 and the rest of Capitol Park was kind of depressing. Like, of course it's going to be remodeled into expensive lofts. It's disappointing, but it seems like downtown is going to become one giant homogenous blob. It would have been cool to do something unique with it instead. I mean, why not build things that aren’t just novelties, but truly contribute to infrastructure and support the backbone of a community?”

At the same time, she understands the realities facing Detroit: It needs critical mass and tax revenue. It needs functioning buildings and businesses and bodies to fill them. It needs to be safe and welcoming to new-city-dwellers and suburbanites alike — and it sometimes takes shiny new things to make that happen.

“There’s lots of good happening with development. If I run out of turmeric I can go to Whole Foods now. There's like fifty thousand coffee shops downtown now. I used to get coffee at a party store that closed at six. My friends and I didn't have cars, so we had to walk to Greektown if we needed anything after 6pm. So it’s heart-warming to see a lot of things that were in a state of decay being loved and utilized again.”

And despite the nostalgia for what was lost, like any true Detroiter, Gabby accepted the change, adapted and forged ahead.

“I mean it's really easy to be curmudgeonly. It's not just because I love Detroit, but because change is hard in general. It's hard for most people to not be either nostalgic for the way things were, or sort of have that attitude of like, ‘I was here first so I'm more invested in the city. I'm more of a Detroiter.’ But we have to accept that change can be good too — you just have to take what makes you happy from it. I have wonderful friends that have moved here from other states because it's a unique place and they're able to buy a house. And they’re doing wonderful things. They’re bringing fresh ideas and perspective.”

Ideas, perspective and, as important, foot traffic. Gabby puts her artistic talents to work at several independently owned businesses that — despite some misgivings about particular aspects of the city’s development — are thriving as a result of the influx of newcomers.

“It's wonderful that people I work for are succeeding. They've put in so much hard work. They’ve stuck around and had so much faith and perseverance. For many, it was never about the money — it was about the principle of being something for the community to count on. Something the community could see succeed.”

After the eviction, Gabby moved away from the ever-brightening lights of downtown to a neighborhood on the east side.

“As much as I loved living downtown, I moved over to Farnsworth. It's a diverse community of good artists and weirdos — which I say with high praise. A lot of people have lived here their whole lives or for many, many years, and there are people that maybe moved in two years ago, or a week ago. There's urban farmers and the Back Forty Orchard. There's a place on the corner where they have shows — and it's just cool. It’s kind of like living in the prairie. Downtown I lived in a six-flight walk-up and I had a dog, and it was really fun but I didn't realize how hard everything was. This is only the second place I’ve lived in Detroit, so it's nice to have two different perspectives — a neighborhood and also downtown.”

Stories like Gabby’s are not uncommon — the vacant ruins of urban areas will always be ripe for artists hungry to create, and they will almost always fall victim to gentrification when the developers come knocking.

But in Detroit’s case, maybe some good can come of that. Read any interviews with former residents of 1217 and you’ll feel their passion for their work and for Detroit. So, while being uprooted is, in a word, awful, perhaps other artists like Gabby will continue to explore the city beyond the boom. Neighborhoods where there’s still space for creativity and the spirit of 1217 can live on. Where strangers become friends who work together to create a community of their own design — rather than living in one designed for them.

After all, isn’t that what being a Detroiter is all about?

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Feeding Detroit’s Future

Drive toward downtown from virtually any direction and you’ll probably pass through one of Detroit’s ‘food deserts’ which, simply put, are areas with limited access to affordable, healthy food options.

But keep driving and you’ll hit what news outlets from National Geographic to The New York Times are heralding as a true culinary oasis — a hub of artisan eateries capable of wooing even the most sophisticated palates.

The seeming contradiction that Detroit can at once be a desert and an oasis, beautifully articulates the dichotomy at the heart of the city’s resurgence and raises the question of how we might reconcile this tale of two cities.

For Dr. Joel Kahn — a lifelong Detroit Lover and advocate for the health and wellness of its residents — the answer lies in education. As a renowned cardiologist, Dr. Kahn has a lifetime of experience communicating how important food is to personal health and, in turn, the health of the community he calls home.

“There are too many options to eat poorly and never enough to eat well at an affordable level, so I try to give back by raising awareness of the important health issues in the city.”

Dr. Kahn’s story begins in Detroit, and though his studies took him away from the city for a time, work and family ultimately brought him back.

“I was born in Harper Hospital in 1959, so it all started in the D. I grew up in the suburbs, but my father and grandfather had a store on Fort Street and Junction, Gardner-White Furniture, which was founded in 1912 and is still a family-owned business. I spent a lot of time as a child and teenager at that location and in surrounding areas, at the time there was no concern for a young child to wander. My mother used to drag me down to the Ford Auditorium to watch Vladimir Horowitz play. We sat in the top row on the balcony. We also used to celebrate family events at Joe Muer’s on Gratiot Avenue when I was very young — I remember the lines to get in.”

Today, what keeps him here is nostalgia for the Detroit he remembers and a desire to help shape the city’s future.

“Detroit has a vibe and kinetic nature. I love driving up and down Woodward, remembering the displays in the windows of Hudson’s, then the down times, and seeing what is going on now. The love of music, great food, the international border, people helping people, culture at the DSO, DIA, Historical Museum and such — all these things have endured over the years, even with all the change going on. Now I see that same energy in the food scene, which has exploded.”

Though clearly referencing the influx of restaurants near the city center here, much of Dr. Kahn’s personal and professional focus has been on educating communities about the importance of maintaining a healthy diet so they can make better choices for themselves and their families.

“I lecture any and everywhere — in the public and private schools of Detroit, charity events, on TV and in houses of worship — spreading the message that, for most, health is a choice and food is the most powerful path to achieving it. I also lead walks for the March of Dimes and the American Heart Association and continue to coordinate events at the Detroit Eastern Market and other venues to help show individuals and corporations that we are not doing enough to prevent heart disease. This message is not being taught consistently by the hospital systems and I am a thorn in their sides asking them to do more. We will be a stronger city if we are a healthier city and I am dedicated to being a leader, shouting that message from any forum I am permitted. The lessons are simple, but the teachers are few.”

Teachers are precisely what’s needed to help drive that message home. Like Dr. Kahn said, “health is a choice,” but for families struggling to make ends meet, the choice to eat healthy can be a difficult one. So, Dr. Kahn is committed to proving that a healthy lifestyle is possible, even on a budget.

Fortunately, he’s not alone in those efforts. From non-profits and foundations working with local retailers to provide more wholesome options, to Detroit Public School initiatives aimed at providing more nutritious meals to students, to the more than 1,400 community gardens empowering communities to take control of their food supply — not to mention bolstering the economy while providing jobs and a source of community pride — there are a number of organizations working to educate and inspire Detroit’s underserved populations about the power of food.

Together, these organizations, with the support of individuals like Dr. Kahn, are beginning to seed a rich food ecosystem in Detroit. One that supplies the growing number of restaurants with fresh, locally-sourced produce, sometimes cultivated by the hands of their neighbors. One that, like so many things in Detroit, stemmed from finding creative solutions to the unique challenges facing our community. One that, above all, has the capacity to nourish the bodies and minds of the people who bring that community to life.

It’s an idealistic vision to be sure, but perhaps it’s not so farfetched to say that good food and the health that follows can be a thread that ties Detroiters together. A common cause for us to rally around. An opportunity to break bread and start conversations with our neighbors about where we’ve come from and where we’re going. A reason to sow a shared vision around how to grow a healthy community in which we can all thrive… Together.

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The Business of Hope

Though Detroit has long been a destination for the creative class, the city also attracts another archetype: Individuals who’ve built a life around helping others transform their own. They are the activists who start movements, philanthropists who use their means for good, humanitarians whose boots never leave the ground, and last but far from least, social entrepreneurs who possesses the spirit and savvy of great business leaders but use it to make an impact instead of a profit.

As CEO of Alternatives For Girls (AFG) — a non-profit that helps homeless and high-risk girls and young women overcome their circumstances and build brighter futures — Detroit Lover Amy Good has been doing precisely that for more than 30 years, leading the organization with equal parts executive mind and humanitarian heart.

“I’m a transplant. My family moved from Pittsburgh to a Detroit suburb when I was eleven years old, and I’d known since college that I wanted to live in the city. I was attracted to the opportunities it presented for working on the social issues I was interested in, as well as economical living and a rich culture of diversity. So, once I completed graduate school for social work, I moved to southwest Detroit and never looked back.”

It didn’t take long for her to start making an impact. She quickly found her place in a growing community of activists who were concerned about the increasing number of girls and young women living on the streets of Detroit. Together, they launched a grassroots effort that ultimately led to the foundation of AFG in 1987.

Under her leadership, AFG has since grown from a volunteer-led project to a full-service agency serving homeless and high-risk girls and young women, along with their families, through street outreach, emergency shelters, transition to independent living and prevention services.

AFG has served nearly 30,000 girls and young women over its 30 years, advancing its mission of helping them avoid violence, early pregnancy and exploitation, by making positive choices in their lives. Through the program, they learn leadership skills and serve as peer educators, helping their friends and others access safe choices — in fact, many go on to serve as leaders in their families, neighborhoods, and communities.

One factor in AFG’s effectiveness is the sheer breadth of alternative paths they present to the young women they serve. Survivors of sexual exploitation are learning marketable sewing skills in an innovative social enterprise, and sharing their newfound skills with others. Teen girls in southwest Detroit launched a project to ensure that homeless children and their families can access resources that allow them to continue in school. Recently, an AFG graduate even opened a youth crisis drop-in center, filling a critical need for young people facing challenges throughout the city.

Indeed, strengthening communities by supporting girls and women in the city’s overlooked neighborhoods is truly the heart and soul of Amy’s Detroit story. And for every ounce of effort she and the rest of the AFG staff pour into their work, they are constantly inspired by the support of the Detroit community.

“My work at Alternatives For Girls is tremendously rewarding in that the girls, young women, and families we serve make great strides through the support of not only our staff, but the countless Detroiters, Detroit-lovers, and others who support our cause. It’s been a privilege to play a role in pulling together these resources to address the critical needs of these amazing girls and young women.”

Even amid the seismic shifts in the city’s landscape throughout the last three decades, the theme of Detroiters rallying around their own endures.

“[What’s stayed the same has been] the resilience and engagement of Detroit’s people. Things like sustained activism around human and civil rights, the launch of various creative economic ventures, and a broad commitment to fighting and standing up for the dignity of all of Detroit’s citizens.”

Though those efforts have all made an impact, she still sees a push and pull between progress and decline.

“The past twenty years have brought the beginnings of an economic upturn, followed by a devastating crash, and then the beginnings of a recovery. But recent and current trends around the increasing concentration of poverty in Detroit, and the enormous challenges faced by Detroit Public Schools Community District and its students are alarming and must not be overlooked.”

Another lesser-known but equally important issue is one she discovered during her time with AFG.

“I’ve become aware of the increase in sex trafficking in Detroit in particular, and that the accessibility of the internet as a tool for sex traffickers has brought new challenges to those of us who serve survivors of the sex industry. Even though this does not affect the majority of Detroit’s population directly, our efforts can only be successful with increased awareness and care among the general public. Fortunately, both of those seem to be growing.”

Growing, at least in part, thanks to organizations like AFG, who champion the civic engagement necessary to combat such a profound and complex problem.

“I’m a firm believer that a strong community starts with engaged citizens, and that engaged youth will grow up to become engaged adults, who create thriving communities. I’ve seen many new opportunities for youth to become engaged in activism and leadership emerge over the last 20 years, which bodes very well for Detroit’s present and future.”

That list of young people now includes her own two children, and it’s a safe bet that bodes well for the city’s future, too.

“My husband and I were eager to eventually buy a house in Detroit and raise our children here because we knew they would benefit by engaging in our active and tight-knit northwest Detroit neighborhood. Today, we’re proud to say that they’ve grown up identifying as ‘Detroiters,’ and the bottom line for us is that Detroit is home. We love it not only because our friends are here, but because the wonderful Detroit community offers the benefits of diversity on many levels, a strong creative culture, and simply some of the best people one can ever meet.”

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