In the summer of 2015, a small group of onlookers gathered to watch the iconic Park Avenue Hotel crumble to the ground. Designed by famed architect Louis Kamper, the 1924 building had gone from the National Register of Historic Place to the demolition list as Detroit made room for Little Caesars Arena.
Though the razing took all of about 60-seconds, its approval process was long and arduous, deepening the debate about what’s worth saving in a city that’s lost so much.
Most Detroiters find themselves in a tale of two cities: One desperately clinging to the invaluable relics of a storied past, the other focused on the future at any cost.
For George N'Namdi, an ardent supporter of education and arts in the city, finding the balance between those worlds is precisely what it means to be a Detroit Lover.
“I think it's a major challenge. I’m happy about the stadium and developments like that, but I think a lot of it, downtown particularly, it's too homogeneous. And I worry about that because it makes your city kind of cookie cutter — even if it’s great architecture — if it doesn't have that history.”
And when it comes to understanding the history of Detroit, George is a devoted student.
“My wife and I moved to Ann Arbor from Ohio in 1976. We had a daughter who accidentally died, and we eventually decided to start a school in her honor. We chose to move Detroit to do that because of its political activism, long history around culture and low cost of real estate.”
They made good on the mission of honoring their daughter’s legacy by starting the Nataki Talibah Schoolhouse in 1978 which his wife, Carmen, ran until they closed its doors in 2016. Over those 40 years, George has seen Detroit in the best and worst of times, but it’s precisely that ebb and flow — the often complex but always exciting experience that is living in Detroit — that’s kept him here. Perhaps that’s why with each new development he worries the city might be losing some of what he’s grown so fond of.
“I call it ‘the funk.’ It’s that grit that we get to be a part of here. That's what catches people. That's what makes Detroiters, Detroiters. See, in ten years, if we don't maintain some of that funk — the history, the grit, all that — we're going to be like Any City, USA. Detroit has character now, but it can easily be lost because a lot of the people who are doing things might not understand or appreciate it.”
That’s not a matter of opinion, it’s a matter of fact: The myriad of people fueling Detroit’s surge of development are a far cry from the DIY pioneers who were hustling to get their ideas off the ground when the city could barely keep the lights on. And though the two camps both want what’s best for the city, their opinion on what that means can be quite different.
“You sort of have the old and the new Detroit developers. The new guys are coming with cash and connections, where the old guys did projects by forging ahead and relying on their grit. They couldn't simply go and buy a building. It would take a few years to get the financing together and all that. That old-school approach empowered persistent people to create opportunities for themselves even in tough times. Detroiters have always been lemonade makers, and now we have some of the best lemonade in the world.”
Clearly each model has its merits, but it will take a balance of both to continue refining the city while preserving the funk. That’s why Detroit needs motivated individuals in the neighborhoods driving change from a grassroots level. George recognizes that we must find a way to bridge the gap between old and new in order to build a more integrated, inclusive city.
“I think one of our charges now is to encourage more longtime Detroiters to participate more in what's happening in midtown and downtown to avoid what I call ‘psychological gentrification’. What I mean is moving people out of their personal social-emotional space and helping them see themselves as part of the city as it changes. It's basically creative place-making, and that’s something we all have to be cognizant of.”
In short, creative place-making means utilizing the power of the arts, culture and creativity to serve a community's interest, while simultaneously driving a broader agenda for change, growth and transformation in a way that builds the character and quality of a city. As the owner of the G R N’Namdi Gallery, George has an eye for these things.
“I opened the gallery in 1981 and we’re still in that very same location. Now we’ve converted it into a hybrid gallery and non-profit space. We show a lot of local artists, but we also focus on national artists and Detroit artists who have a national reputation. It raises what I call our ‘intellectual quotient’ as a city, meaning people just know there are thinkers there.”
When talking about intellectual quotient, it’s impossible not to consider the state of education in Detroit. As someone who recognizes the value of education, George understands the need for effective schools in the city, but doesn’t see it as an issue unique to Detroit.
“Everybody has issues with their schools. This is not a Detroit thing. That's one thing we have to get away from is owning every problem like it only happens in Detroit. When you go to New York, Chicago, or a lot of these other major cities, people still say, ‘Oh, these schools.’ But they clearly figured out alternative solutions because people are still moving there. You're never going to undo the notion that our schools are not functioning, but I think we can simply start focusing on educating a well-rounded child. Schools are focused on test scores because they’re tied to funding, so teachers are pressured to keep those scores high. But being good at taking tests doesn’t make you a thinker.”
There’s no doubt that George and Carmen shaped more than a few thinkers at their school throughout its 40 years. Thinkers who became Detroit Lovers like them. Thinkers who might one day become leaders charting the course for Detroit’s future. Thinkers who know a thing or two about honoring the funk and, of course, making some damn good lemonade.