The Space Between Silver and Gold

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.

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Nefertiti’s Story

Reno, Nevada, may hold the official title, but anyone who’s been here a while will tell you that Detroit is actually the biggest little city in the world. With just under 700,000 residents across a sprawling 143 square miles, Detroit truly epitomizes that moniker.

Those 700,000 people also know this imbalance is the genesis of the city’s best qualities and biggest challenges—but it’s also precisely what draws folks from around the world who see the potential to make an impact that will truly be felt.

More than 30 years ago, Nefertiti caught wind of that potential while living in Chicago and had to be a part of it.

“When I was 19 years old, I was an activist and very interested in the politics of Detroit. So, I got involved with a group that was working to get Coleman Young reelected at the time, and made way to the city when I could. I went to the Manoogian Mansion and it was so exciting. And of course, he got elected and the rest is history.”

Still splitting her time primarily between Chicago and Kalamazoo then, that experience—and the people she met along the way—convinced her that Detroit was where she belonged.

“I chose to relocate to Detroit to get deeper into the heart of the activist movement at that time—we're talking late '70s—and then, life happened. I got married, I had a daughter, my mom moved to the city. I just cultivated a life here.”

Soon her career shifted from politics to other community-focused efforts.

“For a number of years, I worked for a program called the Birth Project through the Operation Get Down organization, where I worked with midwives to help address the teen infant mortality and morbidity in the African-American community. Soon after, I took on some corporate work and then ultimately started my own business.”

That entrepreneurial journey started in Midtown, where she had a fateful run-in with another budding Detroit Lover.

“The local grocery store at the time was the Cass Co-op on the corner of Cass and Willis. I remember going there and seeing this woman on a ladder doing some work in this building that was totally empty and beat up. I walked up thinking, ‘Who is this chick? She seems like she's kind of badass,’ and said, ‘Hey, so what are you doing?’ She just turned and said, ‘Oh, my name is Ann and we're getting ready to start a bakery here.’”

The two became fast friends, bonding over their love for the city and their efforts to contribute to the community.

“When the co-op eventually closed, I was still working out of my home, but very much wanted to transition to a brick-and-mortar. So, knowing it was now empty, I approached the landlord about leasing the space. I had some good friends—Sharon Pryor and Dell Pryor—who had a gallery, and I spoke with Sharon about sharing the space.”

They eventually convinced the landlord to give them a shot, and began reimagining what the space could be, bringing in more tenants and naming it Spiral Collective. But the building was in rough shape and needed some renovations that exceeded their budgets.

“The space didn't have any windows at the time, so Jackie and Ann agreed to give us a loan to get some. Now, they didn't have to do that, but the culture of that block was very cooperative. Every business on the block was female-based, so we were surrounded by support. We ultimately took them up on the window loan and they even referred us to a sign maker, so they really helped us get that business up and running. Beyond that, there was a friendship right there, a kinship between myself, Jackie and Ann. I remember telling them, ‘You know what? This is going to be a very longstanding relationship because I consider you all to be my spiritual sisters.’ And that's the way it's been from there. It hasn't changed.”

Today, both that friendship and her business, Textures by Nefertiti, are still going strong. And even as the city continues to transform around it, that environment of support in the Midtown business community is unwavering.

“If I need some paper towels, I’ll just go across the street and talk to my friend that owns Flo. That's just the camaraderie that we have. We really are a business community here because we were the foundation of the Willis Street block.”

And though she values what revitalization has done for her business and the neighborhood, she acknowledges it’s not without its pitfalls.

“I really do appreciate the revitalization of the area—though I think there's a distinction between the conversation about revitalization and gentrification—because it's cleaner, it's safer, and we've got lights—I love all of that. Now, what’s disturbing to me—and this often comes with revitalization—is that you've got landlords saying, ‘Well, hey, you know what? We need to raise your rent by 100 percent.’ And there are many businesses in this area that have not been able to survive because of that. If you start off as a small business, you're not always able to scale up because you don't have the financial backing and support to do so. And that's a problem.”

Still, Nefertiti isn’t going anywhere—improving the lives of the individuals and families who call Detroit home has become her life’s work.

“The way I run my business is ‘people first.’ I'm very interested and involved in their evolution, in their personal growth. I have a business where many of the young ladies have been able to do well for themselves because I understand the need for young mothers to control their own schedules and financially provide for their children. I think it's very important that we as a community—as women, as men—are involved in our children’s lives in order to help shape their minds, because that's how we begin, in my opinion, to shape the future.”

In addition to taking care of her staff, Nefertiti knows that a great product is the ultimate service she can offer her community.

“Service to the community. Service to your customers. That’s the backbone of why you want to have a quality product—because you care about other human beings. You're working with some laws that are in alignment with the greater good; that are in alignment with folks who are striving to be the best they can be. So, if you stick with those good intentions, you're going to succeed.”

Indeed, building and strengthening the relationships with those she serves is what continues to motivate this Detroit Lover day in, day out.

“Relationships. At the end of the day, it's about the relationships. I always say Detroit is kind of like the country. There’s still like this old kind of energy here that is inherently Southern, and that adds to the feeling of community. Unfortunately, I see that getting lost as a result of this revitalization and gentrification, but for those of us who have been here and been doing this work—creating something from nothing—for so many years, that energy is still there.”

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It Takes A Village to Build A City

Like many Detroiters, Amanda Rosman’s story actually started outside the city limits.

“I grew up in the suburbs and moved to Detroit in 1999, when I was 22. I had just finished college on the east coast and arrived back home without much of a plan. While staying with my mom, I started helping out the famous Detroit photographer Ameen Howrani, a close family friend, at his studio. One day we were driving around the city, and he took me on a walkthrough of one of the lofts he rented out in the Eastern Market. I fell in love with it and moved into the first available unit. In that space, I came to know a community of long-time residents, artists, students, small business owners and elders. That was it — I was home.”

As time went on, her commitment to the city and the people dedicated to seeing it thrive deepened. She had stumbled on a community seeking anything but the easy road — individuals who had come to and stayed in Detroit for a myriad of personal reasons, but were now united by a common cause.

“Most people I have come to know over the last two decades in Detroit did not show up expecting to be presented with a pretty packaged lifestyle. I think many people in Detroit believe that we cannot rely on others to fix things but rather that, ‘we are the leaders we are looking for.’ The people I spend time with are here because they have been for many years; they kept things together when the rest of the world used Detroit as a punch line, and because they wanted to be a part of something bigger than themselves by coming together with their neighbors to build community.”

Indeed, the opportunity of building something not just for oneself, but collaborating with a like-minded community to make a deep and lasting impact, is perhaps the most unique and alluring aspect of Detroit life. But behind that romantic vision are the sometimes-harsh realities of living in a city that’s still in recovery.

“Like many Detroiters, I have a love-hate relationship with the city. It is not always easy to live here. But every day of living here has meaning. The way people support one another and the way the ideas of work and community are being reimagined here make Detroit feel like the most important place on earth. It sounds corny, but there is so much love in this city. An overwhelming majority of the people I know here have rejected a life of high pay and creature comforts to do powerful, meaningful community work in Detroit, and they are truly fed by it. It wouldn’t make sense to many on paper; you just have to see it for yourself.”

Of course, the city is a far cry from what it was when Amanda moved here in 1999. And though no one can deny the positive outcomes of that growth and change, the steady influx of new people, places and things over the last two decades has, for many long-time Detroiters, taken a toll on some of what they love most about their home.

“I feel like there is room for everyone here, but it is frustrating when certain people or groups come here and treat the city like their own playground, showing disregard for the historical context of the city or the people living around them. While the revamping of downtown is a necessary step forward, I get both angry and nervous when I hear people say Detroit is “coming back.”

Those feelings are due, in part, to a significant unmet need that Amanda and many other Detroiters know looms just beyond the sheen of recently revitalized parts of town.

“The ‘Two Detroits’ narrative is at the same time tired and accurate. Outside of downtown, the neighborhoods — [which is] 95% of Detroit’s land — are sorely neglected, and people either haven’t taken the time to understand that, or simply don’t care. Like many Detroiters, I also don’t want to “go back” to what Detroit used to be — reliance on industry has led us to the current situation, and we need to rethink what makes us strong in order to move forward.”

Those frustrations haven’t tarnished her love for the city though. In fact, it might be part what inspired her career trajectory.

“I taught in Detroit schools for 11 years and then co-founded the James and Grace Lee Boggs School: A small, community-based K-8 school on the near east side of the city, where I currently serve as Executive Director. Our mission is to nurture creative, critical thinkers who contribute to the well-being of their communities. Together, our students, staff, families and community members are ‘growing our souls’ and striving to be our best, most human selves. We believe we are educating the future leaders (in all the ways that can look) of Detroit.”

She’s taken on that mission at home too, instilling the same sense of history, community and pride that made her a Detroit lover, in her own son.

“My ‘village’ and I are co-raising a teenage son who loves this city and has told me he wouldn’t live anywhere else – I believe he will in some way use his life to support the work that is going on here. As Grace Lee Boggs often said, in Detroit, ‘This is a great time to be alive.’”

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