Headlines don’t paint a pretty picture of the Motor City. Last month marked the one year anniversary of Detroit becoming thelargest U.S. city to file for bankruptcy. Unemployment and crime rates remain unencouraging, and there appears to be amass exodus of residentsfleeing the once prosperous metropolis.
Still, many Detroiters are toughing it out, pouring their resources and their talents into rebuilding the city.
We wanted to shine a spotlight on the people in Detroit who are making remarkable contributions to the city. We asked our readers, who are the folks across industries — from finance and automotive to entertainment and retail — who are dedicated to the revitalization. The nominations came pouring in.
These are the people making their city proud.
Owner of Motor City Java & Tea House
When Detroit native Alicia Marion George moved to the Brightmoor area in the late '90s, she described the neighbourhood as 'being in a coma.' The devastation of financial resources had touched every facet of life: businesses wasted away, homes were abandoned, and crime surged.
'People didn't think the light went past the end of their block,' George says. An executive assistant at the time, she wanted to give residents hope that someone was paying attention to them.
She began visiting coffee shops across the region, toured roasting plants, and even got a nine-month gig as a barista at Starbucks. It took 10 years to find a location and gather the funds, but in 2010, she opened Motor City Java & Tea House in a foreclosed house.
Inside, George takes customers behind the bar to teach them how to use the cappuccino machines and to explain how she paid for them. Local festivals, art galleries, youth groups, and block clubs host gatherings there. And since launching, half a dozen businesses have opened in Brightmoor.
Founder of The Detroit Bus Company
Detroit is not in a good place when it comes to infrastructure. Forty per cent of its street lights are broken, and $US7 million was cut from the city's transportation budget.
When the city abandoned its proposal for an M-1 light rail on Woodward Avenue -- the Broadway of Detroit -- 20-something serial entrepreneur Andy Didorosi bought up half a dozen old school buses, hired local artists to paint them and drivers to drive them, and installed a GPS tracking app so passengers could see where their ride is. All of a sudden he was running The Detroit Bus Company.
Buses are biodiesel-fuelled, and can be hailed by the tracking app during slow times. The bus is a godsend for the 11,000 students who use the buses each month as their primary means of getting to after school programs around the city, and the buses can also be rented out for private functions. Didorosi uses them to give city tours and bar crawls as well. Next he's working on creating a public service to and from the airport.
Founder and chairman of Quicken Loans
About three and a half years ago, billionaire Dan Gilbert began 'picking up' properties in downtown Detroit, with the intent to bring commerce back to the Motor City.
The architectural relics he bought sometimes sold for as little as $US8 a square foot. Gradually, over 60 companies opened shop in his nine-million-square-foot spread of prime real estate -- including BCBS, Chrysler, and Twitter. To date, Gilbert has invested about $US1 billion in the downtown area alone.
'(Gilbert) has helped rebuild Detroit one day at a time,' one reader tells Business Insider. 'He truly cares about making Detroit a better place to live.'
Gilbert also walks the walk. Until fairly recently, Quicken Loans was headquartered out in the 'burbs. In 2012, Gilbert moved the company and more than 8,000 employees to a new HQ downtown, where he could be in the heart of the action of his home's revitalization.
Founder, DMJ Studio
A lifelong resident of Detroit, Donna Jackson saw her city transforming right before her eyes.
'I saw Detroit changing... (but) I saw many of the people that I grew up with not taking part in that change or not even being part of the discussion,' says Jackson, who worked as a graphic designer for the Detroit Public Library at the time.
She founded DMJStudio, a design studio for projects that strengthen, beautify, and engage the city.
Some of the projects she's launched have been entirely her doing, like Middle Detroit, where Jackson interviews 'middle Detroiters' to showcase who they are. Some initiatives are compilations of the creativity of dozens of people, like Detroit100, where Metro-Detroiters document their lives in sketchbooks, portraits, posters, and short films.
The goal, says Jackson, is having 'more people making small-scale changes that will create a big impact,' and getting more people contributing positively to their communities and their city.
Executive Director of Cass Community Social Services
Rev. Faith Fowler has found a rather unexpected use for car tires in the Motor City. Since June, her non-profit, Cass Community Social Services, gathered 35,000 illegally dumped tires found in vacant lots around the city and crafted them into flip-flops.
'Detroit Treads' are instantly recognisable by their tire-tread-bottom and embossed Old English 'D.' Designed by students at the University of Michigan and the College for Creative Studies, the flip-flops are assembled by people who have a tough time finding a job -- 'even in a good economy,' Fowler says. The non-profit employs 80 workers, including many homeless and developmentally disabled individuals, veterans, convicts, and at-risk youth.
The initiative is a 'win-win-win,' Fowler says, by cleaning up the streets, providing jobs to those who especially need them, and putting a high quality, original product into the marketplace.
Cofounder and CEO of LOVELAND Technologies
Self-described futurist Jerry Paffendorf started LOVELAND Technologies, a software, data analysis, and community engagement company, to put Detroit on the map -- literally.
Earlier this year LOVELAND was commissioned by the Detroit Blight Task Force to partner with Data Driven Detroit and conduct the first citywide property survey. About 150 Detroiters took to the streets, collecting data on and photographing nearly 380,000 properties in Motor City for the purpose of creating a high-res map of every property in the city that anyone can access and update.
'This data and interface is now used by the Detroit Land Bank and other city departments and service providers responsible for healing Detroit's landscape,' Paffendorf says. With Paffendorf's map, anyone can see what land is stable, unstable, owned, and up for grabs, hopefully easing Detroit's foreclosure problem.
Director of Experiences of Detroit Experience Factory
Jon Chezick has lived in New Mexico, Virginia, and other parts of Michigan, but Detroit will first and foremost always be his home, he says. Chezick wanted to give people who were unfamiliar with his beloved city a true Detroit experience. So he started a city tour company.
In 2013, after he'd given over 10,000 tours, Chezick and his partner Jeanette Pierce rebranded their business as the Detroit Experience Factory. They expanded into bar tours, scavenger hunts, strolling suppers, and private tours for corporations and groups.
One of Detroit's problems, says Chezick, is that people see it as a scary place to be. This makes recruitment particularly difficult for Motor City-based companies. Chezick's work with DXF changes people's minds about what they think they know about the city, and spreads his belief 'that Detroit is an exceptional place to live, work and play.'
CEO and Managing Partner at Detroit Venture Partners
Josh Linkner is in the business of reigniting Detroit's economy. As the CEO and Managing Partner of Detroit Venture Partners, he invests in early-stage startups that focus on rebuilding Detroit through entrepreneurship, technology, and fearlessness.
DVP's diverse portfolio of startups have made a significant economic impact on the city since 2010, including creating hundreds of jobs for Detroiters. So far he's made 24 investments, and he's 'just getting warmed up,' he says.
The startups he funds also bring a lot of young talent to the city, meaning a lot of bright ideas. 'We are helping to diversify the economy, attract young creative-class people to the city, and create jobs, urban density, and hope,' Linkner says. 'We're increasing the tax base, filling up abandoned office buildings, and working hard to re-establish Detroit as a beacon of innovation, creativity, and entrepreneurship.'
Patron Engagement and Strategy Manager of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra
Lindsey Evert knows her city two different ways: There's 'today's Detroit,' in its post-bankrupt state, and 'tomorrow's Detroit,' full of the underlying spirit that has won Evert's heart.
Originally from Kalamazoo, Michigan, Evert moved to Detroit after a summer internship with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. The opportunity to see how the DSO brought out the city's 'collaborative, can-do spirit,' as Evert puts it, made her want to stay there. She currently serves as the patron engagement and strategy manager, and brings in different organisations and local businesses to make the DSO more accessible to music and arts lovers. Not only that, but she helps share the orchestra's message of beauty, hope, and healing power of music.
One of Evert's biggest projects is in partnership with ASSEMBLE, the organisers behind Detroit's X Games bid, to put on a panel speaker series that discusses local issues with guests from around the country. She's also partnering with the Midtown Yoga Shelter to bring yoga classes set to live chamber music to Detroit residents.
Legislative Assistant to the Detroit City Council
In Detroit's most diverse district, where 40% of residents are Hispanic and 40% are African American, Shannon Smith works to ensure the City Council hears its constituents voices.
Smith, a 2012 graduate of the University of Michigan, began working in the Office of Council Member Raquel Castaneda-Lopez in February through a fellowship with the Federal Reserve System, where he works as an analyst. In a clouded political system, he is the face that shows up to the neighbourhood gatherings, business association meetings, and community events -- becoming a liasion between the people and the forces that work for them.
One of the most pressing issues Smith deals with is proper street lighting, something many people take for granted. 'In neighborhoods that were very dark, people were scared to come out of the houses,' says Smith, explaining that those areas become prone to criminal activity. So when the lights go out, Smith works with homeowners and the city to restore lighting -- and a sense of security.
The son of a deaf woman and volunteer with the Detroit Black Deaf Advocates, Smith hopes to one day blend his fluency in American Sign Language with his passion for local politics.
Tifani Sadek provides counsel to Detroiters so they can focus on creating jobs, not paying legal fees.
Founder and Managing Attorney of Sadek Legal Services PLC
There are some people who believe Detroit's unemployment problem is going to be fixed by large automotive companies hiring tens of thousands of Detroiters. Tifani Sadek, a Motor City transplant by way of Chicago, has an alternative plan: to empower Detroiters to create jobs by starting their own businesses.
'Unfortunately, there are so many barriers to doing this,' Sadek explains, 'incomprehensible red tape and daunting legal requirements being some of them.' So, Sadek left a prestigious Detroit law firm and opened her own practice just seven months ago, to serve Detroit-based entrepreneurs and small businesses on a pro bono basis.
Sadek Legal Services PLC provides free and low-cost legal education classes and advising -- guiding her two-dozen clients through processes like securing a business licence, choosing the proper entity, and protecting your ideas through trademark registration.
'I'm working with someone's dream, someone's baby,' Sadek says. 'Everybody has something that the city's residents sorely need. My contribution is cheap legal help.'
Founder of Detroit vs. Everybody
Through the financial struggles and media bashing, the people of Detroit have rallied around a singular sentiment: It's us versus them. In 2012, Detroit native and freelance graphic designer Tommey Walker set out to capture that pride and unapologetic spirit in a clothing line, aptly named 'Detroit Vs. Everybody.'
The online clothing store and storefront, located in Detroit's historical Greektown International Center, sell t-shirts, sweatshirts, skullcaps, and more emblazoned with the name of the line in bold print. The line seeks to 'unite the city of Detroit while politely flipping the bird to the rest of the world.'
'There's an entrepreneurial and creative boom in Detroit that people don't know about, because you have to be here to experience it,' Walker says. 'But people are scared of Detroit. I wanted to show the real Detroit.'
DVE has attracted national attention since then-editor of The Free Press Stephen Henderson gifted a sweatshirt to Stephen Colbert on 'The Colbert Report' last summer. Bobby Brown, Ice Cube, Rick Ross, and Keith Urban have all sported the line, while Motor City native Eminem licensed the mantra for an upcoming 'Shady Vs. Everybody' collaboration.
Cofounder and President of The Michigan Urban Farming Initiative
Once a top rower for the University of Michigan, Tyson Gersh cut his crew career short when an auto-immune disorder severely handicapped him for eight months. Upon reclaiming his health, he returned to school and immersed himself in a variety of research labs, ranging from affective neuroscience to animal behaviour to urban community oral health intervention.
It was there that Gersh, an Ann Arbor native, discovered the socioeconomic disparities in the food industry. He became interested in platforms that work against that, and in 2011, planted the seeds for the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative.
A 100% volunteer-run 501(c) non-profit, MUFI seeks to develop a two-square-block area in Detroit's North End as an epicentre of urban agriculture. There, Gersh and his team of 3,500-plus volunteers grow food without the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and employ Detroiters to keep it going.
Last year, the farm produced over 12,000 pounds of organic produce, which goes to community members who can't afford fresh groceries, local markets, and shelters.
Founder and CEO of The Empowerment Plan
When 20-year-old product design student Veronika Scott wanted to turn her class project into a non-profit organisation, people scoffed. Not because of her lack of business experience, but because of who she wanted to employ: homeless people.
'I received statements like, 'Oh you'll be lucky if you can get one of them to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, let alone a coat,'' Scott says.
But she had faith and understanding. Scott grew up in a situation of aversion and poverty, with both parents struggling with addiction and mental health issues. She credits extremely dedicated family members for keeping her off the streets, and now wants to give a second chance to others.
Her passion, The Empowerment Plan, employs homeless single parents and individuals as full-time seamstresses, manufacturing coats that double as sleeping bags. This season, they're on track to produce 6,000 coats, which will be distributed to shelters and outreach centres across the city. Companies can sponsor the purchase of coats, or individuals can go to the website and make a donation to clothe someone in need.
'For some, this is their first legitimate employment in their life,' Scott says. 'We want people to use us as a stepping stool, and move beyond us to better opportunities.'
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