Tactical Urbanism in Detroit Offers a Lesson for All

By Jessie Feller Hahn

Jessie Feller Hahn is the Executive Director of Meeting of the Minds. She is an experienced urban planner, specializing in urban-regional policy with a particular focus on sustainability and clean energy. Previously, Jessie launched the successful Regional Energy Policy Program at Regional Plan Association in New York City. She has written numerous articles which have been featured in RPA’s Spotlight on the Region, The Hartford Courant, Urban Age Magazine, The Record, NPR, among others.

Detroit is an “insider’s town.” Behind seemingly inactive and abandoned buildings are events like Detroit SOUP and other bootstrap initiatives—all part of an extensive network of social and urban innovators.

I was lucky enough to attend a ‘tactical urbanism’ event at Freespace in San Francisco last week, which brought together six Detroit urban innovators. The panel discussion was organized by UIX Global in San Francisco and UIX Detroit—two independent non-profits working on building innovation economies in their respective cities (who  happen to have nearly identical names). UIX Detroit has built a rich database of projects and entrepreneurs that are positively impacting Detroit. Their mission is to tell the small success stories to the world through media partnerships and to connect innovators with each other to build a larger ecosystem of entrepreneurs who are solving urban issues.

The discussion highlighted the need for creativity and entrepreneurship in Detroit in response to municipal government failure. With a 40% unemployment rate and a 50-60% illiteracy rate in some parts of the city, this group of boot-strapping entrepreneurs are filling a desperate gap by solving the city’s problems on their own.

Here are some of the projects they are working on:

Detroit SOUP

Detroit SOUP has received widespread media attention and awards for its new and localized approach crowdfunding. Detroit SOUP is a monthly dinner that provides micro-funds for creative projects in Detroit. For $5, attendees receive “soup, salad and a vote,” as they put it. During the dinner, four entrepreneurs have 4 minutes each to pitch a business idea that would benefit the city of Detroit. The dinner guests vote on the most deserving projects and the funds from the night go towards the winner. With foundation support from the Knight Foundation and United Way, Detroit SOUP is now working with neighborhoods to start and sustain their own SOUP dinners.

Detroit Bus Company

Andy Didorosi was so frustrated with public transit in Detroit that he started his own bus company. The Detroit Bus Company (DBC) runs buses along the Woodward Corridor connecting downtown Detroit to abandoned transit neighborhoods as a direct reaction to the city’s lack of public bus service. Andy rehabed abandoned and discarded buses and re-engineered them to run on biofuels. He worked with local artists to paint his fleet of school buses, old metro buses, and shuttles. DBC has real-time tracking—allowing passengers to plan their trip down to the minute. (Interestingly, after DBC began realtime tracking of their buses, Detroit’s transit agency instituted its own real-time tracking system. DBC doesn’t think this is a coincidence.) Andy’s most recent project is the purcahse of an abandoned 1920’s bus depot that he is rehabing into a co-work and event space.

Now, with funding from foundations, Andy is filling another city service gap—transporting kids to after-school programming.

Kitchen Connect and Food Lab

Kitchen Connect is a co-working kitchen space in Detroit. Devita Davison started Kitchen Connect to help aspiring food entrepreneurs find commercial grade kitchens at a very low cost. She has recruited a collection of underutilized kitchens from churches and other institutions and convinced them to offer their facilities free of charge.

One glaring example of the difficulty of doing business in Detroit: there are only seven food trucks in Detroit because of the red tape around securing a permit from the city. Devita works with her aspiring caterers and chefs to secure the licenses they need to operate through the state of Michigan (note: not Detroit) and is working vigorously to change the city’s food laws.

All of these entrepreneurs in Detroit are operating businesses despite a lack of resources and an unfriendly business and policy climate. They rely heavily on eachother by building an ecosystem that supports their efforts. Last week’s event was incredibly inspiring and reinforced our choice to host Meeting of the Minds 2014 in Detroit. Urban entrepreneurs are alive and well in Motown and their creativity and gumption is something we can all learn from.­­

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