“You have to have a healthy, thriving creative community to have a successful city.” –Sam White
Detroit has been on my mind this month.
My current preoccupation with the “Motor City” started with an airplane ride to Sacramento. I grabbed the Southwest Magazine from the seat pocket in front of me, drawn by the image of a young Black woman dressed like William Shakespeare with the illustration of the skyline of a city looming behind her. The headline read, “How the Bard Saved a City.” And in small print, “Sam White launches an against-all-odds campaign to transform Detroit with Shakespeare.” I flipped through the pages, found the article, and learned about the 33-year-old Ms. White and her start-up “Shakespeare in Detroit,” a courageous effort to transform the city through art.
Whether its A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a neighborhood distillery or Romeo and Juliet at an iconic hot dog restaurant or The Tempest at the Belle Isle Conservatory, Ms. White’s organization utilizes the resources of the city by staging performances at locations throughout the city that lift the spirits, bring community together, and promote economic development.
The Heidelberg Project, a two block residential art project in one of the most depressed areas of the city becomes the stage for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The project, started and curated by Tyree Guyton, now attracts over 200,000 visitors each year. The Detroit Bus Company used to stage Anthony and Cleopatra, was founded by 26-year-old Andy Didorosi who bought several school buses when the funding for public transportation was reduced. He hired a graffiti artist to paint the buses and offers free rides to those in need and generates revenue through inexpensive all day ride passes, private tours, and bus rentals.
I had a brief exchange with James Dudley, a friend and Moreno Valley resident who grew-up in Detroit before moving to California with his family as a teenager. He saw a picture of me wearing a Motown t-shirt in the newspaper last week – a shirt that I picked-up on one of my annual trips to the city and its historic Motown museum. “It was a great place to live,” he said. “In the 60s downtown Detroit had Tiger Stadium…We had beautiful buildings with great architecture. We had a great park called Belle Isle and a great art museum.
James’s reflections of Detroit’s “grand ole” days are much like the nostalgia fueling the bankrupt city’s resurgence and renaissance after decades of steady decline and decay since the consolidation and contraction of the auto industry, years of corrupt local officialsmisleading the city, and the out-migration of over a million residents.
From people like Tyree Guyton and Andy Didorosi we learn to take pride in the places we live. From Sam White we learn that when we combine that pride with creativity we can reimagine the promises of a city. And from Dan Gilbert we learn that it only takes a small group of committed believers to revive a city. Gilbert, the Detroit born self-made billionaire founder of Quicken Loans, first relocated his 8,000 employees downtown before leading an effort to lure other industries back to the city’s core.
A Time Magazine article published last year called Detroit a national model for a “remarkable economic resurgence” as the city prepares to emerge from bankruptcy. “Still struggling with blight,” the editors write, “its downtown is booming. Full of bustling restaurants, luxury lofts, edgy boutiques, and newly renovated office buildings…the city struck me as a template for much of the post-crisis U.S. economy – thriftier, more entrepreneurial and nimble.”
Like Detroit, some of our inland cities – especially the ones struggling economically – should promote local innovation, encourage creativity, and nurture economic investment that can spark our own renaissance right here at home.