As political theater, Mayor Mike Duggan made all the right moves for his State of the City address last week. For starters, he held it at the Redford Theatre, a beloved institution in a run-down neighborhood where community activism has given local residents some hope.
It was a perfect metaphor for the city itself, and for Duggan's message that "Detroit is now on the road to recovery." One year in, Duggan is pretty much unscathed. He had the cover of Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr to do all the really unsavory things — like cutting back on pensions and health care for retirees — during bankruptcy proceedings.
Publicly, Duggan has focused on relatively small, well-defined, and manageable projects that he can point to as having produced results. Things like getting the streetlights back on, a big quality-of-life issue for many residents. There's a new streetlight out front next to my driveway and I'm happy about that.
Duggan seems to know that for all the big development that has been put in place downtown and in Midtown, for all this stuff to work it's also got to work where people live in the neighborhoods. Instead of being overwhelmed by the sheer amount of problems, the mayor seems to be taking one thing at a time and being successful at it. The administration is taking on blight, transportation, emergency response — the things that can take their toll on residents who one by one quietly move away.
The Redford Theatre resides on a block that I consider to be one of the interesting little enclaves in town where community activism, entrepreneurialism, and hipness come together to push back against decay. The Artist Village is there along with the Motor City Blight Busters' storefront. There's a pharmacy, a repair shop for household items, a dessert carryout place, and a shoe repair shop along there. Artist Trevor Coates opened a clothing store named Profit on the block. Eminem wore a Coates-designed hat in the video for "Detroit vs. Everybody."
That block is also where the Motor City Java and Tea House, and Sweet Potato Sensations are located. Duggan gave shout-outs to both of them as he warmed up into his speech. Both of those businesses received $10,000 New Economy Initiative grants this past year, so there is a lot of hope centered on them.
"When the mayor said my name in the first minute of the speech, I was in shock," says Alisha George, founder of the coffee and tea shop. "I just didn't realize that people are listening and paying attention and supporting this dream and vision for Old Redford. It gives us so much hope to continue to do what we do."
Duggan is no stranger to the place. He's been there a few times, once when the NEI grant was awarded. His pre-speech reception and post speech afterglow were held there too. Good move.
"He's been very supportive of us," says Tonya Murphy, George's business partner.
Sweet Potato Sensations is the better known of the two. I've encountered its products in stores and at events around town. The Java and Tea House has yet to make its reputation beyond the immediate neighborhood. But Duggan may have helped that.
"We've been getting calls, people want to rent out the facility," says George. "We have artists who want to perform here. I'm trying to catch my breath as I talk to you because we're still trying to digest calls coming our way. There have been a lot of positive responses since Tuesday."
That's great for the shop. George opened the place in 2010 and has struggled to keep things going. When it looked like the shop might close in 2013, mother and daughter Tonya and Maegan Murphy came in as partners. Tonya is a marketer and Maegan is a chef. They expanded the menu and built up the catering side of the business. The extra hands made it possible to look around and enter some of the contests for businesses in the city. The NEI grant helped with basic things such as signage, furniture, and a cash register that does a whole lot more for the business than just ring up sales. There is still a long way to go. George hopes to be able to offer breakfast sandwiches soon.
As Detroiters fight to save their neighborhoods in the face of mass desertion, these little villages here and there can serve as anchors to further development. Places where local residents can gather and dream. And Duggan was right to champion them in his address.
The Redford Theatre, with its enthusiasts for the organ in the nearly century-old building and its inventive programming — last year, Pam Grier came in for the showing of some of her films — is a natural to develop around. Sweet Potato and the Java and Tea House give folks a place to hang out before and after films.
There are a lot of negatives in the city that didn't get addressed in Duggan's speech. Water shut-offs were huge in the past year, but you wouldn't know that from Duggan. And the only time he mentioned jobs was in touting a new Meijer store coming to the neighborhood.
Still, the convergence of the needs of Old Redford and the needs of the Duggan administration shows a convergence of ideas and efforts. If those things keep coming together, it bodes well for the future of Detroit's neighborhoods.
"If we can create villages that allow kids to dream again, their creative juices will flow," says George. "Hope has been instilled, people have seen you can be an entrepreneur, you can open a business. The negative energy that used to be housed over here is slowly going away."
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