Ko Melina — a longtime fixture of Detroit's rock 'n' roll scene — knew the coronavirus crisis was going to be bad. Months before Michigan reported its first cases of the virus, her father, who lives in Taiwan, told her to start wearing masks and using hand sanitizer. Melina says she felt a little weird being the only person wearing a mask at Target in the early weeks of the crisis, but that was nothing on what she would soon feel.
When the federal government launched a bailout for small businesses impacted by the virus, she was optimistic at first. But then she saw that the list of recipients included the likes of Ruth's Chris Steak House, the Los Angeles Lakers, and Shake Shack — not exactly struggling mom-and-pop shops. (After backlash, the brands returned the funds shortly after they were provided.)
"I immediately got really, really angry, because I'm just thinking all of our favorite restaurants, all of our favorite shops are, are dead," she tells Metro Times. "Having worked in the restaurant business, I know you have a bad month or two and you're dead."
Enraged, Melina tried to think of ways she could help local small businesses and fellow artists in Detroit.
"I'm thinking, what, what can I do?" she says. "I'm not a doctor, so I can't cure COVID. I don't have any money — like, I can't just like go around and give hundreds of thousands of dollars to like all my favorite places. I mean, I can't even give like $10 to two of my favorite places. So what can I as a person do? And that really ate at me for a while."
Then she thought about what she does have. As a DJ on Little Steven's Underground Garage Sirius XM channel and a member of rock band the Dirtbombs, Melina has a decent following on social media. She has taken photos; her images of Jack and Meg White were used on the cover of the first White Stripes record.
Plus, "I guess I'm kind of good at talking," she says. "I mean, I was a bartender."
So Melina came up with a project to take a photo of somebody new every single day during the pandemic. The photos, all in black and white, would be accompanied by a short interview in the caption. At the time, Melina had what she calls a "naive" idea to shoot them again in color when the pandemic was over, sort of a "reverse Wizard of Oz" kind of a thing, she says. (Who knows when that will be.)
But over the course of the project, Melina says, @the_heartof_detroit has taken on a life of its own.
"At the beginning it was easy because nobody really knew anything about COVID," she says. "Like the first couple of weeks, it's just like, 'This is so and so, this is what they do, and hopefully they will be able to survive,' you know, literally two or three sentences."
Everything changed in May, when George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police, kicking off a summer of protests.
"Now, everybody has a lot to say," Melina says. "Now we're having conversations, you know?"
The project started with April Anderson from Detroit bakery Good Cakes and Bakes. It has since expanded to include others in the music and restaurant scenes, activists, and more. Meanwhile, others, like Sen. Gary Peters, have contributed their own selfies.
It's a low-tech setup. Melina just uses her iPhone to take the photos, and doesn't do the interviews in person anymore out of concern for safety — the longer people are outside, the more dangerous it is. Sometimes, she calls back for another interview just to check in.
The project has become not just a chronicle of people and how they've been affected by COVID-19 but also a chronicle of the tumultuous year. And it's also made Melina feel a little less alone during the pandemic.
"It's a kind of a funny thing that I like to say I've made more friends in the last six months than I have in the last four years of my life," she says. She thinks people in other cities could do their own version of the project, too.
"Being the DJ on a nationally syndicated radio show and being in a pretty awesome band kind of pales in comparison to this, you know?" she says. "This is the only thing for me right now."
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