Articles by

Julie Edgar

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    Above: Ayanna Williams-Jones, owner of Pedicure & Shoes 2 Go, also received an award from Motor City Match, a Knight-funded program that matches business owners with properties. Photo by Shawn Le/Courtesy Detroit Economic Growth Corp. Convincing a skeptical landlord that women like pedicures and new shoes, ideally in combination, was far more difficult for Ayanna Williams-Jones than getting a loan to open her business in downtown Detroit. Seriously. The Detroit Development Fund took a chance on Williams-Jones, despite her having a personal bankruptcy in her past, loaning her $40,000 to help open Pedicure & Shoes 2 Go on Congress Street, not far from the Joe Louis Arena. But it was also Williams-Jones’ perseverance that inspired confidence. The Great Recession had gutted her family’s savings, and her husband, Eric Jones, lost his job, forcing them to declare personal bankruptcy. In 2013, Williams-Jones put herself through an entrepreneurial boot camp and pitched the idea for her store in front of Ray Waters, president of the fund. He connected her with Lifeline Consulting, a business coach that helped her put together a solid plan that reflected her competence. Waters also saw that Williams-Jones was working herself back to financial solvency – even if her credit score wasn’t good enough to qualify for a loan from a traditional bank. He put her in touch with the Detroit Microenterprise Fund, a Detroit Development Fund partnership with Huntington Bank, and it loaned her $20,000. Then the Detroit Development Fund came in with $40,000. Williams-Jones “plugged away,” says Waters. He met with the couple, explored the reasons behind the bankruptcy, and was satisfied that they could meet the loan payments. Williams-Jones, 38, put up her house as collateral. She plans to continue working as an analyst at GM full time, while her sister, Kendra Patterson, manages the business. “We spent time with her and watched her move through the last two years,” Waters says. “She persevered and remained upbeat even with so many challenges. You have to get to know somebody. This is a character lending.” This is also enlightened self-interest, an idealist’s vision of what capitalism should be. As one of a handful of community development funding institutions in Detroit—CDFIs lend credit to underserved and distressed communities to promote economic development—the fund is seeing big success in small and large ventures, from the shoe store to restaurants to major and modest housing developments (more than 1,400 units). Its investments have generated 1,800 jobs and kept another 1,200 in place, Waters says. The fund’s focus and its commitment to minority business development is the central reason it has the support of Knight Foundation, which recently announced its conversion of a $2.5 million loan to the fund to a grant. By removing the debt from the books, Knight is helping strengthen the fund’s lending power, says Katy Locker, Knight’s program director in Detroit.
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    Above: An earlier performance by Nick Cave. Photo credit: Cranbrook Art Museum. A dreamlike dirge accompanied the horses as they filed into a corral hemmed by a crowd of several hundred Detroiters enjoying the balmy breezes coming off the Detroit River. Despite the rather discordant score, the mood was giddy at Milliken State Park Saturday – an authentically warm day in late September can have that effect – as the 60 dancers from Wayne State University and Detroit School of Arts cavorted in horse costumes. During his four-month residency in Detroit and at Cranbrook Art Museum about 25 miles to the north, artist Nick Cave has opened up a lot of eyes to a city that has been unseen for so many years. He has mounted public spectacles like Saturday’s “Heard•Detroit” – in this case a procession of silky horse costumes in red, yellow, blue and brown – and with his Soundsuits, sculptural totems constructed of twigs, buttons, beads and birds that are on display at Cranbrook and have been set loose on the streets of Detroit, animated by professional dancers. He has worked on a film with kids at a shelter for LGBTQ youth and visited schools to get young kids working with materials to create their own Soundsuits.
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    What does it take to make a city more than a collection of buildings and bodies? How can we ensure they are vibrant places to both live and work?  That’s a serious challenge. But free up a little money and see what ordinary city dwellers think up. It’s remarkable what happens. The Knight Cities Challenge Summit that wrapped up Friday in Detroit brought together 32 winners of $5 million in grants in Knight Foundation’s first Knight Cities Challenge. They were chosen from among 7,000 applicants for proposals designed to attract talented workers to cities, expand economic opportunity and promote a culture of civic engagement – three keys to city success. Their projects range from the whimsical to wonky, and all reflect nimbleness and a willingness to take a risk. Along with sessions that allowed grantees to talk to each other – and did they ever – Knight Foundation brought in bold thinkers and doers in the area of civic innovation, including Theaster Gates of the Rebuild Foundation; Jake Barton of the media design firm Local Projects, Fred Dust of the design firm IDEO, Charles Landry, author, and Joe Cortright, an economist with  City Observatory.  “If we’re going to succeed, the solution starts at the community level,” Cortright told the grantees. “Coming up with new ways of doing things in your city is what it’s about.” Cortright emphasized the importance of making cities a magnet for talent. The single biggest factor explaining a city’s economic success is its human capital, he said – and millennials are much more likely to choose where to live first, and then look for a job. That speaks to the importance of making cities vibrant places to live.
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    Photos: Carol Coletta, above; Theaster Gates, below. The old, neo-Colonial bank is a husk of its former self, long empty but still grimly squatting along a city block on Chicago’s south side. It’s the kind of neighborhood artist/urban planner/University of Chicago professor Theaster Gates likes to work in. And it’s the kind of building he likes to snatch up and transform into something beautiful and useful to the surrounding neighborhood. Later this year, it will be the site of the Chicago Architectural Biennial and will likely become an exhibition space – or some variation of a place that sparks engagement and investment. The thing is, Gates told a group of fellow civic innovators, he doesn’t quite know what the 24,000-square-foot behemoth will ultimately become. And that’s good. “A little vagueness allows us to continue to scratch our heads,” he said, even if lenders are pushing him to define what exactly he plans to do with it. Reinvention happens when the mind is open, said Gates, who is among the visionaries speaking this week at the Knight Cities Challenge Summit. The three-day gathering in Detroit brings together the 32 winners of Knight Foundation’s first-ever Knight Cities Challenge, which seeks ideas to make cities more successful. Their projects include redeveloping overgrown school yards into civic parks in Philadelphia, installing popup stores in a parking structure in San Jose, creating a hub for rehabbers in Detroit, and welcoming newcomers to St. Paul with winter hats. All of the ideas focus on three drivers of city success: attracting and keeping talented workers, expanding economic opportunity and breaking down barriers, and creating a culture of civic engagement. The winners, who are splitting $5 million, are hearing from leading civic innovators like Gates and, in breakout sessions, exchanging ideas to help each other meet challenges and overcome barriers, whether physical, racial, political or economic. They are also seeing a bit of Detroit, a city filled with all of said barriers.  “We’re having it in Detroit because Detroit is in a moment in time where there’s so many interesting people working on so many different things to reinvent Detroit and to take advantage of a moment when anything is possible. We think it sets the right mood and stage for this summit,” said Carol Coletta, Knight’s vice president for Community and National Initiatives who moderated the keynote talks. Indeed, things can happen when the mind is open and the raw materials are right there. The celebrated High Line in New York City, for example, is the brainchild of Robert Hammond, who worked with a travel writer friend to revive the 1.5-mile elevated rail line, which runs parallel to the Hudson River in Chelsea. The city planned to demolish it, but Hammond saw its potential to connect various neighborhoods on the city’s lower west side. Five years later, after lawsuits and zoning changes and community input sessions, the High Line was born. Today, Hammond said, it is more popular among tourists than the Museum of Modern Art and other New York staples, with some six million visitors a year. The High Line features 450 free programs each year. It employs 120 people from the surrounding neighborhoods. “It cost $190 million to build, but over a 20-year period, New York City will receive $1 billion in tax revenues,” Hammond said. “I hope the High Line makes the crazy credible.”
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    Detroit isn’t exactly a hotbed of independent cinema. While there is a handful of “art house” theatres that serve more adventurous viewers, many films never make it to the local market. A film festival in its fourth year hopes to establish a cultural touchstone that satisfies cinephiles and whets the appetite of moviegoers who can get much closer to the people behind the films, whether actors or directors. Cinetopia International Film Festival, which kicks off June 5 in Detroit, is also an experiment in sharing between Ann Arbor and Detroit – cities not so far apart geographically but eons apart demographically. “Detroit is the mother of us,” says Russ Collins, Cinetopia’s director and one of the forces behind the festival’s expansion into Detroit two years ago. “This deserves to be in Detroit along with the Jazz Festival and the Grand Prix, events that cross genres and passions.” Cinetopia began in Ann Arbor, at the Michigan Theater, where Collins serves as CEO and executive director. With a two-year, $50,000 Knight Foundation Arts Challenge grant in 2013, organizers were able to partner with the Detroit Film Theatre to bring films to a few venues in Detroit. And the festival has drawn more people and added more screens and sponsors as it has spread to local movie houses in Detroit and suburbs. This year, 72 films will get 150 screenings – or 50 percent more screenings than last year. The films – animated and live-action features, shorts, documentaries from the U.S., United Kingdom, Poland, Indonesia, India and other countries – are fresh from festivals like Sundance, Berlin, Tribeca, Cannes and Toronto. Most of them will not be widely released. Along with the original screening venues in Detroit – the Film Theatre, Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History and the College for Creative Studies, showings will be held in a few commercial theaters in Detroit and at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, which will screen shorts that celebrate Arab women in film, and four outdoor venues.
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    Oskar Eustis, Dr. Shirley Brice Health and Rick Sperling at a forum on how classical theatre can foster community cohesion. A windstorm. A canceled flight. A play rehearsal. Fate surely stepped in and delivered an amazing – indeed, a Shakespearean – opportunity for the Mosaic Youth Theatre in Detroit. That chain of events led to the theater company’s collaboration with the legendary Public Theater of New York and the upcoming musical adaptation of “The Tempest,” the Bard’s tragicomedy involving a duke, his daughter, a sprite and other assorted characters on an enchanted island.
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    John Bracken, Knight Foundation's VP/media innovation (right) speaks with Beth Niblock, Detroit's chief information officer. Rebuilding a city requires epic fortitude: the ability to face down pessimism and rejection, overcome entrenched biases and sometimes start at the very beginning. Beth Niblock joined Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan’s cabinet as chief information officer a year ago, arriving at City Hall to fix and upgrade the city’s creaky infrastructure, down to the old desktop computers and printers. Niblock is in charge of records management, various dispatch systems, the city’s website – anything IT related. A new water authority that is taking over management of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department adds another layer to her job: Some 200,000 meter-reading devices need upgrading It isn’t sexy or exciting, she quipped, during a discussion sponsored by Knight Foundation at the Max M. Fisher Music Center Wednesday.
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    David Blaszkiewicz, president and CEO, Invest Detroit; Katy Locker, program director/Detroit, Knight Foundation; and Rodrick T. Miller president and CEO, Detroit Economic Growth Corp., present awards to winning contestants. Photos courtesy Detroit Economic Growth Corp. Ruth Bell was so nervous about pitching Chugga’s, her wholesale bread-baking company, she had to be shoved into the room where some of Detroit’s power brokers—people with the venture capital she needs to grow her business—waited to hear her presentation last week. Yet, moments later, she had the crowd chanting for her Monkey Bread, pull-apart, braided loaves that are free of artificial ingredients and come in flavors such as Rum Raisin and Zesty Lemon. “What time is it?” she repeatedly asked the audience of about 100 people, including a panel of judges that had come to award $20,000 in seed money. “It’s Monkey Bread time!” they responded. (Monkey Bread, for those not in the know, is a Southern delicacy named after the fruit of the African baobab tree.)
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    Brick + Beam photo by Julie Edgar. A trio of Detroit building preservationists, along with a crew of urban designers, had the opportunity to test-drive an idea that propelled them to winning a grant in the nationwide Knight Cities Challenge. An Urban Prototyping Lab, funded by Knight Foundation earlier this year at Parsons School of Design at The New School in New York, enabled the Michigan Historic Preservation Network to get a head start on its proposal. The idea: creating a one-stop shop for Detroit rehabbers and renovators who are looking for resources and fellowship with other DIY’ers.
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    Livernois. The Knight Arts Challenge Detroit is now accepting applications for the best local ideas for the arts. Here, writer Julie Edgar catches up with past winner Detroit Fiberworks. Like so many others who see Detroit as a wide-open frontier, Mandisa Smith and Najma Wilson are pushing against urban blight and indifference to achieve their entrepreneurial dreams. Only they’re a bit older than the 20-somethings streaming in to the city to stake a claim. They’ve already retired from executive and teaching careers and have always lived in Detroit. Opening Detroit Fiberworks in 2013 was a way to do what they love in a place they love, and to play a part in the city’s resurrection. A bit about the two women: After high school, Smith and Wilson followed their own paths. Wilson taught art at Wayne State University and in Detroit Public Schools, while Smith got her MBA from the University of Michigan and took a high-paying job in the auto industry. Decades later, when Wilson retired and Smith got laid off, they started thinking about how they could practice their respective crafts.
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    The Knight Arts Challenge Detroit is now accepting applications for the best local ideas for the arts. Here, writer Julie Edgar catches up with past winner Broadside Press. Amid the social upheaval of the 1960s, when protests were brutally quashed, Detroit’s Broadside Press was quietly turning out the works of African-American poets who were telling universal and particular truths that re-shaped the way people thought of themselves and each other. Lots of works, in fact. The good thing is that they’re safely archived in two university libraries, recognized as an important historic and artistic record of the culture’s most astute observers. They include works by poets like Gwendolyn Brooks, Nikki Giovanni, Etheridge Knight and Sonia Sanchez. Less well-known poets, like Margaret Walker and Dudley Randall, the founder of Broadside 50 years ago, are a part of the collection too.