Tour of Detroit's Social Innovation

Thursday, June 23, 2016

A slow, but impactful resurgence of Detroit’s downtown and neighborhoods through strategic planning and a renewed entrepreneurial spirit is driving positive economic and cultural change throughout the city. That belief by city officials, business owners and residents is bolstered by the ongoing success stories viewed by 25 foundation leaders and staff during a recent bus tour.

The grantmakers met as part of the recent Council of Michigan Foundations’ InFocus SEM event designed to showcase the growth and commitment of Detroiters as they seek to rebuild, renew and share those enterprises that are popping up throughout the city.

The tour, led by Jeanette Pierce, executive director of the Detroit Experience Factory, made stops at Good Cakes and Bakes on Livernois Ave.; 1917 American Bistro, on Livernois Ave.; Motor City Java House (home of Motor City Blight Busters volunteers) and Artists Village on Lahser; and Artesian Farms on Artesian Street. Launching from the Northwest Activities Center, the tour group enjoyed a trip through time as Pierce provided many facts, figures and historical anecdotes of the city.

“Detroit is an amazing city that has overcome many economic and social problems, but is now experiencing a rebirth,” noted Pierce, saying the reduction of population from well over 1.5 million people during its heyday to present day 700,000+ “presents obstacles and challenges, but also great opportunity.”

Good Cakes and Bakes & 1917

Good Cakes owner April Anderson had two things going for her: a love of baking and a dream of starting a business that would also be the social hub of the neighborhood along the historic “Avenue of Fashion” on Detroit’s West Side. She achieved both.

“Our mission is to provide quality baked goods that are wholesome and organic in nature and to provide our baked goods in an environment that is positive, creative, educational and friendly to our employees and community,” Anderson said.

Bringing her community together came with hosting inclusive get-togethers such as “Sweet Treats,” combining fresh-baked items with a meeting house for local writers, poets and musicians, along with hosting Community Harvest parties and charitable events.

Another winning example of social entrepreneurship was found at 1917 American Bistro as exuberant owner/chef Donald Studvent shared his equal love of Detroit, its history and his eatery with its eclectic American dishes with Cajun-Creole influences served in a low-key atmosphere complete with a juice bar.

“What I’m most proud of is how we are helping bring together all the businesses to promote ourselves along the Avenue of Fashion,” Studvent said. “I live Black. I love everything Black. That’s who I am. But I wanted a place for all people. We are a community and we are seeing new business coming here…and we all help each other.”

Studvent says the success of one business is a success for everyone as the Sherwood Forest neighborhood they all share is their mutual home. In fact, he took the name of his business – 1917 – from the year Sherwood Forest was established. 

Old Redford Historic District, Motor City Java and Artists Village

The Artist Village serves as a creative hub for artists, students, business owners, and neighbors living and working in the heart of the Old Redford neighborhood. The spirit and history of this locale is shared through illustrative murals painted on each building and via colorful stories swapped between neighbors over cups of coffee at the village coffeehouse.
Much of the success of the resurging Old Redford neighborhood is credited to John J. George, founder of Motor City Blight Busters, a 25-year-old organization that boasts a coalition of community partners numbering more than 120,000 volunteers who have worked to paint hundreds of area homes, secured hundreds of abandoned buildings, renovated dilapidated houses and built scores of new ones to house almost 2,000 people.

Artist Village Detroit is called another Blight Busters miracle. This once broken-down and deteriorating facility was saved by volunteers and coalition partners. Artist Village Detroit is home of Motor City Java House, called “the heartbeat of Northwest Detroit, where the world meets”.
Motor City Java House serves as the Blight Busters volunteer headquarters. Over the past dozen or so years, Blight Busters has invested more than $400,000 in facility improvements. Today it is a 6,000-square-foot entertainment and shopping complex with six commercial tenants, residential tenants and two 750 square foot office spaces. The nearby historic Old Redford Theatre is also going strong thanks to this work.

Armed with sledgehammers, garbage bags and dumpsters, coalition members have helped demolish 113 abandoned and crime-used houses throughout Old Redford, and held 3,850 neighborhood cleanups, clearing out tons of debris.

Among its other, early successes: Blight Busters fed 350 people at its first annual Thanksgiving dinner; provided space for 300 students to learn building trades and culinary arts at ACCOSS Training Center in the Motor City Resource Center; and offered free health screening to 500 citizens.

Artesian Farms

Jeff Adams has come a long way since he worked marketing automotive products and then  a fundraiser for nonprofits. His love of innovation is now found in producing sustainably grown, pesticide-free, non-genetically modified produce at a fair price.

Adams is the founder of Artesian Farms of Detroit in the Brightmoor neighborhood district on Detroit’s West Side, where he grows vegetables, greens and herbs in a hydroponic system—trays filled with water and nutrients—on racks stacked up to 16 feet tall.

“I was looking for entrepreneurial opportunities that could employ neighborhood people,” he said. “The whole urban garden thing really peaked my interest.”

To fulfill his dream, Adams purchased an empty industrial building in the Brightmoor neighborhood that had been abandoned since 1998. He installed a system of vertical racks—known as vertical growing stations (VGS) —that are 14- to 16-feet high, and uses a specially designed lighting system to ensure a good growing environment.

Each VGS can hold about 1,200 to 2,400 plants depending on what is being grown. He can install up to 40 such racks as needed, which he says equates to about 20 acres of field growing. He currently sells his produce to scores of Detroit-area restaurants, grocery stores, specialty shops and more.

The real test of success, noted George, is how his business could help his community.

“Unlike the vast majority of community gardens in Detroit, Artesian Farms is a for-profit entity, an L3C organization known as a social enterprise where the profits go to support community needs,” he said.

Initial funding for the project was provided by Impact T3 Investment Fund, the Skillman Foundation, Max M. & Marjorie S. Fisher Foundation and the Scott Brickman Family Trust.

“Not only is our business good for the neighborhood and its residents, but for the environment as well,” George said.

“Our method of growing uses 90% less water than conventional farming; we don’t use chemical inputs on our produce, which protects the soil and water supply; and locally sourced hydroponic food reduces petroleum consumption in the traditional food supply chain by eliminating the need for farm machinery and vehicles used for distribution.” 

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