Detroit in Perfect Harmonie
It was an unforgettable, if belated 30th birthday present to be called up on stage to receive the $30,000 grand prize on behalf of Summer in the City at Detroit Harmonie’s International Experience.
In some ways, the night was more like my bar mitzvah. I spoke, palms sweating, for a few minutes that seemed like an eternity. Then, everyone was congratulating me, facetiously offering to buy me a drink and telling me to spend the money wisely. My sport coat was a little tight and most of the people there were taller than me.
In reflecting on a night that was over a decade (not quite 13 years) in the making, I am honored and humbled to have shared the stage with the four other finalists. Each has sparked something incredible, kindled through creativity and collaboration, emitting almost palpable warmth and shining brighter day by day.
Noam Kimmelman started Fresh Corner Cafe (freshcornercafe.com) as a school project at the University of Michigan and now sells healthy, affordable food at gas stations, liquor stores and corner stores throughout the city.
Amy Kaherl and the team at Detroit Soup (detroitsoup.com) have given thousands of dollars in micro-grants, all funded by and voted on by attendees paying $5 each.
Bobby Smith got off the streets of Newark and into college at Wayne State through fencing and stuck around to create En Garde Detroit, so kids here would have the same opportunities he did.
And Phil Cooley bought a 30,000-square-foot building out of foreclosure and turned it into Pony Ride, a Detroit home for the entrepreneurially insane.
For broken molds and defied expectations, look no further than the rabbi’s son turned citywide food distributor, the visual artist turned super soup ladler, the Jersey kid turned collegiate fencer, the male model turned restaurateur turned real-estate madman. And, in my case, the recovering lawyer working to make volunteer work work all over Detroit.
The evening wasn’t all business, of course. It boasted some of the best hors d’oeuvres I’ve had since my days as the food editor of the Columbia Daily Spectator. My professional recommendation? Add Colors (www.colors-detroit.com) to the top of your weekday lunchtime list and pray that they expand their hours.
The power of food was on display beyond the trays. Fresh Corner Cafe, winner of the evening’s $5,000 People’s Choice Award, has used healthy food as a way to stop criticizing and start leveraging Detroit’s abundant neighborhood party stores, improving relationships between owners and neighbors in the process.
The universality of soup brings people together to learn about and support innovative initiatives, including art and agriculture. And Phil experienced the power of creating a destination for hungry hordes (willing to wait for a table) at Slows Bar B Q before hanging Pony Ride’s shingle down the street.
The 600 people, diverse and dynamic, who filled the Virgil H. Carr Cultural Arts Center Downtown, represented a Detroit that both never was and yet could be. The building itself — like the Summer in the City Collaboratory, Pony Ride, Detroit Soup’s new Corktown venue, and En Garde’s future Fencing Center — is a space that lets you dream about that Detroit.
Sweet smells emanate from Colors downstairs and art bounces off most every wall. Upstairs, there is an old auditorium, long mothballed and in need of renovation, but brimming with potential to bring people together and bring out the best in them.
Could be great for bar mitzvahs.