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Original article URL: http://bridgemi.com/2012/08/stirring-the-pot-for-detroit-development/
30 August 2012
One came with a poster-sized drawing of the television studio he wants to build. Another distributed a map of a light-rail system – a fantasy system, to be sure – covering much of Southeast Michigan. A third spoke of her plan to put addicts on the road to recovery via horticulture. And the last had an idea for a four-mile-long hopscotch course through Detroit.
And so convened another meeting of Detroit Soup, a monthly dinner where anyone with a dream can pitch an idea (provided it gets past the sorting committee) and ask for money to help make it happen. Not much money, but even when the stakes are low, some of the dreams are surprisingly big.
Here’s how it works: Roughly one Sunday a month at 6:30 p.m., the doors open at a venue large enough to seat about 200 people, each of whom pay $5 to get in. At 7:30, the presentations begin, each limited to four minutes and four questions from the audience. When the presentations wrap, a simple dinner of soup, salad and bread is served, during which attendees typically seek out presenters with extra questions or comments. A voting booth is opened, and everyone gets a ballot. By 9 p.m. or thereabouts, the votes are counted and the winner announced, who takes home whatever the take was at the door.
On this August Sunday, it was $635, on the low end of the typical pot — it can go as high as $900. To an artist trying to complete a project or get one off the ground, it can mean the difference between success or failure. To a guy trying to get Detroiters fired up on the idea of light rail — a guy so enthusiastic he practically levitates — it will help with that all-purpose chore of “raising awareness.”
“I need to create tools to start the conversation,” said Neil Greenberg, whose Freshwater Railway has not only maps but a fancy website, complete with timetables and routes, which a casual surfer must drill through a layer or two before reaching a page that acknowledges “this is fake.” Greenberg, a transit cartographer, has created his fantasy transit system with personal funds, and needs a cash infusion to keep it going.
“I’ve been hanging this map on bulletin boards around town,” he said, in hopes it would attract clicks to the website and buzz in general. But that was done with his own money, which is dwindling. And so he turned to Soup, which he said he heard of through his social networks.
Application is by email, in which hopefuls are asked to sketch out their projects and answer three questions: How will you use the money? Why does this project matter to the Detroit community? Finally, what is your time frame, and how can you keep us informed of its progress?
Soup isn’t a unique idea; it was modeled on a similar dinner series in Chicago, said Amy Kaherl, who has facilitated it since 2010. In that time, there have been 26 dinners and nearly $15,000 distributed, notably to urban agriculture, social justice and entrepreneurship projects.
Winners have included:
* Detroit Empowerment Project, which distributes coats to homeless people that convert into sleeping bags.
* Midtown Sound, a low-power radio station serving Detroit’s Midtown neighborhood.
* A group of fifth-graders working on a park beautification project.
The effort, as simple and grass-roots as it is, attracted the attention of the Knight Foundation, which awarded Soup a grant that enables Kaherl to work on it full-time.
“I guess the mix (from month to month) is whatever’s brought to the table,” said Kaherl. “Sometimes it’s very accessible, sometimes it’s not. Some people know they’re not going to win, but just want to share their story.”
The four pitches heard in August couldn’t have been more different. Juan Shannon’s plan to build a film, TV and multimedia production-studio complex on nine acres in Highland Park was wildly ambitious. (The money, he said, would go toward a site plan.)
Greenberg’s Freshwater Railway needed a new head of steam.
Kimberly Frendo’s Urban Recovery Farm, just getting established on a one-fifth-acre plot in Highland Park, needed a hoop house.
And Hopscotch Detroit? “We need four miles of chalk,” their proposal stated. Or $6,000.
In the end, Frendo walked away with the pot: $635. She spoke movingly of the difficulty of addiction recovery and how the thing that helped her most was tending the gardens maintained by the Capuchin Soup Kitchen in Detroit. If it worked for her, she said, she hoped she could make it work for others.
As for Greenberg and the Freshwater Railway?
“We’ll press on,” he said.
Staff Writer Nancy Nall Derringer has been a writer, editor and teacher in Metro Detroit for seven years, and was a co-founder and editor of GrossePointeToday.com, an early experiment in hyperlocal journalism. Before that, she worked for 20 years in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where she won numerous state and national awards for her work as a columnist for The News-Sentinel.