Stirring the pot for Detroit development

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, 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.

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Thu, 08/30/2012 - 10:26am
Minor correction: Neil Greenberg's Freshwater Railway is not a "light rail" system (which would run mainly on city streets). It's a commuter rail system that would use existing freight rail tracks, and so require no new tracks to be built - just track improvements and passenger stations.
Paul T
Sun, 09/02/2012 - 8:27pm
I have my own novel idea: Let's demand that the government lead the way in promoting development. There could be a new Ren Cen! A new People Mover! A new trash incinerator! All such projects will be public-private partnerhships with professional management that expertly ensures adequate protection of all stakeholders' interests. In fact, why not build another new stadium?! A new casino? Another giant fist! Tax increment financing to the rescue of problems caused by the free market! Right. Now, face reality, people. Detroit is too much like Starnesville, Wisconsin, a town in which Ayn Rand situated the Twentieth Century Motor Company in Atlas Shrugged. Perhaps we can be charitiable, however. Detroit is too much like that town BEFORE its big company died at the hands of arrogant, bleeding-hearted fools. Yet there can be a different way for Detroit. That way needs not to tolerate the ugly superstitions of Friday's, Saturday's, and Sunday's troublemakers. No coats need to be given away to the homeless for free. There's no need for a kook's plans for another hairbrained idea like a light rail system that would have to be subsidized or otherwise supported by government intervention. Very little of our time on the different and better way needs to be wasted schmoozing artists who attend the meetings of Detroit Soup. Let the daydreamers follow the fascistic money to the smart coasts where they will be in good company with their spirtual kin discussing the imagined virtues of the sans-cullotes, Marx, Lassalle, Bebel, the Fabians, Preuss, Occupy Wall Street, and so on. Now, one of the steps of the new way will include the cancellation of superhighway socialism throughout Mishigan, not to mention throughout all of the USA. Furthermore, aggressive behavior common among unionists such as the UAW and the Teamsters will need to be recriminalized so that entrepreneurs will have less reason to fear another shakedown by parasites with a sense of entitlement. The auto companies, too, will be condemned for what they have long been: Criminal organizations supported by the government through the building of a vast grid of roads. Shame on the Detroiters of old for being so eager to enrich theirselves through that destructive racket. Of course, there will be many obstructionists. Reactionary conservatism is a two-winged affair in America, as was demonstrated in Wisconsin last year when some leftists threw a tantrum about a little rollback of one of their pet evils. Maybe the leftists missed the memo about the irony of other reactionary conservatives demanding the rollback. Some Canadians, too, will get a little nervous. After all, one of Detroit's new liberals might suggest deregulating the alcohol trade in Canada, which has its own nanny statist problems. Most of the aforementioned theistic cultists will get in the way. Even Randroids, who regularly misunderstand their favorite novel, are reactionary conservatives. They're unregenerate warmongers, too. Rand, you see, was a collectivist and a naive supporter of Columbia, a fact that motivated her to seeth with anger and hatred toward all big, bad liberals, i.e. people who want to do away with government. Maybe it was the zeal of the convert that made her so nasty. Those of you with a little imagination should be able to guess what else Detroit could become famous for if only the usual troublemakers would get out of the way of establishing justice, unrigging commerce, and, generally speaking, cleaning up the mess made by statists. It's unfortunate that there wouldn't be any room for the Republicans, the Democrats, or their hangers-on. To invite them aboard would be to burden the locomotives with factions of a fascistic coalition. And if Barry O shows up with his head tilted back like Mussolini's, Detroit should be spelled with his funny O, and a new name chosen for the land, which needs no central government, not even for the services beloved by taxfeeders* and welfare queens. Let's make Detroit a place that one should be proud of, perhaps for the first time since some Frenchman uttered the phrase le détroit du Lac Érié. Come to think of it. Land is not a straight. Whoever let Detroit be the name lacks imagination. *Employees of the government count as taxfeeders, and it may amuse you to learn that one of Detroit's former employees has been relaxing by his pool in South Carolina for more than a decade. You might be amused to know that he once worked in a department named something like Community and Economic Development Department. He earned his pension, no?