Thursday, October 28, 2010

My Detroit Soup (Extended Version from Real Detroit Weekly)

Photo by Vanessa Miller, reprinted with permission in Real Detroit Weekly; click on photo to see original article

As a city dweller and socializer closely linked to “The Scene,” I’ve been seeing increasingly more self-congratulatory glommers-on types popping up all over the Detroit Interwebs and it has been disheartening (when not absolutely infuriating). I've been feeling that the very things that made Detroit great are now being commodified for mass consumption, and NOT by outside media, no – by our very own people.

"You've been really down on the city lately," my friend said to me after we left the last
Detroit Soup gathering on Sunday, October 3. And it's true: between the self-serving sycophants and shameless opportunists hoping to capitalize on the nation's newfound fascination with Detroit, I feel like the true DIY underdog spirit of Detroit has been lost and replaced by people ready to do backflips for the chance to get their names in the papers or their faces on camera. Detroit, for me, had lost its sincerity.

Kate Daughdrill, along with her friend Jessica Hernandez, is responsible for launching Detroit Soup, a once-monthly social gathering which raises money to fund micro-grants for community-oriented projects voted on by the attendees. The event is set up as a dinner party in the loft space above Mexicantown Bakery, which is owned by Hernandez’s family. It is held the first Sunday of every month (November 7 will be the next gathering).

“It started as a gathering experiment just to see what would happen once these conversations started,” Daughdrill says. The intention behind Soup is to engage people from the community in dialogue about how to support each other in a practical way, and then do so. Every project proposal submitted for the month is presented and voted on by those who donated their $5 at the door, and can be anything from traditional art projects to socially-engaged projects, from regional photography to community park renovations to hoop house builds. “We tried to really open it up so it can be anyone from artists to builders,” she explains.

When Daughdrill and Hernandez initiated Soup in February – facilitated with a whole network of friends and community members, each one of them volunteering their time and efforts – it started with about 20 people. Now it has grown to over 150, with the largest crowd yet attending the October gathering. Daughdrill worries about the growing size and admits they may need to start limiting their audience: “For people to actually have these conversations it is important to the experience that it feel intimate and not overwhelming.”

One way it can continue to grow in a sustainable way is for other Soup projects to branch off from this one. Already a second Soup – Soup at Spaulding, which is held every Thursday – has grown from this, and Daughdrill hopes there will be more. “We’re interested in being a hub to launch other Soups, and connecting informally as friends. I want people to feel free to make it their own,” she says. “We’re all talking so much about sustainability now; whatever we do that is going to be sustainable has to be enjoyable too.”

Which is why Soup is organized as a dinner party, with hearty, healthful organic soups, salads and sweets made by volunteers and breads donated from Avalon. “The idea is for Soup to be a spot for some serious dialogue but also a casual connection with people,” explains Daughdrill. “And we also hope it’s really pleasurable and really fun; we want to show we can engage citizens in a way that is pleasure-based.”

Daughdrill, an artist and graduate student at Cranbrook who originally hails from New Orleans – a kindred soul city to Detroit if ever there was one – is most interested in the intersection between art and community; the political and social life of a city. “It’s interesting to see how we develop these little independent hubs alongside the infrastructure and institutions of the city.” A model like Soup is community-driven and democratic; it allows for the people to decide how they want the money they’ve donated spent and encourages conversation about how to do that. It is a microeconomy, an independent cultural infrastructure, which makes it more sustainable than projects tied to nonprofit regulations or corporate interests. It is, in a word, pure.

Media folks just LOVE to make the Detroit-New Orleans comparison, but the truth is there are no two other cities
that were once so almighty who have suffered the same cataclysmic declines, at least not in the last century (and really, NOLA had a lot better go at rebuilding post-natural disaster than we have post-economic, political and social collapse). "It's a very fierce spirit," says Daughdrill of Detroit, "something very raw but it's also a great American city [with a lot of history]." She compares the current national focus on Detroit -- the coast-to-coast *gasp* now-whatever-will-they-do? and *gasp* gee-wow!-successful-businesses-in-Detroit! trivializing treatment we've received in endless waves over the past year or so -- to the influx of people from across the country that descended on New Orleans after Katrina. "New Orleans maintained a lot of its spirit even after other people came in to rebuild it." She postulates that all the interest from the outside created connections between the new energies that were coming in and the city's very old indentity and traditions, enabling it to shape and grow in a new way.

With all eyes on Detroit, there is indeed a lot of shallow opportunism. But there is also a lot of opportunity. Change is possible in an unprecedented way as we continue to be viewed as animals confined in cages made to look like our natural habit, on display for all the world to watch and critique but not interfere. Right now we have a unique platform from which to identify and address the needs of the community and make it happen in a sincere way that has long-term sustainability (and those needs do NOT include another set of self-promoting pseudo-cheerleaders).

“I think that a lot of issues in terms of arts or infrastructure are pretty urgent,” Daughdrill further explains. “There’s a need for this sort of process of how we support each other.” It is about how to learn and grow together, how to engage in important and timely dialogues, and creating true democratic experiences where people hash things out through dialogue. It’s not simply a matter of micro-grant funding; it is a whole new concept of community organization.

My initial instinct is to snark on everything. But after witnessing Soup myself I could find nothing about it to snark on. So often Detroit feels like a self-appointed Tribal Council, but this was like being amongst the tribe itself. This is the future. As I sit in my corner reveling in my sardonic wit, the next crop of energetic, idealistic, hopeful youths are out there actually making a tangible impact in the community, a hell of a lot more than just linking to articles that say "DETROIT!" on Facebook. The group is utterly genuine and sincere in their efforts in a way that is refreshing ... even inspiring. After my experience at Soup and my 30-minute conversation with Daughdrill (during which we micro-machined our way through about 90 minutes' worth of discourse), I felt my Grinchy heart grow three sizes that day.

To everyone involved with making Detroit Soup happen, I thank you.
Detroit needed this. I needed this.