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Detroit SOUP nurtures community business

By Jacob Axelrad, Daily Arts Writer
Published October 3, 2013

5:30 p.m. Beneath a gray September sky, kissed by rays of a waning sunset, a few shuttered windows framed with stone arches stare down from the white façade of the old Jam Handy building on Detroit’s East Grand Boulevard. Above the arches, on a blue sign with faded lettering, read the words, “The Jam Handy Organization,” testament to a bygone era when this neighborhood housed an advertising studio that owned many of the buildings on the street, employing between 500 and 600 people — General Motors its biggest client.

Down the block, in an abandoned gas station with graffiti-stained pumps, weeds and grass spring from cracks in the pavement — a scene of terrible beauty. A black cat wanders the street, pausing briefly and staring at its own tail, as though curious or bored. A man emerges from a nearby home, taking out his trash. He calls to the cat. “Where you going?” he asks. “Huh? What you doing?” A moment passes. He laughs, shakes his head, and then swings his trash bag into the bin, before crouching low on his front steps and lighting a cigarette.

But inside the old Jam Handy, the pace of life moves faster this Sunday evening. Volunteers dash about the cavernous warehouse, making last-minute adjustments for the evening’s upcoming event that will temporarily transform the space into a hub of creativity: Detroit SOUP, a monthly dinner that uses money given by attendees at the door to fund micro-grants for community projects seeking to improve Detroit.

For $5, anyone can attend the dinner — which consists of donated soup and salad — and listen to four different presenters discuss their plans to better the city. At night’s end, diners vote on which project to donate the night’s proceeds to. Projects can range from a recycling education program to a non-profit dedicated to assisting relatives of prisoners.

“Detroit SOUP reaches those people you don’t read about in the news,” said Kristen Selle, whose MACC Lit literacy and tutoring clinic won the August 2013 SOUP dinner. “It’s grassroots. It’s small and it’s on a very personal level.”

Slowly, people arrive. Some park cars in the gas station, haphazardly filling up unused space. Others arrive by bicycle or by foot, gravitating toward the entrance of the old Jam Handy. Upon entering, smiles and laughs are exchanged and money is deposited in a large steel pot.

In the room, people mingle. There’s an excited buzz to the atmosphere. Twenty-somethings newly relocated to Detroit for City Year swap stories with local residents about urban farming initiatives and entrepreneurial opportunities. An iPhone playlist transitions from Miles Davis’s “So What” to Outkast’s “So Fresh, So Clean.”

Next to the entrance, pinned to the beige wall, paint peeling from its surface, are handwritten signs advertising brands of beer being served at the bar: Pabst Blue Ribbon, Stroh’s, Miller High Life, Busch. The beer is free, but $2 donations are recommended. Eventually, some people take their seats in foldable chairs at long rectangular tables, while others opt for floor seating at tables assembled from pieces of plywood, covered with black tablecloths and stacked on crates. On each table rest two loaves of bread and a candle.

Inspired by Sunday Soup, a meal-based micro-grant dinner started in Chicago in 2007 by the arts research group InCUBATE, Detroit SOUP is but one iteration of the Sunday-Soup model. Similar micro-funding projects have emerged in more than 60 cities around the world.

In 2010, visual artist Kate Daughdrill and Detroit musician Jessica Hernandez brought SOUP to Detroit, holding the first dinner above the Mexicantown Bakery on a snowy Super Bowl Sunday, with fewer than 40 artists. On that day nobody shared proposals. The goal was simply to explore what SOUP could be and what it could become.

Since then, the event has expanded and grown. It has changed locations twice, finding its current home at the old Jam Handy. The types of proposals receiving funding have shifted from art to community-based projects, often with a creative bent.

And with recent grants from the Knight Foundation, United Way of America and the Brooks Family Foundation, SOUP has begun neighborhood dinners based on the same model, allowing Detroiters to give back to Detroiters on a more regular basis, giving each other the cash they need to spur their ideas onward. To date, after 50 Detroit SOUP dinners, $50,674 has been distributed in micro-grants.

“It’s becoming a little bit more formal, and it’s becoming a lot more rooted in the community,” said Amy Kaherl, the program’s director.

6:00 p.m. Simeon Heyer, owner of the old Jam Handy, paid $13,000 for the building, a fact he still has trouble wrapping his mind around.

“I don’t have any money,” Heyer said with a laugh. “The idea of me owning anything is absurd.”

Wearing a thin green sweater and pants that sagged low on his waist, he leaned against a wall in a corner near the entrance, a canary fluttering in a birdcage by his side next to a semi-circle of chairs holding ukuleles for a performance later in the night — the canary belonged to the club.

Originally from Minnesota, Heyer moved to Detroit from Madison, Wisconsin when he was “bitten by the bug” — attracted, like many others, to the city’s do-it-yourself culture. But, more importantly, he wanted to be in a place where he felt he could make a difference.

“In Madison, you have a lot of DIY stuff that’s not necessary,” he said. “Whereas here there are so many things that are needed, whether it’s SOUP or just a get-together.”

He bought the building with his brother three years ago as an acquisition property from Wayne County. After the Jam Handy organization left in the late 1970s, the property transitioned into a televised church, Faith for America, followed by a string of other churches and even, for a time, a karate studio, before it became deserted, Heyer said.

Renovating the property, for him, has become “more than a full-time job.” It’s a “lifestyle,” he said, funded by creative ventures to which he rents the space, such as theatre groups and Detroit SOUP. He makes fixes based on necessity — fundraising for heating, installing plumbing, electricity. “Stuff happens as it’s needed,” he said.

His view of the space reflects the kind of ground-up, community-building mentality inherent to SOUP.

“To the unaccustomed eye this neighborhood looks bombed out and unsafe. But it’s not,” he said. “As with a lot of parts of Detroit, people need a reason to go there. I think SOUP, and a lot of things that happen here, are a testament to what people trusting each other can accomplish.”

For the time being, he said, part of the city’s character resides in individuals’ willingness to rely on each other — after all, they kind of have to.

“The city being weak and disorganized creates terrible problems for a lot of people,” he said. “But it also creates opportunities. And the city is not capable of breathing down your neck. This wouldn’t be possible anywhere else.”

7:00 p.m. The word “democracy” comes to mind. Before a crowd of about 300, presenters get four minutes each to share their ideas and woo their peers for votes. Once the presentations finish, in informal give-and-take sessions reminiscent of a town-hall meeting, audience members ask questions, grilling presenters on how exactly they plan to spend the money.

“That’s my favorite part,” said LSA senior Isabella Morrison, who started a SOUP-style dinner in Ann Arbor back in March. “People want to know where their money is going.”

Proposals are submitted on Detroit SOUP’s website, with a cutoff date of the Sunday before the dinner. Typically receiving between 10 and 25 submissions per month, Kaherl and a team of neighborhood SOUP leaders decide which four submissions appear most dedicated to helping Detroit and most deserve the chance to present. Winners are then required to return to a later SOUP to report on how they have used the money, a means of holding them accountable.

As Kaherl told the crowd before presentations began, there are two rules to presenting at Detroit SOUP: Projects must be about Detroit and technology cannot be used to present, in keeping with the stripped-down, barebones vibe of the event. Still, later in the evening, Kaherl introduced the new mobile Detroit SOUP app, allowing you to keep up with all things SOUP-related around the city.

Tonight’s four presenters include Green Living Science, a non-profit devoted to educating Detroit youth on environmental issues; Eve’s Angels, an organization that aids women trapped in the sex industry; Project PEACE, an organization that aids families of prisoners and ex-felons; and Ec2 Lab, a mentoring program fostering creativity among young people.

Though some presenters were poised, others grew nervous from anxiety — four minutes is just not much time. At one point, Felisha Hatcher-Taylor, presenting with her daughter Jordan on behalf of Ec2 Lab, broke into tears, overcome with emotion.

“We won,” she said after presenting. “The fact that we were here to raise awareness — that is winning.”

Kaherl, acting as the evening’s emcee, implored everyone, if they had any ideas for funding or support for these organizations outside of SOUP, to write their ideas on a sticky note and post the notes on posters near the voting table by the building’s rear exit.

“Even though only one project is going home with the money raised this evening, everyone goes home a winner!” read a pamphlet distributed on each table.

When presentations conclude, people literally break bread with their neighbors. Discussions of the projects were encouraged.

“Turn to your neighbor and ask this question: What project are you going to vote for?” Kaherl told the crowd before people began lining up for soup and salad, provided by Avalon Bakery.

8:00 p.m. Before leaving her home in Munich, Germany for a week-long trip to Detroit, Theresa Juranek knew one thing about the city: The food is cheap.

“We only read bad stuff about it back in Germany,” Juranek, 29, said at her table, surrounded by people she’d only met minutes earlier. “You just read about how bad it is, and we wanted to see if it was true.”

An automotive journalist, she’s here with her boyfriend Axel Gundermann, a photographer, to research and write a more positive story about Detroit for people back home.

The reality, they said, has been a welcome surprise. In their short stay, they’ve been charmed by the city’s warm and welcoming atmosphere. When they meet Detroiters on the street, they’re engaged in friendly conversation, which wouldn’t happen back home, they said.

Between mouthfuls of bread, Gundermann said an event like SOUP would likely fail back in Germany. When asked why, he turned to Juranek and spoke a few words to her in rapid-fire German. After a moment, they both sighed.

“(Germans) are too uptight,” he said. “For whatever reason, crowdfunding works much better in the U.S.”

While Kaherl said SOUP has become more formal since its creation three years ago, the atmosphere here is mellow.

Engineering junior Chelsea Pugh helped start a t-shirt company called DCH Apparel with four other University students last year that teaches design and marketing skills to students at Detroit Community High School. The company won funding at last December’s SOUP dinner. What began as a class project in “Change by Design,” a class in the Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design, has persisted — thanks, in part, to the SOUP micro-grant.

Pugh remembers the casual, laid-back atmosphere from when her group won nearly a year ago.

“There are some events where it’s really professional and everyone’s dressed up and pitching these entrepreneurial ideas,” she said. “But (at SOUP) it was really nice to see that everyone was a normal person. It wasn’t like venture capitalists or anything. It was normal people who wanted good ideas in their community.”

More than just time to think about voting, the dinner itself is a kind of theatrical experience. A bearded man in a top hat goes table to table, lecturing strangers on the vital importance of the schwa sound in linguistics as a means to develop a universal, global language; a ukulele club performed; a small child chased a dog through the crowded mass of bodies.

But mainly people chat, networking and finding new ways of working with each other to get ideas and projects started.

“What I like about it is that the people are deciding,” said Mary Luevanos, a Detroiter and president of the Community for Latino Artists Visionaries and Educators. “The folks here are making the decision and when they’re done with it they go off and use the money that they need it for. It’s not a foundation deciding. No one’s pulling the strings.”

8:45 p.m. The winner is announced: It’s Eve’s Angels, the organization dedicated to assisting women in the sex trade. Marissa Sheehy, presenting for the organization and a self-described “rescued angel,” says the $1,519 they’ve received will help establish a safe house for the girls.

“We won $1,500, which is amazing for speaking for four minutes,” she said shortly after winning.

By night’s end, crumbs and plastic bowls lined with red streaks of soup sauce lie scattered across tables. Yet, within minutes, the plywood, tablecloths, collapsible chairs, candles, bread and soup are whisked away in efficient fashion by eager, capable volunteers, jumping at the chance to help clean up and play their part.

Soon, the room is empty, save for a few stay-behinds. A group of bearded men in flannel shirts and tight pants drinks beer and laugh by the bar. Most of them live in the neighborhood; some live in the same building. Sheehy does a video interview, still in shock over her win.

Standing by the entrance, where a man has begun to play a white piano, Kaherl lets out a deep breath. She says the event was a success.

“Everyone walked away with some sort of resource, some sort of knowledge about how they can participate together,” she said. She plans on taking the next day off, but then it’s right back to work. “With Detroit SOUP we’re just going to keep moving into neighborhoods, giving people the chance to share their hearts, their ideas.”

And by the rear exit, Heyer is locked in heated conversation with two friends, who are also heavy into the Detroit-renovation scene. He gestures wildly, like a man possessed, as he discusses the many buildings he knows of in the city that deserve repurposing.

When asked what’s next for the old Jam Handy now that Detroit SOUP has finished, he shrugs. SOUP will be back in November, he says. Until then a couple will get married here the following weekend, a theatre group might use it for rehearsal space. But primarily, he’ll keep working — maybe adding lights, painting walls, replacing doors. Whatever it is that needs to be done.

“As with most things here, everything’s so informal,” he said. “We just do a little bit at a time. It’s still mostly just a shell of a building.”