Mike Wimberley oozes determination. I first met him a few years ago when I wrote about the Hope District, a neighborhood around East Forest and Van Dyke where the Friends of Detroit and Tri-County (FoD) nonprofit grassroots community organization is doing the usual thing grassroots organizations do around here: try to survive and prosper in a blazing hell of obstacles.
On the day I met him, Wimberley, executive director of FoD, was planting fruit trees along with a group of volunteers. I remember thinking that, of the many community efforts I write about, FoD was working in one of the most devastated and hopeless areas of the city. Regardless, I was impressed with the tree planting because it represented long-term hope. Planting a fruit orchard is not about instant gratification.
I ran into him at Wayne State University a few weeks ago when Chicago artist-social activist Theaster Gates spoke about his building and neighborhood revitalization project back home.
Gates bought a 20,000-square-foot former bank building and used amazingly innovative methods to finance its $4.5 million restoration into a world-class art center. That innovation — when local banks wouldn't give him a penny — included etching his own personal bonds on the marble toilet partitions from the building and selling them in Switzerland. That's right, he issued his own bonds. Gates recounted ruefully that after he successfully raised money on his own, suddenly all the banks were calling him to offer their services.
Part of Gates' problem in raising funds through the banks was that he didn't have a clear vision of what he was going to do with the building. Gates said that he "was going to go through two of the $4.5 million" before he knew which direction the project was going to go. Now the arts world is agog over Gates' appropriately named Stony Island Arts Bank.
"I went there for ideas and inspiration from what he's doing in Chicago," says Wimberley. "I got ideas on how to make the project work and I got a real appreciation for what's possible and how difficult it is."
"The project" is the Hope District in general, however more to the point in relation to Gates is the two buildings FoD owns. The larger building (a 23,000-square-foot former industrial building) is a couple of blocks east of Van Dyke on Kercheval. It houses their offices, facilities for various programs such as a day center for seniors, and a commercial kitchen that is the focus of its entrepreneurial efforts.
"Urban farming means nothing unless you can sell something," says Wimberley. "We had to make up our mind that we were going to be producers in a community that's made up of consumers. ... We needed to climb up the food chain."
Wimberley has been on a mission to take that next step from growing food to processing it for sale. After trying things like pie making, making flavored waters, and selling chicken dinners, FoD has finally delivered with a product four years in development: Detroit Friends Potato Chips.
It's a boutique chip, a niche product that's a little thicker, a little browner, and a little more expensive than your typical potato chip. It's available with sea salt, barbeque, and lemon-pepper flavors. It's on shelves at Parker Street Market, Goodwells Natural Foods, Rasta Hakeem's African Market, and a few other spots around town.
So far potato chip production at FoD supports three part-time jobs in addition to Wimberley. It's a start. In addition to growing the chip business, he's still looking at what other food products are viable.
The other building, a little farther east, is a whole other thing. There hasn't been any development yet in the 14,000-square-foot building. On paper the plan is to create a Museum of Hip with an auditorium, a restaurant, exhibit space, and a recording studio.
"I see [the buildings] as hubs for the neighborhood," says Wimberley, "innovation hubs, places where we can experiment with different products and services."
The way neighborhood development often works is around anchor organizations, places that help hold neighborhoods together for cultural, financial, or social reasons. There is little to anchor the Hope District. If these two buildings can develop into assets for the neighborhood, then they can become anchors of hope — something done in the neighborhood by the neighbors.
The Museum of Hip is something that might draw people to the neighborhood. And Wimberley envisions creating a tour that would tie the Hope District to other attractions not far away — the Heidelberg Project, Earthworks Urban Farm, and Hantz Woodlands.
Often something like this would seem pie-in-the-sky dreams. Well ... FoD did have its unsuccessful fling with pie, but now it has something very crispy, tasty, and tangible with its potato chips.
The example of Theaster Gates shows that some very amazing things can be done with willingness and determination. Gates actually got a second building near the Arts Bank basically by asking for it. It may take years for that one success to break through, but that's something that can be built on.
"It's given us a sense of confidence that we can change our circumstances and produce a product that people are willing to pay for," says Wimberley.
Wimberley walks the walk. You can see the confidence in his face. There is still so much needed to make hope into a reality in the area, but you can't take a second step until you've taken your first. And now there are footsteps in the sand creating a path to follow.