With Detroit, all things are possible. Just when I think I've seen, heard or written about everything, I am surprised again how much this city means to so many people.
Check this out: There is a group of ex-pats living in and around New York City who call themselves “635 Mile Road.” The non-profit organization, which launched earlier this year, is made up of former Detroit-area residents who are “dedicated to improving the flow of funds, ideas and energy between native Detroiters now living elsewhere and our hometown.”
This is not a group that gets together to socialize, although they do that, too. This is a potential source of great hope and help for Detroit. These are people not just say they love the city, but they are actively thinking up ways to send money, resources and themselves back here. For example, a group is coming in early November to meet with local businesses and community leaders – it's a fact-finding mission to see what Detroit truly needs.
“We don't have the answers, so we're looking to see if some of the ideas we've developed ring true and if the community can help us craft that those ideas,” said organizer Rachel Jacobs. “Frankly, I'm amazed at how excited people are to talk to us. We're meeting people of a level you could never get in New York. And we all have a single goal: To revitalize our city!”
To me, “635 Mile” isn't about spreading misinformation or mistrust; it's about respecting where you came from enough that you want to do what you can even if you cannot be there on a daily basis. See, Detroit, there is so much love for you. It is spread from 8 Mile to 32 Mile to 635 Mile.
Let me introduce you to Rachel Jacobs, one of the group's organizers. She and I chatted via Facebook, email and telephone multiple times over the last few weeks since I heard of 635 Mile from the guys over at Mighty Detroit (they're members, too).
And before anyone complains that they have to live in Detroit to care about Detroit…well, go back and read the previous 365+ blog entries I've done. I'd like to think I've proved you don't have to live in the city to want to see Detroit succeed.
Back to Rachel. She and a small crew of fellow former Metro Detroiters came with the idea for this group this past summer. Her husband, a fellow Midwestern, coined the name – a clever reference to the Mile roads that run all around Detroit. I myself grew up around 32 Mile…and hung out with people everywhere from 7 Mile and up.
Jacobs, our tour guide to 635 Mile, grew up in Huntington Woods, a pretty beautiful suburb of Detroit in Oakland County. She moved to New York in 2000 to attend Columbia Business School. She has been in the Big Apple ever since, short of two years she moved to Kyrgyzstan (wowwie) consulting with small businesses on how to develop and create successful strategies. She still works in strategy and business development for a major company.
That work she spent in Kyrgyzstan partly inspired her desire to see Detroit rise again. She, like many of us, wondered: Why am I out there trying to fix the problems of this developing nation when my hometown is facing the same or similar issues? She learned a lot during those two years about what works…and what doesn't. Granted, Detroit's problems are the result of 60 years of bad policies. But I disgress…
635 Mile grew out of her frustration – and that of her friends. These were people who grew up here, graduated from colleges here and left here because that is just where life took them. For good or for bad, this is where they are now, not Detroit. But they knew people who stayed here, they have family here and they feel truly connected to what happens.
So to be constructive, they started getting together. Many of them met through a party held through the Detroit Jewish Federation. The DJF was holding a series of events to find Detroiters in New York, Chicago, LA and elsewhere. The parties were a huge success, and Rachel and Co. wanted to see that continue. They started building a network of what they call ex-pats from that original meeting, and 635 Mile was born.
I personally love Rachel's brand of optimism for Detroit. Her husband, who is from Cleveland and points beyond, noted that although he and his friends are from Midwestern towns that look like Detroit, they do not necessarily have the same connection to those towns as Detroiters have for Detroit. I wonder if this is true…but I have a feeling it is.
635 Mile has had about two major meetings. The first featured speaker Dan Doctoroff, president of Bloomberg LP and former NYC Deputy Mayor for Economic Development. This former Detroiter is credited as doing more to transform NYC than anyone else, according to Mayor Bloomberg. Another event, held just this month, was mostly social to find more connections with new members and raise money for CommunityNEXT. But they had a great giveaway to lure people in – they got things like Vernors, Gayle's Chocolates and Leo's Coney Island salad dressing. “People were particularly excited about that,” Rachel said.
The events have been amazing, she said, with attendance close to 100 people at the most recent soiree.
“It's been really fun to tap into that love for the city – everybody from 20 year olds just getting started to people like Dan Doctoroff – he's made a tremendous contribution to city of New York. He's the president of Bloomberg, one of the largest companies in the nation, and he still comes back to his roots in Detroit.”
Next, they're hoping to meet folks here in November. Beyond that, they want to have a Detroit to New York art exchange, and after that maybe have some Detroit documentary film makers come in and show their work. They'd love to have Johnny Knoxville to talk about “Detroit Lives” and things like that.
Ultimately, Rachel sees this thing spreading… Expat Detroiters living in Chicago, Boston, D.C. and California have been clamoring for events in their cities, she said. So could there be a 1245 Mile? 2456 Mile? Could this thing go global? Feel the love, Detroit!
“I want this to be more than a social club,” Rachel said. “If at the end of the day that's what we are, that's okay – but it won't have the impact I want.”