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Straight from The Source, a regular interview series taking you behind-the-scenes to Southeast Michigan’s cultural destinations to hear from the curators, programmers, leaders, doers and makers.

What are you best known for?

A lot of people will people say, ‘it’s the tour lady,’ so tours are the number one thing associated with me. But also a Detroit expert. And just a hub of information. I know many of these things can be about myself, but also the organization. I’m able to take in information, boil it down, and translate it to something that people can understand and that makes sense and connect the dots between many things without having a horse in the race. My horse in the race is Detroit— not one specific business, not one specific sector, not one specific neighborhood—it’s the whole thing. We can tell that more holistic story and provide the context around things.

What would you like to be known for? 

What focus on academic content with our tours, and it’s deeper and serves a bigger purpose than just sunshine and roses. 

Where did the idea for the Detroit Experience Factory come from? How has the model changed as the city has?

I was my first client, if you will. Converts make the best evangelists. I was like, I know Detroit, I’ve lived here my whole life. By walking around, every time I learned something, I just loved being here more, and I felt that other people, if they knew more, they would also appreciate it, whether they were visiting or lifelong residents. 

I didn’t know anything about business [when I started]—there weren’t a lot of the entrepreneurial resources that there are now. In 2005, exactly 12 years ago, I started working on the organization. We launched January 6, 2006 what was called Inside Detroit. I’ve been doing the same work for 12 years, we’ve just changed brands a couple times.

At first, it was a part-time thing, about introducing people to the small business owners. They didn’t have marketing budgets, and there wasn’t social media really or Eater or anything to find out about this great diner or old school place. Very quickly, we were recognized as experts on the ground level. We were involved in the Super Bowl [in 2006], and then in a lot of the programs with the development of Campus Martius Park.

"It’s about economic impact, and a big part of that is attraction and retention of talent—that’s really what we decided to focus on."

The model has both grown and changed in that we realized that it wasn’t just about, ‘oh this could be fun for people.’ It’s about economic impact, and a big part of that is attraction and retention of talent—that’s really what we decided to focus on. A lot of the time, people think tours are for tourists, for out-of-towners, they’re double-decker buses, and that was never what we wanted to focus on. Realizing how much of a positive impact it could have on Detroit, both for small businesses and residents, was a really big thing. We’ve never really turned away visitors, but it was never our focus. We’ve started working with corporations more and more. Since we began, we’ve taken 95,000 people around the city of Detroit, with the vast majority, about 70-75%, Detroit and Metro Detroit residents. 

Downtown Detroit was a very different place when you moved there after college in 2003. What did people say?

People thought I was crazy for sure. My parents were mostly supportive—we grew up in the city, so they didn’t have any anti-city sentiments. But just the idea of living downtown, people didn’t do that. That was part of the impetus for a lot of where I’m at today. 

I studied abroad in Spain, and I loved walking everywhere. I loved talking to the small coffee shop owner. I loved Spain, but I loved my family, and I loved Detroit, so I wanted to make what I loved about Spain in Detroit, and people laughed at me. But I did, I moved downtown, I started talking to people, and it was great. I wasn’t being a martyr, I really loved my life. I thought, ‘I know Detroit!,’ and once I started walking places, it was like, ‘What’s that? What’s that?’ How did I live here my whole life and not know about this restaurant or this small detail of this building or this beautiful cultural spot, and the more I learned, and the more I talked to people, the more I loved my life and loved Detroit. And then people would say, ‘but you’re not supposed to love your life, you’re in Detroit, don’t you know it’s awful.’ But it’s not awful, this is my experience. And that’s what led me to start my organization.

What does a vibrant arts and cultural community mean to you?

When people ask, ‘Why Detroit?’ which is how really all this started, the main answer ended up being about these great, world-class institutions. Arts and culture is one of Detroit’s greatest assets, and we sometimes take it for granted. Certainly, the Detroit Institute of Arts is pretty awesome, and it’s very well known, but there’s other places throughout the city, whether it’s Dabls [MBAD] African Bead Museum or the murals in Eastern Market—there are so many things that are part of the neighborhood fabric that people don’t necessarily get to see all the time or realize is there.

What local cultural destination have you visited recently?

JeanettePierceAt the Detroit Opera HouseA lot of times, people have a tendency to say, ‘It’s gotta be a museum, that’s culture,’ when that’s not true. Our music scene is so amazing here, both historic places like Baker’s Keyboard Lounge and Bert’s or even The Raven Lounge, I absolutely love music. Thornetta Davis is probably my favorite local artist, and she’s also a good friend, and I love hearing her perform.

The Grand River Creative Corridor in and of itself is one of our favorite stops on our tour, with Rebel Nell, and you have Xenophora which just opened there—they make jewelry with a 3D printer.

I love the historic theaters—there’s the Alger Theater on the east side, the Redford Theater. A lot of people haven’t been to the Senate Theater, which has the original organ from the Fisher Theater.

When you have visitors in from out of town, what is the one cultural destination you make sure they see during their visit? 

When I take people around, I try to take them to places they wouldn’t necessarily be able to find on their own. I can point them towards the DIA, the Charles H. Wright, Michigan Science Center, Motown Museum, the Detroit Historical Museum and The Henry Ford. They’re easy to navigate and they have tours of their own.

I try to take them to places they aren’t necessarily going to go to on their own or are a little harder to find. That’s where the Artists Village [Detroit] and Dabls and The Heidelberg Project, those types of places come in. Or even Eastern Market, because a lot of people go there, but they don’t necessarily know about the art scene that’s there, with Signal-Return and Red Bull House of Art and Inner State Gallery. That’s why we added the Art in the Market tour so that people could see all of those details around it. 

"My horse in the race is Detroit— not one specific business, not one specific sector, not one specific neighborhood—it’s the whole thing." 

What excites you most about the future of SE MI’s arts and culture scene?

I think that I’m most excited about is the opportunity for everyone who wants to, to be a part of it. There is a low barrier of entry here, whether it’s arts and culture or small businesses. The entrepreneurial ecosystem is not just for tech startups or cookie makers, but for artists, and is being infused into everything we’re doing here. 

I’m excited to see how we engage people in understanding what the UNESCO City of Design distinction means, and really bring our arts and culture organizations together, and continue to grow and collaborate. The big thing that sets Detroit apart is that affordability and the diversity that inspires people, and the diversity of our arts and culture landscape is really impressive and really unique compared to a lot of other cities.