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Exploring Detroit “beautiful and shocking at the same time”

Jerry Belanger shares the history of renovating Cliffbells with a group touring from Grand Rapids.
Lindsey Smith
Michigan Radio
Jerry Belanger shares the history of renovating Cliffbells with a group touring from Grand Rapids.

Just before 7 o’clock this morning, I got on a bus to Detroit. More than 50 people from West Michigan are also on board. And these are normal, non-politician-type people who are trying to learn more about Detroit.

If you find yourself asking something like, “Why would they do that?” or “What’s to learn from Detroit?” – then join me, you’re on the right track.

Organizers hope the trip will connect people, break down stereotypes of Detroit (and Grand Rapids, for that matter), determine common problems and figure out how each side of the state might benefit the other.

That may be easier said than done. We all (I include myself in this group because outside of a couple Tigers’ games, I’ve neglected to get to really know the Motor City) gawk with morbid curiosity at the blight we saw driving into the city.

Our first stop – Cliff Bell's. A beautiful “fully restored art-deco night-club in the heart of Detroit's historic entertainment district.”

Jerry Belanger bought the building. He admits it was a huge risk. The banks would not give him a loan. He says most of the renovations going on, the revived parts of the city, the urban farms – most of them are happening because corporations (and banks) have turned their backs on Detroit. And he says most of that work is going on without official permission from building inspectors, cops, or city officials.

“And that comes back to my ‘free environment’ – nobody really gives a s***. There’s no city council guy going around going ‘oh this guy has chickens on his property and we haven’t had an ordinance for livestock in Detroit since 1908. It’s there for years and it’s well known but nobody is hunting people down.”

Belanger wished us luck on our tour. He wants us to train our eyes to look past the blighted buildings, even the better looking buildings.

“Walk into any building and there’s an 80% chance that it’s 100% vacant”

But he argues the 'free environment' and loads of extra space is where a lot of the opportunity lies.

Back on the bus, Jonathan Jelks (GR native) says the lawlessness is kind of attractive. “I like that it’s sort of like the wild-west out here.”

Another Grand Rapids resident, Nick Manes, tweeted “Confession: this is my first time really seeing the city of Detroit. It’s beautiful and shocking at the same time.”

So far, I agree.

Follow the conversation on twitter #gr2detroit.

Lindsey Smith is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently leading the station's Amplify Team. She previously served as Michigan Public's Morning News Editor, Investigative Reporter and West Michigan Reporter.