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Urbanites band together to aid in city's rebirth

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Melinda Anderson, 28, grew up on Detroit's east side and recently started attending Detroit Synergy meetings. "I meet so many different individuals, and it's a unique way to see the city," she said.

Urbanites band together to aid in Detroit rebirth

Coalitions hope to lift city's stigma, shed light on assets.

By Natalie Y. Moore / The Detroit News

DETROIT - Chic loft parties, pub crawls and gallery tours - it's not bohemian New York or trendy Chicago but a bustle happening locally. Leading the informal renaissance in Detroit are young, hip twenty- and thirtysomethings, urbanites attracted to the city's grit and rebirth potential.

Volunteer groups have formed recently, or grown, to cheer Detroit as a complement to emerging business ventures and budding redevelopment. They promote city living and saving historical buildings and want to etch out a place for thousands of creative workers.

In a city beset with crime, infrastructure problems and budget cuts, these groups provide a push away from Detroit's stigmas. A glimpse at Woodward Avenue, near downtown, on a weekend night illustrates the city's liveliness. Restaurants and music venues such as Agave and the Magic Stick are thick with diverse customers.

Detroit Synergy, one of the most active groups, has a self-described mission to awaken the potential of one of the world's most misunderstood metropolises.

Its membership is mostly white, in a city that is mostly black. That detail is not lost on them as they try to forge relationships with other diverse nonprofit organizations.

"There's no question that we have a lot of work to do," said member Rose Giffen, 30. She said to be effective in the city, which is 82 percent black, the group must be inclusive.

This fall, Detroit Synergy will join with the Detroit branch of the National Conference for Community and Justice, a nonprofit human relations organization. The purpose is to conduct race dialogues.

"We want to break down barriers and perceptions about people different from us," said Giffen, who lives in Royal Oak. "We are the most segregated region in the country. Some of us grew up in segregated communities and didn't have the opportunity to interact with others."

Over the past two years, Detroit Synergy has increased its mailing list to 1,500, and active membership is about 75. Participants say minority membership has gone from 5 percent to 25 percent over the past year at monthly meetings, which usually attract about 50 people.

In late August, Mahogany Tasters, an African-American wine club, worked with Detroit Synergy to put on an event at Belle Isle.

The president of the wine connoisseurs group criticized Synergy, mostly for being non-Detroit residents and hailing from the same clique.

"Their biggest hurdle is the sincerity of intentions," said Angela Sikes, 34.

Rob Cummings, 32, who is white, lives in Midtown and is one of the early Detroit Synergy members. He acknowledged that the group struggles to get a range of people to join.

"This has been an issue we've talked about extensively. If we knew (the answer), we'd know how to attack it," said Cummings, a Web designer.

Melinda Anderson, 28, grew up on Detroit's east side and recently started attending Detroit Synergy meetings.

Anderson, who is black, said the lack of diversity in the group concerned her at first, but she's seen a gradual change.

"There needs to be more of a push. Does this really represent Detroit? It's slowly starting to happen," she said of minority membership.

Her involvement, however, has opened her eyes to her hometown.

"I meet so many different individuals, and it's a unique way to see the city," she said.

Young Adults Reclaiming Detroit had its first meeting in February. Its base membership of 70 is Detroit-reared and public school-educated black professionals who choose to stay in the city. Leaders for YARD and Synergy are talking about a future collaboration.

"We would be hopeful as long as they have the same goals for the city. The fact that they are majority white ... as long as they have the same goals of uplifting Detroit, we have no problem," said YARD organizer Maya Watson, 25.

Unlike many urban areas across the country, Detroit struggles to attract personal and financial investment. Cities such as Los Angeles, Dallas, Houston and Atlanta are seeing population gains in the 25- to 35-year-old range.

Cummings is accustomed to incredulous stares from suburbanites about his choice to live in the city.

"I have friends who ask who would buy a house (in Detroit). They go to Novi, but not downtown Detroit," he said. "That (negative) image of Detroit is alive in young people."

Pittsburgh-based economist Richard Florida says the "creative class" is the answer. He touts solving the urban crisis by remaking cities into centers of coolness and creativity.

CreateDetroit, a champion of perking up Detroit's image, has gained momentum since Florida's talk in March. It has joined in on sponsoring concerts and other events in the city.

But George Galster, professor of urban affairs at Wayne State University, said Detroit's prosperity hinges on more than just the hipsters.

"The success of Detroit depends on attracting immigrants who may not currently be that economically well-off or artistic or the creative class," said Galster, emphasizing that immigration of different groups provides cultural attributes and a tax base with new businesses.

For all the entertainment and recreation options in the city, another group formed this summer to showcase lifestyle options. City Life, City Living, composed of seven young professionals, put on a free housing fair in August with developers and exhibitors. The impetus was the lack of Detroit housing and apartment options, especially for newcomers.

"I was not encouraged to live in Detroit," said account executive Karma Collins, 23, who moved to Detroit last year from Washington, D.C., and was shocked at the segregation. But her logic was, "I work downtown; why not live there?"

If housing choices are abundant, City Life, City Living believes more restaurants and shopping will follow.

Austin Black, 23, just put a down payment on a Woodward condo.

"We have diverse backgrounds," Black said of his counterparts in City Life, City Living. "Detroit has so many unique places to live."

Motown masses

Here is some contact information for groups aimed at promoting Detroit living:

- www.detroit

synergy.org

- www.createdetroit.com

- www.cityliving

detroit.com

- Young Adults Reclaiming Detroit, out of Detroit Councilwoman JoAnn Watson's office: (313) 224-4535.

You can reach Natalie Y. Moore at (313) 222-2396 or [email protected]

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Detroit Synergy has a self-described mission to awaken the potential of one of the world's most misunderstood metropolises. Lisa Hickey addresses the group.

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