Detroit is the city that has produced a turnaround for the ages in recent years. But the transition continues to evolve in many colorful ways, thanks in part to a group of influential couples who poised themselves long ago to roll up their sleeves, get their hands dirty and drive the city forward. While having a significant other certainly is no prerequisite for achievement in this town, the duos who are successfully navigating Detroit’s opportunities through their individual and joint efforts are nothing short of awe-inspiring.
These are the couples who have collaborated literally by candle light in the darkness of abandoned Detroit, turning forgotten spaces into beautiful meeting places. These are the trailblazers who have joined forces on everything from creating artistic environments; to driving employment opportunities; to delighting our palates; to getting us up off our couches for some good old fashioned let-your-hair-down, dance-your-ass-off fun. They’re in our restaurants, our art spaces, our night life and our community, working hard to make a name for themselves and the city. These are the trendsetters, the entrepreneurs and the very pulse of Detroit. They are hip, cultured and spirited; pumping away to forge a life together while simultaneously juggling the successes and stresses of creating an experience that will keep changing people’s minds, one-by-one, about just who and what Detroit really is.
Who they are:
George is owner and creator of The N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art: a nonprofit dedicated to enlightenment through the arts. In addition to exhibition areas, the center has a women’s boutique, a music lounge where only vinyl music from the ‘60s and ‘70s is played and a movement center for drop-in dance such as African dance, Lindy Hop, Tango and children’s ballet. George is also on the business advisory committee for the M-1 Rail; is a curator for DLECTRICITY − an annual site-specific set of installations of light-based art in Midtown; is on the Woodward Avenue Action Association – a group of almost 2,000 businesses along Woodward; and is part of The District Detroit Association – a sports and entertainment development led by the Ilitch organization. Just to name a few.
Carmen is an educational consultant and, along with George, is the founder of the former Nataki Talibah Schoolhouse of Detroit – a school that was founded in memory of George and Carmen’s baby girl who passed away at fourteen months old in 1974. Although the schoolhouse closed in June of 2016, Carmen’s passion as an educator remains.
How they met:
“In college, at Ohio State in the ‘60s, we met through social ways,” recalls Carmen. “In the student union we would see each other and talk. We took a trip to Guyana two years after we were dating. We were fairly political.”
So, what’s new?
George: “I’m working on a project in the Grand River Avenue area, just north of the casino. I am trying to create a gallery district, to be branded the West End Gallery District. Currently Detroit doesn’t have a gallery district like a lot of other cities do. It’s going to allow the city to really solidify its arts presence. A lot of philanthropic communities are putting funding into the arts and artists. But I contend that it is also very important to develop an arts district in order to give artists a mechanism in order to sell their work.”
Carmen: “I am very focused on education. I really want to change how people view this. Right now education is for the adults trying to accomplish what they would like to do with the children. I am trying to bring it back to the children. Everything is about scores and data. It is a business approach to education. I think there needs to be so much more that needs to be going on inside of schools besides reading, writing and arithmetic. They need swimming, they need art and they need band.”
Carmen: “After Nataki died, three weeks later George’s father died. But all this beauty came from it. Death either paralyzes you or it inspires. I said, ‘If death thinks that it is going to keep me from being able to raise my child, it’s got another thing coming.’ We buried Nataki in Cincinnati – my home town. We then came to Detroit [to open the school]. The school gave me the opportunity to raise Nataki through other children. We became very brave from that experience.”
George: “You’re talking about a 28 and a 25 year old wanting to start a school. We decided Detroit would be it. Politically and culturally Detroit was very progressive. The economics of the city – we felt that we could get here and afford to have a building. To me it was one of the best decisions we could have made. We stayed because Detroit is an empowering city. When you are empowered, you feel like you can do anything. So what happens is you start feeling like your future doesn’t have limitations. That’s Detroit. We want to start a school? We’re going to start a school. In ‘78 we opened the school and in ‘81 we opened the gallery.”
What were some of the successes and challenges of building a life in Detroit?
George: “In hindsight, I don’t look too much at things being challenges. If I looked at it that way there are a lot of things I wouldn’t do. I say let’s just keep going because the universe is going to take care of the details. It’s not like things are not difficult, you know, it’s just that, when you’re walking through hell you just keep on walking. And once you’re through, you’re just on the other side. We started the school with 18 kids. Carmen didn’t have a check for 7-8 years. Are those challenges? I don’t know. Maybe we were young and naïve – maybe this is just our way of life. We always use the example of when our gas got cut off once. We didn’t want to tell our kids that our gas got cut off. We told the kids it was off in the entire neighborhood. We made a fire in the fireplace and roasted marshmallows and laid out sleeping bags. Is that a challenge or an opportunity? When you choose something, you have to take everything along with it.”
What are your tips for maintaining a relationship while juggling the workload of success?
Carmen: “One thing I think is important is if you have kids you really have to do everything as if you don’t have this juggling. Once you start to let the task overtake the duties at home, that comes back to haunt you. I think also, you need lots of friends. We never had to solely rely on each other. We had a lot of good friends so we belonged to a village. The village would keep us supported. I think couples can be magnets for that love from people. But you need to extend yourself, meet people and join clubs. We also were never trying to be anything beyond what it was that we were trying to do. We both were very goal-oriented. Our goal was to figure out how to make it happen and keep it going. I think we surprised ourselves.”
You’ve got 24 hours of no obligation in Detroit. What do you do and where do you eat?
George: “I call them my me days. I go to Celebrity Barbershop on Detroit’s West Side and get a facial. I’m in the chair a minimum of an hour and a half, then I get my nails done and maybe a massage. Then I go to breakfast at The Click; Brooklyn Street Local; The Avalon for coffee or the Whistle Stop on the weekends. For lunch I’ll do Seva, Detroit Vegan Soul or the Cass Café.”
Carmen: “I like Savannah Blue, Central Station, Russell Street Deli, Townhouse and Sevaa. Motor City Brewing Company for pizza. I also like La Feria and Wasabi. For entertainment: Music Hall and The Opera House or Baker’s Keyboard Lounge.”
If you had a magic ball, what would you hope to see for yourselves professionally five years from now?
George: “I would like to have Grand River on its way, flourishing. My goals are set around what I see for the city, what I see for my investors and then for me – in that order. In five years, I want to be semi-retired. I want to be able to say I have someone to run the center and run the real-estate side. One thing I really want to keep working on is to make sure to keep the soul of Detroit. I say we’ve got to maintain ‘the funk’ in the city. People come to Detroit not just because of cheap real-estate but because of the funk. If you lose that over time, you’ve lost the flavor. It just becomes modernized just like every other city.”
Carmen: “I would love to be able to share the Nataki Way (Carmen’s approach to learning in a way that fosters a healthy worldview for all people of all ages that begins with an examination and appreciation of self). I want to offer it so it really does change the way we think. The reason I say that is because we keep repeating history because of the language we use. I remember being in fifth grade looking at the bulletin board and it had slaves and I thought, ‘That’s interesting: Native Americans have ancestors, European Americans have forefathers and I have slaves.’ Can you imagine figuring out who you are? When you are talking about my ancestry from Africa, talk about being enslaved and not about being a slave. I would love to know I could touch those kinds of things. We need to do soul searching – not to blame but to grow. I want to really make a difference there. We have so many names we tag things with and I think it stunts our growth as people in a country.”