Business, Events, People

Q&A: Claire Nelson on Design, Innovation and Collaboration

Asking Claire Nelson to help you with a blog post is pretty smart – and pretty mean. This woman is busy planning the future of Detroit. She doesn’t have time for messing about.

But, as always, Nelson is a trooper. And she seems willing to do whatever it takes to make Detroit get to that all-important “tipping point” to success.

That is why I asked my favorite shop owner from the Bureau of Urban Living to tell you good folks about everything she and her do-gooding, city-saving, business-boosting, admiration-deserving cohorts have in the works.

Vanessa Miller

Tonight, there’s the PARK(ing) Day event outside her shop and her neighbor City Bird. Next week, there’s Open City, a forum for current and potential business owners, and Mind the Gap, her graphic design/space planning contest in association with Detroit Design Festival. Not to mention the Detroit Declaration, Third Thursdays, the Canfield Street Market, Hatch Detroit and more. So much more. I’m tired just typing it all out, let alone leading the charge like the industrious Ms. Nelson does.

Anyway, here’s what she has to say about life, Detroit, events so very cool and the people inspiring her these days.

Q:  What impact has “Open City” had on people looking to or opening business in the city?
A: When Liz Blondy and I held our first meeting back in 2007, we asked everyone who had an idea or a dream what their biggest obstacles were to opening a new business in Detroit. Along with obvious things like financing and finding the right location, many people identified something very simple and honest — fear. Starting something on your own can be scary, so I think the best thing about Open City is the sense of camaraderie and cooperation between people who are doing it. When you come to one of our monthly meetings, you can see you’re not alone – and if you have questions, who better to ask than the people who are actually doing it, right? Over the last four years, we’ve seen dozens of Open City participants open their doors – Wheelhouse Detroit, Supino Pizzeria, Curl Up & Dye, Leopold’s Books, City Bird, Good People Popcorn, City Living Detroit, 71 POP – with more on the way. Even better, all of these businesses have paid it forward, helping mentor and support other new businesses around them. A lot of people talk about the DIY spirit in Detroit, but I think it’s really more “DIO” – ourselves, plural, together.

Q: How does the mission or inspiration of PARK(ing) Day fit into Detroit’s growing artist/entrepreneur/business model?
A: Park(ing) Day is a worldwide annual event that invites citizens everywhere to transform metered parking spots into temporary parks for the public good. We started participating last year because we think public space matters, and we thought this was a clever way to call attention to that. We realize this is the Motor City and cars are a big part of our history and industry, but the amount of space we dedicate to automobile storage in Detroit is way out of proportion to spaces for people to sit, walk, talk and meet each other. We’d love to see less parking and more parks; less driving and more walking, biking and transit. It’s not just better for our health and the environment, it’s better for our civic life – and also for the viability of small business.

Q: How does the DDF and Mind the Gap push Detroit’s reputation for inventiveness or creativity?
A: I’m SO excited about Detroit Design Festival. Detroit has such a strong design legacy, and we need to do a better job of showcasing all the talent and opportunity we have here. DDF is a really wonderful way to show the world that design is an important part of our community – and I applaud all the wonderful folks at the Detroit Creative Corridor Center (DC3) for producing the festival. Personally, I’m interested in public space and how low-cost design solutions can help fill the “missing teeth” in our streetscapes and stitch our urban fabric back together. “Mind the Gap” is a way to generate ideas and start a conversation about some creative ways we can do this without a lot of money or major development. Small projects can have a really big impact. Lots of people — not just designers — came up with some really great ideas I’m excited to share.

Q: What do you think Detroiters have going for them as far as their design aesthetic, and can you name some artists you have in the store that personify that?
A: I think Detroit has a pretty cool retro/future thing going on. We look to the past, then we imagine the future, and a lot of my favorite local designers somehow incorporate both into their work. We have this great industrial heritage that begs creative new ways to use old materials and spaces. We also have this interesting tension between urbanism/modernism and nature/beauty that you can see in a lot of local design. I personally love to watch how people interpret Detroit’s geography through maps and place-based iconography.

Q: How has life changed for Detroiters working and living in the city over the past year?
A: Well, first I should say that there are still, as always, big challenges to address. But there are so many great little things happening everywhere. This is the theme of a Model D event I’m helping to organize downtown on October 21st – “The next big thing is a million little things.” In the last year, we’ve seen several new independent businesses open – Astro Coffee in Corktown, 71 POP in Midtown, Mootown Creamery in Eastern Market – and several more are on the way.  Eastern Market has expanded its hours, and services like Canine To Five and Recycle Here continue to grow. There are more cultural events and openings happening every night of the week – and there is no shortage of community activities you can be involved with.  The city is more bike-friendly, there are more local food options, and there are more public spaces to gather – the Riverfront, New Center Park, community gardens. I could go on and on, but the little stuff of daily life makes a big difference.

Q: What and who are some of the groups/people that you find exciting or inspirational right now?
A: Oh my, this could be a VERY long list. I am always inspired by people who don’t just talk, but actually do. I’m a huge fan of Tom & Peggy Brennan and their work at the Green Garage. I love projects like Detroit SOUP and Hatch Detroit that are providing micro-grants for creative projects and businesses. I think everything the Detroit Creative Corridor Center is doing is so important. I love working with the folks at Model D and WDET to have meaningful conversations about creating a more open, welcoming city. I love following all the people who are telling Detroit’s story through art and writing and photography and filmmaking – not just celebrating or promoting, but challenging us to imagine new and better ways of doing things. And I’m perpetually in awe of people like Sue Mosey, Dan Carmody, Kathy Wendler and all of the folks at our community development organizations who wake up every day to make our neighborhoods stronger.

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One comment on “Q&A: Claire Nelson on Design, Innovation and Collaboration

  1. Cheers for this excellent. I was wondering if you were thining of writing similar posts to this one. .Keep up the great articles!

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