“Before people said that Detroit was dead, they said that Detroit was the best.” #P2P Vol. 4: Jeff Wegner
When I had the opportunity to speak with Jeff Wegner, I was more than excited to catch up with him. Jeff, a 24-year-old Saginaw, Mich. native who attended Central Michigan University, recently relocated to Detroit to work on a few projects he’s passionate about. Jeff is an entrepreneurial artist interested in telling the story of Detroit through his love of cinematography and photography.
Jeff and I both have a passion for the city of Detroit. Being raised in Detroit, I am always irked when people make generalized statements about the state of affairs there. Though things have been rough, Jeff’s experiences in Detroit speak to how this is a city that may be down, but it’s far from out. There’s a reason the Spirit of Detroit is a community symbol that represents the determination and motivation of people in the city; I think Jeff’s found out why. When he and I spoke, I searched for the answer.
So you’re in Detroit now.
“Yep, I am. I still consider Saginaw my home. You can only be in one physical location at a time, so I’m currently in Detroit.”
How long have you been here?
“I came to Metro Detroit in March 2013. I’ve been living in the city since October 2013.”
What brought you to Detroit?
“Probably the same thing that most people are afraid of, which is the devastation. I just want to help the city grow and get better. There’s no reason for the devastation other than neglect. It’s time for that to end.“
What are you here to do about it?
“I’m here because I have a lot of projects I’d like to work on. Film projects, social projects, and all around experiencing the art culture that’s here and the influential people making it happen.”
Have you worked on any of those projects so far?
“I’ve been working on film projects in Detroit since 2009. My first projects were exploration projects. The city is so big and I was fascinated by so many different things. There was no shortage of good footage to go around. It was refreshing footage compared to everything you see portrayed in the media.”
What sort of things are those?
“They keep showing you the same things over and over during the span of a couple years and you don’t see anything but the city decay. It’s not right. The footage I was getting was inspiring. I felt like this landscape was this crazy canvas. Since then, I’ve been really passionate about literally capturing everything that I can.”
Are you always filming a new project?
“It doesn’t always have to be about a film project to capture it. It just has to be about embracing the culture and learning what’s around you. The city is so big that Detroit really has the best of everything secretly, but no one really knows it. Living down here and experiencing that is great. It’s a special time in history to be a Detroiter.”
Why do you say that?
“Well, most people in the future are going to remember Detroit’s breaking point when the city declared bankruptcy. Not me. What I’m going to remember about the day Detroit declared bankruptcy is something a little different. Something a little more powerful.”
“The day the city declared bankruptcy. I was working at Moosejaw, so I get up that morning and head into work. My boss says to me ‘We just won two free Bon Jovi tickets, so you can have them both.’ All day, everyone’s talking about the bankruptcy. And I was in the city, having a good day, enjoying life and nothing had changed. It was just like the day before. Except now I had two concert tickets.”
Did something happen at the concert?
“Before the concert, I went to the party store and headed to the park. As I’m walking up to the park benches, there’s people on all of the benches. The majority of them appear to be less fortunate, struggling most likely. I figured why not go talk to these people? So I did.”
“We exchanged a few words, then we sat there and we just hung out. We drank a little bit, we watched the sunset and at the end of it all I was the last person on the bench. As I sat there, all I could think to myself was ‘I don’t care what anyone has to say about this bankruptcy. Because I just had a great night in the park and I’m going to have a great night at this concert. This city is extraordinary and I love it.'”
The Spirit of Detroit.
What do you find so extraordinary about the city?
“Alright, so I drive down Mack and Jefferson a lot. I live on the east side of Detroit — shout out, whoop whoop! When I drive down Mack, especially places considered extreme lower class in most statistics, you see trash in the streets and nothing cleaned up. There’s six buildings left on the block, four of them are burned. There’s not a lot of good things. But … that’s what you see the first time. That’s what everyone sees the first time. It’s scary to some people. You might see that the first time, second time, maybe even the third time. But once you’re here, and you’re in it, you start to see new things.”
What sort of things do you see now?
“I’m seeing buildings that were burned down, but now the grass is mowed. There used to be a tires scattered all over the place, but now someone’s stacked them up. Little things like that when before they were freaking you out, but now you’re saying ‘Hey, that bulldozer wasn’t there before.’ Little pieces of the puzzle that show you people care. The dark days are over. You can’t stop the injustice, you can’t stop the tragedy. But the dark days are over, and Detroit is growing again.”
You find the city is coming back to life.
“Yeah, and it’s going to take a long time for the rest of the world to see that if they’re not here because they’re still seeing what’s being propelled at them all the time by the media. The same nonsense. They don’t see the one day when there’s boards on the windows, and the next day when it has new windows.”
You see that spirit of Detroit as extraordinary?
“Yeah. It’s a small step, right? You notice a party store that used to looked like sh*t on the outside now has a new paint job. Every day it gets better and better here. People will always be in shock about the extreme lower class of the area, but the more time you spend and the more you care, the more you live here and the more you love it, the more you see that momentum and it makes you want to keep going.”
Is that the spirit of Detroit? People helping people?
“Absolutely. It’s a self-sustaining community because no one else wants to help sustain it. The only people who are helping to sustain it are the people who are here. They’ve formed this very close-knit community and I’m finding myself getting more actively involved in it. And it’s, hands down, the kind of lifestyle I want to live.”
What sort of work are you doing to better the city?
“A lot of socially progressive movements that are shifting culture are what I’m after with my camera. The Empowerment Plan with Veronika Scott was an early project I was working on. We created a three-minute documentary submitted to Adobe Stories, which was then published and shared on the Adobe blogs. I did that for the story.”
Who is Veronika Scott?
“At that time, Veronika was a 22-year-old student at the College for Creative Studies. She had spent hundreds of hours working at soup kitchens and was giving so much to the city weekend after weekend. Hours of selfless dedication, meeting and understanding these people. At first, she wasn’t extremely well-liked. It took months of her meeting these people for them to really start to respect her and trust her. They came to understand she was there for them. So, she started working on this coat design. It was an idea that couldn’t be stopped.”
What was the idea?
“She was designing a coat that would transform into a sleeping bag. Then she was donated them to disaster relief and the homeless in Detroit. This idea was then propelled into this amazing non-profit business. She hires women in shelters to manufacture these coats, so she’s creating a job for them and making a revenue stream for people in her community.”
“Right. That’s what I find amazing. People need opportunities and it has to match a lifestyle which creates a solution that fills a gap in society. Corporate America will make their money, but Veronika Scott will change the community. I was blown away by her story, and I’ve enjoyed working with people just like her over the last few years.”
Have you been involved in other inspirational stories like that in Detroit?
“Yes, I’ve worked with Detroit Bold. was really excited to get involved and see the growth of Detroit Bold, as well as the impact he’s making in the community with solar blend. They’ve been roasting coffee in Highland Park. They’re in a lot of coffee shops in Metro Detroit, including Eastern Market. They want to expand, getting clients like Meijer and Kroger.”
What did you do for them?
“There’s a lot that goes with it. A.J. O’Neil, the owner, is a social entrepreneur as well. A.J. created solar blend in 2012. The money raised from it went into creating a solar-powered streetlight in Highland Park. We’re working on a project in the future to install four or five more solar-powered streetlights in Brightmoor using solar blend.”
What inspired this movement?
“DTE Energy ripped all of the streetlights out of the ground and scrapped them. They didn’t put any new ones up. DTE left no hope. So, that means someone has to put up new streetlights because every functioning society has to have streetlights. It’s a first world thing. Someone’s got to fix it. A.J. wants to. That’s how selfless of a person A.J. is.”
“Yeah. It’s an honor to work on a project like that. I’m excited! The fact that he’s trying to put these lights up, and I can be invited to dig the holes to put these lights up. That’s what people need.”
So you’re seeing first hand that people are trying to make a difference in the city.
“Right. That’s what you find out about this city when you’re here. When you meet people like Veronika or A.J., when you’re engulfed in this culture, you realize how cool everyone is. You see how they’re making things that are unique.”
You’re seeing people help people.
“Exactly. They’re stepping up to the plate and swinging to the fences every single time. They’re here to make change. Everywhere I go, I meet someone who has this crazy story. There’s so many amazing organizations that I literally don’t want to leave. Some people don’t want to be in Detroit, but I don’t want to leave. I say to everyone that they should come to Detroit. There’s more cool things here. I guarantee it.”
So, that’s what you find extraordinary about this city.
“It’s not just about Detroit. I’m a Michigander through and through. I’ve gone up to the Upper Peninsula to film, too. I find my peace throughout the entire Michigan coastline. It’s an amazing state to live in. The national media puts this stamp on Detroit, Saginaw, Flint, Inkster and other cities as though this place is just wrecked and falling apart.”
You don’t see it that way?
“Not at all. Actually, Michigan is beautiful. It’s a state people should want to live in. We’re watching a lot of people with a lot of talent leave for other places, which I can completely understand. Find your peace wherever it is. But sometimes, these people talk about Michigan like it’s crap, just the same as the media. And I’m wondering how they don’t know about the good things.”
Is that your job? To spread the good stories?
“Yeah. That’s what I’m doing. It’s enjoyable. At the end of the day, stories will be told. It depends on who’s telling them and what they’re telling them about. As a storyteller, I want to tell the good stories. You go on Google and search Detroit, it’s always depressing what you’ll find from other outlets. It makes you feel like this place is dead. I want people to know every time they talk to me that I care — period.”
Finding what was lost, but never destroyed.
What would you say if someone said Detroit is on its last leg?
“It’s about that sense of opportunity. If you’re willing to just give up the things you have to get things that you could have. It’s like the story about the little girl holding onto the pearl earrings. She didn’t want to give them up, but her dad had the real pearl earrings. You’ve got to be willing to let go of whatever you think to see opportunity for what it really is.”
You think people who are saying the city is dying aren’t seeing what the city has to offer?
“It’s that ability to build whatever you want to build. The people who are saying that … it poses the question: are they hackers? Which goes to say are they makers, crafters, living with a mission and pursuing what is important to them? The city of Detroit is not for everyone and I’m not saying everyone should love Detroit. What I’m saying is people who can see opportunity are the ones who are thriving here. They’re getting a really great, enriching return on investment both monetarily and socially.”
How do you suggest people do that?
“You’ve gotta learn how to reclaim area. The value of property in other cities is so high. In Detroit, it’s so low. And it makes you think, you know? Isn’t that the number one rule of trading stocks? Buy low, sell high. I think it is. If you follow that general rule, right now is the perfect time in Detroit to do so. You have to hold onto your vision and your value, potentially for a lifetime, but that’s life. Nothing’s built overnight, but you will see a return on investment.”
Will naysayers say Detroit is coming back?
“Yep. It’s inevitable. It will take a long time for people to know. It may never fully clear up it’s name, but that’s history. There’s so much that goes with that. You know, when Detroit comes back and it’s rich again, it’ll be a world class city. People will want to start moving here, it’ll gain world attention.”
Has that started?
“For sure. It’s already begun gaining attention with the hackers of the world. These are the people coming here first. We’re going to need to create jobs to grow the population, redevelop the property and with all of that through time people will love this city again. At the end of the day, it comes down to jobs. It’s so ironic, because I’m against corporate America, but we need Macy’s, we need Cheesecake Factory, we need Qdoba, we need Tropical Smoothie.”
Why is that?
“We need to propel motion to get businesses here so we can give people jobs and give them activities they can feel safe and comfortable doing. I learned about this from A.J. It’s called Cross-Trickle economics, started by Henry Ford when he began the automotive assembly line.”
What does that entail?
“It’s when you pay people enough money so that they can both be producers and consumers comfortably. They want to work for you because they’re receiving the American dream. Back then, they were. That’s why Detroit was named the Paris of the Midwest. Workers were paid and respected enough to be both producers and consumers to the point they were so happy to do it.”
And you’re saying we’ve lost that?
“Yes, and that’s the problem with a lot of big business, though that’s not what this is about. It’s such a cool concept because it works every time. It’s like why are big businesses screwing people? Why is Detroit is in shambles? Lots of why, lots of who did it. So, now we have to figure out how to fix the problem. We’ve got to find a way to counter what’s wrong on so many levels by creating this new culture in the city. We need these big businesses so everyone can have these opportunities, because not everyone is a hacker — and that’s okay.”
You don’t think it’s too late?
“Before people said that Detroit was dead, they said that Detroit was the best. That atmosphere is still here. That’s not dead. The others who got scared dipped out, they said ‘We’re out. We’re done.’ They left. And that is the problem. We need to fix it, we need to help people get this city better. That atmosphere that is still here, the real people who stuck around, are bringing more real people into the city with that mentality. The mentality from before that Detroit is world class and we can provide for our people, building an industrial empire that was second to none — that motivation is still here. And it’s going to take a while for the people who flaked out to see it, but they’ll come back.”
On what motivates him in the morning.
“Fruit smoothies! [Laughs] I make fruit smoothies every morning and it really helps brighten up my day. I feel very strongly about making some change. I get upset with myself if I’m not doing anything. I check myself real quick and I find something to do. You only have 24 hours in a day to make plays.”
On inspiring the future of Detroit.
“The future of this city is in the children. They need to be led in the right direction. They need to be cared for. They need to be educated better with a stronger system. They need to learn skills at pivotal times in their lives. There’s so many things that need to be corrected. But we have to reach out to them because it’s the cycle of life. If we can’t reach out to the children, we can’t change this atmosphere of what’s happened in this city.”
On finding inspiration and entertainment in the city.
“You’ve got Drinks X Design, you’ve got the Detroit Design Festival which is like seven days long. There’s Art X Detroit. There’s the Movement festivals. There’s TEDx Detroit. There’s so many events, including Small Business Saturdays where boutique stores and independent artist and designers will sell their work. There’s a growth in this community that is so inspiring and it’s something you don’t know from the outside. But from the inside, you know. You see it.”
So, where’s a good place to start in getting to know the culture of Detroit?
“You can go to Eastern Market on a Saturday. If you go, you’ll have the single best time of your life. There’s a massive party the entire time. There’s vendors, florists, crafts, restaurants, craft beers, cool concepts like Detroit Future City. We’re talking about places that have been featured on national shows! When you do go there, you very quickly find out how awesome it is.”
Is it one of your favorite places?
“Yeah, it’s the largest market district in the nation. You can get all your fresh fruits there, all your meat and they all come from local farmers. It’s the best quality of food. There’s a fly circus there. You can learn how to become a trapeze artist. The list goes on and on. People look at this city like it’s messed up beyond repair, but it’s not messed up. It’s perfectly fine. This insurgence of business and culture is amazing.”
When is a good time to go?
“People need to go to Eastern Market early on a Saturday, around 6 or 7 a.m. It’s a really amazing activity. Experience it. Go to Eastern Market on a Saturday and have the best day of your life. And then do it on the next Saturday and the Saturday after. All you gotta do is go and have fun. It’s that simple. If Eastern Market inspires you, maybe you should look a little deeper into the city and see what else you can find. I’ve been inspired by hundreds of things in this city. I don’t know a single person who gets upset when they’re inspired. People only see the bad things, but I think Detroit is second to none.”
Jeff’s story is a part of #P2P, a recently launched blog series that profiles the choices, risks and lifestyles of influential people I come across. For more on my personal journey with #P2P, subscribe to my blog, follow me on Twitter or subscribe to me on Facebook.