- Marlene Lacasse/Daily
By Jacob Axelrad, Daily Arts Writer
Published October 3, 2013
5:30 p.m. Beneath a gray September sky, kissed by rays of a waning sunset, a few shuttered windows framed with stone arches stare down from the white façade of the old Jam Handy building on Detroit’s East Grand Boulevard. Above the arches, on a blue sign with faded lettering, read the words, “The Jam Handy Organization,” testament to a bygone era when this neighborhood housed an advertising studio that owned many of the buildings on the street, employing between 500 and 600 people — General Motors its biggest client.
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Down the block, in an abandoned gas station with graffiti-stained pumps, weeds and grass spring from cracks in the pavement — a scene of terrible beauty. A black cat wanders the street, pausing briefly and staring at its own tail, as though curious or bored. A man emerges from a nearby home, taking out his trash. He calls to the cat. “Where you going?” he asks. “Huh? What you doing?” A moment passes. He laughs, shakes his head, and then swings his trash bag into the bin, before crouching low on his front steps and lighting a cigarette.
But inside the old Jam Handy, the pace of life moves faster this Sunday evening. Volunteers dash about the cavernous warehouse, making last-minute adjustments for the evening’s upcoming event that will temporarily transform the space into a hub of creativity: Detroit SOUP, a monthly dinner that uses money given by attendees at the door to fund micro-grants for community projects seeking to improve Detroit.
For $5, anyone can attend the dinner — which consists of donated soup and salad — and listen to four different presenters discuss their plans to better the city. At night’s end, diners vote on which project to donate the night’s proceeds to. Projects can range from a recycling education program to a non-profit dedicated to assisting relatives of prisoners.
“Detroit SOUP reaches those people you don’t read about in the news,” said Kristen Selle, whose MACC Lit literacy and tutoring clinic won the August 2013 SOUP dinner. “It’s grassroots. It’s small and it’s on a very personal level.”
Slowly, people arrive. Some park cars in the gas station, haphazardly filling up unused space. Others arrive by bicycle or by foot, gravitating toward the entrance of the old Jam Handy. Upon entering, smiles and laughs are exchanged and money is deposited in a large steel pot.
In the room, people mingle. There’s an excited buzz to the atmosphere. Twenty-somethings newly relocated to Detroit for City Year swap stories with local residents about urban farming initiatives and entrepreneurial opportunities. An iPhone playlist transitions from Miles Davis’s “So What” to Outkast’s “So Fresh, So Clean.”
Next to the entrance, pinned to the beige wall, paint peeling from its surface, are handwritten signs advertising brands of beer being served at the bar: Pabst Blue Ribbon, Stroh’s, Miller High Life, Busch. The beer is free, but $2 donations are recommended. Eventually, some people take their seats in foldable chairs at long rectangular tables, while others opt for floor seating at tables assembled from pieces of plywood, covered with black tablecloths and stacked on crates. On each table rest two loaves of bread and a candle.
Inspired by Sunday Soup, a meal-based micro-grant dinner started in Chicago in 2007 by the arts research group InCUBATE, Detroit SOUP is but one iteration of the Sunday-Soup model. Similar micro-funding projects have emerged in more than 60 cities around the world.
In 2010, visual artist Kate Daughdrill and Detroit musician Jessica Hernandez brought SOUP to Detroit, holding the first dinner above the Mexicantown Bakery on a snowy Super Bowl Sunday, with fewer than 40 artists. On that day nobody shared proposals. The goal was simply to explore what SOUP could be and what it could become.
Since then, the event has expanded and grown. It has changed locations twice, finding its current home at the old Jam Handy.