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A Detroit Hotel for Storytellers, Made From Shipping Containers A Detroit Hotel for Storytellers, Made From Shipping Containers

A Detroit Hotel for Storytellers, Made From Shipping Containers

by Shel Kimen
April 20, 2013

After a long and successful career in digital experience design and advertising, I realized I wanted to create a sustainable business that simultaneously offered economic, social, and environmental value for its immediate community.

Detroit has had a steady population decrease over the last 50 years, and as a result, two things have dramatically changed our landscape. First, we’ve lost our tax base, so the government doesn’t have enough revenue to provide basic services for those of us who still live here. Second, our neighborhoods have been torn apart with closed churches, schools, and neighbors forced to leave. When these institutions break and go away, they severely damage the social fabric of our communities.

I want to create a community space focused on storytelling, to start re-weaving our social fabric.  It’s a place for people to listen, share, create, and grow through the telling of our lives and experiences. People will also co-work with other freelancers and entrepreneurs in this space, creating the new stories Detroit will tell years from now. Making sure entrepreneurs inventing a new Detroit are in touch with what has gotten us here in the first place is also hugely important.

The icing on the cake is that this space will drive revenue because it’s also a hotel.

Hotel mockup

Increasingly, when people visit cities they want to understand where and whom they are visiting. They crave diversity, interaction, and context. It’s not enough to see cool things. They want to learn, engage, and grow personally from the experience. This new type of travel, “Creative Tourism,” relies on the authentic participation of local residents in the host city. It is arts-based, mutually beneficial for the traveler and the residents, and a sustainable form of economic and community development. 

We believe hotels could serve as a nexus for mutually beneficial creative co-creation between visitors and locals and in Detroit it could contribute to both our revenue goals and the revitalization of our communities.

We will offer interactive, educational, and entertaining storytelling experiences for all levels of engagement. Some visitors may want to just quietly enjoy a story painted on the wall in their hotel room. Others might attend a live event in our public courtyard or play with the interactive story-wall in our lobby. Still others will attend an onsite workshop with a local university, neighborhood group, church or school, learning and creating side by side with the people who call Detroit home. All will be better off having had the experience, and all will feel a greater connection to Detroit and to each other.

We are building the hotel out of repurposed shipping containers that are already stacked up in our ports with little hope of being exported. They are durable and cost effective and a material we have in excess. We aren’t just committed to economic and community growth. We also care about our environment and the smart use of resources.

I’ve been working on this for almost two years, so it’s evolved a lot. As I continue to engage people in the city, new needs and wants find their way in. Early on, people told me we should have flexible room rates to accommodate a greater diversity in clientele. And so we will. Others are concerned about the line between public and private space in a hotel, so these suggestions have gone to the architect. We’ve had a number of community workshops to solicit ideas, and our engaged social media presence regularly solicits feedback. We’re also working with the Detroit Collaborative Design Center on a long-term community engagement piece around the storytelling aspect, figuring out how to use the stories to connect people and neighborhoods. What started off as a pretty straightforward hotel has now evolved into a community space, because that's what people want and need here. It’s been a lesson in emergence.

Most exciting, and the reason for this Kickstarter, is that we’ve been given an opportunity to create a prototype—a two-container unit. One container will host innovative retail from local entrepreneurs. The other will serve as a “mini lobby,” with couches, a communal work table, free internet and a stage for story-telling events and activities. Here we can experiment with ideas and see what people like, what they don’t, what gets them to come out, what encourages engagement. We’ve got six months with this prototype to ask questions and everything we do here will move to the hotel site in the fall.

The First Container pop-up has three goals. First, it’s simple marketing to let people know about the bigger project. Second it allows people to see how interesting it could be to build with a new material that is also environmentally responsible. Most importantly it gives us a physical location to really engage and interact with our community hyper-locally in the Eastern market, more broadly into many Detroit neighborhoods, and then globally through the people who visit.

This project is part of GOOD's Saturday series Push for Good—our guide to crowdfunding creative progress.

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