Detroit’s plight has been making headlines for years, and to outside observers the situation can seem hopeless. But Andy Didorosi is one of Detroit’s many concerned citizens that have refused to wait for outside help.
In this talk, Didorosi reveals how to take matters into your own hands despite government bureaucracy, lack of funds, and other obstacles—and why difficult situations are just opportunities for great and meaningful work. He shares how he built his own bus company to augment crumbling public transportation infrastructure and why you need to call the world’s bluff when doing great things.
Andy Didorosi is a 27-year old entrepreneur and Detroit native. As a college dropout with only a high school diploma, he became the founder of The Detroit Bus Company, Eight & Sand, Paper Street, Thunderdrome! racing series, and a handful of other successful small businesses. He currently lives in Detroit in the Boston Edison neighborhood. The Detroit Bus Company is an innovative transit company based in Detroit.
Founded in 2011, they employ web-based technological solutions and unparalleled customer service to create efficient solutions to public transportation challenges in Metropolitan Detroit. With a unique fleet of custom-painted bio-diesel busses, the Detroit Bus Company also programs a full roster of public shuttles, tours and day trips to help metro Detroiters and out-of-town visitors gain familiarity with the rich, vibrant personality of our city. Their primary project right now is their Youth Transit Alliance which gives kids in Detroit access to development programs and summer activities free of charge.
Hi, everyone. So I think I had a bad breakfast burrito this morning. So not only am I going to tell you some great stories about Detroit, but you’re going to watch a story of human survival unfold before you right here. Hopefully we can take the whole journey together. But– so anyway. By the way, whoever asked the Detroit question, perfectly timed, the 313 respect. I don’t know who that was, but thank you.
So I was born and raised in Detroit and I still live there until this day. And the unfortunate thing is that all the stories, not all the stories, most of the stories you’ve heard about Detroit are true. Detroit is really broken. It’s really extremely broken. 2010, our population dropped by a quarter, 25%. In a city that’s built for two million people, it’s 140 square miles, Because of that, we have That’s really hard to comprehend in New York where it’s so packed. These are homes that are sitting completely empty. Active unemployment is around 18%, you know about a fifth of Detroit. But when you add in the people that are no longer looking for work, you get the 50%. 50% of the people Detroit do not have a job. That’s not just underemployed, that has no job at all. Also, of course you know, we’re first in violent crime. We’re really achiever there. But if there were jobs, a large portion of Detroit’s currently unemployable or a large portion of Detroit is functionally illiterate. 45% of Detroiters are functionally illiterate where they couldn’t work in a workplace. So even if there were the jobs, it wouldn’t work out. We’re not just in a slump. Detroit’s problems are structural. You know they’re daunting. And so our city used to be called the Paris of the West. tiny little fur trading town to one of the richest cities in the world actually. We were the automotive capital as you all know. We were a stove building capital. We were a bicycle capital. We’ve done a lot of big things in Detroit. And we’re usually the first of those big things but then we’re also one of the first to fall. We’re in bankruptcy right now. And by the end of the year, we’re going to see the bankruptcy proceedings which will be the largest municipal bankruptcy in the history of the world. Absolutely astounding. Whole swaths of the city here are prairie. They’re actually just trash and grass. The downtown core is actually thriving. You’ve got Quicken Loans and they’re very successful and they’ve built sort of a campus. But immediately outside of that, you’ve got neighborhoods that look more agricultural than anything. They don’t look like a city. And so a lot of these auto factories they didn’t just go away. We didn’t just go to grass. We also have a lot of them still standing. The Packard plant is 3.5 million square feet. It’s on 40 acres of land. It is the world’s largest abandoned building by size. It is still sitting there with all of its asbestos and lead paint. Someone actually made a website that lets you know when the Packard plant is on fire. It’s got a little status, not on fire, or on fire. Which is really damn clever. But you don’t need the website to know it’s on fire because you see the black smoke on the horizon. It’s really overwhelming. It literally takes up the part of the cityscape. You think because of all this, the remaining people would simply just pack up. Hop in their cars or hop on a megabus and just get out of Detroit, go anywhere. You’d think with all the crime, abandonment, fires, desolation it would be too overwhelming. And sometimes it is. You’re probably thinking right now that Detroit doesn’t have a chance. It’s so far gone, there’s no way we’re ever going to bring it back. And you’d be surprised that you’re wrong. So through these circumstances we have got an environment a scenario that the world’s never seen before. And that is allowing for some creative incredible things to happen. Remember all those abandoned houses I told you about? People are actually buying them. So the average home price a month in rent maybe. So just a couple months, you own a house. That’s awesome. If that’s not cheap enough for you, the city of Detroit is actually auctioning off totally livable homes And they’re doing one home per day, one neighborhood at a time until that neighborhood is activated. And then they’ll move on to the next one. These are great houses. These aren’t the burned out ones you’ve seen in the media. If that’s not cheap enough, the county actually owns the majority And every fall they have a property auction you can bid on a property and get it. And you can probably get it because last fall they 40% of them didn’t get any bids. And so they’ll be back on the auction again. So you’ll be able to snap And if that’s not cheap enough for you, there’s actually a free option. For the really frugal amongst you. And it’s called right a house. So in 2012 Toby Barlow and Sara Cox, two Detroiters, bought three abandoned houses in a neighborhood called Banglatown. The concept is simple. They’re fixing up these three houses. They’re using volunteer labor through the young Detroit builders which teaches school children useful skill trade building skills so they can actually go get jobs later. And they’re putting up a writing contest. Basically, the best writing samples from people around the country or even just a couple miles away and a letter of intent gets you two years in the house. If you stay in the house two years and you keep the taxes paid and the insurance paid, they will give you the deed to that house, a totally remodeled house. Now I told you about the prairies, but Banglatown is actually a vibrant community. It’s on the border between Detroit and Hamtramck. Hamtramck is a little tiny two square mile town that is an enclave city. So it’s kind of like the Vatican to Detroit’s Rome. It was actually settled in the late 1890s by a large Polish population that since then shifted to almost 70% ethnic Bangladeshi. I mean like amazing shifts there. And so you’ve also got other creative projects going on in BanglaTown that you probably haven’t heard of. The power house project is an art center that’s completely off the grid. They do this with volunteer help as well. Using solar panels and a windmill, they took this house completely off the grid. And it’s for people to come in and use as kind of a launching off point for their own projects. Next to that is the Quash house which has two indoor squash courts inside of an abandoned house. And I have no idea why, but it’s awesome. But houses just aren’t getting the boost either. You can have plenty of places to live. But we’re also funding projects in a way that you’d never expect. So once a month, show up at a building called the Jam Handy which is a once abandoned film studio. They actually invented underwater filming at this film studio. And everyone pays $5. You get a bowl of soup, a piece of bread, and a vote. Over the course of the dinner, you hear three pitches from local people who want to start projects. And then you vote with your little pebble that you get. And the project that gets the most votes, gets all of the money from the door. Since their founding just four years ago, Detroit Soup has channeled in Detroit. per dinner means that your project that was just once an idea can become a reality just from talking to a bunch of people over soup. And this all comes from the community. There have been some grants to build the project bigger, but all of the money that comes from the door goes into these projects. Not a dime is spent on the soup, or bread, or any of that. For example, just last month they funded a project called Lots of Love. That is a mobile tool library in a truck that will actually go between these vacant lots and offer the tools and the organizing power needed to get these lots turned into usable spaces again. Before that they funded a project called Rebel Nell which is a not just for profit start up that turns crumbling bits of the factories that are covered into graffiti into jewelry. And they actually teach women in the homeless shelters the metalworking skills required to make these products. But the most successful project funded from soup has to be Veronica Scott with the empowerment plan. At 21 years old as a student in a local design school, Veronica designed a coat that can be converted into a really warm sleeping bag. And they’re trying to get these homeless people in Detroit so they can survive another winter. It gets extremely cold in Detroit as you guys, I’m sure, you know here. She trains in a place 13 women that she found in a local homeless shelters to sew these coats. And they’re doing such good work that Carhart actually took notice and funded directly in materials and financial support. If you haven’t picked up on the theme yet, you can be a participant in Detroit. We’ve got a lot of big problems and you really only need to put your hand up to be a player. In a lot of other big cities, this one included, you’re more of a passenger. You know everything kind of works. The garbage gets picked up. The buses run on time. And so in Detroit, I picked my sort of call. I picked public transit, which transit is a huge, huge industry. How can one tiny organization possibly chip away at that? Well we didn’t really think a whole lot about how impossible it was and just sort of did it. And two years so far it’s been working. So in Detroit I really can’t stress to you how much transit is broken. The buses only run every couple hours on the schedule if they show up at all. Whole neighborhoods don’t have any bus service at all. And with a largely carless population, when they end the bus route to your neighborhood, you’re out of a job. That’s it. Public transit is critical in a modern city. You expect it. A lot of you probably moved here because the public transit works really well. So in 2012 I launched the Detroit Bus Company to try to chip away at this, to try to build in some solutions for public transit in the city of Detroit. With the mission of filling transit gaps. We never want to compete with the public system. There’s no way we could figure that kind of scale. But there are small gaps that can make a big difference. But I didn’t always want to own a not for profit bus company. I wasn’t like 12 years old and like that’s what I want to do with my life. So you got to go back a little bit. 10 years ago, I was 16 years old and I was working as a busboy in a little Italian restaurant in the suburbs making a great $6 an hour. My friend told me about a police auction a couple miles away that sold abandoned discarded cars to the highest bidder. Being restless teenagers, we went. We had no idea what we were going to do at this place but we decided it sounded cool. We go there and I specifically remember the auctioneer got to a sad looking ’90s Cutlass Supreme. And I thought a car has to It just has to be. So I put my hand up and the car was mine. I brought it home. I didn’t know a damn thing about working on cars but I started tinkering around anyway. I used the internet. And I also got a job at a little auto garage around the corner and learned about car repair. After fixing it up, I remember specifically being in my mom’s bathroom on the marble counter and laying out these $20s. It was sort of like a Scarface moment. It was amazing. And I realized that I had found a way to separate the amount of time I put into a project and the amount of money I got back from it. So instead of investing your time and putting a price to that, it was more about the value that you were providing. And so I really came upon being a small entrepreneur. Totally hooked on this. So I got a little bit bigger of a space. I rented a little bit bigger of a warehouse. Eventually I rented a hangar And I got kicked out from the FAA for non-aviational use. Squares. So I went to find another space. square foot warehouse for a reasonable amount of money. I only needed part of it so I rented out the whole thing and I rented the different parts out to friends. And then some new businesses inquired about it too and we gave them space until it was full in about a month. People started calling it a business incubator. I didn’t really know what that meant. I wasn’t aware of that term. And so then some businesses grew up and moved out and more moved in. We needed a name for the place so we called it paper street after a Fight Club. You know, why not? Sounds hip. And so we found this knack for reactivating underutilized assets. So first the cars and then Paper Street. And then we found the Dorais Velodrome. My friend Ben and I were dinking around the city and we heard about this velodrome abandoned in the city. A velodrome is basically a large bicycle racing track. around with really steeply banked corners. It’s all concrete. It’s huge. We went over to where it was supposed to be. And we found what looked like a big grass bowl with trees growing out of it. We just started digging away at this thing. We wanted to see how far this track go. feet around like I told you and 20 feet wide. A real amazing facility. We dug into what the hell this thing is. Like the city owns this. No one ever talks about it. No one ever goes there. We found out that this was built by Mike Walden using totally volunteer help. Mike Walden was part of the Wolverine Sports Club which trains bicycle racers. When he died in ’96, he was responsible, his alumni were responsible, for one quarter of all the US medals won in bicycle racing, including one Olympic bronze medal. And that is an incredible heritage for this track to have to be completely forgotten about. We found out the city abandoned it in 1990. Despite this, the way that he made this thing was amazing too. The land was owned by Chrysler, the car company. And he approached Chrysler and said, hey, Chrysler. If I’ve got the land, the US cycling nationals will come to town. Wouldn’t that be amazing for Detroit? And then he went to the cycling national people and said, hey, I’ve got this land at Chrysler. If you bring your cycling here, we’ll build a racetrack. And just totally did this with them and it worked. And so he had his velodrome. They built it literally during the riots. There were tanks marching down 8 mile, which I’m sure you all know 8 mile through Eminem. And during these riots, they were building this track, totally volunteer help. And the day they launched it, no one paid any attention. Because it just so happened to be the day that Buzz Aldrin set foot on the moon. You can’t win them all. So we uncover this great old velodrome and had no idea what to do with it. And of course, we think, let’s have a race on it. So we’ll race motorcycles and go carts and scooters and all the other crazy stuff that we’ve got. We spread the word to our friends. Put it on Facebook. And then kind of unfortunately the local newspaper picked up on it and put us on the front page. We got a call from the parks and rec department just after that article came out. And their question literally was, what are you guys doing? My reply was, nothing. And their reply was, well that nothing needs a special event application and insurance. And so we were like, cool, all right we got that. If anybody knows about insurance, especially event insurance, we eventually found the only company to cover us was Lloyd’s of London. And if you’ve gotten into Lloyd’s of London, you’re pretty screwed. They’ll cover anything for a lot of money. So we had this huge insurance bill but the racer sign ups were going awesome. So we just charged a little fee to cover the insurance. Barely covered it, and squeaked on by. Everything is all set and ready to rock. Two nights before the race we’re stuffing envelopes with racer stickers and a letter for the racers. And we get an email from parks and rec. And this letter says since your application was not received in time, we will not allow your race to continue and we’ve notified the Detroit Police Department. Thank you. I love how all shitty emails always end in thank you. Like that somehow makes it cool. It’s like no sweat, she said thank you in the end. So we emailed back. No response of course. Mind you, the insurance is paid. Everybody has paid their fees. People are driving from North Dakota to race in this thing. Like it was going to happen. We were googling on the Detroit Police Department website trying to see what we could get arrested for. Like how bad it would be. Didn’t really find anything. So we were due to go on the local NPR station the next morning, WDET. And the day before the race we were totally dumbfounded. We don’t have a race. So the host is asking us about the track and about how we fixed it up. And we’re like, yeah it’s great. It’s cool. You know, it’s awesome. It’s old. And then we knew he was going to ask, he says, so how’s the city on this? How are they feeling on this? And I paused. I didn’t know what to say. What do I say? Either I say that they’ve completely screwed us and there’s no race. And then they hate us forever. Or I say that they’re great and hopefully try to call their bluff. And so I said, yeah, the city’s been great. Totally supportive of it. And that was the end of our interview. That was it. We walked out. We went back to the office and we just kind of waited for tomorrow to happen. the director emailed back, just a one line little e-mail. And it said you’re cleared to have your race. Good luck. The race was great. which is amazing. Nobody died. Total win. Total win. One for the record books. So we’re in 2011 and we’re involved in the transit discussion. I believe that transit, like I said, is really important to the city. And there was a project that was supposed to really run this home and it was called the M1 light rail. And the M1 light rail was a train that was going to run from the suburbs into the city. It was a small project, but it would really like show the sign of things to come. It wold really be a visual cue that things are moving forward. And I was so excited about this. But I remember specifically 2011 it was a cold December morning and I was sitting at my computer and I specifically remember reading the headline. And I’m sitting there and the headline literally said light rail is dead. Very simple. And back in the day you can get all angry and throw your newspaper down, but you can’t do that when you reading a blog. So I scrolled down real hard. Which is like the Mets joke about slamming a tent flap. Like you just like can’t do it. You don’t get that catharsis. So I was furious. The federal dollars were there. The local private businesses were going to back it. But the thing that put on the brakes was local political tensions. You know the city thought the suburbs would screw it up. The suburbs thought the city would screw it up. Nobody wanted to decide who would run the thing. And there’s a lot of latent racism too. The affluent suburbs didn’t want this connection into the city. And so we figured we had to do something. So with our experience using underutilized stuff, I heard about a school bus auction. And I went and I bought three buses. Brought them back knowing nothing about transit. And we figured we’re just going to put them on the road. We’re going to figure this out. We’re going to put them on the road. With zero transit experience, we got to work. They couldn’t stay yellow because of a state law. So we painted them up with graffiti artists. We put music on them. We basically used like a six year old’s logic, like what do I want on a bus? I want music. I want art. And I want the driver to not be mean to me. You know, that’s all I want. And with that we were on the road. We started this. We had a service that ran the same route as the light rail. It was $5 to ride. And everyone thought we were going to go out of business. Totally didn’t go out of business. We rant the thing from May 2012 until December 2012 when we were approached by the Skillman Foundation to work on school transit basically. And so we launched a thing called the Youth Transit kids in southwest Detroit from their schools to their after school programs and home. These programs have an awesome track record in getting kids to graduate at the end of their school career. Really the only path to bringing Detroit back is through the youth. You really have to start at that base and build that up. [APPLAUSE]
So if you haven’t noticed yet, Detroit has problems, totally has problems. Absolutely. But there’s a huge amount of opportunity there. And so if you want to have a nice rock solid awesome stable career, stick it out here. New York is super fun. Lots of great restaurants. But if you want to get in the driver’s seat and you want to actually take part and perhaps change the path of one of America’s great cities, move to Detroit. Pack your things and fire your landlord. Thank you.