reWorking Michigan: Artistry, Economy Connect on "The Ave"

Aug 27, 2012

Cities around the world are competing for new businesses and talented workers.  Lansing is no exception.  Cultural initiatives can and do play a role in economic development.  With that in mind, a new program strives to tell the stories of artists, musicians and business owners along Michigan Avenue.

If you want to see the heart of Lansing, take a drive down Michigan Avenue.

But if you want to see the soul of Lansing, you have to hit the sidewalks and explore what’s tucked away behind the landmarks.

That mindset is the inspiration behind “The Ave.”  Scattered along Michigan Avenue are a series of blue placards mounted outside eight local sites.  Hold up your smartphone, scan the QR code, and you’ve just downloaded a short video story about the people behind the place.  Each video is produced by a Michigan State University student. 

Organizers say “The Ave” is the only project of its kind in the U.S.  Coordinator Vince Delgado is an academic specialist for civic engagement at MSU.  He says the concept of “placemaking” is vital to any community’s sense of identity.

“A lot of writers and researchers are beginning to see place as a collection of the stories and myths we tell each other about that place,” Delgado says.  “And if you can’t connect to those stories, that place is really not exhibiting its identity for people to connect with.”

The locations include restaurants, a tattoo parlor and a women’s center.  But Delgado stresses that the vignettes are really about people, not bricks and mortar.

“There was a great story; there is a great story on The Ave about a young gentleman who’s a financial planner during the day and an artist at night,” Delgado says.”

Here’s Jeremy Mason:

MASON (in video): “Michigan Ave to me is kind of bringing the business people together, it’s bringing artistic people together.  As a financial advisor and as an artist at night, I can totally relate to that because in this community, that’s a place where I can exist and be.”

Delgado is excited about the connectivity “The Ave” creates between students and their subjects. 

“They bring a sensibility that’s extremely fresh,” he says.  “There’s kind of an amateur aspect that’s interesting to people, the stories and the way they tell them; although some of these stories are just beautifully shot and told.  And actually, they make the stories feel that much more authentic and real, I think.”

“The Ave” marks MSU student Thea Card’s debut as a published journalist.  The experience helped her master some basic skills, like entering an unfamiliar place and interviewing people at random.

“I’m really hoping that this will open doors particularly because I’m interested in like, community reporting as opposed to national reporting,” Card says.  “And I think this is a really good way to kind of get into that.”

Civic leaders see real economic value in “The Ave.”  Greater Lansing Convention and Visitor’s Bureau senior vice-president Julie Pingston thinks the project will give tourists and conventioneers a deeper understanding of the city’s culture that goes far beyond a brochure.  Pingston tells the story of Emil’s, a 90-year-old restaurant that often served Al Capone when he passed through town on bootlegging runs.

“We put that in our visitor guide one year, and people went to that business just to say that I went there and checked out where Al Capone hung out,” Pingston says.  “So, that’s one that I know has been proven successful with just one little story.”

Organizers say Michigan Avenue is just the first of many “ave’s” with rich stories to tell.  They want to expand the project to several other main thoroughfares in Lansing and eventually across the state of Michigan. 

ReWorking Michigan examines our evolving economy, as the people of the Great Lake State explore new ways to make a living and build a future.  A project of WKAR NewsRoom, WKAR-TV and WKAR Online.