Woodbridge Summer Fest

"Something Special Growing in Detroit"
A conversation with event organizer
Rich Rice

Detroit is filled with pockets of activity and creativity. If you know where to look, you can find folks breaking new ground and doing some truly exciting activities. However, linking all this creative energy together is an all too rare occurrence. But that's just what Rich Rice of Detroit By Design and his other collaborators are setting out to do with this weekend's first ever Woodbridge Summer Fest 2005. This "neighborhood and creative community cultural festival" promises to bring multiple groups together and have a lot of fun at the same time, with a day filled with local entertainers, area restaurants, artists, and other vendors, and offer activities and cultural programming for all ages.

A few weeks back I caught up with Rice at the Bankle Building, (Woodward south of Mack) which serves as his event headquarters and residence, to discuss the festival and his commitment to community over the years. This particular evening Rice has found a few minutes out of his busy schedule of planning "It's Okay, We're Here" an event intended to commemorate the six month anniversary of Detroit By Design's events programming and raise funds and kick off the excitement for the Woodbridge Summer Fest. We're sitting just outside the back side of the building, while inside, the Bankle is abuzz with activity as volunteers are hard at work hanging the skate-board related art show and laboring feverishly to construct a wooden half-pipe for use by professionals at the event now less than 24 hours away. Despite all that's going on around us and all that's left to get done, Rice is surprisingly calm - indicative of his lengthy experience with such things.

And so it is no surprise to learn that this dedication to community that goes with planning these events has its roots deep in Rice's past. He credits community organizations as helpful role models in his own transition into the responsibilities that come with adulthood and realizing that there are other outlets towards being a part of society beyond just working at one's job.

An early outlet as a young adult for this desire to build community took shape with "Super Bad Ass Productions," an edgy, specials event planning company Rice founded about 10 years ago. The outfit put on multimedia shows with art, music, and fashion side by side, and achieved such success that the Metro Times declared him the "Party Engineer" back in 1999. But at some point, that life wasn't enough, and Rice took time off from event planning and traveled. An extended stay in London had a profound influence on his approach to community, and he finally returned to Michigan and specifically Ann Arbor to start fresh.

He quickly reconnected to the local cultural communities and was instrumental in helping Gallery 555 come to Detroit. At this time he also became reacquainted with car designer and painter Camilo Pardo owner of the Bankle Building. Although working as an ophthalmic photographer in Ann Arbor (and commuting), Rice leaped at the chance to reestablish himself in Detroit and soon took up residence in the Bankle Building and began planning events for the space.

With this new beginning came a new philosophy, and to reflect this transition into a more inclusive community organization, he changed the name of his former event planning company to Detroit By Design. Rice describes DBD as a, "Community centered arts collective that supports and promotes thought provoking music and performance and artistic exhibitions while being mindful of its impact on a larger local community." All this happened six months ago and things have been pretty much non-stop since.

But even these successful events were not enough, as, "For me, there has to be something more than just putting on an event that's really fun and just showing art work. It's important that those things are out there, but I want to see results in affecting the broader community." As Rice got more involved in the community, he got to know people working in and around the Woodbridge area, including Ric Geyer of 4731, Phaedra Robinson who among other things is part of Art on the Move and founded the Center for Creative Exchange, and Aaron Timlin, of the Contemporary Art Institute of Detroit (CAID). In Rice's view, the Woodbridge area is the hottest new arts and culture site in Detroit. "I see Woodbridge being Detroit's next big success story over the next two years and I want to be a part of it."

And so a festival was born. As the idea for the festival began to take shape with the contributions of local community leaders and local artists, the Woodbridge Neighborhood Development Corporation, a non-profit housing development organization founded by resident Ed Potas threw their support behind it. Like other Detroit neighborhood festivals, this represents a great opportunity to do something large scale for the local community, and so the organizers went about recruiting as many local cultural organizations as possible to sign on to participate in the event.

The site for the festival is Scripps Park on the corner of Grand River and Trumbull Ave. This wedge-shaped park was built by George Booth, founder of Cranbrook Academy, and named for Detroit News founder James Scripps, both early residents of the neighborhood, along with Detroit baseball great Ty Cobb. Improvements are being made on the park, including $20,000 worth of work by Deloitte and Touche, part of which went towards the restoration of the park's Pergola (an arching entranceway) which will serve as an electronic stage.

The events of the day will showcase the achievements of the neighborhood residents and local arts organizations over the last year. In fact, 80% of the musical acts are residents of the community. Detroit City Councilman Ken Cockrel, Jr., will be on hand to commemorate a significant achievement for the area - a Cool Cities designation worth $100,000. It's important to note that by holding a successful event as this one in the neighborhood, it goes a long ways towards showing granting organizations that this is a viable venture in which to devote greater resources. In addition to being a great way to spend a Saturday in August, Rice describes the festival as an important opportunity to pool resources and create coalitions, an opportunity that "we as a community can't afford to pass up."

For Rice, this commitment to Detroit and its communities is not without sacrifice. He declined an opportunity to go to graduate school in art at the University of Michigan to keep active here. He doesn't offer this with a hint of regret but an optimism and enthusiasm for the city. "This is a wild ride. I want to hang on and see where it leads. There is too much potential in Detroit and the people I'm working with between community building, non-profits, development corps, and more to let go now. I feel like there's something kind of special growing in Detroit."

It's this enthusiasm, optimism, and dedication in Rice and his collaborators that make this festival possible, and the larger project of making Detroit more livable something one can imagine as becoming reality. By bringing all the different organizations together, the Woodbridge Summer Fest should go a long way toward having a lasting impact on the community at large.

However you can get there - walk, bike, skate, or drive if you must - head on over to Scripps Park this Saturday and be a part of something special.

The festival takes place Saturday, August 13, 2005 from noon to 10pm.
For a complete list of all the musical acts, artists, performers, and vendors that will be on hand for the festival, please go to: www.Woodbridgesummerfest.com

- Nick Sousanis (ws@thedetroiter.com)

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