To Paul Draus, a trash-filled city alleyway is an opportunity, a river abused by industrial waste has potential and people battling addiction have promise.
Detroit has plenty of all three, and Draus has joined arms with people trying to transform those seemingly undesirable qualities into something beneficial and beautiful.
“All of my projects have the similarities of taking things or places that have been devalued and thinking about how those can actually be sources of inspiration and creative solutions,” said Draus, professor of sociology at UM-Dearborn.
One might mistake Draus for a native Detroiter given his commitment to the city, its communities and residents.
Draus is from the Chicago area and worked for the Cook County Hospital as an outreach worker — a position that ignited his passion for sociology.
“I was out in neighborhoods every day, in alleys and street corners, and meeting up with patients who had tuberculosis, doing contact investigations with them,” Draus said. “That brought me face to face with a lot of circumstances people were facing but also the tremendous creativity and resilience of people who were living kind of close to the edge.”
When he arrived at UM-Dearborn in 2005, he quickly picked up on where he left off in Chicago. Having spent the previous three years researching rural drug use outside Dayton, Ohio, he began working with colleague Juliette Roddy around issues related to substance abuse in Detroit, and that opened other doors and interests.
“I got interested in other things going on in Detroit related to urban farming and greenspace and how to creatively reimagine neighborhoods,” Draus said.
That’s when the wheels really started to turn — windmills, actually. While Draus and Roddy walked a neighborhood on the east side of Detroit meeting residents, they spotted a shiny object catching sunlight that turned out to be an artistic windmill.
The builder was Carlos Nielbock, who owned a workshop near the Eastern Market and constructed windmills out of discarded materials in the hope they could serve an environmental and sustainable purpose in addition to being art.
Draus and Nielbock connected with Myrtle Thompson, who owned an urban farm called the Feedom Freedom Growers Farm and they installed a test windmill there last summer.
“We’re still looking for funding for a full installation, but we spent last summer working on that, talking to people in the neighborhood and engaging with them while it was in the garden,” Draus said. “It’s one example of a project that emerged out of other projects.”
That’s a theme with Draus, who in 2019 started an alley activation project with Korey Batey. Draus had long thought alleyways received a negative rap, so when he heard Batey was envisioning greenways and greenspaces for Detroit alleyways, he had to connect with him.
“I actually had some artists visiting from Germany with me, who I took to see him,” Draus said. “He showed us all the work he had done to clear these alleyways and all the ideas he had to develop them.”
He and Batey are now working on developing templates that people can use to enhance their alleyways, using virtual-reality technology as a collaboration tool.
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Draus also worked closely with the Canfield Consortium on an alley activation project five blocks west of the Stellantis Mack Assembly Plant, a project that was awarded a second-place prize of $50,000 through the Thriving Cities Challenge.
Draus was also heavily involved with building a park on the banks of the Rouge River. The 10-year collaboration culminated in October 2020 with the opening of the Fort Street Bridge Interpretive Park in southwest Detroit.
“An interesting part of this journey is thinking, how do we as academics add value to our communities?” he said. “Doing research is great, publishing research is great. But that doesn’t really mean anything to the people you wrote it about. Are there ways to plug in?
“We can get research out of it, but can we also leave something behind so people say, ‘The university was here and they helped us build this.’ That’s kind of shift I’ve made.”
What memorable moment in the workplace stands out?
My most memorable workplace moments were not on campus, but out in the community or in the prison: the Confined Minds Conference that we organized at Ryan Correctional Facility in 2009, for example, or the Alley Activation Station event that we helped organize in northwest Detroit in 2021.
What can’t you live without?
I think I can live without coffee, but I don’t seem to want to do so. Also nature, art, literature and love (not necessarily in that order).
Name your favorite spot on campus.
Of course it is the natural area, the Environmental Interpretive Center and the path over the Rouge River.
What inspires you?
People pulling together for a common purpose. And the fact that the sun still comes up and the birds still sing.
What are you currently reading?
I have three books I’m currently trying to get through (outside of assigned readings): “Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers” by Ben Goldfarb; “Three Girls from Bronzeville” by Dawn Turner; and “New York 2140” by Kim Stanley Robinson. I’m also reading Jeff Lemire’s “Moon Knight” comic book.
Who had the greatest influence on your career path?
That’s a tough one, but I am going to name two people: my Aunt Verene, a Franciscan nun, and Studs Terkel, the late great oral historian from Chicago, whom I had the chance to meet and interview as a young graduate student.