June 22, 2014 at 10:30 pm

Donna's Detroit

Sit On It Detroit's mission to ease bus waits taking off

Two Wayne State students put their ideas into action and set their sights high

Sit On It Detroit
Sit On It Detroit: The project is the brainchild of Charlie Molnar and Kyle Bartell, who make bus benches containing a bookshelf from wood reclaimed from Detroit's abandoned structures.

About a year ago, two Wayne State University urban planning majors got an idea for a project that would make the city a better place.

They had seen people spending their seemingly endless waits for their bus sitting on curbs or stacks of the discarded tires that pile up on vacant lots. They wanted to make things easier for these folks. They would build bus benches for all the Detroit bus stops that lacked them. That would be good citizenship.

Then they got another idea. They’d make the benches from wood reclaimed from all the abandoned houses that were being disassembled by organizations like Reclaim Detroit. That would be recycling.

But a third idea got them really excited: Why not build a bookshelf under the bench’s seat and fill it with books so people would have something to read while they waited? That would address Detroit’s low literacy rate.

With these three ideas and $50 cash, Kyle Bartell and Charlie Molnar started Sit On It Detroit. Charlie called the bench he doodled in a coffee shop the “Sit On It,” and Kyle was “all in.”

One year later: How's it going?

They began their mission last summer, and after a year of building by themselves and with the help of volunteers, they’ve installed 18 benches at bus stops. Make that 17 because one got bulldozed by a snowplow and they haven’t replaced it. Five more went to Scripps Park, two to Lincoln St. Art Park and the Heidelberg Project got two.

DDOT estimates there are about 5,700 bus stops citywide. “It would be safe to say about half of them have no benches,” said Molnar. He and Bartell want to put a bench at every one, which means building about 2,800. Plus, they want to adopt some more parks and put benches in them. According to DDOT, only 180 stops have a bus shelter.

“It’s crazy. I mean within a year we’ve already built 23 of them. Like, hey, that’s pretty impressive,” said Molnar. “This summer I see us installing 50 to 60 more benches.”

At that rate, it will take them more than 40 years to reach their goal. But Molnar insists they’re getting more efficient at building and at recruiting volunteers. He thinks they can get a bench at every bus stop in the next 10 years.

The two met as students at Wayne State. Bartell, 25, is from northwest Detroit and graduated last year. Molnar, 22, grew up in Farmington Hills and is on hiatus from school.

To pay the bills, the guys take commercial orders like benches and table tops for the Detroit Electronic Music Festival. Sit On It’s basic two-sided bench goes for $350. “That allows us to build five more benches” for bus stops, Molnar said.

“We’re not professionals in this; we’re amateurs,” he said. “But that’s the fun thing about it.” And fun seems to take precedence over efficiency in their chaotic studio. After being at it for a year, they don’t yet have a streamlined system for bench building.

“My background in carpentry is slim to none,” Molnar said. Bartell had even less experience when they started. But, according to Molnar, “That’s the beauty of it. This was just supposed to be something I did in my spare time and it’s turned into a full-time job for me. I’m living my dream. This is my passion.”

Bartell seconds that emotion.

Curating mini-libraries

The books disappear almost as soon as the benches are installed. “We’re always refilling them,” Molnar said. “It wouldn’t be working if the books were still there. We want them to take the books.” They hope the books get shared. And they wouldn’t mind if bus riders or community members put a few books they’re done with under their bench seats.

The guys do love books. They can’t help but read many of the donated books before consigning them to a bench.

“One of the funnest parts,” said Molnar, “is getting to curate that little library; to mix it up and make sure every library is different.”

Anthony Estell of Detroit was waiting for a bus recently at Grand River and Evergreen. He relaxed on the Sit On It bench but was dismayed at its condition.

The plexi-glass cover to the book shelf had been ripped off. One disheveled book remained on the shelf. A copy of “The Second Summer of the Sisterhood” by the author of the “Traveling Pants” series lay open on the ground beneath it, its pages wrinkled from the damp. The bookshelf’s door had been torn off, leaving part of its frame dangling.

Estell said he loved the bench when it showed up. “When they first put the bench in it was beautiful. It had the glass and the books. It was so neat,” he told me. “A week later they tore it up.

“I loved the books. I loved the way they put it together. I loved it all.”

Estell said he read one of the books. “I think it was a pirate book. I enjoyed it. But I returned it,” he hastened to add. “I didn’t take the book.” When told that the makers hoped people would take the books, he was incredulous. “For real?”

The guys say they’re committed to maintaining the benches and replenishing their mini libraries. The original Plexiglass shelf doors were attractive but didn’t stand up to normal wear and tear, so Bartell and Molnar are replacing them with wood to keep the books dry. The downside is that the books aren’t visible and at least one woman I talked to did not discover them without help.

Benchmarks

So back to the original goal of building and installing some 2,800 bus benches: How do they expect to accomplish this?

Bartell isn’t sure how to answer. They do get volunteers to help with the labor, but not regularly. They’ve had school and college groups, interns from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, even the players from the Detroit City Futbol League. Using reclaimed wood is labor intensive because it has to be de-nailed, and this job usually goes to volunteer hands.

“It takes about 15 hours to repurpose the wood,” Bartell said. “We de-nail it, cut it to the required measurements and sand it. Then it takes another two to three hours to build the bench and more time to protect it from the weather.”

The guys hope to meet with neighborhood groups and supply them with materials to keep the benches in their areas in good shape.

They don’t seem concerned about funding, although they hope to obtain nonprofit status so they will be eligible for grants. All the reclaimed wood is donated to them. They’ve also received monetary donations, but have no formal mechanism for accepting them.

Of course, having gotten their volunteer chops sprucing up city parks, they want to build benches for the parks, too. And, Bartell said, many city baseball diamonds need benches where parents can sit to watch their kids play. He’d like to help out there, too.

Shrugging his shoulders, he said, “The journey is the fun and cool part, so however long it takes.”

And the ideas just keep on coming

This spring they moved into new studio space, a not-exactly-former prop warehouse for Detroit Display Group. Giant fiberglass statues of Michelangelo’s “David” and Lady Liberty lurk nearby their work benches. Contemplating the vast square footage they’ll have once Display Group spirits away their props has spawned dreams of creating a maker space and small business incubator, or what Bartell calls a “co-working space” that includes a community computer lab housed in a shipping container.

They have their first tenant, Metropolitan Max, a computer refurbisher who wants to create a lab to teach computer use.

Their latest idea to get a tryout is Junk In the Trunk, a scheme to make income from the large, fenced parking lot that abuts their space. One Saturday each month they’ll charge anyone who wants to sell anything from their vehicle’s trunk 20 bucks to park and purvey on the premises. Their first event drew about six vendors. They hope to entice many more, including food trucks.

The guys give huge props to Mark Haron, owner of the warehouse where they started out. “He’s the one who helped us get off the ground,” Molnar said. Haron gave them free space and utilities. “Now we want to be everybody else’s Mr. Haron.”

To let them know which benches need attention or which stops badly need benches, contact Sit On It Detroit on its Facebook page.

dterek@detroitnews.com

Sit On It installed a bench on Mt. Elliott at the Heidelberg Project. The books disappear almost as soon as the benches are installed. 'We're always refilling them,' Charlie Molnar said. 'We want them to take the books.' / Donna Terek / The Detroit News
Charlie Molnar, 22, left, and Kyle Bartell, 25, congratulate themselves on ... (Donna Terek / The Detroit News)
Erica Thompson uses an employment circular box as a seat as she waits for ... (Donna Terek / The Detroit News)
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