July 28, 2014 at 1:00 am

Detroit becomes cause célèbre as city moves toward recovery

Madonna may have made the biggest splash in July, but in the year since the city filed for bankruptcy there’s been a surge of celebrity money and support pouring into the Motor City.

Over the last year, comedian Ellen DeGeneres has helped fund and promote the Detroit Achievement Academy and the Detroit Academy of Arts and Sciences. In March, “Law and Order: SVU” star Mariska Hargitay arrived to push for legislation and funding to process rape kits. Last week, “Weeds” star Romany Malco Jr. visited several Detroit nonprofits after asking on his Facebook page for the names of Detroit organizations he should help.

Detroit is suddenly seen as a soulful, hip location for the largesse of celebrity VIPs.

That largesse is set to increase. This fall, hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, Detroit-born fashion designer John Varvatos and several “A-level” Motown stars are among the boldface names who will take part in a special Detroit campaign to be launched by Charitybuzz, a New York-based nonprofit.

“Whatever the reason, it’s a good thing for Detroit,” said TV Judge Greg Mathis, a Detroit native, of the celebrity interest. “If the devil himself came down and said, ‘Today, I’m going to donate money to Detroit,’ I think we might have to forgive him and accept that money.”

Mathis is among native and local celebrities who have been helping the city all along. He founded the Mathis Community Center, located on Greenfield near Seven Mile, in 2001.

The Simmons/Charitybuzz effort is just the latest of an array of contributions to the city since its hard times began attracting international attention.

Focus: HOPE has signed on to the campaign, said Steve Ragan, the nonprofit’s chief development and external relations officer. “I know we’ll be recruiting other nonprofits to be part of this,” he said.

New York-based Charitybuzz describes itself as a “global community of socially conscious donors.” The company puts together celebrity packages to auction for causes or nonprofits. For its fall campaign, CEO Coppy Holzman has been calling celebrities who may want to help Detroit.

When Holzman called Simmons, he’d barely gotten a few sentences out about how the campaign would be for Detroit when the co-founder of Def Jam Recordings started peppering him with ideas — and names.

“With his charity, Rush Philanthropic, Russell’s focus is on arts education opportunities for urban youth,” Holzman said. “Detroit is a city that he wants to be involved in. When I said, ‘Can we count on your involvement?’ — I talked to him for a nanosecond — he immediately started naming all these people he could get. We reached out to some of the celebrities and nonprofits we work with to see if they want to participate, and the response is overwhelming.”

The goal is not so much to get cash donations, but special experiences, such as lunch with a celebrity, tickets for a backstage meet and greet, or a specially designed article of clothing or sneaker.

“This Detroit campaign can be a celebration of creativity and revitalization, and we can have fun with it,” Holzman said. “The bidders, let’s face it, they want to meet Madonna or Kid Rock, or get a clothing experience with (fashion designer) John Varvatos. It’s a win-win because at the time, it’s a rebirth for a great American city.”

Detroit 'like the Wild West'

Why Detroit, why now? Months of overheated national media segments have made Detroit a popular cause, whether it’s for photogenic ruins or plucky entrepreneurs.

“I read the print paper every morning, and Detroit is in the (New York) Times every day, whether it’s about the Shinola company, about arts lofts being revitalized — it’s an interesting story,” Holzman said. “It’s uplifting, and that’s why we want to get involved.”

Artist/poet/philanthropist Danny Simmons, co-founder of Rush Philanthropic with his brother Russell, reads the media coverage about Detroit with a skeptical eye. Apart from his brother’s plans, Simmons wants to establish a “base of operations” in Detroit that will benefit children and artists, and will be scoping out the possibilities Aug. 15 when he appears in his role as a poet at a Detroit Institute of Arts event, “An Evening of Words and Music,” with jazz bassist Ron Carter.

“It’s sort of like the Wild West,” Simmons said of Detroit. “There are things out there that you can establish, especially in the fine art world. People know the history of Detroit; it’s the Motor City, the home of soul music, the Motown sound. Once you say ‘Detroit,’ that rings in people’s heads. It has a nice infrastructure of things that can be repurposed. Where some see disaster, others see opportunity.”

Many of those taking action, such as Madonna, were Detroiters at some point. The singer was born in Bay City, but grew up in Metro Detroit — Rochester — and went to clubs and concerts here when she attended the University of Michigan.

Madonna’s contribution last month to the Downtown Youth Boxing Gym will enable them to build a new facility. She is providing art and music supplies, iPods and Smart Boards to the Detroit Achievement Academy, and she is also donating to the Empowerment Plan, which trains homeless women for jobs.

Was it because she’d read about Detroit’s troubles?

“She certainly heard about Detroit’s economic troubles; who hasn’t at this time?” said Sarah Ezzy, director of Global Philanthropy, a Los Angeles-based company that serves as charitable advisers to Madonna and other celebrities. But that was just part of what drew the singer to become involved.

“Madonna was very moved by that visit we made to Detroit in June, and she wanted to give back,” Ezzy said. “And it’s where she’s from, she has a loyalty to her hometown. So it was a combination of things for her.

“She is very much committed to Detroit in her mind. Our job is being as supportive as we can do, helping her manifest her support in the best way. This is just the start (in Detroit) for Madonna.”

Ragan of Focus: HOPE stresses that Madonna has committed for the long haul.

“Much like Brad Pitt in New Orleans, what Madonna does in Detroit will be very thoughtful and sustained. It won’t be about publicity but about having a long-term impact,” Ragan said. He saw Pitt’s New Orleans strategy up close as the former chief development and government relations officer for the actor’s Make It Right Foundation.

Eminem’s star power helped Focus: HOPE in May when he and the nonprofit teamed up for an auction of Eminem-related items via eBay’s Celebrity Giving campaign. Every item in the auction, which included ticket packages to his concert and Casio G-Shock watches, sold well above market value, earning $25,000.

Help for youths

In addition to general philanthropy, his Marshall Mathers Foundation often directs funds to organizations helping at-risk youths, including the Horatio Williams Foundation (sending inner city kids to Cedar Point), Salvation Army’s Coats for Kids and Common Ground Sanctuary. In December, his foundation donated more than $200,000 to Wolverine Human Services, which provides services to delinquent youths.

When Jack White heard about the Masonic Temple’s financial woes last year, he sent a check for $142,000. White’s mother had once been an usher there, and it was the site of the White Stripes’ first major gig.

Through his foundation, Kid Rock supports Detroit-area charities such as the Detroit Historical Society, to which he donated $250,000 in 2012 to establish the Kid Rock Music Lab, an interactive gallery that brings 100 years of Detroit music to life. That same year his concert with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra helped it raise a much-needed $1 million.

The benefits of a celebrity endorsement to a nonprofit often goes beyond the dollars and cents. Focus: HOPE’s social media footprint expanded after its partnership with Eminem.

“We added 2,000 new Twitter followers almost entirely due to Eminem,” Ragan said. “He has one of the largest social media followings, some 18 million followers.” Adding a celebrity’s followers allows a nonprofit to communicate directly with a whole new set of potential donors.

Other music celebrities who have been donating to Detroit causes for years include Detroit-born rapper Big Sean, who is active through his Sean Anderson Foundation with the Coats for Kids campaign, among other causes.

Aretha Franklin puts on a free Thanksgiving dinner and gospel concert annually at her late father’s church, New Bethel Baptist, which draws thousands from the struggling surrounding neighborhood. And contemporary Motown artist KEM, via his Mack and Third Foundation, puts on free concerts and food drives, never forgetting his own struggle with homelessness.

TV’s Mathis ran with Detroit’s Earl Flynn gang in the 1970s, but honoring a promise to his mother, he turned his life around and graduated from Eastern Michigan University. In 2001, he bought the building that became the Mathis Community Center, which offers mentoring programs for young men and women, senior citizen and ex-offender programs and other services. Mathis funds the entire operation himself.

“As long as I’m on television, I will finance all the programs, that way we’re not in competition with the other organizations struggling for funding,” Mathis said.

Other Motor City legends prefer to keep their help quiet. Bob Seger and his manager Punch Andrews are famously reticent about their support, which has included helping purchase bulletproof vests for Detroit and Detroit area police. Andrews, who declined comment, was honored in May by the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office for donations that allowed the sheriff to acquire K-9 deputy police dogs they dubbed “Seger” and “Clay.”

New political landscape

From the view of some nonprofits, many VIPs are more comfortable helping Detroit in light of the new mayor, and the distance of years between today and the City Hall scandals.

“Frankly, right about the time that Detroit’s problems started to get national attention, we were also getting attention for problems in our local leadership,” Ragan of Focus: HOPE said. “Now, a lot of people feel things are happening at the right time.”

While some are drawn by the lure of iconic music, beautiful abandoned architecture and a compelling national story, “With Madonna, it was driven by the fact that it was her hometown,” said Global Philanthropy’s Ezzy.

“There are some really inspirational entrepreneurial things going on in Detroit and all this opportunity for people to be supportive. So it’s a combination of a lot of people who came out of the city, combined with incredible people still in the city, working hard. It makes for a very hopeful situation.”

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Left, top to bottom: Mariska Hargitay, Russell Simmons, Eminem. Right, top to bottom: Tommy Hearns, Ellen DeGeneres, Greg Mathis. / The Detroit News
Former Detroit Lions wide receiver Herman Moore has long boosted Detroit ... (Daniel Mears / The Detroit News)
The Lions' Stephen Tulloch cheers during the fifth annual celebrity ... (Bryan Mitchell / Special to The Detroit News)