Detroit summer is a sun-drenched season of festivals and music. It’s food trucks, yoga in the grass, and toes in sand at the urban beach. Across all six of Detroit’s downtown parks, which boast a combined 4 million visitors annually, there is something for everyone — even those who prefer a Detroit winter with ice-skating and hot chocolate.
This is no surprise to the Detroit-born Njia Kai of NKSK Events + Production. Kai has spent her career place-making for Detroit’s most iconic downtown parks and directing the city’s largest festivals. The best part, according to Kai, who’s just wrapped her 12th year heading the African World Festival, is seeing people enjoy themselves downtown.
“We’re not in Detroit because we have to be here,” she says. “We choose to be here because Detroit is special. The people in Detroit are special.”
Creating a mise-en-scene is a skill Kai mastered when she switched from prelaw to filmmaking at Howard University. Little did she know that her ability to set a scene and frame people together would change the landscape of how Detroiters gather.
The Cass Technical High School grad enjoyed a burgeoning film career on the East Coast, where she notably served as camerawoman on Julie Dash’s 1991 Daughters of the Dust, a film added to the Library of Congress in 2004 — the same year she began programming events at Campus Martius Park.
Years before becoming Detroit’s unofficial social director, Kai spotted a classified ad seeking a production coordinator for the Detroit Festival of the Arts and the University Cultural Center Association, the organization that would merge with the New Center Council to become Midtown Detroit Inc.
Kai spent the next 24 years with the festival, ultimately becoming its director, a role in which she served until she was asked by then-Detroit 300 Conservancy President Robert Gregory to consult on the opening of a new park.
In Swahili, the word for path or road is njia… Justice Augustus Woodward would not have known this as he planned an early Detroit, after the fire of 1805, with Campus Martius at its center.
As the city rose from its ashes, the site became a gathering place and home to the city’s point-of-origin stake, charting out the mile roads and marking the beginning of the main arteries of Woodward, Michigan, and Gratiot avenues.
More than a century later, through times of civil unrest and a decline in manufacturing industries, Campus Martius shrunk to the size of a traffic island as many residents left the city and warned others about crossing certain mile roads.
Kai, with a genuine love for Detroit, understood the image and assumptions she had to work against and curated events for the kind of city she knew Detroit could be.
David Cowan, the Downtown Detroit Partnership‘s chief public spaces officer, remembers the early days of the park well.
“When Campus Martius Park opened, you saw a change in the perception of downtown because there was now a shining jewel in the center,” he says.
“When there’s a park in a public space, it’s not about the design — it’s about who’s using it and for what. It’s always been a people-forward approach to public space, and Nija is part of the reason why we embodied that early on.”
This story is part of the 2024 Hour Detroiters package, our annual roundup of people who make Motown better, more interesting, and more fun. Learn more about our Hour Detroiters here, and read more stories from the January 2024 issue here.