During a two-week tour of South Africa, Emily Doerr witnessed a speech by Nelson Mandela and went surfing and rappelling. But the most surprising experience of her 2007 trip came at a remote mountain hostel.
“I will never, ever forget sitting in that dining area,” Doerr says. “I’m in the middle of nowhere. I took a 15-hour plane ride to get there. And I looked over and saw a girl with an outline of the state of Michigan on the back of her T-shirt.”
Coming across that fellow Michiganian “really made me think,” Doerr says. “It’s a small world and we’re all connected and we’re all looking to connect.” Three years after that encounter, Doerr is working to create a place for people to connect in Detroit, renovating a North Corktown building as a hostel. Hostel Detroit, set to open this month, will be the only Michigan hostel, and the first in Detroit in 15 years.
Will Sartore, a Grand Rapids native who joined Doerr on her South Africa trip, says the hostels he and Doerr stayed in served as models for the Hostel Detroit project.
“I’m not sure that her South African hostel experience was as much a catalyst as a real picture of what a hostel could and should be,” Sartore says. “I believe Emily developed a picture that would help her as she went forward with her vision.”
Doerr began organizing the hostel last year, selecting and renting the building (which she hopes to buy). Gathering a group of 40 volunteers, she funded early expenses with her own savings and bolstered that with additional fundraising.
Doerr’s enthusiasm is rooted in personal experience. In addition to her South Africa adventure, she has bunked in hostels in Chicago, New Orleans, and New York City and “never had a bad experience,” she says.
She does criticize a South African hostel where she stayed for being “very protective.” The proprietors insisted that guests use the hostel’s shuttle service if they went outside the building. “It felt very restrictive,” Doerr says, stressing that Hostel Detroit won’t follow that model. “We’re not going to be holding people’s hands. If you stay in a hostel, you’re an explorer; you’re looking for an adventure.”
To add to that adventure, Doerr is developing a team of Detroit ambassadors to show guests around the city based on their interests. “Not only do these people get to see the art galleries, but they get to talk with someone who knows the city,” Doerr says.
In South Africa, Doerr says, “I was a visitor, and I asked people about their country and they spoke about it with pride. When you talk about your city, you get that city pride.”