A few years ago, Charlie Molnar noticed a lack of seating at a number of bus stops in Detroit. So the then-Wayne State urban studies major decided to make and donate benches.
Molnar was sitting in a coffee shop, sketching a design: a dual-sided bench with seating on both sides. His friend Kyle Bartell walked in, peeked at the notepad, and immediately approved of the concept “doodle.”
At that moment, Sit On It Detroit was born.
Molnar’s previous carpentry experience was a high school woodshop class. Bartell had none. With help from volunteers, they began producing and installing benches at bus stops in their spare time.
Four years later, after learning the craft of building — as well as navigating a few speed bumps with the Detroit Department of Transportation and gaining an outpouring of community support — their project is a full-time job.
The initial obstacle was getting the funds to build the benches. “I started looking into the cost of how much it would be to build the benches,” Molnar says. “It was getting pretty expensive. I was a college student at the time, and our total investment into the project was $50. We didn’t have a couple hundred bucks to cover the lumber.”
Estimated costs initially racked up to $130 per bench. Side projects such as mowing lawns, rebuilding structures, and planting flowers allowed Molnar and Bartell to receive a small amount of grant money to put toward Sit On It Detroit. However, the team needed to find cheap lumber.
Molnar recalled a visit to the Architectural Salvage Warehouse of Detroit and thought of going back to check out their supply of recycled wood.
“They always had this stockpile of old wood that no one would ever think to use,” Molnar says. “They said, ‘yeah, give us 20 bucks, and take as much wood as you need.’ ”
Today, Molnar says that Sit On It Detroit does not pay for lumber, unless it’s for a private project such as custom furniture for restaurants, businesses, and residences. After receiving widespread attention, they constantly receive lumber donations.
Their benches can be spotted at the Heidelberg Project and Lincoln Street Art Park as well as at events such as the MoPop Festival and the Movement Electronic Music Festival.
Thirty-five percent of what they earn from private projects goes into benches for the community.
“Private work helps us feed our pockets, because we don’t take what we get out of Sit On It Detroit for ourselves,” Molnar says. “So we have to get out there and hustle, and constantly be selling benches.”
Sit On It Detroit has nearly 50 benches placed across Detroit — a far cry from the more than 2,000 needed according to their estimates.
But awareness of the project has allowed Molnar and Bartell, who work out of a studio in Corktown, to produce benches quicker with the help of volunteers — many of them students — and donations.
Aside from seating, benches include a stocked bookshelf. Sit On It Detroit provides reading material donated to the project, and Molnar encourages readers to take the books home with them.
“We’re trying to kill two birds with one stone,” Molnar says. “We can make [waiting for the bus] more comfortable and we can also put an educational aspect on it. Major problems in Detroit are public transportation and literacy rates, and with our benches we can [help] both.”
At bus stop 14 at Trumbull and Forest recently, Keyonna Austin sits at a Sit On It Detroit bench built by Molnar and Bartell.
“I’m just out going shopping to the mall, but it’s nice having a bench,” says Austin, who doesn’t ride the bus often. “The bus usually takes 20 to 30 minutes to get here. … It gives people a place to relax when they wait for the bus to come.”
Molnar is hoping to raise even more awareness about Sit On It Detroit, and improve upon their basic concept. They want to start adding electricity to benches to create a safer place for those commuting at night.
“We want to brighten up the streets a little bit, but also make the benches visible at night to cars, buses, and pedestrians,” Molnar says. “For us, it makes it more of a safety zone.”
Sit On It Detroit has also spawned imitators, an outcome that Molnar welcomes. “It’s one less bench I have to build. There are 2,500 that I have to build to reach my goal.”
Because for Molnar, the bottom line is that waiting at bus stops and riding public transportation can be challenging in a city where many people don’t have a car.
“You get taken out of your comfort zone, not really having a place,” he says. “Our benches, we think of them as a place — they’re meant to be there. We are trying to make people feel like it’s not a degrading thing to ride the bus. You don’t have a car, but you shouldn’t feel any less than somebody with one.”