Thom and Diane Linn
By Matthew Lewis
November 24, 2014
In the Joseph Berry Subdivision, a quiet neighborhood tucked below Jefferson Avenue along Detroit's east riverfront, a stately colonial home just a few doors from the Manoogian Mansion serves as the unofficial headquarters of Linn Enterprises. OK, there's no such thing as Linn Enterprises, but the Linn family – Diane, Thom, and their children Emily, Andy, and Rob – is as much a consortium of Detroit-improving enterprises as it is a loving family.
Thom and Diane, who've called the Berry Sub home for the last 30 years, are born-and-raised Detroiters (Thom grew up on the east side, Diane on the west). Both attended Cass Tech, the city's premier public high school, and remember their school days fondly.
"Cass Tech was a real turning point for us," says Thom. "It really set us on our path."
That path steered them to the University of Michigan, which is where the couple really got to know each other while collecting a handful of degrees. They would return to Detroit a married couple.
As a student, Thom's ambitions were modest. "My life plan was to become a public bureaucrat," he says. But after finishing a master's degree in public policy, his life trajectory changed when he decided to supplement his experience with a law degree. After law school, Thom took a job with Miller Canfield, one of Detroit's premier law firms. He's worked there for the last 38 years, eight of which he served as the firm's CEO. Today, Thom serves as chairman emeritus and heads up the firm's pro bono work.
Diane studied art and design as an undergrad at the University of Michigan, then earned a master's degree in art education. When she and Thom moved back to Detroit from Ann Arbor, her love of the arts is what drove her work. She founded her own company, Linden Tree Studio, picking up significant amounts of work doing calligraphy for corporate clients. Diane also pursued her other passion, music, by joining and growing one of the city's most celebrated choruses.
"We grew the Fort Street Chorale from 12 members to about 100," says Diane. "We even got PBS to make a documentary about the Chorale called 'Miracle at Third and Fort Streets.'"
When children came into the picture, the Linns' priorities changed. Diane put her art studio and involvement in music on the back burner so she could educate the kids. She and her daughter Emily founded a home school group that eventually grew to about 100 people and was featured in the New York Times. The curriculum followed the Waldorf pedagogy
and was based around history. Diane utilized the city's cultural institutions like the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra as opportunities for experiential learning.
When the kids finished school (all three Linns would eventually graduate from the University of Michigan), Diane decided it was time for her to get back to her passions.
"When Robbie graduated, I knew I wanted to do two things: get back into education and get back into the arts and music," says Diane.
She's done so by joining the board of the Detroit Waldorf School
, where she now serves as president, and by founding the Community Chorus of Detroit
, which she has since grown into a nonprofit organization with over 80 members.
"In March, we decided we wanted to perform a major work and chose Verde's 'Requiem,'" says Diane. "When we learned that the work had been performed 16 times by prisoners inside the Terezin concentration camp, we decided to dedicate our performance to the memory of the people who performed it there."
Diane organized 250 members of three local choruses to perform the work at the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament. Approximately 1,500 people attended the performance, including foreign dignitaries from Israel and the Czech Republic, as well as 20 holocaust survivors.
Thom, like Diane, is deeply dedicated to community work. In addition to his involvement in a number of charitable organizations, including the leading pro bono work at Miller Canfield and co-chairing the Shining Light Awards
, Thom is a founding member of the Old Tiger Stadium Conservancy, an organization dedicated to the sustainable redevelopment of the Old Tiger Stadium Site and the revitalization of the Corktown area. Under Thom's leadership, that group secured a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development with the help of Sen. Carl Levin. Those funds are being dispersed to small businesses throughout Corktown with the goal of spurring economic development.
For all their personal achievements and current projects, however, the Linns' greatest gift to the city of Detroit might be their children. All three siblings live within blocks of each other in Detroit's Woodbridge neighborhood, and they all are playing active roles in civic life in Detroit.
Rob, an urban planner, works for the Detroit Land Bank Authority, where he focuses on neighborhood stabilization efforts like the Building Detroit
auctions of city-owned properties.
Emily and Andy Linn are pioneers of Detroit's re-emerging retail scene. Their stores City Bird
, which offer house wares and goods produced in Detroit and around the Great Lakes region, are anchors of the West Canfield/Cass Avenue retail district in Midtown. Since City Bird opened in 2009, the area has attracted a number of other retail tenants including Hugh, Nora, and Shinola. In October 2014, City Bird was awarded an NEIdeas $10K Challenge
grant to expand their floor area by more than 50 percent.
All three Linn siblings worked collaboratively to produce "Belle Isle to 8 Mile: An Insider's Guide to Detroit,"
a comprehensive, printed guide to Detroit featuring over 1,000 Detroit attractions, "from the essential to the obscure."
Soon, Thom and Diane will have another young person to be proud of -- their first grandchild. Emily is expecting in December.
All photos by Doug Coombe.