is detroit really the new creative paradise?
In Detroit you can live in a mansion for less rent than a shoebox-sized New York studio, and after years of neglect, the city is finally finding its creative feet again.
The new Brooklyn? The new Berlin, maybe? "Detroit is the new Detroit," says Motor City resident Michael Dedenbach -- the big dreamer behind Detroit Clothing Circle, a vintage shop in the city's Midtown/Cass Corridor district, an area that bears a passing resemblance to the once-upon-a-time up-and-coming Williamsburg, complete with the triple threat of brunch spots, breweries and boutiques.
In just a few years, Midtown Detroit has had a major facelift with the addition of shiny new shops like Shinola, Willys, Nora and Hugh. There's a dog park on Canfield and Cass now! All this in a neighborhood that didn't have street lamps a few years ago.
Downtown's Belt Alley too has transformed, with the pimped-out parking structure known as the Z-Lot. Each of its decks feature large-scale murals and is one of many demonstrations of the revival of Detroit's public art scene. Near this cutting-edge garage is the equally cutting-edge Library Street Collective, a modern and contemporary art space shaking up the scene with exhibitions like Cleon Peterson's POISON and recent work by the street artist Shepard Fairey.
For a city that has gone through so much -- financially, politically and socially -- there's an undeniable excitement for Detroit at the moment, it's beginning to feel like a community again. Obviously the city has a long way to go, but it's moving forward and you can feel it. (And see it -- just look at the construction site for the city's new public transit option, the M-1 Rail, a modern streetcar line that will connect Detroit's Riverfront to its North End neighbourhoods via Woodward Avenue.)
When I moved from the suburbs to the Midtown neighbourhood of Detroit in the summer of 2005 for college, I knew nothing about the city. But like many creatives here, I fell in love with Detroit quicker than the purposeless People Mover can make its 2.9-mile trek around downtown. (The Detroit People Mover is a raised rail system with 13 stops and often not many more passengers.) There is just something inspiring about the city -- the grit, the tenacity of its tenants, the gilded-age glamour of its architecture, and its history.
After I spent a few years in NYC post-graduation working as a copywriter, I moved back to the metro Detroit area in the summer of 2012 and have seen the city's most recent resurgence firsthand, rediscovering the town and its tight-knit creative community.
Chatting recently with Dedenbach, it's obvious his passion and ambition are a reflection of the city's drive. Like a lot of other creatives here, it hasn't been easy for him. "For the past three years, I heard the word 'no' more times than I would like to count," he laughed. "You have to be willing to go against all the statistics that say you won't make it.
"A lot of us here couldn't live in other major cities, because we couldn't afford it. It's a blessing to know that we can have a house for the price that we paid for it, and that we can also take the chance to open a business. We need people to take a chance here."
For musician Wayne Ramocan, a drummer who plays everything from hip hop to gospel, doing something creative in Detroit is about "carrying a torch; continuing the legacy of what has come before. It's creating something that people haven't seen before…
"We are a part of what is next. This era of cultural renaissance may not have a name yet, but the artists working here now will be recognised for their contributions in the years to come." Last year, Ramocan served as a cultural ambassador while touring with hip hop artist Mahogany Jones (at the request of the State Department), conducting workshops and performances in the major cities of Turkmenistan.
Lately, the media has painted a picture of Detroit as a sort of creative utopia with too-perfect images of raw industrial space and next-to-nothing rents. The positive press (finally!) is needed, but while residents are thankful and welcoming of this recent influx of artists and designers, is the city really a paradise for the creative?
Like all cities, Detroit has its drawbacks. Compared to New York, San Francisco and London, it is cheaper to live here (according to the most recent rental price monitor over at Apartment List, a one-bedroom in NYC fetches $2,600 a month while Detroit rings in at $510), but there is also less exposure, less infrastructure less work and poor public transportation.
There is also a major perception problem. I mean, what are some of the first things that come to mind when you hear the word Detroit? Crime, poverty, crumbling buildings? Probably. And rightfully so, but could art, design and fashion be the tickets to revitalising not just the city's neighbourhoods but its image?
In just a short time, independent retailers and restaurants have reconstructed once-barren stretches of neighbourhoods like Corktown, the West Village, and Midtown, into hangout spots for students, young entrepreneurs, and, yes you guessed it, even some hip retirees passing up the golf course condos for luxe lofts. There are also experimental art projects like Red Bull House of Art and Untitled Detroit -- and last year's nationally recognised Bruce Weber photography exhibition at the Detroit Institute of Arts - that are giving other areas of the city street cred.
And then there's Ponyride, the inspiring non-profit organization that's attempting to redefine the city's creative and manufacturing sectors. Opened roughly three years ago, Ponyride, which occupies a 30,000 square-foot former print shop facility, offers studio space at a reduced cost. According to Phreddy Wischusen, the organisation's communications director, the going rate for similar industrial spaces in Detroit is roughly $1 per square foot, whereas Ponyride tenants pay essentially 50 cents per square foot -- the minimum amount to keep the place operating. The reasoning? "The money that is saved is money that the tenants can invest in the development of their enterprise." Tenants like Detroit Denim Co., Smith Shop and Anthology Coffee.
"By developing entrepreneurs and people who are following their dreams, we develop a much more rich and stable environment both in the building and out of the building," Wischusen adds, "Because hopefully the people here are hiring other people and building jobs."
"There are a lot of industrial spaces where people can just rent space," he adds. "For us it is really important to find a way to not just have space for people but to facilitate the connection between them and to make a dynamic environment where people with diverse skills and experiences can collaborate with one another."
This "spirit of collaboration" has not only been integral to the success of Ponyride, but to the whole of Detroit and its creative community. A creative community that has historically and famously consisted of not only traditional artists but also of musicians, craftsmen, entrepreneurs and inventors. Having all shared in the city's struggles, there is a bond that defines and distinguishes artists in Detroit. Not to mention a shared resilience. Failure, for many creative people here, just isn't an option.
Dedenbach said it best: "What's beautiful about the city of Detroit is that we love it the hard way in a sense. We are always striving to make it. Detroit is not just a blank canvas; it's a canvas with history that has the potential to create some kind of future. If you are willing to put in the work and do a great job, you have a chance here."
Text Giuseppa Nadrowski
Photography Sam Beebe via Flickr