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Remaking Detroit: Can Creative Companies Save an American City on the Brink?

In part one of a two-part series, creative players—and Pulitzer-winning journalist Charlie LeDuff—weigh in on the impact of agencies and tech companies on Detroit’s fortunes.

When Ralph Watson, the Executive Creative Director at Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, told his wife in 2011 that he’d been asked to move from New York to Detroit to head up the advertising company’s new office to rebrand Chevrolet, her reaction was immediate and to the point. "There’s no fucking way," he recalls her telling him.

Who could blame her? For more than three decades, Detroit has been portrayed in the press as a city in decline, beset by unemployment, crime, civic corruption, and wholesale abandonment by anyone and everyone who could afford to get out. Hundreds of buildings stood vacant, whole tracts of the city reclaimed by nature with urban explorers and photographers parachuting in from all over the world to capture it in all its decaying glory. To many, the city that had birthed the auto industry, armed the Allies during WWII, and given the world some of the best music of the 20th century, was nothing more than a failed state, America’s answer to the Roman Ruins.

And yet, on a cold Thursday morning in the beginning of 2013, Watson, who somehow convinced his wife to move with him to the Motor City, is sitting in his corner office across from Todd Grantham, GSP’s Managing Director, at the company’s newish office in the Palms Building, an historic spot downtown, a home run hit from Comerica Park. The office, which opened in 2011, occupies five floors and has 275 employees focused on Chevrolet. Together they’re working to rebrand the carmaker as it expands globally with the new slogan, "Find New Roads."

On Watson’s window, which faces onto Woodward Avenue ("the first paved road in the U.S.," he noted) is a stenciled message that’s been used in a series of Corvette print ads being developed: "THIS IS AMERICA."

So, how does he like Detroit? "It’s Startupville," Watson says. "It’s anything goes, which I really like. It’s almost no rules."

"There’s massive opportunity here," adds Grantham, who relocated from San Francisco around the same time as Watson. "It feels like there are more interesting things here. People feel like there’s more wide open space than anywhere else"

GSP is among a small but dedicated cohort of creatives, entrepreneurs, and techies who are trying to stake a claim in Detroit and, they hope, help the city as they do so. Just down the street from the Palms Building is The M@dison Building, home of Skidmore Studio, a design and branding firm that started with auto illustrations in the late 1950s and has grown to a full service creative agency. The company moved back to Detroit three years ago after several decades in the suburbs, since, as Tim Smith, Skidmore’s President and CEO, puts it, "If the city is gonna come back, the creative community is gonna be part of that." Smith remembers a time when he’d fly out to meetings with clients in other cities and they’d say, "Oh, you’re from Detroit. We feel so bad for you." Now, he says, "We get off the plane and go 'We’re from Detroit,' and they say, 'That’s kinda cool.'"

"Damn right, it’s cool!," he tells us. "I think the bravado is coming back."

Just downstairs from Skidmore are the offices of Detroit Venture Partners, a tech incubator underwritten by Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert, who purchased many of the buildings on Woodward Avenue to remake it as a tech sector, along with Rockbridge Growth Equity Founder Brian Hermelin, and ePrize founder Josh Linkner. About 130 people representing dozens of small tech startups work in the two story open plan office, among them Detroit Labs, which created the Chevy GameTime Super Bowl app for GSP in 2012, Are You A Human, which replaces those annoying squiggly text CAPTCHA screens with simple games and Level Eleven, a company that makes gamified motivational systems for salespeople. The office also houses a team from a little startup you may have heard of called Twitter.

While these companies are all focused on creating their products and serving their clients, ask any of the developers, designers, and creatives, many of whom moved to the city from San Francisco, New York, Madison, Portland and elsewhere, and they will tell you their sideline is helping rehab Detroit. The offices are festooned with pro-Detroit slogans (Skidmore created a striking retro poster using the city’s motto, Resurget Cineribus, "It Shall Rise From the Ashes"), and many of the workers are proud of the fact that they live downtown, some in buildings that had previously sat empty for decades but are now desirable addresses like The Broderick Tower and The Kales Building. The energy is young, can-do, and totally infectious. As GSP’s Watson tells Co.Create, "We’re open for business!" It’s easy to feel that eagerness as you go from office to office.

"For too long this nation has ignored Detroit or focused on the dark side of Detroit," says Bill Ludwig, Chairman and CEO of Campbell Ewald, an agency whose clients include GM and the U.S. Navy. "There’s a tremendous influx of young people in the city… It’s the land of opportunity for a young single person coming out of school."

Ludwig points to the 2011 Chrysler Super Bowl ad featuring Eminem created by Wieden + Kennedy as a turning point in the Detroit narrative, a moment when the the city of the damned reframed itself as the city of the determined. "Detroit is the poster child for picking ourselves up by our bootstraps and dusting ourselves off."

"We’ve been kicked in the gut a lot of times," Ludwig continues. "The rest of the nation was kicked in the gut. [Now] the rest of the nation is looking to Detroit to see how we do it."

The sincerity and enthusiasm of these sentiments is undeniable, but a short walk beyond the Woodward Avenue corridor brings a visitor face-to-face with Detroit’s collapsing infrastructure and large homeless population. Some streets are eerily empty, storefronts shuttered, the windows of once glorious Art Deco skyscrapers missing, with towers fenced in to keep falling debris from harming pedestrians. Looking out on the skyline at night, more buildings sit dark and unoccupied than not, and while the winter cold might be the excuse many people offer for not going out after dark, fear of crime is clearly a motivation for cocooning oneself inside a refurbished luxury high-rise. That is, if you’re lucky enough to live in one.

"I don’t know how you build a castle in quicksand," says Charlie LeDuff, a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter who moved back to his hometown in 2008 to take a decidedly less glamorous job at The Detroit News and who now works as an on-air correspondent for the local Fox affiliate (watch one of his reports in the video below). LeDuff sees the Woodward Avenue tech district as a kind of campus created by Quicken Loans’ Dan Gilbert, "his own city with its own borders. Dan Gilbert’s interested in creating a moneymaking venture for himself."

In his new book, Detroit: An American Autopsy, LeDuff paints an alternately bleak and sad portrait of his city in ruin, which he calls "a funhouse mirror and future projection of America." As portrayed by LeDuff, Detroit is a place where locals occasionally burn down vacant buildings because, as one firefighter told him, "fire is cheaper than a movie," and where even the mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, who served as the city’s boss from 2002 to 2008, landed in jail on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. "It was the vanguard of our way up, just as it is the vanguard of our way down. And one hopes the vanguard of our way up again," he writes.

While LeDuff thinks it’s going to take more than just cool companies and marketing efforts to re-set the broken bones of Detroit—at one point in his book he calls writing about galleries and museums in the city "equal to writing about the surf conditions while reporting in the Gaza Strip"—he also sees that their vitality is essential, though not as essential as, say, getting more ambulances and a better 9-1-1 response system. "I’m not poo-pooing them at all," he says. "To have a robust city, you need to have all of that… A tree without roots is wood. The artists and artisans are gonna need to be the roots. You need blood, you need music, you need laughter. It’s not a city without 'em. But I think we’re ahead of ourselves."

Back at GSP, Watson and Grantham are talking about the future, not just of their company, which will start taking on more clients than just Chevrolet as their roots in the city deepen, but the town itself. "I think right now the city is defining its thing," Grantham says. "All of this creativity and inventiveness is, frankly, just to go get momentum and culture built here and I think it’ll start spreading out."

"It’s a really hands-on city. It has brainpower and the ability to follow through," Watson adds. "I don’t think anyone is rooting against this city at all."

This is the first part of a two-part article. Read part two here.

[Image: Flickr user Chris Richards]