If Detroit is going to survive, it’s going to take more than the efforts of advertising shops: It’s going to require a lot of people rolling up their sleeves and making things. Luckily, the town is full of builders and artisans—some homegrown, others drawn to the city for its cheap rents and generous business incentives—who are doing their best to refurbish America’s biggest fixer-upper.
"They’re all tinkerers. They love the process of getting their hands dirty and making things. It’s embedded in the DNA here," says Matthew Clayson, director of the Detroit Creative Corridor Center, an advisory board that helps foster the creation of new products in the city. "When you look at the high market stuff that’s coming out of San Francisco, Manhattan, or Milan, Detroit is finding an alternative to that with products that are much more honest, much more humble, much more focused on the materials. It’s a Midwestern practicality."
Clayson’s office is on the first floor of the A. Alfred Taubman Center for Design Education, a 760,000-square-foot building that once housed General Motors’ legendary design studio where Harley Earl and his team created the first Corvette. The building was vacated by GM in 1996, and after a $160 million renovation, it’s now part of the College for Creative Studies, and the place where 1,400 students are learning transportation, product, graphic, and interior design. Examples of their concept drawings and prototypes line the halls as Clayson walks a visitor around the enormous building that houses 11 floors dedicated to education and entrepreneurship. Clayson is talking about drawing creative people to Detroit despite the city’s well-documented problems. "Yeah, I might have to deal with my car being broken into," he says, noting his own car had been broken into three times last year. "But at the same time, no one’s gonna to give me any shit for what I’m doing. No one’s gonna come here and criticize my work or tell me I should be doing something different. There’s that freedom of creation."
One of the companies enjoying that freedom is Shinola, which has started creating handmade bicycles, watches, and other lifestyle accessories in a small factory in the Taubman Center. "We wanted to manufacture in the United States," explains Shinola’s COO, Heath Carr. "Detroit, just from the automotive industry, was in the top of everybody’s list. There’s this whole design/art revival energy going on there that we thought we’d like to be a part of."
Across town from Taubman is Ponyride, a workspace where smaller scale companies like Context Furniture and Detroit Denim can prototype and manufacture their creations, whatever they may be. Created by Slow’s BarBQ cofounder Philip Cooley, Ponyride is a professional take on the makers’ spaces popping up in Detroit and other cities where hobbyists go to hack, build, and design whatever they want using shared tools, knowledge, and support.
Jeff Sturges, an MIT Media Lab Director’s Fellow, is a cofounder of OmniCorp Detroit, one of those makers’ spaces. He’s optimistic about what he’s seen in the city, but he also wants to offer a reality check. "There’re many great things happening, but I’m a big fan of let’s tell it like it is," he tells us. "It is a great entrepreneurial environment, but there’s still a lot of vacancies."
Vacancies, Sturges is quick to point out, are not an entirely apolitical development. Speaking of the city’s changes in the three years he’s lived there, Sturges prefers not to describe Detroit as a "blank slate" for creative people since much of his work puts him direct contact with the city’s working class, largely African-American, residents whom some of the newcomers might choose not to see. "I understand in many ways why people think it’s a blank slate, but I hesitate to say it. Yes, there are a lot of opportunities here because of cheap real estate and not much activity… You can hang out here for a while because it isn’t expensive, but if you’re coming to make an impact, I’m more excited.
"I’m excited about people coming in, but people who are ready to hustle," he says.
The hustling, however, may be part of the problem, according to Joe Posch, owner of Hugh, a small, tastefully curated home decor shop aimed at men on Cass Avenue near Wayne State University. "I feel like there are a lot people whose job is to talk about how creative Detroit is," he says. "I don’t drink the Kool-Aid. I’m just realistic."
"I think Detroit happened because of the recession. The recession in general forced people to focus on 'Made in America.' At the end of the day, I don’t know if all that positioning made a difference."
"If you know 20 buzzwords, you can get a grant," Posch continues. (Hugh, he noted for the record, opened at the end of 2012 with the help of a $50,000 Hatch Detroit prize he won.) Looking around at some of the new faces in town, he was dubious about their contributions to the city’s betterment. "Everybody has these fake made-up jobs… I don’t think they do a lot outside of their buildings besides go to lunch and smoking cigarettes."
"Detroit changes you," he says. "When you first come in, you’re kind of a douche-bag coast-y. And then eventually, if you choose to dip into it and hang out, in two years you’re different. In a good way."
"Detroit is a city of deep contrasts," Detroit Creative Corridor’s Clayson says. "It can be very vibrant one day, the next day that same area can be a ghost town. You can see them as beauty, you can see them as blight. You can see the best of humanity and the worst of humanity. It’s all in your face. It’s not sanitized.
"In an increasingly sanitized America, that means something. You can have a meaningful existence here because of those contrasts."
This is the second of a two-part article. Read part one here.