It has been almost a year since Marcus and I visited Detroit (remember Marcus’ impressions of the city?). It was the last destination of a road trip we did for a small video production. I’d wanted to share my impressions before, but time passed and it seemed wrong to post these icey pictures in the beginning of spring.
We arrived in Detroit after a Winter Storm Nemo had been ruling headlines in the north east for weeks. Temperatures dropped to historic lows and life in a lot of cities came to a still. You could still feel the presence of the heavy blizzard. An icey breeze numbed our fingers when we held onto the camera for too long. But we were lucky, and on the second day the sun came out and gave the city a golden glow.
To talk about Detroit turns out to be very difficult, as there already are two established narratives that you can come across.
Detroit: Lost City
There was a time when Detroit was called „the city of champions“. In the 50ies it held the 5th largest population of the USA with 1,8 million habitants. Detroit: the heart of the American car industry, the home of economic heavy weights like General Motors and Ford. The growth of these companies established a certain wealth among the population of the city. The average worker built a home in Detroit.
Nowadays, most of these simple wooden houses are abandoned or burned down. The small gardens grow rampant or lay buried under trash. GM declared bankruptcy in 2009. The temporary climax of the cities economic decay left a lot of people jobless and led to a population drop to 713,777 habitants. Ghost town.
It was the first thing that hit us while we were driving through its streets. It felt like we interrupted the set of a movie about the global economic melt-down. Detroit felt like the post-apocalyptic scenario many people fantasize about these days. We were overcome by true excitement and drove to a lot of different parts of the city, ignoring all the scary stories about murder rates and gang crime. We didn’t really feel like visitors, more like explorers who discovered hidden treasures. It felt like we could be part of this place, just take a piece, because there didnt seem to be anybody that wanted it.
Detroit: Rising From Industrial Ashes
My parents asked me in a semi-serious way if I was going to move to Detroit soon. I had told them how amazed I’d been by the trip and some time later they read that it was supposed to be “the new Berlin” in a newspaper.
Of course, its obvious. Abandoned factories, empty warehouses and run down little shopfronts. Huge Spaces are up for grabs; hard not to fantasize about an urban paradise right away. Detroit is dead cheap, post-industrial and nobody ever bothers you. It seems unavoidable to compare it to what people say about the Berlin of the 90ies.
Dmitri Hegemann, the founder of Tresor, one of the defining venues of Berlins Techno reputation, visited the Fisher Body Plant last week. Fisher Body was a subcontractor for GM back in the day. Hegemann is considering building a Techno-club and non-profit culture-center in the abandoned factory. He „wants to give back to the city“ that is closely linked to the history of Tresor. In the 90ies a lot of profiled Detroit techno artists like Jeff Mills and Robert Hood played in Tresor and influenced its trade-mark sound. “The main intention is to bring more people to Detroit,” Hegemann said and praised the luxury of having „all this space“.
But no matter how much space and possibility there might be, Detroit is in an essentially different situation than Berlin or any other city that heavily transformed in the post-industrial era. No matter what happens or will happen in Detroit, from the guerrilla gardens to the „youth entrepreneur avant-garde“ that may settle there, its all part of an already established and distributed narrative. To position itself as a place of endless opportunity is the big comeback plan for the city and not only sub-culture ambassadors like Dimitri Hegemann buy into that.
When we strolled around downtown we had a short conversation with a resident. He told us that one investor already bought a great amount of the buildings in the area. Dan Gilbert, a billionaire who runs the biggest online mortgage dealer in the states named Quicken Loans, „purchased and updated more than 60 properties downtown, at a total cost of $1.3 billion.“ He also moved the headquarters of his company there. A step that was sharply analyzed by Forbes: „His empire rests on luring the kind of young, educated, technologically savvy employees that every employer in the nation craves. To get them he must compete with the golden glow of places like Palo Alto and Manhattan. Gilbert’s genius is to see Detroit– the most dilapidated, forlorn urban environment in North America– not as a hindrance but rather as a unique opportunity to build the kind of place that Millennial workers crave: authentic, inspiring, edgy and cheap.“
Berlin or New York transformed because people started to use the empty spaces of the city in new ways. This led to a new appreciation of urban environments. „The city“ as a place to live, started to appeal to more and more people again; not only to artists and sub culture associates.
The process that came alongside this revaluation of the city is known as gentrification. But today the process itself is different. Today, there is a formula of what people want from „living in the city“ and that is given to them by the big money people who expect a return of investment.
You cant even criticize that. For Detroit, it seems very logical to attract a new urban middle class in order to recover from all those years of decay. Nevertheless, this planned transformation of the city is essentially different to the counter cultural ideas of conquering urban environments and morph them into culturally open spaces.