7 -min. read

Wish You Bought Gold in ’06? You’ll Wish You Bought Detroit in ’12.

So runs the headline of an article published by Forbes in August 2012 by Josh Linkner, CEO of Detroit Venture Partners. According to his Forbes piece, the tech-entrepreneur’s business partner Dan Gilbert has bought up some three million sq ft of commercial property in downtown Detroit over the last few years. But why? Detroit’s a shit hole, right?

Photo © Camilo José Vergara

A byword for urban decay, the city was forced to file for the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history in 2013 when the motor city’s well-publicised fall from grace hit rock bottom.

Another native, journalist Charlie LeDuff, returned to the city after 20 years: “It was sort of like, in many respects, living in Chernobyl in some neighbourhoods” … the Pulitzer Prize-winner’s 2013 book Detroit: An American Autopsy confirms what you all thought you knew about the former industrial powerhouse. Crooked politicians; emergency services incapable of responding to emergencies; lawlessness; neighbourhoods in flames; desperation. LeDuff refers to his city as a cadaver. Many believe it to be still decomposing.

Michigan Central Station
Michigan Central Station with community art project in the foreground. Photo © James Davidson

I spent five days in Detroit, five bitterly cold days in January 2013, touring its ruins. Where Rome or Greece have their Forums or Parthenons, Detroit has its Michigan Central Station or Packard Automotive Plant (the largest building in the world when it opened at the beginning of the 20th century) — vast symbols of the city’s rise, barely a hundred years old and in tatters. When I walked through a gaping hole in one of the walls of the Fisher Body Plant 21, I too sensed Chernobyl. We’d driven for a few miles to get to the plant, not passing one soul … once-wealthy neighbourhoods entirely forgotten. Apocalyptic seemed too cheap an analogy.

Fisher Body Plant 21
Fisher Body Plant 21. Photo © James Davidson

Everything I’d previously associated with Detroit made sense. And most of what I’d associated with Detroit was its musical heritage. Motown to MC5 to The Stooges to The Belleville Three (Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson and Juan Atkins) to Eminem to The White Stripes. Musical movements are so often associated with hard times, and motor city has had plenty of both.

Of all I saw in that week, though, it is a sense of formidable positivity that stayed with me. Started in 1986 by Tyree Guyton and grandfather Sam Mackey, The Heidelberg Project is probably the best example of the sense of positivity that I’m talking about; a community creativity that stands toe-to-toe with the devastating ruination of the city. Troubled by the state of his neighbourhood — the east side’s McDougall-Hunt — Guyton has transformed blocks of abandoned properties over the years into one of the world’s most unique art projects … and its inspiration resonated in other areas of the city.

The Heidelberg Project
The Heidelberg Project. Photo © James Davidson

Fast forward a few years, and a series of arson attacks on the project confirm that the Michigan city still has its difficulties. The Packard plant has been purchased by Spanish investor Fernando Palazuelo, who plans to revitalise the site with industry, business, retail and culture, but fatal crime remains headline news. Corruption scandals continue to surface, but Detroit is now officially autonomous again and, in theoretical economic terms at least, on the road to recovery. Let us stay with that sense of positivity, of community creativity, for it is creativity that is underpinning the resuscitation of a sleeping giant.

Stand back. Defibrillator at the ready. Culture is shocking Detroit back to life.

Responsible for curating and producing over 100 murals across the city — in initiatives like 2011’s Detroit Beautification Project — online art retailer 1xRUN and bricks-and-mortar operation Inner State Gallery have just wrapped up their Murals in the Market project, propelling the city that cars built into the upper echelons of world street art by way of 45 new large-scale works throughout historic Eastern Market, from some of the world’s leading talent.

Murals in the Market
Kashink & Thor for Murals in the Market

Of course the marriage of art and degradation is nothing new. Look at London’s once-notorious East End, Brooklyn’s Williamsburg … then Bushwick. Cheap property + poor creatives = prolific output. Prolific output = international recognition,  ad infinitum — or until property prices increase, at which point the poor artists scurry along to the next downbeat neighbourhood. Leaving the wealthy artists to cut deals with the big brands, hoteliers, developers who move into their now-gentrified, hipster-ready ‘hood.

The Heidelberg Project
The Heidelberg Project. Photo © James Davidson

Except Detroit is one degenerated neighbourhood after another. And most investors are still too afraid to stick their necks on the line. Yet Detroit continues to flourish creatively. What we have here is something more akin to Berlin after the fall of the wall than another Dalston. Detroit has fallen so far that creatives can buy a property for a month’s rent in Shoreditch. The city’s property market has taken such a beating that many online speculators bandied around the idea of Silcon Valley behemoth Google simply purchasing Motown lock, stock, and barrel … driverless cars tootling around its barren highways like some kind of dystopian nightmare.

Looking across the water to Canada, here is something entirely more organic than ‘hood-by-’hood gentrification. The cool kids aren’t running away to the next happening district just because the fun dried up in the last one. To understand the cultural rebirth of Detroit, we need to go back to Tyree Guyton and his Heidelberg Project. Creativity breeds in Detroit because. Just … because. Because many have nothing else. For decades, since its painful race riots, since the economy’s pulse flatlined, folk have been writing off the city and its people. Thing is you see, people don’t give up. It’s easy for America to give up on Detroit, less so for its people to give up on their city, their lives.

Detroit Is No Dry Bones
“Detroit Is No Dry Bones,” Ruth Chapel AME Church, 2012 East Kirby Street at Baldwin Street Photo © Camilo José Vergara

Having photographed the city for some decades, artist Camilo José Vergara captured, for me, the spirit of Detroit in a photograph of a chapel wall: ‘Detroit Is No Dry Bones. Detroit You Shall Live’ scrawled upon it. That was 2012, and the unknown graffitist’s epitaph rings true today. Hell, Detroit’s creative class is in such fine fettle that, earlier this year, it got its own magazine — Grand Circus the result of a successful crowdfunding campaign.

Grand Circus Magazine

Prepping the release of its second edition, Grand Circus magazine celebrates Detroit’s makers, artists, designers, retailers, hospitality industry and so forth — joining a growing roster of annual festivals in observing the city’s flourishing cultural underbelly.

This year’s Detroit Design Festival has just wrapped up, highlights including a tour of homes being renovated by artists, a panel discussion chaired by Grand Circus’s founder Alex Trajkovski and, most notably, the opening of new arts space Wasserman Projects.

Situated in a 5,000 sq ft renovated firehouse, Wasserman Projects joins Inner State Gallery and a whole host of new murals at Eastern Market — an area that was quiet, very quiet a few years back; save for lovely community letterpress studio Signal-Return. And there we have that word again: community. Detroit ain’t no dry bones.

Kresge Court
Kresge Court

You’ll still pass plenty of abandoned property to reach it from downtown, but Detroit Institute of Arts — saved from flogging its prized assets (estimates have the valued the collection at as much as $4.6 billion) during the municipal bankruptcy case by some $27 million raised by the city’s biggest businesses — has a new ‘living room’ space in Kresge Court; a fine-looking coffeeshop courtyard that genuinely encourages WiFi-hoggers, and offers residents an opportunity to spend valuable time among one of the United States’ most treasured collections of art.

The city’s contemporary art collection is doing just fine too. London-based arts organisation Artangel commissioned their first international venture here, a full-scale replica of the single-story ranch-style house art-provocateur Mike Kelley grew up in unveiled at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit in 2013; the Michigan-born artist’s first and only public artwork. He passed away shortly after signing off the project.

Astro Coffee
Astro Coffee

Just a few years ago, Detroit’s hipster credentials lay within an exceedingly tight corner of Corktown … a tiny hive of activity opposite Michigan Central Station — the city’s eerily iconic, decaying high-rise ruin. Mercury Burger Bar, Slows BarBq, design-led B&B Honor and Folly (run by design blogger and magazine editor Meghan McEwen) upstairs, cocktail bar The Sugar House next-door, and cool coffee shop Astro alongside. In 2015, that block has been completed by the considered conversion of Sam’s pawnbrokers — Gold Cash Gold a sympathetic transformation, and a style-conscious restaurant worthy of a Brooklyn postcode — whilst that strip of Michigan Ave that runs into the city centre is increasingly abuzz.

Gold Cash Gold
Gold Cash Gold

But more importantly, downtown itself is on the rise again — new openings like Townhouse, The Whisky Parlor and The Keep bringing young people, real life young people, back into town.

And what of billionaire Dan Gilbert, who now owns or controls 78 downtown properties? “I still think we’re just starting”, he told Detroit Free Press in August. Sure, there’s still more to be done — but with its peerlessly low rents; community spirit; a creative nucleus impossible to uproot … there’s a sense that misery has bred an unquellable energy, and that that energy is the foundation upon which Detroit will rebuild itself at last.


James Davidson
James Davidson is a contributing writer for THE SHIFT and editor-in-chief of We Heart, an online design and lifestyle magazine that he founded in 2009 as a personal blog and now receives over half a million monthly views.

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