September 26, 2012

Another Detroit Is Happening

In her 2009 TED talk, Nigerian storyteller Chimamanda Adichie warned of the dangers of a single story. If we only know one story about a place, we become blind to the nuances of reality -- the story we tell ourselves clouds our ability to empathize and connect.

The story of Detroit is one of decline and hopelessness. From headlines about rampant unemployment to traveling photo exhibits of “ruin porn,” the single story America tells itself about Detroit is that it is a dying city overcome with despair.

That is simply not true. Let me show you why.

I recently joined 120 invited guests for a curated weekend called Another Detroit is Happening. Hosted by a small committee of young Detroit entrepreneurs, the weekend’s purpose was to invite other young business leaders, technologists, investors, philanthropists, and artists into the city to tell them the many stories of Detroit. Many of us owe our friendship to the tight-knit Summit Series community, and it is in the collaborative and open-minded spirit of that collective that we convened in Motor City for a long weekend in September.

What we found there may surprise you. Behind the veneer of melancholy and blight, there is boundless art, kindness, craft, innovation, entrepreneurship, and creativity—reimaging a new version of a city whose history is stitched deep into the fabric of our great country.

Few people got to experience Another Detroit first hand, but the weekend overflowed with stories that must be told. In the words of Adichie, “Stories matter. Many stories matter...When we realize there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.” The single story of Detroit is unsatisfyingly incomplete, so I’ve recorded some more, and I’d like to share them with you.

Imagination Station, Detroit

::Thursday::
We landed and headed straight to Ponyride, a craftsman co-working warehouse cum construction project that is reimagining how businesses contribute to communal space.

Ponyride entrance
The warehouse’s owner, Phil Cooley, was one of our hosts for the weekend, and the team had set up a makeshift tent city in the newly sand-covered yard adjacent to the warehouse.

Jameson Detweiler (#neonjesus) at Camp Ponyride
Kicking it at Camp Ponyride
Upon check-in every guest received a handmade tote bag from Detroit Denim, an American denim manufacturer whose workspace was just a flight of stairs away from the gymnasium-type room where we registered. Each bag contained local goodies, and every camper got a custom Ponyride mug with their tent assignment. Handmade washer necklaces hang from leather straps around our necks to designate us as Ponyriders. Everything at camp was provided: tents, mattresses, sleeping bags, and all the goods would all be donated after the event.

Detroit Denim's studio at Ponyride
Walking around Ponyride, you get a sense for the entrepreneurial, roll-up-your-sleeves energy in Detroit. Unlike incubators on the coasts, the focus on craft and hands-on problem solving is palpable in the layout of the building and the business models of its inhabitants. Signs for chores hang in bathrooms and hallways. Sheetrock and piles of fiberglass insulation await installation. Company signs proudly proclaim: Made in Detroit.

Chores at Ponyride
Though united under one roof, Ponyride’s craftsmen inhabitants are diverse in trade. Fencing instructors, letterpress printers, apparel manufacturers, furniture makers, and digital agency designers breathe life in the once abandoned warehouse they now call home.

I had some work to do and so I holed up in a corner of the gymnasium with my laptop. As soon as I sat down, two young hip-hop dancers approached me to ask if they could rehearse in our registration room. In the spirit of the-more-the-merrier, we obliged them and suddenly had our own hip-hop soundtrack for registration.

RunJit dancers rehearse in the #anotherdetroit registration room
First stop of the evening was on Belle Isle at the Giant Slide, which was opened specially to celebrate the birthday of one of our hosts, Dream Hampton.

Birthday girl Dream Hampton on the Giant Slide
From the top of the Giant Slide on Belle Isle
Belle Isle, Detroit
Next, I hopped in a car with host Nicole Patrice to drive across Belle Isle. Dream’s birthday dinner was at Flynn Pavilion, and it was designed to replicate a local dinner series called Clandesdine -- an underground pop-up dinners series to connect people over good food and conversation. Each course in our four-course meal was prepared by a different local chef who described the dish and its wine pairing before service.

Dream Hampton's Clandesdine birthday dinner
Everything was extremely delicious, and I literally licked the plates. Some young musicians from Detroit Youth Volume created ambiance.

Young violinist from Detroit Youth Volume
The birthday girl, Dream Hampton, is a Detroit native and embodies the insatiable pride our hosts exude for their city. Dream encouraged everyone to fully experience the weekend, to take in Detroit and to explore how we might be part of the new Detroit that’s happening “We hope you all invest in Detroit in ways that don't have anything to do with money.

After dinner we headed over to Michigan Avenue for handcrafted cocktails at speakeasy Sugar House.

Cocktails at Sugar House
I finished up the night at LJ’s, a karaoke bar, where it seemed only right to recruit my friend Nathaniel Whittemore to do a duet of “Forgot About Dre.”

Nathaniel and I doing a little rapping
My friend Tobias Rose-Stockwell and I left the bar in search of late-night eats. Having been trained by my friend (and Detroit host) Ben Bator to make good decisions, I picked Lafayette Coney Island for a plate of chili cheese fries.

Late night chili cheese fries at Lafayette Coney Island

::Friday::
Campers woke up to the sound of rain on their tents, but it cleared by late morning. I headed up the street from Ponyride to Astro Coffee, which felt more San Francisco than Detroit. Bearded baristas wore vintage framed glasses and chatted with customers beneath a large chalkboard menu. I had a delicious cappuccino and an Anzac cookie (coconut, oats, butter, sugar).

Astro Coffee in Detroit is the hippest
The walls at Astro were covered with cool-looking posters for hip, young revitalization events around the city.

Cool posters at Astro Coffee: Schnacktoberfest and The Future Is Changing
Eastern Market After Dark swag at Astro Coffee

We walked across the street to the old train depot, which was one of the most memorable landmarks of my trip to Detroit last summer.

Graffiti on the train depot: Sex, Drugs, and Detroit
Next door, a burnt out home had been rebranded as the Imagination Station and painted with a Detroit-inspired mural (see top of this blog post).

Imagination Station: social media in Detroit

Imagination Station
Back at Ponyride, we chowed down on soup, cornbread, and chocolate milk for a luncheon hosted by Detroit SOUP. At their regular events, pay to join a group meal during which several social entrepreneurs pitch their ideas for improving the community. At the end of the meal, the attendees vote on which idea deserves the money paid in to attend the event. (If you’re interested in replicating this model in your city, visit SundaySoup.org.) The winner was Food Field, an urban farm seeking funding to expand winter production. San Francisco-based entrepreneur Mike Del Ponte voted for them: “I’m really into sustainable agriculture, and I love how this team is doing it in Detroit. They’re not being fancy pants about it, they’re just doing it.

Chatting after the Detroit SOUP luncheon
Detroit Revitalization Fellow Erin Kelly gave a fascinating presentation about how to deal with the city’s 72,000 deserted residential structures that reduce surrounding property values and attract crime. Highlighting the waste and inefficiency in the city’s failed culture of brute demolition, Erin described an alternative solution called deconstruction—the process of thoughtfully dismantling a building to harvest added-value materials, and recycle where possible. The labor-intensive deconstruction ecosystem seems to be an elegant solution for an economic region whose abundant “natural resources” include abandoned buildings and unemployed workers.

Erin Kelly tells us how "A House is Like a Cow"
After Erin’s presentation, in a Google-sponsored session called EXCHANGE, we broke into small groups to brainstorm with local social entrepreneurs about the challenges of developing a deconstruction industry in Detroit. The room was full of ideas on scratch paper, sketching out business models and new ideas for sustainability in Detroit’s infrastructure industry.

EXCHANGE: brainstorming with social entrepreneurs about deconstruction
The afternoon shifted from business to art, as we piled into retro school buses to visit the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MoCAD), where the highlights included “Dammi i Colori,” a short film about an Albanian city whose mayor decreed that all buildings be painted vibrant colors, and an installation of tricked-out low-riders called “Vision in a Cornfield.” The artists re-imagined how abandoned vehicles in the city could be reanimated to engage the community. Each Frankenstein car in the installation was embedded with instruments and outfitted with motion sensors, turning it into a bizarrely interactive musical experience.

Vision in a Cornfield
On the ride to the Detroit Institute of Art, I got a lesson in trap music from Sean Glass and Jose Mejia and, with the driver’s permission, added my own personal graffiti to the ever-growing Sharpie art proliferating in the back of the bus.

#mittenlove in the back of a school bus
The DIA is the fifth largest art museum in the United States and boasts a pretty sick Diego Rivera mural. We got free entry to walk around for a bit before heading back to Roosevelt Park for dinner. Under a large white tent in the park, we mingled with Michigan Googlers (the tech giant has an office in Ann Arbor and generously sponsored the dinner) and chowed down on deservedly famous eats from Slows BBQ. Probably the best meal we had all weekend, and there was a high bar.

Slows BBQ: pulled pork, ribs, brisket, chicken, jalepeno cole slaw, sweet potato mash, mac n cheese
Without a formal PA system, Slows BBQ owner Phil Cooley climbed into a tree to address the crowd.

Analog microphone: Phil Cooley addresses the crowd from a tree
After dinner, we headed across Michigan Avenue to Slow’s Patio for a dance party with the Haute to Death Deejays. At the party, I ran into my friends Lisa Katayama and Mike Del Ponte, who asked if I wanted to join them on a private tour of the city, led by Detroit native Shaka Senghor. Shaka looks like a tough guy with long black dreds and broad shoulders, but we walked together to his Jeep, where he had to move a baby seat to make room for us to sit. As we drove around Detroit, Shaka told us stories about what Detroit used to be and how it’s changed. He showed us streets that used to cater to drug dealers and $2 prostitutes, but now proudly feature townhomes and young families. He told us about liquor store culture, and how in many neighborhoods of the city, the corner liquor store serves as the cultural center where locals come to shop, bank, and gossip. He brought us to TV Lounge in Cass Corridor where we got a different flavor of Detroit nightlife.

The most enlightening part of driving around with Shaka was his generosity in storytelling. The grace with which he shared his own experience was inspiring. At 14, he left home to escape an abusive family and had no options to survive until a drug dealer took him in. He literally lived in crack houses, where he dealt drugs and was exposed to horrific violence and acts of desperation. After being shot himself, he started to carry a gun, and at age 19, he killed a man in a drug-related altercation. In prison for nearly two decades, Shaka reimagined a life of value and set to changing his fate. He read and wrote a lot, and after release, he started a digital and literary arts program called Live in Peace to provide guidance, support, and mentorship to Detroit teens from troubled homes and neighborhoods. The opportunity to spend quality time with a Detroit native like Shaka and to hear his story was one of the highlights of my weekend.

::Saturday::
While the sporty among us opted to rise early for the Tour De Troit, a bike ride exploring the city’s historic sights, I joined the caravan of SUVs (generously provided by GM) for a morning of art exploration. First stop was Cranbrook, the renowned mecca of design education about 30 minutes outside of downtown Detroit.

Cranbrook School
The sprawling New England-style campus is home to ten graduate schools in fine arts and architecture, in addition to museums for art and science. We got a personalized tour from the sparkly and anecdote-rich dean himself, Reed Kroloff. He highlighted the nuances of the architecture including how the structures of what was once a boys’ school on campus were designed with the phallus in mind.

It's no accident that this tower was designed for the campus of an all-boys school
We visited the courtyard of an interdisciplinary cloister once graced by design luminaries like Eames (they met at Cranbrook), Saarinen, and Knoll, where Dean Kroloff pointed out the forced perspective designed into an archway leading to a garden. The thoughtful brickwork and deliberately placed sculpture at the diminishing point drew us through the passage into the greenery on the other side.

Forced perspective at Cranbook
The grounds at Cranbrook were absolutely stunning and featured breathtaking outdoor art installations.

Cranbrook Art Museum
Art on Cranbrook campus
Inscription on a statue at Cranbrook: "god and man and cranbrook"
The institution’s initial benefactors envisioned Cranbrook as a utopian community for art an education. “It’s an amazing representation of what Detroit was 100 years ago—big dreams,” explained Dean Kroloff. “But dreams are from a sleeping state. Now we're a transitioning state. We're waking up.” 

Our next stop showcased a very different take on art; we visited a residential neighborhood in southwest Detroit where the community is using art to battle problems with gang graffiti. The Alley Project (TAP) connects artists with home-owners who allow the garage doors of this neighborhood’s interior alleys to feature spray paint murals.

The Alley Project
Every mural installed becomes a workshop for local youth. The murals enrich the aesthetics of the community, provide a creative outlet, and earn the respect of local gangs who largely steer clear of the installations.

Painting on a burned building
TAP 268 Mural
TAP 100 Mural
The Alley Project's constellation mural
Layers of mural paint at The Alley Project
The coolest things about this community art project is the sustainability built into their workshop: fixtures are reclaimed from closed schools and the sliding glass doors feature DIY “stained glass” made from the lids of used spray paint cans.

Spray can pyramids are used to build
"Stained glass" sliding door made from spray can lids
The spray can is an iconic symbol,” said one of TAP’s curators, holding up one of the small pyramids of empty cans they glue together to create bricks for furniture and structural art. “We look at them as building blocks, using them as the foundation of street art culture here in our city.

Spray can wall at The Alley Project
Spray can at The Alley Project
 We rejoined the rest of the group at Eastern Market, Detroit’s public farmers market described as “one of the most authentic urban adventures in the United States.” Brunch was served at the Red Bull House of Art where we enjoyed McClures bloody marys and sweet potato waffles from local food entrepreneur Tawnya Clark’s Batata Shop, followed by a tour through the building’s secret bootlegging tunnels leading to an awesome underground art gallery.

McClure's bloody mary mix
Red Bull House of Art: this painter does amazing eyes
Red Bull House of Art: die faces
Red Bull House of Art: all painted with make-up
The old Detroit Tiger stadium was our next stop where we suited up with jerseys and “broke in” to play a few innings on the historical field.

Playing baseball on old Tigers' Stadium
Dan Petruzzi is a tiger
After a delicious Salvadorian dinner at Ponyride, we headed to Old Miami, a salty dive bar in Cass Corridor, to catch a rare live show by Detroit native, Rodriguez. Rodriguez’s story is so bizarre that it is the centerpiece of the 2012 Sundance documentary “Searching for Sugar Man.” The basic overview is this: Rodriguez is a singer/songwriter and a contemporary of Bob Dylan. When his albums failed to perform at the levels his record label expected, his career collapsed. He returned to Detroit to work blue-collar jobs in relative anonymity, while, unbeknownst to him, his albums were beloved and achieving cult status in South Africa. Years later, fans tracked him down, brought him to South Africa where he played to sold out stadiums. Coincidentally, 60 Minutes was filming Rodriguez that weekend, and the quirky musician and film crew were arriving just as we did.

Rodriguez with the 60 Minutes crew
Ben Bator and Rodriguez in front of the Old Miami
Not only did we get to chat with Rodriguez himself for a few minutes outside the bar, but we all slipped into the front row for his eclectic performance. Among his bits of wisdom shared that night: “The mystery of life is that you don’t know when it’s going to end.”

Front row for a Rodriguez live show at Old Miami in Detroit
After the show, we returned to Ponyride where fire pits, sound equipment, and the roster of DJs in our ranks sparked a literal warehouse party in the wee hours.

Warehouse party at Camp Ponyride
::Sunday::
We ate brunch (fresh veggie frittata with a deconstructed watermelon, herb, and queso fresco salad) in the pastoral setting of Brother Nature, a surprising urban farm hiding in Detroit’s oldest neighborhood.

Brunch at Brother Nature
Then we headed to Roosevelt Park to compete in the city’s largest (only?) cornhole tournament. Scores of costume-clad teams tossed beanbags at Detroit-themed wood boards at the foot of the abandoned train depot. Fashion entrepreneur Elizabeth Kott and I partnered up to get our butts handed to us by some Detroit locals—a young couple, proud residents of downtown who were happy to share stories about their city.

Roosevelt Park cornhole tournament
Afterward, Chris Barrett and Paul Bloch joined us for a walk back to Ponyride to drink some delicious Anthology coffee. The Anthology coffee craftsmen were on staff all weekend hand-brewing espressos and coffees for groggy Ponyride campers. Pretty much the best cup of coffee I’d ever had in my life.

Anthology coffee: pretty much the best cup of coffee I've ever had
The artisan bartenders at Corkstown speakeasy Sugar House filled our afternoon with hand-crafted cedar-smoked bourbon and other skillfully fashioned throwback cocktails.

Hand smoking the bourbon with cedar chips
Letting the bourbon steep
Pouring the smoked bourbon
A crew mobilized late in the afternoon to visit The Heidelberg Project, an outdoor art environment that combines discarded items and bright colors to transform a forgotten neighborhood into a centerpiece for creative community revitalization.

Heidelberg Project
Heidelberg Project
Heidelberg Project
Heidelberg Project
Heidelberg Project
Heidelberg Project
Heidelberg Project
The highlight of our the neighborhood was Otila, a Detroit native who’s yellow house in the center of the two-block urban art experience has become an architectural guestbook for visitors. For a dollar, you can sign your name and join this constantly changing piece of collaborative urban art.

Yellow House guest book at the Heidelberg Project
Otila at the Yellow House at the Heidelberg Project
We ventured down to the waterfront to the Rivertown Warehouse District, where we walked around the Elevator Building, a 100+ year old structure re-purposed into office and studio space. Local lore hints at the building’s history with organized crime and the four bodies they evidently found upon renovation.
Elevator Building
Around the corner, we wandered into the derelict Globe Trading Company Building, which was straight out of a movie set—truly the abandoned warehouse from your nightmares. However, the afternoon sunbeams pouring in the broken windows cast a different light on the wreckage and gave hope for the 17,000-square foot play area rumored to be in development.

Globe Building
Globe Building
Globe Building
Down the street we sat at the makeshift bar inside the Atwater Brewery to grab some beers brewed on-site.

Beer at Atwater Brewery
On our way back to Ponyride, host Nia Batts allowed us to make a quick stop at Detroit’s Monument to Joe Louis.

Fist bump: Elizabeth Kott, Anneke Jong, Nia Batts
Back at Ponyride, I wandered upstairs to visit Eric Yelsma, the craftsman behind Detroit Denim Co.’s American-sourced hand-made jeans. As Eric worked busily on his retro sewing machines and button-holers, I noticed a pile of remnant tote bag straps and asked if he could make me a bracelet. He kindly obliged.

Custom Detroit Denim bracelet
For dinner we ventured back downtown to the M@dison Building, a physical manifestation of Detroit’s tech entrepreneurship community (a scene I coined as “Silicon Mitten” back in December 2011). The former site of a blighted theater, the M@dison Building is Detroit Venture Partners’s homebase for economic revitalization in Motor City, and the site of a truly beautiful roof deck where we took in the Detroit skyline while watching the Detroit Lions play the San Francisco 49ers.

After a dub-step scored convertible ride with my dear friends Bobby Bailey, Jameson Detweiler, and Tobias Rose-Stockwell, we returned to Ponyride to gather around the fire pits with marshmallows and sparklers.

Sparklers around the camp fire
The last time many of us gathered in a warehouse was in March at SXSW where we collectively broke a world record for largest footed-pajama party in a soiree generously-sponsored by Jumpin Jammerz. Since we’re all now proud owners of onesie pajamas, many of us brought them with us to Detroit and Sunday night’s campfire seemed like the right place to break them out.

Ben Bator, Chris Barrett, Tobias Rose-Stockwell Anneke Jong (photo credit: Wayne Price)
Did we finish the night with a cross-town drag race between a Ford F150 and a panda-colored BMW X5M, fresh off the Mille Mitten? Of course not. That’s illegal.

::Monday::
As the sun rose on a new week in Detroit, I drove through the waking streets with two of my favorite people, hosts Ben Bator and Philip Bator. The inseparable brothers are Detroit natives and current residents who have resisted falling prey to the brain drain plaguing their city.

As we reflected on the weekend, they talked about a trip they’d taken to Nashville where they saw a sign for a local western clothing store that advertised “ranch dressing.” “The locals probably don’t even notice it,” laughed Philip, “but we loved discovering that for ourselves. We wanted to take photos of it and tell all our friends back home.

Ben nodded, sharing his goal as one of the event's organizers: “I just hope we gave everyone a ranch dressing moment this weekend.

Another Detroit is happening. My goodness, it really is.

2 comments:

Jake Rollefson said...

Fantastic, detailed write-up. I grew up in Ann Arbor and have found memories of St. Andrew's Hall and the Detroit Electronic Music Festival. Was back in the D last summer for a friend's wedding on Bell Isle and had the pleasure of soaking up some of the new scene in Detroit (including Slows... my goodness!) Anywho, glad you had such a positive trip.
Word,
-Jake

Anshika patel said...

ok n good.

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