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Detropian

Last weekend, I was at a shindig in Grass Valley celebrating a friend's birthday. In making my rounds, I met a Minneapolis restaurateur and as our words began to weave, something was spoken that changed the course of my next 7 days. That something was Detroit. Kim, the utterer of the prophetic geographic locale, was going to be a speaker at an Urban Innovation Exchange in DETROIT the following week. I have been peripherally fixated on Detroit for a couple of years now. Tales of the city's creative destruction in the form of financial collapse, mass population exodus, and stirrings of sustainable regeneration captivated me. The idea of space immeasurable, $50 dollar real estate deals, urban gardens by the block, artist entrepreneur enclaves and lax regulation was juxtaposed with my current reality in the bubblicious Bay Area characterized by a space implosion, urban garden space morphing into luxury condo developments, and a saturation of tech companies creating virtual products of questionable intrinsic or societal value. Detroit, in my mind, was the new frontier.

After coming home from the birthday bash, I looked more closely at the Urban Innovation Exchange itself. It was a 3-day event that also aligned with Detroit's Design week. The Exchange focused on panels of Midwest entrepreneurs jump-starting projects in Placemaking, the Future of Food and the Makers Movement. Panels were followed by site visits to work spaces around Detroit on a converted School Bus run by a local entrepreneur who had taken Detroit's poor public transportation system into his own hands. The week culminated in Dlectricty, an annual visual arts event that uses the nocturnal cityscape as its canvas. Best of all, all the programming was free.

I went back and forth on whether I should hop on a plane at a moment's notice and go to Detroit, a city that everyone else seems to want to get the hell out of. This was a city with one of the highest murder rates in the country, 50% unemployment and historical racial tension. Also compulsion trips may be a leading indicator that you are losing it. But guess what, I am kind of losing it. I'm a wandering soul in this world. I’m 30 years old. I don't know what I'm doing. I don' know what I want. I don't know what makes sense. I had a fateful feeling that the answer might lie in Detroit. I bought a ticket at 8:30, booked a cheap hotel at 9 and was Detroit bound the next morning.

I arrived at 8pm to an empty airport, save for the employees blasting music and having a mini dance party in the TGI Fridays. This was both a good and a bad sign. Bad: where are the people?!? Good: the people that are here are getting down!!! This initial finding carried through for the remainder of the trip. Detroit goes on forever. At its height, the city had a population of 2 million people. It was awash in automobile industry money. To hear old Detroiter's talk about it, the 6 lane wide streets were action packed and paved with gold. Now there are 700,000 people. The streets that were left to crack under the brutal winters are slowly being repaved and are under construction for the new light rail system being put in to replace the expansive system ripped out decades ago. There are people meandering about but the scale of 30 story skyscrapers aged 50 years in 5 with busted windows and black, burned out innards dwarfs them. One long time resident said it best, "Detroit is a ghost town and we are the one's doing the haunting. We can remember what once was."

In the midst of the ghost town there are the souls that stayed and can remember but there are also the new souls that have been drawn to Detroit that can imagine. I met a number of social entrepreneurs and people involved in grass roots organizations that are working with a passion and drive that only warding off annihilation can elicit to solve the problems plaguing the city. They are experimenting with business models while re-wiring previously abandoned homes by watching YouTube videos; they are connecting community while transforming streets into orchards; they are forming design clusters producing high end in watches, wallpaper and bicycles while building Detroit-made as a brand. I was overwhelmed by the innovation, passion and resolve of these visionaries. They acknowledged that the road was long, the problems complex, and that they were tired…but that they were not going to stop. Walking away was not an option.

To their credit, Detroit is kind of popping. Kind of. I was there during one of the most beautiful weeks with the most citywide programming of the year. I was operating in a bubble where my experience was curated and most of my time was spent with people who believed so fervently that it was contagious. The times I spent by myself wandering on foot and by bicycle, I was amazed at the beauty of the bike greenway and the newly developed river front, the grand architecture, the warmth and friendliness of those whose paths I crossed, but also by the continuous, remote stretches between habitated commercial and residential structures, the rampant homelessness and the fact that in a city composed of 83% African Americans, that most of those involved in this movement I was being moved by were white. I noticed another indicator of a persistent divide during the nighttime arts events where I watched others' confused faces and listened to their "I don't get its" pointing to the fact that the arts movement bolstering this activity is bringing ordinary Detroiters out, but conceptually their may be a limit to the reach and impact of this particular type of renaissance.

In the end, I left Detroit...but I'm open to returning. Dreams of a bi-coastal life (North Coast/West Coast) are still just dreams. But visiting Detroit was one of the best decisions I've ever made. The city is at a unique moment in time where opportunity is palpable. If you have dream and a couple hundred dollars in your pocket, Detroit will welcome you with open arms, business development resources, cheap land and a kind smile. Go and learn the ropes before the unsustainable system of sprawl and scarcity economics that undermines the fundamental connection between vibrant communities, thriving ecosystems and healthy economies that underpins the foundation of our nation collapses a city near you.

Acknowledgements:
As always, I have so much appreciation for the quick and ready support for this impromptu journey on the part of my family and friends, particularly my new friends Kim and Sarah Jane who kindly took me under their wing while in country.

For more context watch Detropia on Netflix and read this article on the Post-Post Apocalyptic Detroit:
http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/13/magazine/the-post-post-apocalyptic-detroit.html?_r=0

Posted by ejbusch 09:19

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Emily - please do your mother a favor and submit this to the new yorker -- I will never get published in it but you will.

by msigler1

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