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DIY Detroit

An account from Project Detroit’s recent visit to the notorious Motor City to investigate the aims of the state and community to regenerate and rebuild the city

For over half a century Detroit has been a sore reminder of a failed American dream. But in the midst of the crumbling post-industrial ruins there are signs that the notorious Motor City is jump-starting its economy. Years of under-investment has provided a window of opportunity for young entrepreneurs to take the city into their own hands forming a network of grass roots.

Recently becoming the largest US city to declare bankruptcy, the Michigan-state city is a hangover of rapid industrial expansion of the 20th century which drew a mass influx of 1.2 million people into the city between 1900-1930 to jobs which could not be sustained, resulting in a slow seeping exodus which has left the city far too large for its population.

The remaining population varies from the unemployed who have no option to leave as the value of their property is near worthless to young artists who find that ‘being poor in Detroit is easier than New York’. Regardless of the reason why they are in the 139 square mile city, one thing that brings all resident Detroiters together is community.  

One thing that brings all resident Detroiters together is community

Local Detroiters are testing the stormy waters on how to redevelop a post-industrial city from the ground up, a chance to retool the American dream. Unlike the mass industry which previously brought the city its fame and fortune, Detroit is now beginning to build a system of small start-up entrepreneurial businesses, creative industries, urban farms and community groups as a way of bringing the city up from its knees and reinventing itself.

One issue which faces Detroiters is how to deal with the array of derelict buildings. A number of organisations have been set up to clear the ‘blight’ and renovate the salvageable. With a planning department which consists of five planners for the entire city, deputy director of the Planning & Development Department Marja Winters discussed the lack of control the city has on current development within the area and that without the communities efforts little would be happening to benefit the city.

A lack of planning control was evident when we met Zimbabwean artist Chido Johnson who has lived in Detroit for ten years. Teaching at CCS and renting studio space at Russell Industrial Center, Chido gave us a tour of the how local artists were rejuvenating and reinventing the typical American house. Meeting at his $600 house, we toured previously derelict homes bought by Detroit-based artists within the area to create a new space. Jon Brumit’s Sound House is a recording project which allows local musicians to create and record music and releases a 24 hour radio station which can only be picked up when in close proximity to the house. The house remains intact internally but functions solely as a recording space. Another house within the area is a self-sustaining house called Power House. Designed by husband and wife team Gina Reichert and Mitch Cope, Power House has converted a former drug house into a house which is off grid and uses volunteer workforce and neighbourhood participation to create ‘problem solving through education, communication and increased diversification of the neighbourhood’.

Detroit

Differing from the aim of approaching individual derelict homes, many are aiming for regeneration on a larger scale. Walking through the streets of Corktown, we met local architect Brian Hurtienne who knew his destiny lay in the city. Living in Detroit´s oldest neighbourhood to satisfy his passion for historical buildings, Brian previously ran his own architectural practice and worked for a large architectural firm in Downtown Detroit. Now the executive director of a non-profit organisation dedicated to accelerating economic development called The Villages CDC, Brian´s work revolves around architecture, urban planning and encouraging new investments into a collection of neighbourhoods located in Detroit´s east side. The urban planning element includes the introduction of greenways between The Villages and Downtown Detroit, making it quicker, safer and easier to cycle between the two locations. 

Another interesting approach to dealing with the ‘blight’ is Practice.Space, an incubator, residency and a workspace. Founders Justin Mast and Austin Kronig have set up a business which aims to bring together entrepreneurs, creatives and the local community to shape a future business. Both have a keen interest in architecture, design and business [Justin has trained as an architect], and have recently launched a ‘call for residents’. Residents of Practice.Space will join a year-long vocational training programme to gain experience and collaborate on projects, while increasing the strength of their personal portfolios. Residents will be involved in three projects throughout the year, each running on a revolving four month cycle. Practice.Space aims to work with Detroit’s existing buildings as part of the project programme. Suitably, their base is located in an old garage which they are currently retrofitting to become the incubator and workspace and form a precedent for future projects generated by the business. 

The endless waves of negative press surrounding Detroit were washed away after one day in the city

The endless waves of daunting negative press which surround Detroit were quickly washed away after one day in the city. Everyday we met a different entrepreneur who had an aim to make a positive impact. Detroit may appear to be a hopeless city of ruin from the outside, but Detroit is a city of people. People who have passion, hope and drive to bring the city back from triple bottom line and things are changing.

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