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How to Bring Detroit Back From the Grave

Dirt-cheap buildings and big dreamers: recipe for a Motor City renaissance?

| Fri Jun. 15, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

Two years ago, the renowned graffiti artist Revok moved from LA to Detroit Josh HarkinsonTwo years ago, the renowned graffiti artist Revok moved from LA to Detroit. Josh Harkinson"Warning! This city is infested by crackheads. Secure your belongings and pray for your life." So reads a hand-scrawled sign just off I-75 in Detroit, where a post-apocalyptic cityscape of looted and charred homes has come to represent a sort of sarcophagus of the American Dream.

But beyond simply fueling murders and bribery scandals, decades of hard times have finally birthed new signs of life here in the Motor City, as its gritty neighborhoods attract a burgeoning community of artists, hipsters, and socially minded entrepreneurs. "With a little bit of motivation, you can make anything happen here," says Jason Williams, a.k.a. Revok, a renowned Los Angeles graffiti artist turned Detroiter, whose lively murals adorn walls not far from the crackhead sign. "It's all about the reality that you create for yourself."

For those willing to brave the nation's most dangerous major city, Detroit offers a tight-knit and successful creative community. The birthplace of Motown and techno still manages to turn out chart-busting artists like Eminem and Jack White. And growing numbers of bohemians have found that a few thousand dollars will buy them a classic brick townhouse or a loft in an art-deco skyscraper. Where old buildings have fallen, hundreds of urban gardens sprout.

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Detroit is hardly the first city to lure urban homesteaders with access to cheap and artfully crumbling buildings. The same formula revitalized (and eventually gentrified) neighborhoods such as the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn and San Francisco's Mission and Dogpatch districts. The big difference in Detroit, however, is that its economy blew a rod long ago, triggering an exodus of more than half the city's population—last year, it lost another 28,000 people. Barely a quarter of those who remain have a degree from a four-year college. During my recent visit, local elected leaders were warning that the city could run out of money—within the week.

During my visit, elected leaders were warning that the city could run out of money—within the week.

Last year, in Guernica magazine, Wayne State literature professor John Patrick Leary cautioned against what he called "Detroitism," the fetish for urban decay mixed with utopianism, "where bohemians from expensive coastal cities can have the $100 house and community garden of their dreams." But Detroit offers much more. Here is a city that foretold the woes of America's middle class—and spent decades searching for a path out of its recessionary wilderness. Forget the clichés about heirloom tomatoes and check out these four examples of creative Detroiters who are making a difference:

The Hip Landlord: Phillip Cooley
When I first encounter Phillip Cooley, he is lounging on a sleek leather couch inside Ponyride, the large, dusty, half-renovated warehouse near downtown that he recently picked up for $100,000. In an open kitchen behind him, a French press and 12-pack of PBR sit on a polished concrete countertop. Nearby, two women, formerly homeless, are sewing wearable sleeping bags for people, currently homeless. The owner of a company called Detroit Denim is rolling out a $300 pair of jeans. A web production worker is pecking away on a Mac.

"It's all about collaborating on space," explains Cooley, a former Paris fashion model and son of a prominent Michigan developer, who returned to Detroit in 2002. He offers low-rent studios to a slew of artisans and socially conscious entrepreneurs with the understanding that they'll donate their labor to help him make the place more habitable.

Cooley made his name locally back in 2005 when he opened Slows BBQ in Detroit's Corktown district, across from the hulking facade of an abandoned train station. With its hip design and fantastically popular pork sandwiches, Slows has helped anchor the district's fledgling recovery—though not all of his investments have worked out. In 2009, four months after Cooley and a group of investors opened a high-end coffee shop across the street, it closed for lack of business. "People can make mistakes here and not be destroyed by them," explains Cooley, who had leased the coffee shop's three-story building for a paltry $1,500 a month.

Indeed, just last August, two of his former baristas opened Astro Coffee next to Slows. They serve individual cups brewed with beans from San Francisco's ultra-gourmet Ritual Roasters. On the morning of my visit, it's packed with tattooed and mulleted hipsters. 

Veronika Scott trains new seamstressesVeronika Scott trains new seamstressesOne way the Corktown scene differs from that of, say, Williamsburg, is in its culture of risk-taking. Take Ponyride tenant Veronika Scott. The recent University of Michigan grad slogged through a string of internships with New York design firms but found herself wanting to "design something around the actual needs of the real world, instead of chasing trends." She gave up the chance to intern at IDEO, the hot Bay Area design house, and instead moved to Detroit to launch The Empowerment Plan, a nonprofit that hires the homeless to make clothing for other homeless—hence the innovative sleeping bags. When I poke my head into her office, she's interviewing new seamstresses.

The Ponyride model requires tenants who are willing to work in scrappy circumstances, where you might find, say, disconnected heating ducts and power tools scattered at the base of a newly framed wall. Or two rooms full of air mattresses that serve as artist crash pads. "Detroiters are some of the most innovative and resourceful people in the world—because they have to be," Cooley says. "So instead of competing for space, we are all neighbors."

The Graffiti Artist: Jason "Revok" Williams
Last year, just days after some of his paintings went up inside the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, the renowned street artist Jason Williams was arrested by Los Angeles sheriff's deputies and later sentenced to 180 days in jail for failure to pay a $2,800 vandalism fine. The incarceration of Williams, best known by his tag, "Revok," suggested to many graffiti writers that LA authorities would not tolerate their acceptance by the art world. The MOCA show should have meant "that it's the best time to work in LA," Williams recalls. "And yet I was thinking, 'I've got to get the fuck out of here.'"

"Not only can you live like a king," Williams says, "but when you spend money here, you feel good about it."

By the time he went to jail, Williams had already moved his belongings out of his Hollywood Hills apartment and into a huge loft in Detroit. While many first-time visitors see the city as a disaster zone, Williams's first thought, he says, was: "Oh my God, I can paint everything." Now a free man, he has become an enthusiastic Detroiter. "Not only can you live like a king," he says, "but when you spend money here, you feel good about it."

On a recent Thursday, I find Williams and his friend Jersey Joe ("Rime") painting a huge mural involving a werewolf and bikini models on the side of a vacant building in the city's old meat-packing district. A member of the international graffiti crew MSK, or "Mad Society Kings," Williams has used his connections with artists and art sponsors to launch the Detroit Beautification Project, a grittier version of the Depression-era Federal Arts Project. The week before, he'd flown in the Jukebox Cowboys, a German graffiti crew, to paint an elaborate jukebox scene on an adjacent wall—just one of dozens of projects he's facilitated around town.

As the two artists take turns fleshing out the mural from atop a scissor lift, an enthusiastic crowd gathers below. "How can I get in touch with you?" asks a camera-toting member of the Detroit Entertainment Commission. Far from being concerned about Williams' work, he wants to know how the city can help. 

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