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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

The Renovator: Dan Gilbert
You can't talk about revitalizing Detroit without mentioning Dan Gilbert. In 2010, Gilbert, the founder of Quicken Loans, the nation's fifth largest retail mortgage lender, moved his corporate headquarters and 1,700 workers into a downtown office building. But that was just the start. He has since become Detroit's third-largest property owner after the city itself and General Motors—and by far its biggest booster.

Unlike real-estate speculators who sit on their vacant properties, Gilbert quickly renovates and aggressively markets his holdings to out-of-state firms. Since 2010, some 40 companies have announced moves into Gilbert-owned buildings, including, in just the last three months, Twitter, Chrysler Group LLC, and a cult New York coffee outlet called the Roasting Plant. Business means jobs. Earlier this year, Gilbert launched a website called, aiming to attract some 2,000 laid-off Yahoo employees.

He's offering powerful incentives. Gilbert's venture-capital fund, Detroit Venture Partners, will fund promising startups that agree to headquarter in the Motor City. Thanks to his $12 million renovation of downtown's historic Madison Building, renamed the M@dison, Gilbert can offer inviting work spaces at a fraction of the going rate in Silicon Valley.

As Detroit ponders cutting off entire neighborhoods from city services, Gilbert is betting that a smaller, nimbler "Detroit 2.0" will make a comeback downtown. It is the only major part of town that is gaining residents, thanks in part to an emerging pedestrian and bicycle scene connected to bars and restaurants—and, of course, to Gilbert, who in March said his own companies would soon have 5,400 people working there.

The Homesteaders: Gina Reichert and Mitch Cope

The Power House Gina ReichertThe Power House and the Hoodcat. Gina ReichertIt's hard to miss the Hoodcat. A Bobcat bulldozer painted in whimsical pastels, it stands out like an Easter egg in December as it mounds up piles of dirt on a vacant lot in rough-and-tumble Hamtramck.

The dozer belongs to Gina Reichert and Mitch Cope, artists who are using it to help build the Ride It Sculpture Park, a skate-able sculpture concept funded by a $15,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, the auction of decks crafted by likes of multimedia sculptor Matthew Barney, and contributions from a local skate shop and national skate-gear companies. Reichert and Cope bought the land from the city for $1,500.

The park is the latest installment in an experimental arts-driven community revitalization that kicked off seven years ago when Reichert, an architect, and Cope, a former assistant curator at Detroit's Museum of Contemporary Art, moved into a boarded-up grocery store amid the vacant, looted, and burned homes of Hamtramck's Klinger Street. Ever since, the couple has been gradually purchasing those homes on the cheap and converting them into spaces for artists and art projects. Their efforts have attracted some 20 other creatively inclined homesteaders to this crime-plagued community, where Bangladeshi Muslims coexist with African Americans and aging Eastern Europeans.

With her two-year-old daughter and old mutt in tow, Reichert sets off to give me a neighborhood arts tour, crunching in her leather moccasins down a gravel alley past vacant lots full of chest-high weeds. The talk turns to how Detroit came to this: The decentralizing of factories during World War II, the interstate highway system that gave rise to the suburbs, racial discrimination. The Detroit race riots of 1967 "were the result of a decline that had been going on for a decade," she says, as we pass a couple of armchairs rotting on the sidewalk.

At the end of one block, I catch sight of an uninhabited house painted to resemble an Etro shirt turned sideways. Known as the Power House, it's Reichert's first and longest-running renovation project. She's filled its front windows with colorful sheets of thick plexiglass—a cheerful alternative to security bars. Last year, a visiting artist from Rotterdam replaced the south-facing side of the roof with a giant angular window that lets in solar heat in the winter, with the notion that the space could eventually be used as a classroom or performance venue.

The forthcoming Squash House will convert an abandoned home into "a venue for a site-specific variety of squash"—as in the sport.

The Power House leads to other projects in the same two square blocks. There's the Sound House, painted inside and out with wispy and quasi-tribal patterns that suggest music—its creators envision a recording studio and pirate radio station; an unnamed project by artist Ben Wolf that reconfigured the ruins of a burned home into something out of Dr. Seuss; and a house known as Treasure Nest, a creation of Oakland artist Monica Canilao, whose junk collages using things like a plastic rocking horse and old windows would turn heads at Burning Man. The forthcoming Squash House project aims to convert an abandoned home into "a venue for a site-specific variety of squash"—as in the sport, not the vegetable.

It's hard to not to see Reichert's work as more than art. In front of the Sound House, for example, one of her Bangladeshi neighbors watches as a contractor installs a new metal roof. He's thinking about getting the guy to install a similar roof on his place. "It's going to last longer," he says. "It's nice."

Reichert views neighborhood revitalization less as the mission of her work than a byproduct. "It's not about being a do-gooder or saving anything," she says. "It's just about putting our practice out in the social realm."

"It's kind of like the Wild West here," says Jonathan Isbell. "If you are an artist, you can do whatever the hell you want."

Across the street, Jonathan Isbell, a tattooed metalworker in heavy coveralls, crowbars wood siding off of a dilapidated shed. He's salvaging it to remodel a house Reichert recently gave him (gave him!) as payment for building a metal fence around the Sound House. Striking up a smoke, Isbell takes me inside to show off the elaborate sculptures and light wells visiting artists had installed before he moved in. "It's kind of like the Wild West here," he says. "There are no building codes or rules or anything—there's nobody to enforce them. If you are an artist, you can do whatever the hell you want."

About a year ago, Isbell had been studying architecture in Los Angeles when he learned about the arts and sustainability scene in Detroit and decided to load his dog into his charcoal Chevy Blazer and drive here, site unseen. Now he grows his own food and plans to start a "rogue architecture and art school" for neighborhood kids. "I am just trying to make shit happen here," he says. "It's kind of a long-term vision, but its also kind of living a dream." 

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