How to Bring Detroit Back From the Grave

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

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.

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. 

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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