Wringing Art Out of the Rubble in Detroit

Melena Ryzik
New York Times

The latest must-go event in this gritty, left-behind city — where D.J.’s flourish among ruins, trespassing in tumbledown buildings is part of a night out, and even garage rock is bare-bones — centers on soup.

Soup, as it’s known, is a monthly gathering, held above the MexicanTown Bakery in southwestern Detroit, where guests pay $5 for a homemade bowlful, salad (locally grown, to be sure) and dessert, and sit at tables made of doors laid over milk crates, listening as compatriots propose projects. Creating a pocket park, organizing an artists directory and devising a surveillance-camera video montage were all on this month’s agenda. The guests vote, and the idea deemed most deserving gets the Soup dollars — a neat little way to wiki-finance creativity. Soup, which started seven months ago, has been growing steadily. The last one, on Sunday, was the largest yet.

“It was so big that we were running around collecting doors” before the meal, Kate Daughdrill, a founder, said. Ms. Daughdrill, 25, an artist, graduate student and waitress, built the voting booth for Soup; she and her co-founder, Jessica Hernandez, whose family owns the bakery, hope to make the loft where it’s held into a permanent creative space. Building a community around Soup, Ms. Daughdrill said, is “part of my art.”

Detroit is plagued by all the urban problems that make it fodder for big-picture editorializing and cop shows. Its long-dwindling population and landscape of abandoned buildings have made it a singular — or perhaps prophetic — case study in Rust Belt decline. But its particular brand of civic and economic decay has also drawn something unexpected: a small but well-publicized movement of artists and other creative types trying to wring something out of the rubble.

Maker Faire, the California festival for tinkerers and conceptualists, made its Detroit debut — albeit in nearby Dearborn — last weekend; TEDx, a brainstorming conference will arrive in September; and Matthew Barney will perform after that. Banksy has already been. Two weeks ago Detroit hired a film, culture and special-events liaison to occupy a new position in the office of Mayor Dave Bing. The city that birthed the assembly-line age is now cultivating a slew of handmade salvagers, and it has not gone unnoticed.

“There’s an excitement here,” said Dale Dougherty, editor and publisher of Make magazine, which spawned Maker Faire. “There’s a sense that it’s a frontier again, that it’s open, that you can do things without a lot of people telling you, ‘No, you can’t do that.’ ” Maker Faire follows that ethos; it drew over 22,000 people for demonstrations of wind-powered cars and fire-spewing bicycles to the parking lot of the Henry Ford Museum.

Detroit hardly needs encouragement to do-it-yourself; it has a lineage of makers.

Scott Hocking, an artist who creates works out of materials salvaged from the many abandoned buildings here, said that the D.I.Y. culture is “in our DNA.”

His latest piece, “Garden of the Gods,” is illegally installed on the roof of the massive, and massively derelict, Packard auto plant, which also recently housed a Banksy image.

“I’m really interested in the idea of our relics,” Mr. Hocking said. He has collected supplies from a forsaken school warehouse, binders and toys twisted by a fire, and used televisions found in the Packard plant to create a vista that resembles modern Roman ruins. Symbolism is a large part of what the new Detroit runs on.

Symbolism and connection: Mr. Hocking, 35, a longtime Detroiter, has attended Soup, as has Jerry Paffendorf, a newly arrived resident who quickly built himself a niche. Mr. Paffendorf, 28, moved to Detroit from San Francisco by way of Brooklyn last spring, with an expertise in software design and a side of techno-savvy wit. He is behind a project called Loveland, a “micro real estate” enterprise that sells parcels of Detroit that he owns by the square inch for $1 a piece. Mr. Paffendorf bought 3,150 square feet of land for $500 when he arrived; “inchvestors” get a plot in a part of town that might not be well trod otherwise. Proceeds go to organizations that address Detroit’s many problems.

“The inches become like little shares in the city,” Mr. Paffendorf said. “Even such a lightweight form of ownership has a really cool psychological effect. Even if they bought the inches on a whim, it would bring people into the city a little bit more.”

That invitation to appreciate the city, instead of bemoan it, is also behind some of Detroit’s best-known renewals, like the Heidelberg Project, which turns houses into found-object sculptures, and the neighborhood collaboration of Mitch and Gina, as the artist Mitch Cope and the architect Gina Reichert are known around town. They were among the first to get attention for their creative development, buying up houses for art and gardens.

Even during a few days spent here, it is obvious how tight and welcoming the community is. A guy like Kevin Putalik can arrive alone from Montana with an interest in urban agriculture — a booming part of life in Detroit, where grocery stores are scarce — and within three weeks find himself making sausage at a party in someone’s home. “It’s the land of opportunity,” said Mr. Putalik, 28, who described himself as “funemployed,” as he rinsed casings at the sink.

The party’s host, Brian Merkel, 25, is an arriviste from Portland, Ore.; he’s been here since October. “I moved here blindly,” Mr. Merkel said. “I was an artist in Portland and I became more interested in food. I decided that when I moved here I would be a butcher. Within the first two weeks we had a charcuterie club.” People move to Detroit, he said, “because they have a sense of purpose.”

That is true on a stretch of Farnsworth Street that has been reclaimed by artists and activists, a leafy block in eastern Detroit surrounded by severe blight. The Yes Farm, a communal building with a stage and a studio, beckons on a corner, even if it doesn’t always have lights inside. Pickup soccer games happen on the empty lots at dusk. On a weekday evening Dutch artists in the middle of a two-month residency offered a talk on the sidewalk along with homemade fruit tarts.

But Detroit is far from idyllic. Jeff Sturges, who lives on Farnsworth Street and helps run the Fab Lab, a design shop in a trailer, pointed to a scar near his mouth, from an attempted holdup. “It’s an extreme city,” said Mr. Sturges, 33, an architect by training who moved here in September from the South Bronx. “There are some days where I get up and say, ‘What am I doing to myself?’ ” But, he quickly added, mostly he is pleased to be here. He recently started a hacker space, a collective for technology and art projects, one of a handful to open around Detroit within the last year.

Still, the number of people who have this creative do-gooder verve is small. The largest Soup only had 120 guests. “You can’t change a city of 800,000 with 200 people,” said Phil Cooley, an owner of the popular Slows Bar BQ in Detroit. “There’s so much work to do.”

That includes diversifying: a largely white creative class stands out in a largely black city; integration remains rare. Some worried about the image of the city. “People think it’s a blank canvas; it’s not,” said Corine Vermeulen, 33, a Dutch artist who has documented Detroit’s community farms.

Work, though, is what this D.I.Y. city has not shied away from. In June a group including Mr. Paffendorf of Loveland spent $1,000 for two abandoned houses across from the vacant Michigan Central Station, a symbol of Detroit’s decline, and, along with the Packard plant, a must-stop on any hardscrabble tour. They renamed the buildings — shells filled with debris and a few squatters — Imagination Station and hope to transform them into an artists’ enclave and green space. There wasn’t much to see yet, but Mr. Paffendorf offered a tour. “Welcome home,” he said, pushing open the battered door, with a hole where the lock should be.

The next day he and his girlfriend and partner, Mary Lorene Carter, were at Maker Faire, sitting behind a table covered in sod, publicizing Loveland. They sold 70 inches of Detroit.

Keith Schneider
New York Times

February 2009, President Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which among other things provided $2.4 billion to encourage development of a domestic industry to make lighter, more energy-dense lithium-ion batteries to power electric vehicles.

Two weeks ago, on July 15, the president flew to this small city on the shore of Lake Michigan to attend the groundbreaking for a $303 million, 650,000 square-foot battery plant operated by Compact Power, a subsidiary of LG Chem, a Korean company, and to see other evidence of the stimulus bill’s influence in Michigan. He did not have to travel far.

There are 17 new plants in production, under construction or approaching groundbreaking in Michigan’s nascent vehicle battery sector, according to the state Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth. Two of them, representing an investment of $523 million, are in Holland, a city of 34,000.

The Compact Power plant will produce batteries for the Chevy Volt, a hybrid vehicle assisted by a gas engine that is expected to be priced at $41,000 when it reaches dealers later this year, and for the electric version of the Ford Focus, which has a range of 100 miles and will reach the market next year.

In 2009, Deutsche Bank estimated global sales of electric, hybrid and other alternative-fuel, advanced-technology vehicles could rise by 30 percent this year, to 1.3 million. J. D. Power recently estimated that hybrid and electric vehicles could account for about 1.3 percent of an estimated 67 million in light-vehicle sales worldwide this year. And the D.T.T. Global Manufacturing Industry Group estimates that by 2020, electric vehicles and other “green” cars will represent up to a third of total sales in developed markets and up to 20 percent in urban areas of emerging markets.

Less than two miles east from the 120-acre Compact Power site is a second battery plant. Johnson Controls teamed up with the French battery maker Saft to transform a closed 129,000-square-foot automotive electronics factory into a $220 million, 173,000-square-foot battery plant that employs 35 workers, and could grow to 300 workers within two years.

Just like the Compact Power project, which is expected to open in 2012 and employ 450 workers by 2013, half of cost of the Johnson Controls/Saft plant construction was paid by a grant from the federal stimulus.

In all, 13 battery and related plants have received federal stimulus grants in Michigan. “This is a symbol of where Michigan is going,” Mr. Obama said in Holland. “This is a symbol of where Holland is going. This is a symbol of where America is going.”

That assertion attracted protests from the Michigan Tea Party, which dispatched several of its members to the groundbreaking. And it prompted a political dust-up with Representative Peter Hoekstra, a Republican candidate for governor who voted against the stimulus.

Before attending the groundbreaking, Mr. Hoekstra, a nine-term lawmaker who represents Holland, held a conference call with reporters in which he criticized the federal investments in battery manufacturing as “the wrong strategy, the wrong plan.”

Mr. Obama, near the end of his remarks, let Mr. Hoekstra know he was not pleased. “There are some folks who want to go back — who think that we should return to the policies that helped to lead to this recession,” the president said, adding tartly, “Now, it doesn’t stop them from being at ribbon-cuttings. But that’s O.K.”

Economic development and real estate specialists in Holland said they welcomed the federal funds. Kris DePree, the president of the Zeeland, Mich., office of Colliers International, the commercial real estate brokerage firm, said the plants would help stabilize commercial vacancy rates in the region, now around 10 percent. “We haven’t seen industrial investments like this in quite some time,” Mr. DePree said.

Randy Thelen, the president of Lakeshore Advantage, the nonprofit economic development organization that helped attract both plants to Holland, said such investments were crucial to the region’s future. Holland has lost 3 percent of its population since 2000, and the city’s unemployment rate climbed to nearly 18 percent early this year, according to state figures.

The two new plants, Mr. Thelen said, could stimulate a regional auto battery manufacturing and supply industry capable of eventually employing 10,000 people. That would rival the office furniture industry, he said, which employed 12,000 people in the Holland area.

“We have 8,000 people ready to go to work right now,” Mr. Thelen said. “This city could be the center of the American battery industry.”

Other cities in Michigan are also competing for that title. Toda America, a Japanese maker of lithium-ion battery components, broke ground in Battle Creek in April for a $70 million plant that will initially employ 60 people.

A123 Systems, a battery-technology innovator that got its start at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has offices in Ann Arbor and in Livonia, Mich., where it has an auto engineering unit that employs over 250 people.

Last year the company received $249 million in stimulus grants to develop a 291,000-square-foot plant in Livonia that opened in March, and to build another plant of similar size in nearby Romulus set to open next year. The company’s investment in southeast Michigan will total over $600 million, and more than 800 workers are expected to be employed at the two newest plants.

Dow Kokam, a new lithium-ion battery maker formed by Dow Chemical and two other companies, broke ground in May in Midland, Mich., on a $322 million, 400,000-square-foot plant. It expects to complete the factory in January 2012 and employ 320 people. Kristina Schnepf, a spokeswoman, said there were plans to expand the plant to 800,000 square feet soon after production began in 2012.

The statewide building boom follows a grim decade in Michigan, which has lost 800,000 jobs since 2000, roughly half in manufacturing and most of those in the auto industry.

Under Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm, a Democrat now concluding her second term, Michigan studied various industrial sectors around which to build a new economic strategy. State economic specialists focused on clean energy, and especially battery production for the next generation of energy-efficient vehicles. She helped persuade the Legislature to approve $1 billion in tax credits for companies involved in developing advanced energy storage systems for electric vehicles.

The federal and state spending on advanced batteries has encouraged construction in other sectors of the recovering auto industry. State unemployment dropped to 13.1 percent in June from a peak of 14.9 percent in March, according to federal data.

Lenawee Stamping, a producer of metal stamping and welded fabrications, is expanding a plant in Tecumseh, Mich., to accommodate more production of G.M. electric vehicles, adding some 140 jobs. Magna Holdings of America, a designer and maker of auto components and systems, plans to invest $49.2 million to expand its operations in four Michigan cities to produce electric car systems, creating 500 more jobs, according to the Michigan Economic Development Corporation.

“What’s absolutely critical is that we manufacture the components of a clean energy economy — the batteries, the wind turbines, the solar panels — right here in the United States,” Ms. Granholm told a conference of engineers and battery developers in Detroit on July 27. “Michigan intends to lead the way in clean energy manufacturing.”

Detroit Film Locations For This Week

On Location Vacations

A VERY HAROLD & KUMAR CHRISTMAS is filming on Griswald between Congress and Fort. They are suppose to be at this location through Tuesday, filming on Monday and Tuesday from 6:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.

SCREAM 4 is filming on Saline Waterworks Rd, just east of Steinbach Rd, between Saline and Manchester, Michigan.

LOL, starring Miley Cyrus, is filming in Birmingham, MI this week. We’ve a few different things about LOL, they will be filming in Birmingham but one report said it won’t be until the middle of the week and that on Monday they will continue filming at the location on Jefferson & Joseph Campau in Detroit. It looks like they were filming on Woodbridge St, that’s where the trailers were.

THE DOUBLE is filming in a warehouse in Detroit and is done on Tues (8/3)

CNN iReport

Detroit Mayor Dave Bing and U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced August 2 that the federal government supports the Mayor’s vision of creating a light rail system in Detroit. Visiting the site of the proposed Woodward Avenue Corridor line, LaHood predicted the light-rail project "will become a model for the country."
Santana original lead singer, Gregg Rolie, will rock Detroit on the GM Riverfront stage on Friday, Aug. 6 for the continuation of the 2010 Rockin’ on the Riverfront classic rock concert series, sponsored by Andiamo Detroit Riverfront and in partnership with Detroit’s Classic Rock Station 94.7 WCSX-FM.

As Santana and Journey founding member, Rolie has captivated fans with classic Santana hits such as “Black Magic Woman”, “Oye Como Va” and “Evil Ways.” A blend of multiple music genres, Santana created a unique sound all their own. The talented keyboardist/ vocalist/ producer was inducted into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame in 1998 and continues to spark up the stage with his energy and passion for music.

Salem Witchcraft will open the concert at 8 p.m. and Rolie will play from 9 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.

Detroit natives The Romantics will close out the concert series on Aug. 13.

Admission to the concerts is free and no advance tickets are necessary. Viewing space will be on a first-come, first-served basis and people are encouraged to bring their own lawn chairs and blankets. In addition, boaters on the Detroit River are invited to anchor near the riverfront and enjoy the view of the stage from the water.

Andiamo Detroit Riverfront will provide refreshment and food concessions at several locations on the plaza. Outside food, beverages or coolers will not be permitted. Andiamo Detroit Riverfront will accept dinner reservations before and after the concert and invite guests to take advantage of its outdoor patio overlooking the Detroit River.

Convenient parking is available for $5 per vehicle at the GM surface lot at the intersection of St. Antoine and Atwater, adjacent to the GM Renaissance Center.

For more information, call (313) 567-6700 or visit www.andiamoitalia.com/detroit.