Detroit is one of America’s most cash-strapped cities. But as Linda Yablonsky discovers, it has also become a rich breeding ground for a new generation of artists.
Five years ago, the painter Hernan Bas told me he was moving from Miami to Detroit. I couldn’t imagine why. “Because,” he said, “Detroit is the city of tomorrow.” I laughed out loud. A month later, I found myself there on an overnight trip with three friends from New York. The Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD) had just opened, and we wanted to see it. We also saw Detroit.
The city that once changed the world by giving it the car was now an enormous junker, its parts scattered and its bumpers battered but its engine still running. We saw a street full of rotting houses with polka dots on the shingles and stuffed animals hanging from the windows, a big bronze fist commemorating Joe Louis, and the vast remains of the Packard plant, which looked as if a neutron bomb had dropped on it. We saw palatial mansions, many boarded up, and regal Art Deco skyscrapers—as well as single-family homes standing amid acres of neglected land from which entire neighborhoods had vanished.
Finally, we passed the old Michigan Central train station, an 18-story ruin of Beaux Arts magisterial grandeur. It haunted me then, and it haunts me now, along with the rest of this consternating, spellbinding, tragic town—the most fascinating city in the country. In what other American metropolis could a private citizen own a bridge to Canada? Where else is there a major industrial center with yawning prairies in its midst? And where, but in Detroit, could an artist rent a steel mill for two months and transform it into a giant sculpture on view for a single day?
“This town has a magic,” said Chido Johnson, 42, a sculptor I met during my week long stay this summer, my third trip there in a year. Johnson, who was born in Zimbabwe, arrived nine years ago and never looked back. “I grew up in a war zone,” he said, “so Detroit felt familiar right off. The first week I was here, I walked into the public library, and there was a calypso band playing. Can you imagine?”
Bas felt the magic when he bought his five-bedroom house for $150,000—roughly the price of one of his paintings. Matthew Barney felt it when he commandeered the steel mill for the fiery finale to an epic eight-hour performance about the life and death of a Chrysler Imperial. Photographers feel it whenever they come for spectacular pictures that locals deride as “ruin porn.”
It is not an easy place to reckon with or to understand—for one thing, the scale of decay is astounding. Yet Detroit is attracting artists in numbers large enough to earn it a designation as another Berlin: a city with a struggling economy where creative types can live and work cheaply—and where, like Barney, they can realize projects that would be impossible most anywhere else. In Berlin, though, artists pursue international careers; in Detroit, they speak only to Detroit—because, they say, anywhere else they would just be making art. In Detroit, they can make a difference.
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