Hope for Detroit would seem far-fetched if you had been on the "pornography of ruins" tour I have been going on for years, led by various residents over the years. But, it turns out that those tours were provided by folk who had lost their beloved city. I recently began to hang around with a younger crowd: Mark Nickita, for example, an architect and a maniacal optimist, and a serial small-scale entrepreneur who runs Archive DS, an architecture and urban design firm in downtown Detroit, and also co-owns eight retail establishments -- including two coffee shops, a café, and a "Culture Shop" -- in and around the core of the city. What he showed me during some recent visits was astonishing. There are in fact two Detroits: There is the oceanic disaster, and then there is an archipelago of vitality and potential, and even excellence. You can experience one or the other. You can be buried under the cold hard numbers of the fiscal situation -- or you can believe the evidence in front of your eyes.
How is this revival happening? The old way it seems; in that sequence that has always pioneered the revitalization of cities: the artists with a good eye, the penniless young people with a sense of adventure, and the fearless entrepreneurs. These were the pioneers of the Left Bank of Paris in the 1870s, Greenwich Village of the 1920s, SoHo in the '60s, Miami Beach in the '80s, and Brooklyn today. They are the first wave in a succession that thrives below the horizon of bureaucratic control. They can be classified as the risk oblivious cohort. Later, as a result of their success, when their neighborhoods have become cool, a risk aware cohort appears. These are the developers, who secure permits and mortgages. Later yet, when it is perfectly obvious that the place is safe for investment, arrive the risk-averse -- the boring gentrifiers called "the dentists from New Jersey." By then, that generation of pioneers has been chased away, only to reappear at the next Brooklyn.
That Detroit is now attracting that first generation is an unintended consequence of its impoverishment. Detroit is now the city where the risk-oblivious millennials can get things done. Elsewhere, over the last three decades, there has arisen a regulatory regime so comprehensive that it is impossible even to make a cookie for sale without a certified kitchen, an accessible bathroom, and constant inspections. Almost everywhere else, the slack that once allowed revitalization to evolve organically has been exterminated by bureaucracies. If this is not obvious, it is because most of us elders have grown up within the rising tide of regulation. We are inured -- and we even know how to operate within it -- but the young folk do not. They are flummoxed and repelled. As evidence, observe the extraordinary numbers of millennials who are currently in the arts. Could it be that art and video are among the few things that can be made and sold without regulation -- without the stranglehold of bureaucracy?
So, why is this happening in Detroit? Because its bankruptcy cannot support it, the glacier of American bureaucracy has receded. Detroit can no longer supervise crime, let alone gainful economic activity. There is a liberating adoption of the Nike mentality going on: Just do it! There is no red tape. So the young are immigrating in droves to start their businesses, to fix the buildings, to live affordably, to make their own security arrangements, to invent their amusements -- unimpeded. It is the agile deal flow of the Internet made physical.
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