Let me introduce you to a few Detroiters I encountered when I returned to the city where I was born and worked for 25 years. After we moved away, for several years we kept a small condo there, overlooking the Detroit River. In the same way you never forget your mother, your heart never leaves your hometown.
I did not seek out Mike Duggan, the energetic new mayor and the first white one in four decades in the largely black city. Or the leaders of businesses and foundations that donated hundreds of millions to help free Detroit from bankruptcy. Or multibillionaire Dan Gilbert, Detroit’s sugar daddy, who founded Quicken Loans, the nation’s largest online mortgage lender. Gilbert moved Quicken to his hometown, bought more than 70 properties (mostly downtown and ripe for rehab), seeded dozens of start-ups, and employs an estimated 12,500 people.
My curiosity was not about the mighty directors of this unfolding drama but the small players who are creating a new city out of what was long dismissed as a wasteland. Some moved in with solid plans; some nurse airy dreams; some subsist on fortitude. Others pray that their candles, so far from the changes, might somehow catch a spark. Detroit’s decay is now its engine: Nowhere else in urban America can you do so much with so little money.
The new Detroit shines downtown. Nearby areas like Corktown and Midtown radiate energy. But around this incandescence skulks the old Detroit, acres of decay and ruin, prairies where the remaining houses stand aloof from each other. The plants that made the vehicles that built this town shed chunks of graffitied concrete. Glass is gone from a million windows, like eyes absent from faces.
I ricocheted from high hopes to despair. But the Detroiters I met, almost to a one, have faith in even an uncertain future. Indeed it’s what defines them. Those who couldn’t summon hope left long ago, if they could.
IT’S POSSIBLE TO DRIVE to downtown Detroit without confronting the still crippled Detroit. The city’s freeways are sunken, hiding its plight, the departure of more than half its peak population. Robert Hake did just that for months after he moved his growing custom sportswear company from the suburbs to the city’s Corktown neighborhood. Called MyLocker.net, it can ship a hundred hoodies for your family reunion in days. “My decision had nothing to do with reviving Detroit,” he tells me from behind his shiny, ten-foot desk, which reflects the skyline. Instead he’d snagged a good deal—an empty auto parts factory the size of two football fields. “But,” he says, “now that I’m part of it, I’m being drawn in.”
Hake, 41, overcame what he admits were deep doubts. Detroit was called Murder City U.S.A. in the 1970s for a reason. He recalls the trepidation he felt as a suburban kid riding into the city, when his parents warned: “Roll up your windows and lock your doors.”
Excited by the city’s new effervescence, he searched Google for graffiti artists, interviewed several, hired one, and gave him a key and instructions: “Do whatever you want, wherever you want, whenever you want.” The walls are adorned with icons of Detroit, from Faygo soda pop to boxer Joe Louis’s fist. He’s hiring locally, adding 70 Detroiters to almost double his full-time staff.
One morning Hake, who still lives in the suburbs, drove outside his comfort zone, onto streets that stretch like worn threads between the freeways. He hauled 400 colorful T-shirts designed by his staff to donate to an elementary school. On the ten-mile drive, he passed street after street of broken-down houses. At the school, though, “I found hallways full of happy, innocent, beautiful children,” he says. “It was heartbreaking to know that those children lived on those streets.”
He thought: How blind I have been. I should give a T-shirt to every kid in Detroit.
Robert Hake is emblematic of what’s happening in this once forlorn city. It is reinventing itself, building by building and idea by idea but, as important, person by person. More tangibly, freed from about $18 billion in debt, the city has money to do some of what needs to be done. It has replaced about 40,000 streetlights ruined by scrappers and time. Police response time has shrunk from almost an hour to less than 20 minutes. And roughly a hundred ramshackle homes are crushed each week.
From his studio a few blocks from MyLocker, Antonio “Shades” Agee, the graffiti artist who’s painting it, isn’t surprised that Hake only recently discovered Detroit’s gloom. It’s easiest to stay on the city’s bright side.
Agee grew up in Detroit. His Hispanic mother still lives in his childhood home, now one of the few on the block, in a neighborhood he doesn't like to visit. It’s not “the new Detroit.” Nor was Black Bottom, Detroit’s vibrant Harlem, where his father played jazz. It was bulldozed in the 1950s for redevelopment and a freeway.
At 44, he is trim from biking; he rarely drives. His right arm—“my painting arm”—is densely tattooed. From the multi-tinted panes of his loft in a former paintbrush factory, Agee has watched Corktown change. He’s a regular at the Detroit Institute of Bagels, just below his window, built for a cool half million dollars. “It still blows my mind to see a girl running down the street and she’s not being chased,” he says.
He’s genuine Detroit—gutsy, driven, growing up when he had to “find water in a cactus.” He says, “Detroit has originality because we don’t have any distractions.” At 15, he was drinking and drugging and tagging. Woodward Avenue, Detroit’s main street, now aglitter with shops and condos, “was so dead I could paint a wall and nobody would care.” Agee transcended the streets. His clients include Reebok, Quicken, and Fiat Chrysler, and even white suburbanites: He painted a grand piano with feel-good slogans and his signature giant lips.
He knows he’s part of a now popular brand, a Detroit that’s tough, resourceful, proud. He resents that the brand has become a talisman for people who hardly know Detroit but boast its name on their shirts. “This big flourishing,” he says, “it’s great! I love it. But most people, they wanna save Detroit. You can’t save Detroit. You gotta be Detroit.”
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