Detroit is the New Detroit

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Images from 100 Abandoned Houses

A recent panel discussion consisting of local artists and educators ranging from an architect to a museum director was held at the MOCAD (Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit). Its title, “Is Detroit the New Berlin?” spoke directly to the constant comparison of Detroit to other cities, and to its reinvention. Throughout the conversation a given speaker would name a distant city and attempt to discuss that particular places conflicts in relation to Detroit. Almost immediately after making such a statement though it became evident to the audience as well as to the speaker that the particular issue they were speaking of and the solution that place found was not applicable to Detroit.

Image from 100 Abandoned Houses

Opposite terms are ‘born together.’ To have or learn one is to have or learn the other. You cannot have mastered water unless you also know what is not water.

from A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought by Chad Hansen

It is human nature to compare and contrast in order to understand the world. We juxtapose to communicate ideas, to describe an object, person, or place clearly.

Perhaps this is why people are so eager to draw comparisons between Detroit and other great, failed industrial cities. Perhaps this is why people like to discuss Detroit in terms of what it was and is no longer. But a question still remains: do these comparisons help or hinder the creation of a new model for Detroit?

While it is important to learn from the past struggles and work of people elsewhere, Detroit is none of the cities to which it is likened. Detroit in 2009 is not the city that it was in 1940. Nor is it Berlin, Vancouver, Pittsburgh, Moscow, Manchester, or Liverpool. Detroit exists in a unique time and a place, with unprecedented conflicts and hardships. In order for Detroit to reach a point of stability, a new model for commerce, industry, and urban living must come into play.

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Like the economic infrastructure of Detroit, the infrastructures of many American companies are changing drastically due to the current recession. Some large, failing corporations have been swallowed by former competitors, while others have been forced to downsize. And in another sense, downsizing is an idea with which Detroit residents have become a bit too familiar. The city has been “downsizing” its population for the past forty years. Once home to two million, the city looks and functions much differently at 800,000 residents.

Similar to shifts in most industries, the former model for a successful design company is evolving. Jobs once accomplished by many are now completed by a single individual with a computer and the Adobe Creative Suite. And therefore the design world, like the rest of Detroit, is shrinking. As larger advertising agencies lay off two to three hundred employees at a time, many designers are left unemployed with no prospects.

Detroit has never been a city for chain restaurants and stores. A place housing a mere five Starbucks within its bounds allows small businesses to establish themselves and thrive, because they do not have to compete with larger corporate giants. It only makes sense that its design firms follow suit. And many of these newly unemployed designers are striking out on their own through freelance, some with the hopes that it could one day turn into a small studio of their own. Though Detroit may not be known on a national level for the number of small design studios that call this city home, we are here.

While researching for Pixelgawker I am continually surprised at the number of local studios I stumble across that I had never heard of before. The sprawling nature of Detroit combined with harsh competition for design business from the Big Three, the largest clients for many local design firms and advertising agencies in Detroit, make it difficult for designers to connect with one another. While there are many studios and organizations doing interesting work, the conflict lies in that they are all happening as isolated conversations.

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Rather than being a place you can understand by comparing it to a known post-industrial city, Detroit’s condition is a new concept to comprehend; it is what a great American city looks like when the people leave. It is only now that the same looming threat of industrial and economic disaster has been imposed on other parts of the United States that the rest of the country is paying attention. Over the past few months, amidst the constant headlines announcing drastic changes in the American automotive industry, I have noticed that the city of Detroit has garnered a lot of nationwide attention. Projects like The Powerhouse Project, The Detroit Unreal Estate Agency, 100 Abandoned Houses, and Time Magazine’s article “Detroit’s Beautiful, Horrible Decline” are reaching tens of thousands foreign eyes — and people like to root for the underdog.

A comment that stayed with me, from the panel discussion at the MOCAD offered the possibility of considering vacancy as a positive, rather than negative, attribute. I constantly have to remind myself to focus not on what this city lacks but rather on what it has to offer. It’s not over developed — there is a vast amount of empty space. The countless small, independently owned businesses and unique organizations that have arisen from grass roots efforts. Often, the best artistic inspiration comes from heartbreak, and Detroit is an incredible muse. It is a fact validated in the musicians, artists, designers, and people it produces. Perhaps as Detroit struggles to find a new model for design, and for itself, the rest of the world will listen.

*This entry was originally posted on pixelgawker

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