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Don’t Call It a Comeback: Detroit’s Post-Bankruptcy Crisis

Woodward Avenue in Detroit. VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Woodward Avenue in Detroit.

VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

This past April, I spent a week in Detroit. I grew up about 20 minutes outside the city, though I’ve been in New York for the last decade. My parents lived in the Detroit area for more than 60 years before joining the mass exodus from Michigan during the most recent recession. I no longer consider Detroit my home. There were still images of the city that circulated in my mind, though, exaggerated by the fog of memory: vast fields covered in burned rubble where houses used to be; For Sale signs hanging from the ground-floor windows of skyscrapers; being propositioned as I walked to my car in a more or less abandoned section of downtown by a man who didn’t even seem to notice the blood pouring out of his own forehead from the nail that was stuck there; neighborhoods hanging on to their dignity by their fingernails.

Going back, I found that these perceptions were not necessarily wrong, but were at odds with another city, one that was unfamiliar to me. Midtown was clogged with traffic and development projects. The news on the front page of the Detroit Free Press when I arrived involved Dan Gilbert, who has built a kingdom in the city around his mortgage lending company, Quicken Loans, which opened its headquarters downtown in 2009. Like Henry Ford before him, Gilbert has attempted to mold Detroit into a company town, where business is both a job and a lifestyle. The latest story about this post-industrialist industrialist concerned Gilbert’s $1 billion investment plan to bring a Major League Soccer franchise to Detroit and build a stadium on the site of the unfinished Wayne County Jail, which has languished half-done for almost three years because of budget issues. Gilbert’s plans irked Wayne County officials, who insisted on their intention to finish the prison, even if they didn’t wield Gilbert’s power. The city is divided about the influence of Gilbert and a few other wealthy figures. One person told me Gilbert “is doing wonderful things to create a critical mass.” Another said, “When people talk about Quicken employees, they talk about Kool-Aid. They drank the Kool-Aid.”

During my visit, I encountered a lot of people who seemed like they’d drunk too much Kool-Aid. I heard a woman say, without irony, “I don’t believe in charity; I believe in share-ity.” I listened patiently to people talk at length about their “hybrid design studios.” I talked to people who moved here on a whim—all of them quick to mention the sizes, prices, and amenities of their new houses. The founder of a New York–based performance space who relocated to Detroit recently and bought up vast amounts of property went on and on, as we sat in his office in an abandoned warehouse that took up most of a city block, about how home ownership prevents the perils of gentrification. I went to a panel discussion in a crudely renovated building and heard someone give a pedestrian talk about self-actualization. I went to another panel discussion in another crudely renovated building and heard someone say, “Ideas are really important,” as if he’d just come up with an important idea. I ate a large vegetarian meal at an urban farm and remained hungry.

Detroit has always been viewed as a sign of the times, a sustained metaphor for the American city in a state of perpetual crisis. After years of a declining population and a mounting debt somewhere in the 11 figures, the city filed the largest Chapter 9 bankruptcy in American history in 2013. To some, this was a turning point, a way of fixing what was broken and moving on. But where there was a pre-bankruptcy crisis, now there is a post-bankruptcy crisis. I work for an art magazine, so my assignment was to write about what was going on in the Detroit art scene. Detroit being a city of artists, and the arts being almost invariably on the front lines of gentrification, I also saw the recent history of Detroit’s transformations, and all the hope and fear that have arisen as a result of them.

Specially constructed tents for the participants at Ideas City, in Detroit. JUSTIN MILHOUSE

Specially constructed tents for the participants at Ideas City, in Detroit.

JUSTIN MILHOUSE

The week I was in town, 41 people were living temporarily in the Herman Kiefer Health Complex as part of a think tank called Ideas City, a program founded by the New Museum in New York. The hospital loomed against a bland, gray sky when I drove up to it on a Tuesday morning. Spread out across seven buildings on an 18-acre plot of land near the Virginia Park neighborhood, the hospital opened in 1911 and served mostly as a treatment center and quarantine for tuberculosis, diphtheria, and other grim illnesses until the 1960s, when the wide availability of antibiotics curtailed the spread of infectious diseases. Albert Kahn designed an expansion that opened in 1928, and in later years the complex’s vital records department was where Detroiters went to obtain a birth or death certificate. When Detroit declared bankruptcy, the maintenance fees to keep the hospital operational were deemed too high, and Herman Kiefer closed, leaving about 800,000 square feet vacant in an already struggling neighborhood. This place where life began and ended in Detroit for more than a century was left to be picked over by scrappers. In 2015 the city council approved a plan by New York–based architect Ron Castellano to redevelop the complex, at a proposed cost of at least $75 million.

Billed by the New Museum as a “weeklong studio laboratory workshop” that would culminate in an eight-hour public conference, Ideas City brought together artists, writers, architects, urban planners, and tech entrepreneurs, all of whom were sleeping in special tents on the second floor of the complex’s old power station and sharing a communal bathroom while they spent the week discussing how to revitalize Detroit. It seemed to me to epitomize what was happening in the city: a bunch of outsiders sitting around talking about what to do with all this space, while the people who live here look on in horror. (The New Museum at least thought to include a number of locals.) I arrived at 8 a.m. and found the group lined up beside a long table for a buffet breakfast. The room was dim, lit only by a string of dangling lightbulbs. Castellano’s investment hadn’t gotten far enough to provide a reliable electrical system. Soon after I entered the building, a fuse blew and all the lights went out.

“My friend told me his relative was treated here for tuberculosis, like, 60 years ago,” the founder of a “creative community platform” in New York told me. Like a lot of the group, he was wearing several layers of clothing because it was cold in the abandoned hospital. When I asked him what his company does, he told me “the definition of what the company does is evolving.” By way of further explanation, he said, “We really wanted to be a part of the Bernie Sanders campaign of success.”

My plan was to interview Joseph Grima, Ideas City’s director, an angular man with a background in architecture who is currently based in Italy. But he was running around trying to fix the lighting situation. (He didn’t, at least not while I was there.) When I found him later, he was taping a screen to a chalkboard for a future PowerPoint presentation. “I can’t talk to you until I deal with this,” he said. We never talked.

Instead, I had a bowl of granola with Tiff Massey, a Detroit artist who was taking part in Ideas City. She opted for her own bed the previous night instead of staying in Herman Kiefer. Massey works with metal, and her hands were adorned with complicated mini-sculptures of her own design. I told her I was in town to write about some of the changes happening in the city. She looked at me doubtfully. “I’m rather suspicious of the development going on here,” I offered.

“You’re right to be suspicious!” she said. Her expression softened, and her voice seemed to cut through the thick fog of self-satisfaction choking the abandoned hospital. I asked her what she thought of some of the people moving into the city and buying up property. “It’s not like you can just come in and set up shop,” she said. “There’s no infrastructure to support the smoke and mirrors.” She said that one result of Detroit being “so hyped” is that “now everybody wants to be an artist.” But, Massey explained, the city is “a developer’s dream. It is not for the artists.” Only a handful of people are profiting from the development, and they have “a monopoly on the city,” she said. “So everything becomes this watered-down shit that you could get anywhere else.”

Participants at Ideas City, in Detroit. JUSTIN MILHOUSE

Participants at Ideas City, in Detroit.

JUSTIN MILHOUSE

As breakfast concluded, the group gathered in a circle for a talk by Satori Shakoor, a self-described “storyteller” who lived five minutes from Herman Kiefer. “Welcome to my neighborhood,” she told everyone. She said she had been skeptical when she heard that something called Ideas City was coming to her home. “Who are these pompous, privileged people coming from New York, telling me what to do with my city?” she said. The audience chuckled awkwardly. “I was complaining out of, like, PTSD,” she continued. “One thing that makes a city is children’s laughter. I don’t hear children’s laughter on my street. I live on a block that looks like a mouth that’s missing a lot of teeth.” She discussed talking to the drug dealer, Rooster, who lives across the street, and asking him to make sure nothing bad happened to her. “The drug dealer was my neighborhood watch.” Virginia Park, Shakoor said, is a vulnerable neighborhood, a neighborhood in foreclosure, strewn with empty or burned-down houses.

Someone in the audience raised his hand and asked about the tension between long-standing homeowners in Detroit and the people moving in because of the cheap real estate. Shakoor said the development boom has made everything more expensive. “Is there any cheap real estate in Detroit?” she asked. “In the hood,” Massey said, almost under her breath. And here we were. Shakoor’s struggling neighborhood had been designated the next frontier of development in Detroit. For how long would it remain her neighborhood? Before this point could be explored, Grima cut in, a little too chipper: “We are going to end this session!” There was polite applause.

Later that morning, the whole group piled into a bus for a tour of Detroit’s West Side, led by Ingrid LaFleur. We would drive briefly down the Davison, the nation’s first freeway, and through neighborhoods like Palmer Woods, past the Tudor mansions leading up to the bucolic Detroit Golf Club and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Dorothy H. Turkel House. LaFleur told everyone she was an Afrofuturist. “I believe that when you heal the black body, you heal the city,” she announced, standing at the front of the bus. At one point, a blond European woman asked her why she would live in Detroit, as opposed to any other city. “I would not live anywhere else in the country,” LaFleur said. “Because this city is 82 percent black. It’s about protecting my black body.” In other cities, “We’re pushed out, we’re segregated. But this city is ours.” LaFleur argued that calling Detroit’s recent development a “comeback” would be a fallacy.

“I just want to point out, this whole time we’ve had businesses that function and make money,” she said. “But they are aligned with a particular culture that doesn’t seem to have value to people.”

LaFleur may have been in charge—the bus drove us past the Mies van der Rohe–designed apartment building where she grew up in Lafayette Park—but after a few minutes, an Ideas City participant, Marsha Music, a Detroit writer of the generation that grew up here when the population was peaking (at about 1.8 million in 1950), took over the proceedings. She was a walking encyclopedia of the city’s history. She went over how deeds to houses used to have a clause making homeowners promise not to sell their property to blacks or Jews. She described her childhood in Detroit. She gave a short history of the riot of 1967, known locally as the Great Rebellion, which began on 12th Street, then the heart of Detroit’s black business district, and spread out over the course of the next few days across the city, leaving dozens dead and more than 1,000 buildings destroyed. The bus burst into applause when she finished.

We turned down Fenkell Avenue and drove through the Brightmoor neighborhood, a former planned community where black migrants from the South settled during the manufacturing boom of the ’20s. Now, scattered along Fenkell were rows of long-abandoned storefronts with boarded-up windows and faded marquees. “In my youth, this area was the place to be,” Music said, neither happy nor sad, just stating a fact.

Salvador Salort-Pons, director of the Detroit Institute of Arts. JACOB LEWKOW

Salvador Salort-Pons, director of the Detroit Institute of Arts.

JACOB LEWKOW

Early in the week I went to the Detroit Institute of Arts, one of the world’s great encyclopedic museums. It includes works by Rembrandt, Pablo Picasso, Edgar Degas, Vincent van Gogh, and—most famously—Diego Rivera, whose Detroit Industry mural hangs in a marble court. The DIA was the major story to come out of the Detroit bankruptcy. Back in 1919, the museum, due to a lack of funds, became a municipal department, and the building and the grounds became city owned. How could they have known that would come back to haunt them almost a century later?

Detroit’s state-appointed emergency manager, Kevyn D. Orr, who ran the city during bankruptcy proceedings for 16 months beginning in July 2013, told the press that “everything is on the table,” when asked if the city-owned portions of the DIA’s collection could be sold to pay off creditors. He then hired an appraiser from Christie’s to look into these possible assets. The price tag came in at about $800 million, a fraction of Detroit’s debt, estimated at between $18 and $20 billion. Newspapers, magazines, and TV anchors across the country chimed in to editorialize about this, most of them following the argument of Roberta Smith, co-chief art critic of the New York Times, that the DIA was “one of the few remaining jewels in Detroit’s tattered identity, and is essential to the city’s recovery.” (The rare exception was Peter Schjeldahl of the New Yorker, who experienced such swift backlash to his belief that the city should sell the museum’s art to pay pensioners that he retracted that opinion and published a mea culpa.) The solution was the Grand Bargain, in which the museum raised $100 million to contribute to $800 million of benefits for pensioners, and reverted its ownership to an independent trust.

This situation could have been worse, but it was still messy. This was what Salvador Salort-Pons stepped into when he became director of the DIA in 2015. He had been a curator at the museum for eight years, and took over the top job from Graham W. J. Beal, who had been in the position for 16 years. Salort-Pons is a dapper Spaniard, with thick salt-and-pepper hair and a refined beard. I could picture him behind the wheel of a luxury car, talking into a camera about its features. I asked him if the idea of a fire sale at the DIA had been exaggerated by the media.

“Well, there was a real possibility that the collection—parts of the collection—could have been put up for sale,” Salort-Pons said. “It was a real possibility. It was really tough at the time to be here. I was head of the European Art department. Just thinking that some sections of the collection could be up for sale and that Christie’s had done an evaluation of it was heartbreaking. And this was all very negative. But it also produced a very positive impact on the institution, which is that the DIA was in the newspapers all around the world because we had an amazing collection that could be up for sale. And that gave us an incredible marketing campaign that we didn’t pay anything for, and it gave the museum lots of publicity. We had lots of visitors. People were buying the catalogues!” He laughed. “And now we are known around the world. My friends who are not art historians, they’re businessmen and lawyers, they called me when we were going through the bankruptcy and said, ‘I didn’t know you worked in such a great museum! What a collection!’ ”

A 2012 millage, which expires in 2022, had residents from three counties vote to cover about two-thirds of the museum’s annual budget while the museum raises money to become financially independent. This was in exchange for a slight tax hike and free admission. (The fund-raising was delayed a year because of the bankruptcy.) Just as I was asking Salort-Pons about the nearly $200 million in cash the museum still needs to raise in the next seven years if it’s to collect the $400 million needed to achieve sovereignty from the counties, a woman and her friend walked up.

“Excuse me?” she said. “I’m sorry to interrupt. Are you Salvador?”

“I am,” he said.

“Oh, my God, I am from Seattle. I haven’t been here in 30 years and this museum is un-frickin’-believable.”

“Thank you so much,” Salort-Pons said.

“Everyone is so nice! Everyone just raves about how much they love working here!”

He handed the woman and her friend business cards and told them to “let me know if I can be of any help.”

“Wow,” the woman said. “You look like a model!”

“No comment,” the publicist sitting with us said.

“Come back! And tell your friends!” Salort-Pons said, then turned back to me. “I promise you we did not have this prepared.”

Returning to our discussion of the huge fund-raising initiative the museum has ahead of it, I asked what happens if the DIA doesn’t meet its goal in the proposed time frame. Salort-Pons answered, “That’s a good question. We haven’t started to think about that.” But he was hopeful. He mentioned a $5 million donation earlier this year from the Michigan-based William Davidson Foundation. He explained his plans for the future.

“I am from Spain,” Salort-Pons said. “I was born and raised in Madrid, and on the weekends you would go to the town square, because there were things to do there. It’s like the point of reference. And I would like the museum, the surrounding institutions, and the museum’s front plaza, to become that sort of town square, where everybody gathers and everybody’s welcome. Where we can be a diverse institution, and accessible for all. As the city grows, can the DIA be that town square? When I came to Detroit eight years ago, I lived downtown the first year. And I’d lived in cities, and I always liked to walk and take public transportation. And I remember walking [around] eight years ago. It was weird. I was the only person walking. But not only that, I didn’t know where to go. There was not a point of reference.”

The exterior of the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, featuring an installation by Andrew Kuo. COURTESY MOCAD

The exterior of the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, featuring an installation by Andrew Kuo.

COURTESY MOCAD

The city’s museum district now finds itself in the center of a changing Detroit, just as it had been at the center of the bankruptcy. Nearby the DIA are the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, the Center for Creative Studies, Wayne State University’s Elaine L. Jacob Gallery, and the Detroit Historical Museum. The Cranbrook Academy of Art, the monastic art school in the wealthy suburb of Bloomfield Hills, which has, among other features, a gorgeous Japanese garden on its well-manicured grounds, is also hoping to open a program in the area, Christopher Scoates, the school’s director, told me on a visit there. Even with all the changes, he said, “It’s a little bit of a Wild West. If you want to try it, and it fails, it doesn’t really matter. That’s a good thing. Failure’s a part of best practices.”

Around the corner from the DIA is the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, which opened in 2006. I met Elysia Borowy-Reeder, MOCAD’s director since 2013, one afternoon in the museum’s large café, which is open to the public but was largely empty. MOCAD’s role in the Detroit art world is a little odd—the institution employs Jens Hoffmann, who lives in New York, as a “senior curator at large,” and several local artists told me they thought MOCAD’s programming could be dropped into any other city in the country, that it didn’t “breathe Detroit,” as one of them put it. “We’re not the Museum of Detroit Artists,” Borowy-Reeder said, when pressed.

But the museum does, in fact, work with the city in ways even local bureaucracy doesn’t. In its backyard is Mobile Homestead, a replica of artist Mike Kelley’s childhood home in Westland, a Detroit suburb, the last work Kelley finished before killing himself in 2012. A secret hatch in the closet of the room based on Kelley’s bedroom leads, through a network of ladders and hidden rooms, to a subterranean studio 40 feet below, intended to be the artist’s private work space. A few of Kelley’s friends, like Paul McCarthy, have used the studio instead. (“It is disorienting,” said Borowy-Reeder, who on occasion has to climb down to oversee maintenance on the dehumidifiers, sump pumps, and lighting.) More unexpected, though, is the sculpture’s afterlife as a genuine community center. Kelley was vocal about his plans to have his underground lair masquerade as a vehicle for social activism, but this possibility always seemed remote to me. And yet, as the local government was flatlining and city services were slashed during the bankruptcy, Mobile Homestead became, for example, a default public library. A quilting workshop meets there once a month. On Wednesdays a small group of Alcoholics Anonymous newcomers convenes there. Borowy-Reeder told me that on Sunday nights, the museum’s main building hosts the largest AA meeting in the state, which she speculated was so popular because it wasn’t in a church. I’m not sure if this was what Salort-Pons had in mind when he talked about making the area surrounding the Detroit museums into a town square, but Borowy-Reeder was clearly pleased.

When MOCAD opened, an article in the New York Times called the museum’s location in Midtown a “barren strip” of Woodward Avenue. Woodward is a local icon and a main through-line in the city. One of the country’s first paved roads and the site of the world’s first four-way traffic light, it is among the last functioning remnants downtown of Detroit’s crucial role in modernizing industrial America. Now, out in front of MOCAD and beyond, Woodward has become a symbol of a different sort: the street is torn up in preparation for the forthcoming M-1 light-rail, which some people consider a major investment in the city’s future, and others look at as yet another sign of the utter disregard developers and the local government have for longtime residents. Important bus lines have been cut to make way for the project, and as far as public transportation goes, the light-rail is not exactly the MTA. It reminds me of Detroit’s other pointless transit system, the People Mover, a three-mile monorail that literally runs in circles downtown, mostly empty. About a week after I left Detroit, a passenger fell onto the tracks and died; his body was dragged for nearly 14 minutes before anyone noticed. There are already hopes of extending the light-rail, but the initial stage is three miles of track going in a straight line, the route carrying people around the new developments, including through the Quicken Loans empire.

“I would say museums are always good for property values,” Borowy-Reeder told me of the neighborhood surrounding MOCAD. “That’s the one thing no one ever says, and it’s absolutely true. Museums are great for property values. And we’ve been here for ten years. When it first opened, you would walk into the museum and check in, and they would give you a club, and you would go out to your car and put the club on your steering wheel, and then come back in, because cars were getting stolen from the parking lot.” In the way I’ve heard other museum directors make prideful boasts about attendance or fundraising, Borowy-Reeder added, “A car hasn’t been stolen since I’ve been here, for three years. I mean, things have changed around us for sure. But I like to think we were a pioneer.”

Hazel Blake, a director at Susanne Hilberry Gallery. JACOB LEWKOW

Hazel Blake, a director at Susanne Hilberry Gallery.

JACOB LEWKOW

If arts and culture are a key measure of growth in Detroit, the question now is how to sustain that growth, and how to do so in a way that doesn’t destroy the lives of the people who already live here. This negotiation is made all the more difficult by the fact that there’s no cultural affairs bureau in the mayor’s office, no support from local government, and not a lot of money outside of highly competitive grants. Side jobs are what keep the creative community afloat in Detroit. Get a few drinks in a local artist or writer or musician, even those who have achieved some success, and they’ll tell you about the hours they have to put in as a line cook, or in construction, or at the strip club.

On Thursday, I visited a business that has survived for years while others have faded away, Susanne Hilberry Gallery, the greatest of all Detroit art dealers. Hilberry opened her first gallery in the suburb of Birmingham in 1976, and before that worked at the DIA with Sam Wagstaff, the famous collector and mentor to Robert Mapplethorpe. In 2002 Hilberry moved her gallery to Ferndale, a less expensive suburb just a mile outside the Detroit city limits. From an aesthetic standpoint, it is by far the best space to view art that I’ve seen in Michigan. But Hilberry died in 2015, leaving behind a troublesome gap. Hazel Blake, one of her directors, has been running the gallery since then. On the day I was there, cold rain fell from a dark sky, and I felt as if I had shown up late to a wake. I could tell Blake was shaken by Hilberry’s passing. Her voice was quiet, and she’d sometimes interrupt herself to sigh heavily.

“We’re still trying to figure out how to make this work, and where we should be,” she told me. Despite Hilberry’s reputation, running a serious gallery in Detroit was difficult. “I think it’s always been hard,” Blake said, “but it’s gotten harder, definitely.” There were other dealers in Ferndale, creating what had been for years the area’s main gallery district, but they have all closed or left. “This place, Susanne was quite successful in a certain way, but this gallery never did tons of commercial business. I mean, she did a remarkable job, but it always felt like some kind of institution. We have a tiny staff. Right now this is the biggest it’s ever been: three people full-time.” I asked what her plan was.

“I really don’t know,” she said. “I’m trying to figure that out. Over the last couple of years, as Detroit’s being built up and new businesses are opening, and there’s a younger population living downtown, Susanne and I kind of struggled with the idea of moving to be in Detroit. We feel pretty isolated here, because we’re not in the wealthier suburbs, and we’re not in the city. We’re in between. And maybe that’s kind of nice, and this is a really elegant space, and it’s hard to imagine giving that up. So I don’t know. I feel like there were a lot of unanswered things over the last few years, and then Susanne was really sick. And now I’m just beginning and I’m very intimidated.”

This problem is not unique to Blake—a lot of people are wondering how they’ll factor into Detroit’s future—but to make matters worse, there are few commercial galleries here to begin with. This is an area that has produced some of the most famous art collectors of the 20th century, but none of them are buying much art from the area.

Alivia Zivich and Daniel Sperry, founders of What Pipeline. JACOB LEWKOW

Alivia Zivich and Daniel Sperry, founders of What Pipeline.

JACOB LEWKOW

If there is any gallery that might inherit the mantle of professional dealing in the city from Hilberry, it’s What Pipeline, located inside a small, detached building in the parking lot of a Mexican bar. The space is run by Alivia Zivich and Daniel Sperry, who started the gallery in 2013 because they were neighbors and used to meet up on their communal porch to “bitch about what we were seeing happening” in Detroit, as Zivich put it. Both co-owners have day jobs—Zivich works for a nonprofit that organizes art festivals and Sperry works for the Wayne State University art collection. There were plenty of nonprofit spaces backed by foundational support, and a number of galleries showing predominantly street art, but “there was just nothing straightforwardly addressing the contemporary art world” in the city, Zivich said. What Pipeline recently organized a summer show of Detroit artists, but their program mostly imports artists from Europe and elsewhere.

Since What Pipeline opened, a few more dealers have taken spaces, like Michael Jon & Alan, a gallery with outposts in Miami and Berlin, and the L.A. venue Moran Bondaroff, which took over a refurbished church last June. But the market in Detroit is small and the most successful galleries deal in street art, like the popular Library Street Collective, which brought Shepard Fairey to Detroit last year for a show. While he was in town, he also made a highly publicized mural on a Quicken Loans office building. The work has become a screen onto which people project their feelings about Gilbert’s gentrification. (“It’s really ugly,” Zivich said. Regarding Fairey, Sperry added, “Is this on the record? Yeah? I fucking hate him. Like, get out of here, Napoleon.”) In the last year, a number of galleries based in the suburbs have opened branches downtown—“real glamour spaces,” Zivich said. Sperry compared those spaces and their appeal to potential collectors to “financially affluent shopping experiences” that pander to people from the suburbs looking to buy a condo downtown and cash in on what he called Detroit mania. I asked them if there was pressure for What Pipeline to sell out its shows.

“Sell out our shows?” Zivich asked, exasperated.

“Are you kidding?” Sperry said.

“We sell one piece from a show and we’re like,‘Oh, my God! Amazing!’”

“We don’t sell here.”

“We just figured we would always be paying out of pocket,” Zivich said, “and this was just something we were doing because we wanted to.”

I asked Sperry about Detroit mania and whether he thinks the fascination the rest of the country has for this city peaked. “I think as far as a public interest story, journalistically speaking, yeah. It’s probably peaked, by inches.” But, he added, “maybe in the last four or five years, it feels like you can actually see the effect of artists moving here.” Zivich mentioned a biennial she worked on, which started in 2012 as a series of outdoor video screenings in Midtown at night. The point was to get people outside after dark. She’s helping prepare the 2016 edition of this event now, but there are no more vacant buildings or lots in the area. Zivich mentioned the light-rail, in which Gilbert has invested a lot of money.

“These development plans,” Zivich said, “they are very specifically not for everybody. They’re for getting people to come to the city, buy property, buy condos, go to the restaurants, go to the bars. It’s for the middle class to bring money back into the city. It’s very specific. So it is definitely leaving some people behind. The light-rail is not for the people trying to get to work. Hopefully down the line, it will extend, and actually become a usable tool. But I’m sure it doesn’t feel good for everybody to see your bus line get cut, or your water shut off, and wonder how you fit into this new Detroit.”

From left, Bryce Detroit, Anya Sirota and Jean Louis Farges, co-founders of O.N.E. Mile project in Detroit’s North End. JACOB LEWKOW

From left, Bryce Detroit, Anya Sirota and Jean Louis Farges, co-founders of O.N.E. Mile project in Detroit’s North End.

JACOB LEWKOW

On Friday, one more sad, rainy morning, I drove to Detroit’s North End, which hasn’t experienced much development, but could soon. This was the neighborhood where Smokey Robinson grew up, the site of the Phelps Lounge, the place where George Clinton became Dr. Funkenstein, and the birthplace of some of the most important music of the 20th century. Now, there are blocks that are half abandoned. As I drove down a street where many of the houses had fallen into disrepair, I had to brake hard for a wild turkey that was ambling across the road. In a worn-out garage on Oakland Avenue, I met with Bryce Detroit, Jean Louis Farges, and Anya Sirota, members of the One Mile Project, a multidisciplinary organization trying to use art and music to spur economic growth in the North End. At the center of their project is a life-size replica of the Parliament-Funkadelic Mothership, which the group uses as a traveling recording studio and DJ booth, putting local musicians to work in some of the neighborhood’s historic music venues. Farges and Sirota, a white couple from the East Coast by way of France (Farges’s home country), moved to Detroit seven years ago for teaching jobs at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, a universe away from this city, even though it takes only 45 minutes to get to by car. (“It’s like Sweden,” Sirota said. “Everyone does yoga and has dental insurance.”) Detroit, a producer, artist, and co-founder of the Detroit Afrikan Music Institution, was born and raised here. We sat at a table in a corner of the garage. In another corner sat the Mothership. They had installed a roof on the space, which was protecting us from the rain, but elsewhere inside a group of birds were nesting and making a lot of noise. We talked about how the city was changing.

“To speak just, boom, straightforward as a native Detroiter,” Detroit said, “I’ve lived here for sure the majority of my life. For the last 15 years, I’ve been observing this dominant mainstream narrative. First it started with the [belief that the] city is so depressed there’s nothing there. And what is there is really just debris—even the people. That narrative, in the mid-2000s, up until 2012, started to go to a ‘blank slate.’ As if the debris had been cleared. And then this blank slate—this particular narrative aimed at creative, young, white, recent graduates or those in their mid-20s in creative industries, attracted them with this blank slate aesthetic narrative that one can design or do anything here. And over the last two years, there has been an influx, based on the success of that narrative. So my intent with this project is for this to be a direct counter to that dominant narrative of Detroit as a place that is blank, meaning devoid of people.”

“A very important part of the discussion is, you cannot disconnect the art practice from the reality of the city,” Farges said. “Of race, of politics, of economy—”

“You can!” Sirota said.

“You can, but if you do this it is—”

“Problematic,” Detroit said, finishing the thought.

“This is problematic,” said Farges. “This is the biggest African-American city in the G8. You need to understand that people live in the city of Detroit. Gentrification is an issue. Economics is an issue. Violence is an issue. I could say white privilege is an issue. All these questions are now on the table. Every Detroiter talks about that, and it cannot be disconnected from the, uh—”

“From the work,” Sirota said.

“From the work we do.”

I asked to what extent it was important for the three of them as artists with a stake in the city to educate the people who are moving in and changing its character. Detroit sucked on his teeth.

“We personally and collectively take part in a lot of conversations in Detroit and nationwide on the topic of art and race,” he said. “So my prioritizing that work speaks to the value of providing education. . . . Yet.” He spat out the last word as if it were something rotten. “In my ideal world, we are not responsible for that. I do that work from this framework of [our] being in transition.” He banged his hand on the table as he spoke: “There is still a responsibility for people moving into this place to really just recognize that . . .” He trailed off and sighed. “They know there’s something else here! On some real shit, like, people just be lying to themselves. They’re walking down the streets with Africans, who’ve been here for decades and generations, acting like they don’t see them. That’s some shit the individual must control, like, regardless of community conversations and how much work is being done on the activist level and all that.”

Artist Sydney James.JACOB LEWKOW

Artist Sydney James.

JACOB LEWKOW

It’s impossible to be an artist in Detroit and not spend time thinking about these issues. Within the city, there are endless conversations about what Detroit has been, is, and might become. (As a participant in one of the many panels I attended during my visit put it to me: “We have no money. What else are we going to do but sit around and talk about what we would do if we had money?”) Earlier in the week, I met artist Sydney James for coffee in Cass Corridor, a historic district within Midtown full of expensive lofts and high-end retail. This is where the Shinola flagship store sells $1,000 watches to people driving in from the suburbs. James grew up here, and is a street artist. (Of Shepard Fairey, she said: “What’s really going on that we’re putting all this hype on this man who put up a poster? That you could take down with some acetone? What’s really going on?”) James returned a few years ago to Detroit after a stint in Los Angeles. She recently bought a house in Conant Gardens, one of the first areas in the city where blacks could build and own homes, a neighborhood where her grandfather built a house in the ’30s.

“It’s almost like the powers that be want Detroit to be viewed as this negative, horrible place,” she said. “And I can think of the reasons why, but it doesn’t make sense. Because if Detroit as a city fails, every city in this country will fail. People don’t understand. My dad was a foreman, and he used to drive us all around the city, from corner to corner on days when he was just bored. We’d end up all around the city. We built this country! Like, the first freeway is the Davison! In the world! That’s the first freeway. What would people do without us?”

For a while James was erecting art gardens in vacant lots across Detroit. Lately, she’s been making large-scale murals on building facades. One prominent work is a self-portrait with three other local artists—one of them is Tiff Massey—all posed like the famous 1996 Vibe magazine cover featuring the Death Row Records crew. She cast herself as Death Row co-founder Suge Knight. “Because it’s my painting,” she said.

“But I did it as an educational piece, too,” she continued. “Yes, all these things are happening, all these artists are coming from out of state, out of the country, but I want people to know that artists reside here already, and we’re black, and we’re doing big things, and we’re black again.” She laughed, but she wasn’t joking.

James doesn’t mind all the development, so long as it doesn’t force out the people who made the neighborhood. “Honestly, the culture here is a real culture,” she said. “Los Angeles lacks culture. And family—not just my blood relatives. Los Angeles is the place of ‘What can you do for me?’ So you might be an artist, but you’re not gonna share with me, and I might do something similar, because you’re viewing me as your competition. Whereas here, even if I viewed you as my competition, it’s a friendly competition. Like, ‘If I’m winning, you’re winning. So why don’t you try this?’ It’s more of a community here, and it lacks that there. And other places, too. Detroit is special when it comes to that. I don’t care if you’re black, white, Mexican, that’s just how it is here. And if you’re not like that, I know you’re not from here. I know you really don’t have ties here. I know you just bought a place here.” Detroiters eat those people alive, James said.

I told her that, in my experience, the way people talk about Detroit has changed, that when I used to tell people I was from here, they would look at me like I was lucky to be breathing; now they ask me how many houses I own. I thought about New York, my home for eleven years, a monumental public works project, where every day feels like a minor miracle. I thought then about the rent I pay in Brooklyn, how I live within a quarter-mile of not one but three high-end bike shops, all of which are nearer to me than the closest grocery store, and how the artisanal mayonnaise shop near my apartment is closing down while it looks for a larger space to meet demand. It could be seen as a cautionary tale, but I wondered if anyone was paying attention.

“Artists built your city, too,” James told me. “They made your shit popular, and now you can’t afford to be there.”

A version of this story originally appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of ARTnews on page 118 under the title “Don’t Call It a Comeback.”

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