Economics

“Its Success Will Be America’s Success” — Talking DIY and Beyond in Detroit

Following up on my review of Detroit City is the Place to Be by Mark Binelli, Next City invited Francis Grunow, a consultant with New Solutions Group, to discuss the book and the issues it raises. Grunow has worked inside both city and state government and has run various organizations devoted to improving the quality of life in Detroit. He was also a key member of the successful Detroiters for Council By Districts campaign.

Here, he talks about making neighborhoods work without destroying them, the legacy that looms over Detroit’s recovery, and the perennial “hipster question.”

Solutions

Francis Grunow: The place to start with discussing Detroit City is the Place to Be is the idea that people and policymakers in Detroit are looking for something prescriptive. Detroit’s problems are so big that it’s really hard to put your mind around them. I get why [Binelli] sort of punts, but it also bothered me. I think the city and its people are used to being told what our problems are, and I think there is a tendency to feel like these problems have a single answer.

Next City: Yes, Binelli got a lot of accolades for not pretending like he knew what “the answer is.”

Grunow: I think Binelli’s desire not to wade into those waters comes from an honest place, because he has some sense of how patronizing that can be. It’s still frustrating.

NC: In my reading, I think he does weigh in. He does not assert his opinions very strongly, but he does have opinions.

Grunow: Binelli writes that he is hopeful. And that’s a big part of what’s been missing for so long. However, as someone who works a lot on the city, I’m still looking for more. I read the book and asked myself something like, “What is our future?” Another way of saying that is, “How do we wake up every morning and do what we do here?”

NC: So how do you do it? Why do you think “Detroit City is The Place To Be”?

Grunow: I think we’re all a little crazy, because it’s like all the country’s problems turned up to 11. Now, that doesn’t mean it isn’t also the place to be and there aren’t amazing things about it.

NC: I read this book from Philadelphia, so let’s hit one of the big problems our two cities have in common. It seemed like a bit of an elephant-in-the-room sort of issue in Binelli’s book. Both cities have tons and tons of empty space.

I remember the first time I heard about the concept of “right-sizing.” I was living up in North Philadelphia, a burnt-out part of town. Lots of houses falling in on themselves. My reaction was… “Brilliant. Do that here. Sign me up. Where do I move?” I admit I hadn’t been there as long as my neighbors and didn’t have their roots, but I had invested in the area and been there a while.

Grunow: Right.

NC: And I could see the merits of the idea of just getting people closer together in a cash-strapped place.

Grunow: Right. I think that the specter of eminent domain and race/class pervades this question. However, the issues are real. And frankly, a lot of those people wouldn’t mind moving if they had the resources. On the other hand, some people just need a little resource, and don’t want to move. I’m not sure if there is a catchall, or frankly if the resource savings would be that great.

NC: There’s some merit to the idea that when people are just closer together more value gets created, right?

Grunow: Absolutely. But I think the point is (and this is what the next mayor’s race is beginning to discuss), “every neighborhood has a future.”

If people aren’t getting an acceptable level of service, whether they live in an area specifically targeted for redevelopment or not, the question should be, “what does acceptable service delivery look like throughout the city?” I think there are many answers. The Detroit Future City report was the outcome of Detroit Works, which Binelli discusses a little in his book. When folks talk about big issues, there’s a tendency to want to put things into dichotomy, which is convenient, e.g., “Im in and you’r out.” But it really is more of an “and” equation. Detroit needs density and we have to make the other places work, even if they lack traditional market forces.

NC: I was a community organizer for many years in Philadelphia. ACORN, groups like that. And one of the things that frustrated me in that work is it sometimes looked to me like we wanted a better world, but we wanted it while shielding our folks from any change.

Grunow: Good point. People are afraid of change.

NC: It seems to me that places/companies/institutions/people only see dramatic improvement following disruptions. You never make everyone happy during great change. So when I hear “every neighborhood has a future,” I think, “does it?” Or do politicians just not want to lose the votes in any of those neighborhoods?

Grunow: No, not in a traditional sense. And that’s the trick. The question in Detroit becomes, “How do you make change responsibly? And how do you get people to accept change who have been part of the status quo?”

It is a hard issue to grapple with. Traditional politics make it difficult. Which is why, in my mind, the only real way forward for places like Detroit, Philly, etc., is truly regional government. Our old structures of municipal governance are very clearly very broken. And the only way we’re going to get there is if we erase the borders that have held metropolises in check over the last hundred years.

Optimism

NC: Let’s talk about bright spots. We know that public-private partnerships are doing some good in parts of the city. Do you see some bright spots out there that you think Binelli missed, or are there bright spots he didn’t miss that you’d like to say more about?

Grunow: I do think there are actors taking risks in the “private” marketplace in ways they haven’t in recent decades. This is hopeful. There are certain sections of the city that haven’t seen reinvestment in years, like Palmer Park, experiencing rehabs and community leadership. Though there is still a long way to go, downtown and midtown continue to improve and become more livable, and there are projects like LEAP [the Lower East Side Action Plan], which is an example of a community-led planning process that is large scale and robust. There are a lot of good, little things going on. A big departure from the “silver bullet” thinking of the past.

In terms of future industry. I’d like to think that Detroit offers entrepreneurs and creatives a landscape to test, even if that means a culture of learning how to be a butcher and baker and candlestick maker all over again. We’re so far behind, we’re ahead.

The Detroit Maker Faire, which emphasizes DIY culture, in 2010. Credit: Alex Gorzen on Flickr

NC: The best chapter, hands down, is the “DIY City.”

Grunow: I agree. I also liked “Let Us Paint Your Factory Magenta,” about the surreal art projects folks are coming here to do.

So, I have a question. The DIY or “hipster” phenomenon. Is this something that is a real answer for a place like Detroit, or is it something that is a convenient poster child (and whipping boy) for the future of the city?

NC: This is just my personal opinion, but I think hipsters are always a good sign. Hipsters like what’s new. They are the sign that new, different things are happening. They follow some unidentifiable bellwether on the vanguard of change.

Grunow: So is this a 10-year trend line, and if it is, how do hipsters and others coexist? Does it rebuild Detroit from 60 years of disinvestment?

NC: This is based on nothing more than my own observations, but I think they are a symptom of good things, not the cause. But the hipster question does raise a really key point.

Grunow: I am hopeful that there is a better way of integrating DIY culture with people who are really struggling. And sadly, in Detroit this follows racial lines.

NC: I think that’s true everywhere.

Grunow: Right. So, can we do it differently here? It seems like we have to, because the problems are so widespread and so deep.

NC: To me, the question is how does government and the non-profit community create a context, an environment for change? Without mucking it up by trying to swoop in and pick winners?

Grunow: Right. It’s tough. Non-profits are taking the place of broken government.

NC: How do you get a kind of venture-capital mentality in economic development? Non-profits are pretty conservative.

Grunow: Yes, and the irony of the large scale non-profit activity in Detroit is that — though a lot of really good people are working in that sector — the funds they use are based on fortunes people made as they disinvested in Detroit. Now that money is coming back to try to save the place. It’s probably the same, to some degree, in other cities. Just seems especially poignant here.

NC: Farming came up a lot in Binelli’s book, and while I am pretty skeptical that urban megafarms are Detroit’s answer, I wouldn’t want to stifle them because maybe they are the answer and I just can’t see it. Like how the CEO of IBM once didn’t foresee a market in computers. But when I read Binelli writing about political leaders who wanted to get involved in forcing urban farming to grow even faster than it was growing naturally before the city was really ready, then farming wouldn’t work — because that kind of heavy handedness would distort it.

A farmer’s market in Detroit. Credit: Brendan Riley on Flickr

Grunow: Megafarms are not the answer. Farming may be important in Detroit’s future, but it’s funny, at the height of Detroit’s "Arsenal of Democracy," the average Detroiter was farming more in their "Victory Gardens" than they are now.

So to circle back to your question, how do we get folks to think in terms of venture capital? What is VC in Detroit? Other than we’ve got big bones for something. And global warming may increase the property value of those big bones soon.

NC: And, in a way, those big bones are the problem too, right? Detroit has a problem Des Moines doesn’t have. Des Moines doesn’t have to say, “Hey, we gotta be Des Moines again.” Des Moines just has to be a better Des Moines. But Detroit is haunted by a former greatness.

Grunow: Who’s to say if it will be great, but it’s not going away. It’s very rare that a place with a huge impetus — like Detroit’s big bones — disappears. Which is a reason why folks outside Detroit should care about its future, about a future that’s more sustainable.

Portrait of a City

NC: I’m glad that Binelli went in and told the story as honestly as he could, even if some folks are calling it “more ruin porn.”

Grunow: I thought he really made genuine connections to the people he wrote about. At least that was my impression.

NC: Because if Detroit (or any big city) is going to come back, big investments are going to need to be made in it from outside.

Grunow: Yes, in a million small ways. And a couple big ones (a subway would be nice).

NC: Both in terms of federal and state dollars, but also in terms of hipsters and businesses deciding to take a chance on Detroit and moving there. So, I think the rest of the world needs an honest picture of the city at this moment. Even if folks don’t like the picture he presents, outsiders need an honest take, even if it’s not that pretty right now. But, as an advocate for the city, what do you think folks need to know about Detroit? Why is it worth investing tax money and/or elbow grease and foot investment in?

Grunow: That it’s a complicated place that wears its problems on the outside. That it reflects the best and worst of the United States. And that, just as its storied past suggets, its success will be America’s success. Its failure, America’s failure. And that Detroiters are pretty awesome, and we need a bunch more of them.

NC: In a lot of ways, I think that chapter you mentioned before, about the crazy art works people are making, offers some of the best signs for the city. Freezing houses in blocks of ice and Matthew Barney coming to make performance art movies obviously isn’t the industry of Detroit’s future, but it feels like a sign of a broader spirit of creativity. I can see how spectacle making infuriates people, but it’s also wonderful in a weird way. It’s craziness like that that, seven steps removed, that creates a context that makes the next Hewlett-Packard pop up in someone’s garage, you know?

These issues are so huge and tough to talk about. Who are we to say what’s right and wrong, right?

Grunow: We just have to stop demolishing the places where creativity can happen. Or maybe take a moment or two and get out of cars that we don’t even make so much of anymore and meet each other and start having a conversation again, as if we never invented the assembly line in the first place. Detroit and Detroiters need to embrace the very notion of the city. At times it feels as though our city is being punished now for mass-producing the way to kill cities. It will be our salvation if we can learn to love cities again and get past the fact that we only make cars. We need to make a city.

Brady Dale is a writer and comedian based in Brooklyn. His reporting on technology appears regularly on Fortune and Technical.ly Brooklyn.

Tags: economic developmentdetroitgentrificationbook cluburban farminghipstersdiy urbanismmark binellirightsizing