Detroit Diary: Initial Thoughts

I’ve been in Detroit since Thursday night. Overwhelmed by so many things to do. The people: friendly, candid, intelligent, and interested in everything. The landscape: like dwelling in an architectural depiction of everything America has been–skyscrapers and factories–and is–empty homes and racialized inequality–and seeing what it’s becoming–gardens and collaborations, tensions between old ways and new ways. Young people are making Detroit vibrate with their creativity. Projects are unfurling everywhere; writers and artists and critics are generally unrestricted by boundaries that exist in most cities, but not in Detroit.

Things that matter much more in other cities–image, seniority, and money–

Excuse the “ruin porn.”

don’t factor in here, where there is a smaller and more connected creative class (I sense that a review of Richard Florida’s argument will be necessary in one of my future blog posts). And people are taking advantage of Detroit’s unique offerings: the extra space, added leisure time, intimate network, and opportunity to make their marks. Twenty-somethings are leaders in scenarios where normally they would be in the background. But the new way of doing things–social enterprise and foodie pop-ups–is clashing with the established nonprofit approach to ameliorating inequality. People talk about an old guard who don’t quite get what the deal is with things like crowdfunding.

On Friday night, I first found myself at a very boozey art gallery opening. Nearly everyone was complaining about how bad the art was. But it was selling for some pretty nice prices–not much lower than it might in Manhattan. After everyone was full of whiskey, we headed to the MOCAD for the opening of a brilliant two-part exhibit on factories and industrialization. (More on this in a future article, I hope!) In a field behind the museum, a guy who called himself a “machine artist” was giving people rides on “The Regurgitator,” a propane-powered axel that sends a person spinning along the ground very quickly. It made a sound like something you would have heard in an episode of “Star Trek.” Inside, a DJ was playing some very good electronic music, and people were dancing, hard.

I also had a nice moment earlier today, enjoying an egg sandwich and black tea at the counter of Astro Coffee, in a neighborhood called Corktown. The dishwasher, a 19-ish-year-old named Marcel, talked my ear off about everything in his life. He’s going into the Marines so he can pay his way through college afterward with the G.I. Bill (coincidentally, the NY Times ran a nice article today about the 1 trillion dollars Americans have in education debt). Ultimately, Marcel wants to work for the C.I.A., and I have no doubt he will. He also told me that he feels like people wanted Obama to win because they knew that one man couldn’t fix the mess Bush had created so, in the end, everyone would blame Obama for being a sucky president because he’s black, and then we’d go right back to having a white male leader. Smart kid, right?

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