Detroit has always been a metropolis of makers, its Model Ts and Cadillacs driving the world wild. Now, the city is roaring back from a decades-long battering, bruised but not broken. The resurgence is thanks to its everlasting commitment to creating. “The one thing that we’re great at is people here work well with their hands,” says local arts patron Marc Schwartz. Only this time around, the products are less mass industrial production, more artisan DIY.
Drawn by absurdly affordable prices for vast working spaces built for big industry, a swell of artists, craftspeople, and self-starters—natives and newcomers alike—is turning Detroit into an eclectic beacon of urban rebirth. Building a city’s future has never been so literal. “People design, build, and engineer things because it’s in their DNA,” says Phil Cooley, who nourished Detroit’s new creative wave when he launched a design-business incubator called Ponyride. He describes it as a bootstrapping scene built on collaboration: “We don’t have tons of resources, so everyone brings a little piece of the puzzle.”
Detroit covers 143 square miles—big enough to encompass all of Boston, Manhattan, and San Francisco, locals like to point out—and its population has dropped from a peak of 1.8 million in 1950 to 680,000 today. This makes the city a bit of a mixed bag. Abandoned homes blight some stretches, but there’s serious momentum in neighborhoods such as Corktown, Eastern Market, and Midtown, as well as Hamtramck, a dizzyingly diverse independent city that sits within Detroit’s own limits. During the last decade, these areas have developed a see-it-now scene that’s young, engaged, and inventive.
The creative energy has resulted in a giddy mix of quirky concepts—Tyree Guyton’s Heidelberg Project turns his neighborhood’s discarded homes into delirious art installations—and big-name successes. In 2011, Shinola gambled that it could build an empire on watches and luxury goods that are proudly, pointedly Detroit-built. The bet hit big.
Today Shinola employs more than 500 people, including more than half of the watchmakers who were there on Day One.
Shinola was the pioneer, and now there are scores of success stories in Detroit, many hiding in plain sight. Peek behind the city’s barely marked doors and you’ll find furniture makers sawing and sanding in former airplane-wing factories and letterpresses being inked and re-inked amid meatpackers’ ghosts. Churches have become recording studios, and restaurants have transcended their cinderblock trappings to become real happenings. No wonder UNESCO recently dubbed Detroit its first American City of Design. If you’re curious to see what a thriving arts scene looks like in its early, heady, anything-can-happen days, consider the citywide Detroit Design Festival September 22–24 your personal invitation. Book a flight and you’ll see that Detroit is once again on the make.
“I like the poetry of building a bike factory in Motor City,” says Zak Pashak, a Canadian and former DJ and club owner. Drawn across the border by Detroit’s manufacturing heritage, he founded Detroit Bikes in 2012 in a small industrial park near Dearborn, northwest of the city’s revitalized core. “Economic development can’t just be clustered downtown,” Pashak explains. “We need to spread it out across the city.” His factory, one of the country’s rare shops to hand-build commuter bikes out of domestic steel, pulls off the magic trick of delivering durability and graceful design at a moderate price. Inside a former sign-making outfit, his workforce of around 50—including retrained auto-industry veterans and bike enthusiasts—is a whirl of welding, painting, and assembly, cranking out 8,000-odd bikes this year. “This is the biggest bike factory in America,” Pashak says, adding that China and Taiwan manufacture most bicycles. Big customers include New Belgium Brewing, which orders 2,500 cruiser bikes a year to be given to employees and raffled off, and New York City’s bike-share program. And the factory is built for growth, with the infrastructure to churn out 50,000 bikes a year. “You’re not going to drop Silicon Valley into Detroit,” Pashak says, noting that the city is no tech center. “It’s a manufacturing region. People make things here.”
To locate Salt & Cedar Letterpress amid the hurly-burly of meatpacking and produce-selling at Eastern Market, look for the outdoor black-and-white mural reading TRUE MERIDIAN. “True Meridian points to what is possible, a yet-to-be-revealed destination,” says proprietor Megan O’Connell, who taught at an art school in Maine before relocating to Detroit in 2011. In 2012 she launched her press and bookbindery with then-husband Leon Johnson. They turned a 3,000-square-foot veal-processing plant, where a cast-iron scale still sits sentry at the entrance, into a cauldron of creative arts from the predigital era. A hand-cranked letterpress sits near typewriters, stamps, inks, and cabinets crammed with type, and prints clipped onto wire ziplines turn the walls into graphic art. O’Connell does a mix of the expected (business cards, concert posters, wedding invites) and the unexpected. She collaborates on printing and binding books with authors, poets, and even Beyoncé, creating a two-volume set to commemorate the star’s first Mother’s Day. She leads zine-making workshops, hosts readings, and welcomes people to the wooden worktable in her back room for the candlelit Feast of Fleurons, where attendees enjoy a locally sourced dinner, then learn to hand-set type and print a keepsake. She says, “In Detroit, there’s something special about going to a back room, tucked away, and doing something productive.”
Open to the public Saturdays and for events.
While wandering through Ponyride, Detroit’s 30,000-square-foot incubator space for makers, you’ll hear sewing machines hum, the woodshop buzz, and . . . what’s that thwack, thwack? It’s Smith Shop, run by Gabriel Craig and Amy Weiks. The husband-and-wife duo uses a blazing forge, anvils, and dozens of hammers (including an 1894 mechanical “power hammer”) to shape copper, steel, and silver into elegantly sturdy corkscrews, serving utensils, and sugar-creamer sets—housewares suited for a medieval king’s kitchen. After graduate school and residencies took them to Virginia, Georgia, and Texas, with Craig exhibiting his art jewelry at the Smithsonian, they returned to Craig’s native Detroit when Weiks enrolled in a metalworking master’s program. Postgraduation, they opened Smith Shop in the brand-new Ponyride. They assumed orders would come from outside Detroit, but it hasn’t turned out that way. “It’s actually rare that we get commissions outside the region,” says Craig, his right forearm tattooed with a trio of hammers. Instead, they create belt buckles for Ponyride alum Detroit Denim, custom architectural ironwork for local homes, and menorahs and candlesticks for Judaica stores. They also teach classes on how to make everything from hammers to wedding bands. This year, they’re opening the nonprofit Center for Craft & Applied Arts, with manufacturing space, crafts classes, a gallery, and a store. “There’s an inclusive culture of entrepreneurship in Detroit,” Craig says. “We all want each other to succeed.”
The sunlight-drenched Russell Industrial Center, where World War II airplane wings were once built, is now abuzz with photographers, painters, musicians, sculptors, and furniture makers at work, including wife-husband design team Abir Ali and Andre Sandifer. “We make beautiful, pristine work in a sort of mess,” Ali jokes, gesturing around the sawdust-coated workshop. The couple turns Midwest-grown maple, walnut, and oak into clean-lined coffee tables, media consoles, and credenzas, each as unique as an offspring and given a human name to match. “It’s not plywood, it’s solid wood,” Sandifer says. “Every tree is different.” Detroit-raised Ali, daughter of Pakistani and Lebanese immigrants, and Sandifer, from Grand Rapids, met at the University of Michigan and started a family (now with three sons) and a business in Ann Arbor before moving to Chicago. After six years, “Chicago didn’t feel like home,” says Ali. “The furniture was doing well, but we could really be anywhere. We weren’t tied to a local clientele.” The family relocated to Detroit in 2011, setting up shop at Russell. With business mounting, the couple is exploring next steps, maybe moving to a larger space or displaying their furniture in a public showroom where people can zoom in on the piece that’s just right for their home. (For the moment, visits to the workshop are by appointment only.) “We’re making pieces that are built to last and become a part of the family,” Ali says.
“The idea was to figure out whether people would buy $250 jeans in Detroit,” says Michigan native Eric Yelsma. Armed with a “far-fetched business plan” after losing his sales job in 2009, the bearded and bespectacled jeans junkie cashed in his 401(k), learned to sew, installed equipment at the design incubator Ponyride, and launched Detroit Denim Co. With start-up costs so low, “I couldn’t have done this anywhere else,” Yelsma says. For his sophisticated update on the Levi’s-style five-pocket jean, he scouted around the country for premium raw materials, finding North Carolina selvage denim and copper buttons from a Connecticut factory that once outfitted Civil War soldiers. Hems are chain stitched for strength and flexibility. Rivets are hand hammered. Atypical cuts include Hockey, roomy in the hips and thighs. And customers can arrange custom fittings, fostering a connection that’s akin to the notion of “know your farmer.” Has his big idea worked? Well, Yelsma has noticed that some fans hop a cab from the airport directly to Detroit Denim. And, to meet growing demand, the company recently moved to a 4,300-square-foot former electrical transformer factory that’s outfitted with a slatted wooden ceiling and riveted fixtures. Visitors can shop in the same space where workers sew jeans, bags, belts, and other leather goods. “A factory being reborn as a factory,” says Yelsma. “I can support that.”
© 2016 AFAR Media