'Last Stop on the L Train: Detroit'
By JENNIFER CONLIN
JULY 10, 2015
“Detroit, Just West of Bushwick,” read the first billboard that popped up in Bushwick, Brooklyn, this spring, with a working class scene from one of Diego Rivera’s “Detroit Industry” murals. “Detroit, Be Left Alone,” a second one preached soon after, again in Bushwick. And then a third sign appeared, in two locations in Brooklyn and two in Manhattan — “Detroit: Now Hiring.”
No one quite knew where they were coming from or who had put them up.
But when an unrelated photo popped up on Instagram — “Move to Detroit” spray-painted on a girder of the Brooklyn Bridge — the campaign’s anonymous crusader finally revealed himself.
“I rent billboard spaces where others don’t see value. That is how I saw Detroit on my first visit four years ago,” said Philip Kafka, the 28-year-old man who then put his passion behind the billboards with his SoHo-based company, Prince Media. “I saw great buildings, a deep and rich cultural history, and met amazing people.”
He now owns six buildings in the Motor City, one of which will house his new restaurant, Katoi, across the street from Detroit’s most photographed “ruin porn,” the Michigan Central Station. “I want people to know that in Detroit you can afford to make art, be a chef, buy houses, start a business, do anything if you work hard,” he said.
“You can find your purpose in Detroit, which is nearly impossible to do these days in New York,” he added.
For many of the same reasons, Robert Elmes, the executive director of the 20-year-old Brooklyn-based Galápagos Art Space, a performance venue and cornerstone for artists, announced last December that the venue would be closing its doors in New York and moving to Detroit. Or as stated on its website: “You can’t paint at night in your kitchen and hope to be a good artist. It doesn’t work that way.” Since then, Mr. Elmes has received more than 500 emails from artists contemplating following him.
It is now well-documented that some of Brooklyn’s much-written-about creative class is being driven out of the borough by high prices and low housing stock. Some are going to Los Angeles (or even Queens), but others are migrating to the Midwest, where Detroit’s empty industrial spaces, community-based projects, experimental art scene and innovative design opportunities beckon, despite the city’s continuing challenges.
“Brooklyn lost its whole sense of adventure for me,” said Ben Wolf, 31, a Pratt Institute graduate who, after more than a decade in New York, moved to Detroit almost three years ago to continue creating his site-specific installations and sculptures, made from rotten boards, rusty stairwells and peeling paint, or as he said, “the decadence of abandonment.”
“Initially I was attracted to the freedom of space and materials I found here,” said Mr. Wolf. “But what has surprised me is how Detroit has allowed me to mature.”
Mr. Wolf now works in a 25,000-square-foot warehouse and lives with his girlfriend in another 2,000-square-foot space — both of which he bought for a combined cost of under $8,000 two years ago. “Owning my own place or starting a business was financially impossible in Brooklyn,” he said.
“I came here thinking I might help save Detroit, and instead it has saved me,” he added.
Or, as Mr. Elmes said on a recent visit to Detroit: “New York is now hyper-gentrified like London. I want to develop artists, not destroy them, and they simply can’t afford to live and work there anymore.”
To that end, he has bought nine buildings totaling 600,000 square feet for what he said is “the price of a small apartment in New York.” He hopes to have the first space, a 300,000-square-foot former high school, opened by the fall of 2016.
Mr. Elmes said he believes artists and curators will flock here from all over the world to see the work being created. “I see Detroit becoming like Berlin just after the wall came down,” he said.
Former New Yorkers now living in Detroit may be reminded of New York by a few retail outlets in their new home.
For instance, in the West Village neighborhood of Detroit, there is now the Red Hook, a cafe started by Sandi Heaselgrave. Ms. Heaselgrave, a photographer, moved to Williamsburg from Detroit directly out of art school in 1998, only to find herself moving back with her husband and son five years ago. And on the shelves of most stores are jars of McClure’s Pickles, a “Brooklyn/Detroit” company that is selling its quickly expanding line nationally.
But while real estate is cheap and available through agents and public auction sites, particularly for those willing to navigate a complicated system, there are also hidden costs to the purchase price: back taxes, old water bills and, for the most dilapidated properties, financing a complete renovation from electricity and plumbing to a new roof and foundation.
“I estimate it costs $100 a square foot to rehab an empty house here, and that is without doing anything very upscale,” said Amy Haimerl, a former Red Hook resident who moved to Detroit in 2013 after purchasing a 3,000-square-foot house for $35,000. Since then, she and her husband have spent about $400,000 fixing it up, documenting the refurbishment on her website — though they have not cut corners, putting in a gourmet kitchen and installing old moldings from an abandoned church.
Others, like the community activist and artist Halima Cassells, are experimenting with more frugal ways to fix up a previously abandoned building. Ms. Cassells, who during her six years in Brooklyn moved seven times, is now back in her native Detroit and the proud owner of a two-family home she recently bought for just $3,100, including back taxes.
As an extension of the “free-market movement” she began here, in which community members trade items they no longer need at regularly organized swaps, she has started a “builders’ club.” In the club, those who help labor on the house’s restoration, which she is documenting in a blog, will in return be given space to work in what she hopes will become a rotating workshop for community projects and artists.
“One thing anyone moving here needs to know is you have to come into Detroit respecting the people who have been living here through all the city’s struggles,” Ms. Cassells said.
Toby Barlow agrees. Mr. Barlow, a former New Yorker, is credited by many with putting Detroit on the national moving map back in 2009 with his opinion article for The New York Times titled, “For Sale: The $100 House.”
“Because the city has been through so much, we are ahead of the nation on all the big conversations like race and class,” he said. “But you have to settle in and get involved to succeed here.”
Two years ago, Mr. Barlow started the nonprofit “Write a House,” which awards a literary prize like no other: ownership of a free home in a culturally diverse neighborhood in Detroit that hopes to encourage residents to stay in the area. The first winner, a 30-year-old poet and historian, Casey Rocheteau, moved to Detroit last fall from Brooklyn, and she is quick to say Detroit is nothing like her former home.
“Detroit is culturally different,” she said. “New York is predicated on competition. Toddlers fight seniors for subway seats. Detroit is all about collaboration.”
It is also very much about the African-American community, which makes up about 83 percent of Detroit’s still-dwindling population.
“If you look around and find yourself in an all white space, you should know you are having a racially curated experience, like a Kenyan safari,” said the filmmaker and activist Dream Hampton. “But if you venture off, you will find a city that is complicated, has a rich history and some of the realest people you have ever met.”
Ms. Hampton moved home to her Detroit 11 years after leaving for a career in New York, which included collaborating with Jay Z on his best-selling book, “Decoded.”
“Sure, gentrification brings slow-drip coffee, pedigree pork and almond milk, but it also brings hyper-policing,” said Ms. Hampton.
She added that newcomers need to realize Detroit residents have been working to find solutions to the city’s problems for decades and should respectfully join natives’ efforts, rather than presume to have the answers.
What’s more, newcomers in creative professions may still find it difficult to support themselves, even in a city as affordable as Detroit appears to be compared with other regional hubs like Portland, Ore.; Minneapolis; Austin, Tex.; and Seattle.
“A lot of my job is resetting the expectations of people moving here,” said Matthew Clayson, executive director of the Detroit Creative Corridor Center, an economic development partnership between Business Leaders for Michigan and the College for Creative Studies, in downtown Detroit.
One recent arrival is Richard Ganas, 29, a furniture designer and fabricator, with a new 3,000-square-foot studio, for which he pays just $1,500 a month. Having just moved from New York, where he spent the last five years working for the invention company Quirky, he can now afford to branch out on his own. Never mind that his first client was Quirky, which commissioned him to make a 20-foot-long conference table for one of the company’s offices.
“The hope is that Detroit will become a new national furniture design district,” he said. It may take some time, though; the loft space next to him is about to be occupied by a guy who makes giant terrariums.
There is no need to ask the jewelry and fashion designers Samantha Banks Schefman and Paulina Petkoski, both 28, if they regret moving out of their small, overpriced apartments in Brooklyn for the 6,000-square-foot loft they now occupy in Detroit. Owned by Eric Bernstein — a planner and technical director for New York events — the loft’s rent is reduced for Ms. Schefman and Ms. Petkoski. In return, they manage the Airbnb rentals of two of the four bedrooms.
“I keep pinching myself,” said Ms. Schefman, who moved from New York to Detroit in March. “It still feels unreal.”