Friday, October 7, 2011

Why Not Detroit?

Forty years ago, give or take a few years, New York City went through a wondrous renaissance. While there had always been artists there, the low rents and empty spaces, the vague element of danger and lawlessness, all made sure that Manhattan became the center of the arts in America. Fashion, photography, painting, music, writing, everything had a place in the city in those days, as artists were able to take a chance, move to the city because they could afford to, and scrape by until they either drifted home, or in a surprising number of cases made it big.

I speak only of Manhattan. Nobody in those days, I'm given to understand, went to the burroughs, or thought much of them. Only on the island was there much in the way of life and culture; the Bronx and Brooklyn and Queens went on as working class sub cities, homes to immigrants and industry. While there were probably a few exceptions, the vast majority of the artistic rebirth in New York was concentrated between the Hudson and East Rivers.

Four decades on, New York is safe, prosperous and above all expensive. Not that there was ever a time when you couldn't find vastly pricey properties in Manhattan, and hugely high rents. But back in 1970, you could still also find broken down corners where no one went, where urban decay had taken hold, where you could get a big loft for a couple hundred dollars, or a rundown walkup apartment on the fifth floor of a rickety building. Now every spot in Manhattan is gentrified, expensive even if doesn't look it, and still somehow full of artists, now piled six deep in a tiny space fit for one, struggling to pay rent and eat in ways they never did before, unable to have a workspace except out in the very sub cities that were once shunned.

So what now? Articles are being written about how New York's creative boom years are ending, or already ended, because of the problems of rent and space. And perhaps there's no need for a city of artists any longer. The internet brings together writers, photographers, painters, designers, in ways that "mere" proximity never could, right?

Or wrong. There is nothing so stimulating to art as meeting with and talking to other artists, gathering and speaking together, looking over each other's work. There is nothing that makes art as possible as spaces for it to exist in, studios and theaters and galleries. New York for long and long has been that place, but it can be that place for at best a little time longer.

Why not Detroit, then? It might sound ridiculous. But examine the case. Detroit is in many ways very similar to Manhattan in the 60s: broken down, with crime and urban decay as massive concerns, population decline, cheap rents. It's a city ripe for rebirth. right now you can find places like this, slightly smaller than my apartment in Seattle and a third the price. This is for a city that, until a couple of decades ago, was the third largest in the nation, a proud and mighty metropolis.

I can hear the objections. It's Detroit! people will say, as if that matters. New York? They'll kill you! was what they said in in the Nixon years, and into the Reagan years even. People still went. Nobody wants to be the first, someone might say. Well, perhaps not. But there's a very attractive level of availability there, isn't there? Cheap rents, opportunities for everything, close proximity to the great outdoors (no, really) and to Canada (really? yes!). The climates even match pretty well: muggy and hot in summer, and chill and snowy in the winter.

Is this a real possibility? Can people go to Detroit, make it a city of art, and get it going as a reborn, growing city again? I don't know. But there's historical precedent, and there's no reason not to give it a shot. The place can use artists. As for me, I'm freakishly sensitive to weather change, being from Seattle, so I don't know that I could make it.'s tempting, isn't it? To try to be the explorers, the settlers, of a new place (an old place made new, in this case). What might not be accomplished.

Why not Detroit, then?


  1. why not Detroit? Car culture! It would be much more likely to turn into another Los Angeles as opposed to a Manhattan. Having lived for a time in both cities I'll say this, I'll take Manhattan over Los Angeles any day of the week and then some more even:)

  2. aturner2 makes an excellent point. A functional pubtrans system makes all the difference. Unfortunately there's very few cities that have a good system that are also fairly cheap. Chicago is the only one that springs to mind, and they do have a pretty thriving artistic community, or at least did when I lived there.