Written by Ivan Carvalho
Photography by Stefan Jermann
Dear urban explorer,
On my return journey to Detroit Airport after shooting in the city once dubbed the “Paris of the Midwest” I struck up a conversation with my taxi driver, Charlie, who asked: “So, did you see the Packard Plant?” “No,” I said, knowing lots of tourists flock there to wander around its decades-old rubble. “Did you see some of the ruins and what about the Motown Museum?” Again, my reply was in the negative. I told him I solely focused my visit on the Midtown district to do a reportage. “Ah, I see,” said Charlie in disbelief. I spotted a pricey Swiss-made watch on his wrist and told him about this watch company in Midtown that maybe he had seen before. “Shinola? I think I can’t afford those watches!” he replied. I proceeded to tell him that what he had on his wrist cost a lot more than Shinola and convinced him to go have a peek at their store on Canfield Street.
When people talk about Detroit today it’s usually to put it down, bringing up its bankruptcy, its urban blight, the interest in “ruin porn,” where photographers from all corners of the globe come to document its industrial decline and then package it into fancy coffee-table books. You hear about the crime, how unsafe it is. Well, when Mirus ventured into Midtown Detroit we encountered people who were welcoming, charming and full of pride. These proud Detroiters, along with some new arrivals, were ready to take on the mission of revitalizing the neighborhood, to rebuild the community. There was the “Share Your Candy” mentality of Matthew Naimi, founder of a recycling plant and arts park; the cultural maverick George N’Namdi and his art gallery; and Sue Mosey of Midtown Inc., a sort of Joan of Arc of Midtown who has fought for urban revival for the past three decades.
Once derided as the heart of the Rust Belt, Detroit is showing that America’s industrial heartland is getting back on the road to prosperity. Locals are reinventing the wheel so to speak one day at a time. Detroit is still Detroit, even if it’s on a smaller scale.
Enjoy that Detroit experience,
THE MOTOR CITY IS LOOKING TO TURN THE PAGE ON ITS RECENT PAST MARKED BY BANKRUPTCY AND URBAN BLIGHT. LOCALS HAVE FOUND HOPE IN THE MIDTOWN NEIGHBORHOOD, WHERE PLUCKY ENTREPRENEURS AND URBAN VISIONARIES ARE WORKING TO LAY A NEW FOUNDATION TO GET THE CITY ON THE ROAD TO ECONOMIC RECOVERY.
Written by Ivan Carvalho
Photography by Stefan Jermann
For decades, when most Americans thought about Detroit what jumped to mind was the auto industry or the music of great artists like Aretha Franklin, Smokey Robinson or Diana Ross and the Supremes. This was the unabashed Motor City, the home of Motown and soulful music, the metropolis where a century ago Henry Ford set a precedent by offering high wages to factory workers that heralded the beginning of America’s middle class and an economy that was driven by consumer demand.
Fast forward to the 1980s and pop culture foreshadowed the problems ahead for the Motor City when the cyberpunk action film RoboCopportrayed a dystopian near-future Detroit that was bankrupt, overrun with crime and hit by urban flight to the suburbs. Of course, this all came to pass. There was the Great Recession in 2008, the US government bailout of the Big Three automakers and the city of Detroit throwing in the towel in 2013 when it declared itself insolvent.
There’s a renewed interest by those who exited the city for decades (first whites and then middle class African-American Detroiters) to now look for work and a place to call home amidst the many vacant structures that populate the city’s sprawling confines – in 2014, it was estimated there were nearly 80,000 empty buildings of varying sizes rotting away in Detroit and attracting tourists and journalists eager to document what has been coined “ruin porn.”
Reviving a neighborhood by building infrastructure such as sidewalks and dog parks and attracting independent retail gets people out and about. By bringing people back on the streets (on foot, bike or skateboard) Midtown Detroit fosters community interaction. Microbrewery Jolly Pumpkin (left) offers great pizza in the heart of Midtown.
Tim Schumack works in Midtown, where a large portion of its historic buildings have now been restored.
«MIDTOWN IS CHANGING RAPIDLY AND IT'S VERY EXCITING TO BE PART OF THAT CHANGE. EVERY CITY GOES THROUGH CYCLES AND WE ARE ON THE UPSWING. ART AND PEOPLE ARE VERY IMPORTANT TO ME AND MAINTAINING A CONVERSATION ABOUT ONE'S OWN IDENTITY.»
West Canfield has made a comeback. The street is now home to hip retailers like Willys, with its supercool clothing brands and accessories, and watchmaker Shinola's flagship store. Fans of vinyl are are set with Third Man Records by Jack White.
While a full-blown turnaround is still a long way off, early signs of urban revival can be found in Midtown, an area of the city known for its varied mix of architectural styles and that is anchored by Wayne State University — a large public university — and the Detroit Institute of Arts. It has two major health care systems, the Detroit Medical Center and the Henry Ford Hospital; and there's the vibrant College of Creative Studies.
Stunning Alexander Calder sculpture outside the Detroit Institute of Arts on 5200 Woodward Avenue. Right: Urban gardening on Second Street.
Midtown has always been one of the denser areas of Detroit – a city that lost a million inhabitants to urban flight in the recent past and which encompasses 140 square miles, much of which is vacant or in disrepair. The neighborhood, like the rest of Detroit, still faces challenges but the transformation over the last five years has been dramatic here.
Residents are flocking in large numbers, including to Wayne State’s campus where students have even been temporarily housed at a hotel due to high demand for on-campus housing. New businesses, from organic bakeries to Bikram yoga studios, are opening every day. And there are festivals and events drawing visitors from across the city.
“One of the best things about the tech community in Detroit is its focus on practical ingenuity. So you’ve got an automotive engineer addressing gun safety with a biometric gun lock or ear-nose-throat doctors developing a really simple, cost-effective tool for tonsil removal—innovations that have the potential to improve life for people across the economic spectrum.” Ned Staebler, CEO TechTown Detroit
Adds Staebler: “That said, there’s lots of room to try out off-the-wall ideas because it is still quite affordable here, so the price of failure is low. Perhaps most importantly—and this is something entrepreneurs here talk about a lot—Detroit is a place where everyone can make a mark. Many members of the startup community here are committed to addressing the challenges that have historically faced Detroit and other urban areas, and they’re making a true difference in the city and in people’s lives. That’s a really powerful reason to come here.”
Shared office space at TechTown headquarters
where startups have access to cheap workspace.
As the dotcom crowd pushes real estate prices through the roof in Silicon Valley Midtown Detroit is home to two-story Victorian residences that are going for a steal.
Take historic West Canfield, nestled between Detroit's Second and Third avenues and only blocks from Woodward Avenue, the long street that leads to Henry Ford’s old factory that was the birthplace of the modern assembly line. The block that makes up West Canfield is an oasis of preserved Victorian splendor, with homes fronting a cobblestone road and a beautiful green canopy of trees. Abodes boast wraparound porches, spires, carvings and ornate details that offer passers-by a glimpse of 19th-century Detroit decadence.
Joe and his custom made “Big Baby” bike that took him hundreds of hours to build. Detroit has over 150 lowrider bike enthusiasts, a movement that has caught on in the past few years.
A few blocks away from this urban refuge one sees industrial grit, with one-time factories or auto dealerships now housing start-ups or a microbrewery. Just west of Woodward, there’s one of the largest projects under development, the $28 million renovation of the old 8-floor Strathmore Hotel built in the 1920s. It is set for 129 units, a mix of affordable housing and more swanky flats.
Despite its deep roots tied to the auto industry,Midtown is eagerly awaiting the arrival of the M-1, slated to begin operations in 2016, a light rail service that will ferry passengers into downtown and help eradicate blight by attracting even more businesses and residents eager for a car-free commute.
Sue Mosey, president of Midtown Detroit Inc., a non-profit planning and economic development agency that works to encourage new business and housing here, often walks the blocks of Midtown to get a sense of the change underway. A 30-year veteran of urban planning, she foresees a rebooted Detroit, led by the progress being spearheaded in Midtown, that will be a leaner and more attractive destination in the coming years and all the talk of the Rust Belt and ruin porn will be consigned to the dustbin. “Detroiters are increasingly looking at smaller projects to solve their economic woes, rather than the big developments that were favored 10 or 20 years ago.”
For Mosey, places like Midtown will signal an important change as urban sprawl is reversed and communities focusing on creating density in their neighborhoods will win out.
«We create a smaller, more efficient, better run, more interesting city, and bring back basic services for residents who are here and want to be here. It’s a tall order, but it is the only order. I mean what other order are you going to have?» Sue Mosey
Now a business that bets on hardware over software and takes on the near monopoly enjoyed by Swiss watch brands may seem contrarian, or even a bit crazy, but the people behind Shinola aren’t afraid of a challenge. Far from it. For starters, the company has set up shop in Detroit, a city mired in problems ranging from double digit unemployment to cash-strapped public services but one that still symbolizes America’s manufacturing prowess given it is still home to the Big Three US automakers of Chrysler, General Motors and Ford, who are looking to bounce back after the recent job-sapping recession.
Adam Peterson, Movement Repair Technician.
Assembling the watch movement takes great precision and a calm hand. Watchmakers are constantly trained by Swiss movement manufacturer Ronda.
Fervent believers in good old manufacturing of the type Henry Ford made famous with his popular Model T cars, Shinola has simply exchanged the often noisy and smelly car assembly line, where workers in t-shirts and jeans stand and piece together a sedan or truck’s metal chassis with the aid of robots, for a serene light-filled workspace populated by staff who sit patiently at benches attired in hairnets, lab coats and Crocs footwear to painstakingly construct watch movements by hand – not surprisingly, Shinola has recruited many laid off auto workers intrigued by the chance to learn a new trade.
Besides helping to supply Shinola with staff, the brand can thank the auto industry for its current digs. The company’s headquarters and watch factory is located on the fifth floor of Detroit’s Argonaut Building, a 1928 Art Deco masterpiece designed by Albert Kahn for General Motors. The American automaker’s design department was housed here and engineers kept busy drawing up plans for innovations including the world’s first fully automatic mass-produced transmission that debuted in vehicles in the 1940s.
Thomas Sabula, Certified Trainer.
CALL IT THE «MICRO-MOTOR CITY» IF YOU WILL
Leaping forward to 2015, this listed building adorned in brick is once more a hotbed of design. Shinola leases space from the building’s current tenant, the College for Creative Studies, a top US arts and design school, and in the brand’s 60,000 square foot facility visitors now see people creating designs and assembling engines on a much smaller scale. Call it the micro-motor city if you will.
While the creative team dream up new pieces to add to the brand’s portfolio of clean-looking, no-nonsense watches – think numerals reminiscent of US public school clocks – other staff don loupes or peer through large magnifying glasses to examine the dozens of components that go into the watch movement, using slender pincers to pick up screws and other tiny parts – to ensure high standards, employees from Swiss firm Ronda, which supplies watch movement parts to Shinola, provide training for personnel and inspect the assembly process.
Crystal Thomson, Movement Assembler.
«YOU KNOW, ONE OF THE GREAT THINGS IS THAT WE ARE HIRING FOR JOBS THAT HAVEN'T EXISTED HERE BEFORE AND SOME OF THEM HAVE NEVER EXISTED IN THE UNITED STATES.»
“We are on a mission to make things in America and of high quality,” says Shinola president Jacques Panis, who is a vocal cheerleader not only for his brand but for Detroit and the city’s industrial heritage. Listening to Panis speak, it’s clear that he is not swayed by all the negative chatter in recent years chronicling Detroit’s woes.
“There is such a stigma around the world that Detroit is in a pile of ruins now but it is not. It was known as the Paris of the Midwest for a reason. That great architecture, beauty and [manufacturing] might are still here.”
IF ONE TAKES SHINOLA AS A CASE STUDY, IT’S HARD NOT TO SHARE THE OPTIMISM ESPOUSED BY PANIS ABOUT A GREAT INDUSTRIAL REVIVAL IN WHAT HAS OFTEN BEEN CONSIDERED BY CRITICS AS AMERICA’S RUST BELT.
If one takes Shinola as a case study, it’s hard not to share the optimism espoused by Panis about a great industrial revival in what has often been considered by critics as America’s Rust Belt. From a handful of employees when it first moved into the Argonaut in 2012, Shinola has grown to more than 350 employees locally. In addition to its watches, the company is making tote bags, backpacks and other accessories from vegetable-tanned leather sourced from a traditional Chicago tannery, journals and notebooks handbound in Michigan not to mention sourcing sleek bicycle forks and frames from a specialty manufacturer in Wisconsin.
Willie J. Holley III, Movement Line Supervisor.
The watch factory at Shinola is built around an assembly line so that each step in production is only a hand away. One of the main partners of Shinola is Swiss quartz movement manufacturer Ronda, they train the watchmakers and supply parts for the «micro-engines».
«I HAVE NATIONAL AND EVEN INTERNATIONAL RETAILERS CALLING ME TO OPEN A STORE IN MIDTOWN AND SAYING THAT THEY WANT TO BE NEAR SHINOLA.»
SUE MOSEY, MIDTOWN INC.
Cortney De Ornellas, Movement Assembler.
IN ITS PUSH TO BECOME A VERTICALLY INTEGRATED WATCH BRAND, SOMETHING THAT STILL REQUIRES A LOT OF LEGWORK GIVEN THAT TODAY ITS TIMEPIECES ARE POWERED BY QUARTZ MOVEMENT COMPONENTS SUPPLIED BY ITS SWISS PARTNER RONDA, THE FIRM RECENTLY SET UP A WATCH DIAL FACILITY INSIDE ITS DETROIT STORE IN THE MIDTOWN NEIGHBORHOOD.
Terrel Eliott, Strapping Associate.
Salah Altam, Watch Repair Technician.
Willie J. Holley III, Movement Line Supervisor.
Wesley Pullen, Watch Assembler.
THE ART OF
SCREEN-PRINTED BY HAND
IN MIDTOWN DETROIT
VISIBLE THROUGH GLASS WALLS – THE WORKSHOP MUST BE LOCATED INSIDE A STERILE ROOM TO KEEP DUST AT BAY – CUSTOMERS SEE FIRSTHAND THAT THE COMPANY’S SLOGAN “WHERE AMERICAN IS MADE” IS MORE THAN JUST MARKETING HYPE.
Making a dial is true craftsmanship.
Every piece is inspected by hand.
Visible through glass walls – the workshop must be located inside a sterile room to keep dust at bay – customers see firsthand that the company’s slogan “where American is made” is more than just marketing hype. The mere fact of moving some of its dial production from a Taiwan supplier to mainland US is impressive, especially given Shinola is a fledging brand in a watchmaking industry where the Swiss have dominated for decades.
John Channing, Dial Maker,
Shinola Dial Factory.
Don't miss the next moonphase
THE RUNWELL MOONPHASE WITH A MOON DIAL TO TRACK LUNAR PHASES. POLISHED STAINLESS STEEL CASE AND SAPPHIRE CRYSTAL, POWERED BY THE DETROIT-ASSEMBLED ARGONITE 708.1 MOVEMENT.
The use of the moon as a time-telling device goes back to antiquity, with lunar calendars in use as far back as 34,000 years ago. Developed by the Egyptians up until the introduction of the Julian calendar by Julius Caesar in 46 BC, the lunar calendar gave birth to what we know today as a year consisting of 12 months divided into 29.5 days on average per month. The length of a month was determined by the time between two full moons and it’s eight phases known as a cycle. The first moonphase wristwatch was built by Swiss watchmaker Breguet in 1929, the same watchmaker who gave us the tourbillon.
Ernestine Purnell, Leather Cutter for Small Leather Goods.
To further boost their “Built in Detroit” motto that is visible on their watch cases, the brand has inaugurated a leather goods workshop adjacent to its Argonaut headquarters where new hires are churning out wallets as well as leather straps for its popular watches such as the Runwell. In another move to up its game, Shinola brought in a manager from luxury bag maker Louis Vuitton, who helped with its Detroit-based leather goods collection, getting workers to remove their gloves and work barehanded with the leather to improve their familiarity with the material.
“Provenance is a key pillar for us,” adds Panis. “Consumers don’t just want another widget, they want something that they can be part of and identify with. Our story is about Detroit and the good that is happening here in the community.”
Perhaps clients feel they are getting a piece of the Motor City strapped to their wrist when they purchase one of the brand’s timepieces or perhaps they feel that in some small way they are taking part in the rejuvenation of a city that has been linked to craftsmanship and innovation long before Intel and Apple on the West Coast were busy trailblazing the digital economy. Whatever the case, the numbers don’t lie as Shinola has in a few short years seen demand boom, with orders coming in from New York to Japan and annual production now topping 200,000 annually – stores have now been unveiled from Los Angeles to London.
READ ONLY MODE
No doubt helping matters is an attractive price point, with most Shinola models retailing between $500 and $1,000. Their utilitarian looks stand apart from the sea of cheaper models flooding in from China that target fickle fashion trends and feature shocking colors while the brand sits below the pricy mechanical Swiss watches that sometimes are overstuffed with useless features. Indeed, it’s no surprise that Shinola paired with fellow Detroit-based firm Ford to recently make a 50th anniversary timepiece to honor the carmaker’s Mustang model, an iconic automobile that is in line with the watchmaker’s clean, functional and authentically American aesthetic.
Each watch strap is made from scratch and goesthrough a process of quality control in the end.
In the end, it makes perfect sense for the first company in forty years to build watches at scale in America to be located in the cradle of US manufacturing. It is a testament to Shinola’s owner, Dallas-based Bedrock Manufacturing, a venture-capital concern of Tom Kartsotis, an upstart entrepreneur who previously founded Fossil watches. Today, Kartsotis has a lofty dream to promote businesses that are based on making things locally and not offshoring them out to Third World countries – Bedrock has also acquired brands like Filson, which began making clothing for outdoorsmen in Seattle over a century ago.
To hear from Daniel Caudill, Shinola’s creative director,
the choice of Detroit wasn’t an obvious one but after
meetings with locals in the community and the first
tentative steps to put together timepieces the company
was sold on the idea of the Motor City as its home base.
“It really was a leap of faith,” says Caudill, dressed in
his utilitarian uniform of t-shirt and jeans.
“At the onset, we weren’t really sure if we could
manufacture movements in the United States or assemble
watches. It was based on emotion and heart.
What has since come out of this factory is simply astounding.
The level of quality of a Swiss movement that’s assembled
here in Detroit is breathtaking. To walk through the factory
and touch a movement from the very beginning until it is
packaged and leaves the door is quite stunning.”
READ ONLY MODE
Ernestine Purnell, Small Leather Goods Artisan & Leather Cutter.
Tracey Teague & Tiara Tucker, Utility Artisans.
Seywyn Davis, Utility Artisan.
Natasha Ford, Shopkeeper.
The success of Shinola may be a harbinger of better things to come for the city and a signal to other metropolises not to turn their back on industries where people work with their hands to make something tangible – just think, do we really need all those developers making apps for our smartphones?
In fact, one could argue that the minute motors inside the watch brand’s steel cases are helping in their own way to propel the economy of Detroit forward. It’s still the Motor City, only downsized.
Lyndell Conley, Jr. Maintenance Tech.
DANIEL CAUDILL MIGHT NOT BE YOUR TYPICAL CREATIVE DIRECTOR BUT THEN DETROIT-BASED SHINOLA ISN’T YOUR TYPICAL WATCH COMPANY.
A fan of t-shirts and sneakers, the laid-back Caudill, who uprooted from a career in Los Angeles to move to the Motor City, drives a pick-up truck and enjoys barbecues ribs. The Montana native has helped engineer the fledgling brand’s meteoric rise since it unveiled its first models in 2013 by tapping into classic Americana in its designs. From hardcore watch aficionados to former US presidents, the clean and functional looks for its timepieces and the brand’s growing range of products have won a large following of fans. MIRUS sat down with the charismatic and soft-spoken Caudill in his Midtown office.
Interview, photography Stefan Jermann
STEFAN JERMANN When you came up with the design for Shinola watches did you have a certain type of customer in mind?
DANIEL CAUDILL One of the most amazing things about this brand is that our customers are so varied. I recently met someone who saved up for quite a while and was super excited when he got his first watch. The other day I met someone at the grocery store who had just gotten his sixth watch! This is not about a specific demographic. They are people interested in quality. There are people taking off their Rolex or Patek Philippe to wear a Shinola for the first time. These people want to know where the watch is made, they want to know the story behind the brand and like to spend money on something that they feel good about.
When Caudill is not on the road for business, he calls this desk his creative space at Shinola.
JERMANN → Many American businesses have opted to offshore manufacturing to Asia and elsewhere. What advantages do you have being based in Detroit?
CAUDILL →All of our people can work closely together and literally make as many revisions as they want so we can really create a perfect product. The level of quality that comes out of here is amazing. Do not forget, this city was the hub of manufacturing in the world for a very long time. We have designers, patternmakers, sewers and so on right next door. When you are doing all of this overseas and designing it on paper you get endless revisions and it’s not cost effective anymore. Having a leather goods workshop here means we can do 100 revisions on a tiny little piece just to make it perfect. I think our leather goods workshop is a great illustration, especially when it comes to sampling and prototyping.
You know, the original plan was never that the company must be based in Detroit. But the ease of how to do business in Detroit, how we were received, how nice everyone was — we all wanted to come back here and every new hire was all Detroit based. The company was literally built up around the factory and now everyone is based here. Detroit helped define that brand.
JERMANN → Given the history of Swiss watch brands did you ever have doubts that your clientele might not pay a premium for a wristwatch that was “Made in America”?
CAUDILL →I think there is value in our product. When you look at the amount of components, the craftsmanship and everything that goes with it, there is true value in it. Some people might not see that right away but our watches can be compared to watches in a much higher price category. If you look at the level of componentry and production and how it is made. The same goes for the bikes. The frame, fork and the chain-guard are entirely handmade in Waterford, Wisconsin. Everything is assembled in our store. We are very transparent about all the componentry.
When it comes to watches, once w
e are able to start scaling then we can think of creating more components here in the US.
We’ve started doing this with some of our watch dials. Printing watch dials in the US is a very unique thing, you can’t find that anywhere. It is such a detailed and precise craft.
The training process takes months until someone is ready to print a watch dial. Right now there are parts from Switzerland, from Asia and other places but eventually our goal is to manufacture all componentry in the United States. The only way to do this is by increasing volume.
JERMANN → When you design a new piece how do you orient yourself — do you look at certain trends from the fashion industry or elsewhere for inspiration?
CAUDILL → We definitely don’t follow fashion in regards to trend or color. The colors have been evolving with the brand and they are a good way for us to equally market a watch, a bike or our leather goods. It’s about making them look natural. We are working on an orange color shade that will last for the next 20 or maybe 50 years. The goal is to create colors that can change slightly but in essence it is almost the same green as where we started.
I really want you to wear this watch years from now. If it is some kind of crazy color, more than likely six months from now you are not going to want to wear it anymore.
Daniel Caudill in his office that is looking into the watch factory.
JERMANN → Where do you look for inspiration?
CAUDILL → I’m inspired by art and architecture. I like minimalist artists. We don’t look at a specific time period in US history in terms of design. We don’t like to tie ourselves to the past. It’s more about creating something timeless.
«I hope that one day I have the chance to design and manufacture a toaster in the United States.»
JERMANN → What’s an iconic US-made product you would have liked to design?
CAUDILL → A toaster…I hope that one day I have the chance to design and manufacture a toaster in the United States.
Seen at Hugh: homewares shop Hugh stocks Wolf Moon’s Pineapple Jalapeno cocktail mixer.
Seen at Hugh: Etched and handpainted skateboard by Mike Ross.
Seen at Nora: Sewn soap packaging by Cousu de fil, organic honey soap.
JERMANN → Let’s talk about the neighborhood. What influences does Midtown Detroit have on Shinola?
CAUDILL → Anytime you live somewhere and spend time there you are influenced by your surroundings. In general, it’s about the people here: there’s such pride in this city and I think that’s what we are all about.We are proud to be part of this city and what’s happening right now here in Midtown from restaurants to the arts and music. I can tell you that it is really crazy what this place has become in the past few years. On a Saturday afternoon it is hard to find parking and there is a buzz around the neighborhood where our store is. You can go for a coffee, for a pizza, you can go shopping for tailor-made clothes, flowers — it has become a destination. Selden Standard restaurant has become one of the top restaurants in the country. We opened a dog park on Canfield and you can drive by there and it is packed with people and their pets hanging out. I hope it will grow. There is still room for other commerce in this city in every one of its neighborhoods.
JERMANN → What’s your favorite place in Midtown?
CAUDILL → It changes. For a long time it was the sculpture garden at the CCS old campus. It really is only the lawn in front of the campus but the sculptures that are out there are astounding. I don’t think people realize the level of art that sits there. There is a Rodin garden in Paris that I love and it reminds me of that.
Written by Ivan Carvalho
Photography by Stefan Jermann
PLENTY OF PEOPLE HAVE HAD A HAND IN THE REVIVAL OF MIDTOWN BUT NO NAME IS MORE SYNONYMOUS, AND MORE CITED IN CONVERSATIONS, WITH THE NEIGHBORHOOD THAN SUE MOSEY. OFTEN DUBBED THE UNOFFICIAL “MAYOR OF MIDTOWN,” MOSEY HAS LITERALLY GIVEN THE AREA ITS NAME, A REBRANDING OF SORTS OF A SLICE OF THE CITY THAT INCLUDED SEEDY PARTS LIKE THE CASS CORRIDOR, AND HAS HELPED TO USHER IN A NEW ERA OF PROSPERITY.
Selden Standard is a new gourmet restaurant voted tops in the city that boasts seasonal cuisine where locals book weeks in advance for a table. This was one of the projects Midtown Inc helped to get started.
Mosey is president of Midtown Detroit Inc (MDI), a non-profit planning and development agency charged with revitalizing a key chunk of the Motor City. Her nearly three decades of work have laid the groundwork for what is today a thriving Midtown neighborhood: abandoned factories renovated into swanky lofts, trash-littered streets replaced by planters full of flowers and a new wave of in-demand retailers, from Shinola and Whole Foods market to Carhartt, a hip Michigan-based clothier known for dungarees and other utilitarian workwear that this past summer inaugurated its first Detroit store on Cass Avenue, a once-blighted strip plagued by drugs and prostitution.
READ ONLY MODE
In the late 1980s, Mosey saw the raw potential in the rundown areas surrounding the urban campus of Wayne State University, the college where she earned a degree in urban planning. “When Midtown Detroit Inc. began working in this district decades ago, the level of disinvestment was massive,” says Mosey. “Although we still had museums, a major arts college and public university, all the fabric surrounding them had eroded. It has taken decades to put in place the necessary tools and funding to move the redevelopment efforts forward.”
Sue Mosey at her Midtown Inc. office.
One of MDI’s first accomplishments, Mosey says, was to get almost the whole neighborhood onto the National Register of Historic Places, which allowed private developers to get access to federal and state tax credits to make redevelopment projects viable – and make it more attractive to renovate old buildings rather than tear them down, thus preserving the neighborhood’s character. New arrival Carhartt, for example, now occupies a three-story building designed in 1928 by local architect Charles Agree that was once an auto dealership. Reclaimed wood from Detroit homes were used to make tabletops, the back wall and dressing rooms. The concrete floor refurbishment and floor rugs were also sourced from Michigan businesses, giving an extra boost to the local economy.
In the past decade alone MDI has raised some $60 million for a variety of initiatives: the Midtown Greenway Loop, a project to carve out pedestrian and bike lanes in the car-dependent city; the restoration and conversion of six historic homes into a boutique hotel; the creation of the Sugar Hill Arts District; the construction of two community gardens and a Green Alley; the renovation of many commercial facades throughout the district; and a matching grants security enhancement program for property and business owners.
A few early successes that helped kick-start Midtown’s revival were the renovation of the Albert Kahn-designed Garfield Lofts and the popular Canfield Lofts, one of the first upscale loft condo developments in the city and the one that proved there was serious demand for loft buying in Midtown.
“I think what we always really valued here was the built environment," Mosey says, rolling off the names of all the educational and cultural institutions clustered around Midtown’s core. “The institutions have provided their own ingredients to the stone soup that has been the Midtown revival – everything from Wayne State developing dorms that brought thousands of resident students to the once almost all-commuter school, to the College for Creative Studies’ Argonaut Building. Now we’ve become a jobs driver and an opportunity driver.”
This thoughtful approach to urban regeneration did not happen overnight but in the past few years results have become noticeable as new businesses and prospective residents are taking a new look at Detroit. Thirty-seven new Midtown businesses opened last year, including Selden Standard, an eatery that quickly became a hit with foodies and gourmet critics. The district’s retail vacancy rate has fallen to 10 percent, down from 22 percent six years ago, and its residential occupancy rate tops 97 percent, with four hundred new residential units under construction and 1,700 more in the pipeline.
The neighborhood is now a veritable haven for small businesses, typically the biggest casualty when urban decay strikes. Now locals walk by new coffee shops, yoga studios, restaurants and clothing boutiques at addresses that had been vacant for years. Even more encouraging is that the crime rate is down more than 50 percent since the 2008 financial crisis struck.
Adds Mosey: “It takes a very long time to rebuild the fabric. Density is the driver. As we have more people living here, the business folks are naturally attracted to these areas, and the momentum builds.” Mosey claims that young hires at law firms and other businesses are now shunning the suburbs and looking for apartments in the city to be part of this positive energy pulsing through Midtown.
“Five years from now, I envision Midtown to be more walkable and bikeable as many of the last of our vacant historic properties get repurposed and vacant land begins to infill with new mixed-use development.” The remarkable progress in Midtown has become a benchmark that other depressed industrial cities trying to adapt to the new rules of the 21stcentury economy can look to and the area’s turnaround has attracted interest from national and international media eager to learn more about what Mosey has started in Detroit.
However, despite the feel-good vibes Mosey is adamant that it takes a lot of hard work to rebuild block by block a disadvantaged neighborhood. What’s more, she says, it requires getting the mix just right between affordable housing, high-end lofts and retailers that can offer a wide range of services from dry cleaning to street fashion.
“This isn't easy work or quick money,” warns Mosey. “Midtown Detroit Inc. believes that the integration of real estate development, the arts, public spaces, small business development and community building opportunities is what makes an urban district successful. We want people who are in it for the long term. That's what we're looking for. That's the end game.”
SUGAR HILL. A PLACE TO INDULGE
ONE’S SWEET TOOTH FOR ART AND MORE
When I walk into the N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art on 52 East Forest Avenue in the Sugar Hill Arts District I find its owner dozing comfortably in his office. It takes a couple of minutes to wake him from his slumber but he soon realizes that he had an interview scheduled. Meet George N’Namdi, a sturdy man with a childish smile and engaging demeanor who is easily recognizable by the slightly rumpled pork-pie hat he wears.
Story / Photography by Stefan Jermann
I was introduced to George N’Namdi by Réna Bradley, an alert and dynamic woman with a background in architecture and community development who has her office next door and calls N’Namdi a mentor. Bradley guided me around Sugar Hill, a two-block neighborhood centrally located in Midtown that is home to cultural institutions such as the Detroit Institute of Arts and MOCAD (Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit). The area boasts older brick buildings that have undergone renovation to give them a second life. For example, at 71 Garfield, which has been designed to accommodate apartments and artists’ studios, architects placed solar arrays on the roof of the 1920s structure and installed a geothermal heating and cooling system. In addition to N’Namdi’s impressive exhibit space, his arts center hosts Seva, a vegetarian eatery with brick walls and exposed ductwork where patrons can order freshly made juices and Mexican-style veggie burritos and enjoy them on pale birch tables in a space that is as modern as the contemporary artworks N’Namdi is fond of promoting.
READ ONLY MODE
A new show at the N'Namdi
Center for Contemporaray Art by
artist Susan Aaron-Taylor is
being set up.
DETROIT C’EST LE NOUVEAU NOIR
Next door to Seva one finds Orleans + Winder, a carefully curated fashion boutique that offers niche designer labels from Italy and France and a cool t-shirt collection by local Detroit designer Roslyn Karamoko who uses a French tagline for her clothes: “Detroit c’est le nouveau noir” (Detroit is the new black). A bit further back is a tea shop that offers hundreds of the most exquisite teas along with locally produced crafts and artworks. It’s a bohemian hangout where artists, writers and intellectuals congregate and will soon be joined by a new wine bar for those in need of something stronger to fuel their conversations.
READ ONLY MODE
George N'Namdi in front of “Minutes” exhibition by artist Gregory Coates.
For N’Namdi, who now looks refreshed after his siesta, this is part of his longstanding effort – he first dabbled in collecting art when he was at college in the 1970s – to bring a cultural renaissance to Detroit. It started in 2010 when he inaugurated his gallery, which he had previously moved out of the city to Birmingham, a wealthy enclave in Detroit’s suburbs, at its current location, a low-slung building once home to an auto dealership that features a beautifully restored pine wood ceiling. “People told us we were nuts for moving back and I told them that no, this is going to be it,” says N'Namdi. “We were part of the catalyst that put Midtown in high gear.”
His 16'000 square foot gallery includes four exhibition spaces, with indoor and outdoor performance areas, and is central to his efforts to back gifted contemporary abstract artists from the African-American community. “Abstract African American painting is like jazz. It might take a while before the artists receive the credit they deserve,” he says with a knowing look while giving a tour of the venue. Today, he possesses one of the finest private collections of African-American art in the world and has amassed pieces in every genre that cover more than a century of art. Using his curatorial eye he has put together a powerful visual tool to educate audiences on the contributions of people of African descent to the discourse of modern art.
“I see art as a link to the intellect. You gain an emotional connection but it starts off as an intellectual connection,” adds N’Namdi, who holds a PhD in psychology but opted to follow his love of art and open his first gallery in downtown Detroit in 1981.
His return to the city center was rooted in his desire to strengthen the cultural fabric of a city that had suffered its fair share of hard knocks. “To me galleries need to be in urban centers, not in suburbia. It felt like we were more of a boutique than a gallery out there.” Settling in Sugar Hill was a no-brainer for him, a neighborhood whose name pays homage to the Sugar Hill district in New York’s Harlem, which was the epicenter of a cultural boom for African Americans in the early 20th century.
In the 1940s, many African Americans flocked to Detroit and its version of Sugar Hill became a popular venue for entertainment. The district hosted the famous Flame Show Bar, the Pelican Lounge, Sonny Wilson's Mark Twain Hotel and many other African American-owned nightclubs and lounges. Sonny Wilson was widely regarded as the unofficial "mayor" of Detroit's famous Paradise Valley, an area that came alive at night with men dressed in zoot suits and Stetson hats out in search of a dance partner and a good time. It had been home to several prohibition-era speakeasies, after-hour music clubs and a very robust bohemian arts community.
This new gallery neighborhood is to run along the Grand River Corridor between Canfield Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd and where multiple galleries will be able to group together in one area to allow local artists to show their work. “Midtown is more home to the institutional players like the Detroit Institute of Arts or the Museum of Contemporary Art but not so much to smaller galleries,” explains N’Namdi. The idea here is to create an entire district where people can stroll and visit smaller galleries – initially there will be between six and ten – and good restaurants.
THIS NEW GALLERY NEIGHBORHOOD IS TO RUN ALONG THE GRAND RIVER CORRIDOR BETWEEN CANFIELD STREET AND MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. BLVD AND WHERE MULTIPLE GALLERIES WILL BE ABLE TO GROUP TOGETHER IN ONE AREA TO ALLOW LOCAL ARTISTS TO SHOW THEIR WORK.
The motivation behind his moves to acquire property along Grand River is twofold: to increase the city’s cultural footprint and to fight against rapid gentrification in the area.
N’Namdi is concerned that the rapid development in Midtown may wind up erasing a fair chunk of what makes Detroit tick. He doesn’t want to see city blocks losing their grit and edginess and turning into something similar to the suburban downtowns of nearby Birmingham and Royal Oak. He sees fewer African American business and property owners in the greater downtown area and he believes that a diversity of stakeholders is vital to keeping the city’s unique spirit alive – the same city that gave us musical genres like Motown and Techno.
READ ONLY MODE
THAT’S WHY PEOPLE COME TO DETROIT — IT HAS THAT MOTOWN SOUL. IT’S PART OF THE CITY. YOU DON’T WANT TO MARGINALIZE IT; YOU WANT TO PLAY UP ON IT. GEORGE N'NAMDI
“They have to make sure they include everybody. They have to make sure they don’t lose this part of Detroit. That’s why people come to Detroit — it has that Motown soul. It’s part of the city. You don’t want to marginalize it; you want to play up on it. You travel because of a city’s funk. You go to New Orleans, why? Because of the funk. You don’t want Detroit to be losing its funk.”
Detail of Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry Murals, painted between 1932-33.
After chatting with George, Réna Bradley returns to take me to see one more place. After a ten-minute walk we are sitting in the impressive courtyard café at the Detroit Institute of Arts. The space feels like sitting in a cathedral. For Bradley, who spent a stint living in the nation’s capital and getting her degree in architecture, it’s a great treat to come back home and find a rebirth, not to mention a rebuild, underway.
«I'M HESITANT TO SAY WHAT DETROIT CAN LEARN FROM OTHER PLACES BECAUSE YOU REBUILD A CITY BASED ON ITS OWN CHARACTER AND HISTORY,” SHE SAYS. "STILL, WHERE THERE’S HOPE AND FINANCIAL INVESTMENT OF THE RIGHT KIND PROGRESS CAN HAPPEN. YOU HAVE TO BE PATIENT, BUT IT’S ACHIEVABLE.»
Réna Bradley is a designer and community developer. When she needs time to breathe and relax, she enjoys the peaceful café and lounge at the Detroit Institute of Arts.
While working on his frescoes, Rivera faced controversy in Detroit due to his Marxist beliefs. Critics viewed his murals as propaganda. When the piece was unveiled at the Detroit Institute for the Arts local clergymen and media found it to be “vulgar” and “un-American.” Today, his mural is considered a cultural landmark.
CARE FOR SOME RED VEINED SORREL SALAD, ROASTED CARROTS WITH CRÈME FRAÎCHE AND A GLASS OF FRENCH RED?
WELCOME TO SELDEN STANDARD, THE MIDTOWN EATERY SETTING A NEW STANDARD FOR AMERICAN CUISINE IN THE MOTOR CITY.
Story, photography Stefan Jermann
A new type of cuisine has touched down in Detroit and locals are making their way to the intersection of Second and Selden Street in Midtown to see what’s cooking. Selden Standard is a restaurant that wouldn’t look out of place in New York’s SoHo or Barcelona if you were planning a hip dinner out. Instead, hungry Detroiters are the winner here, with executive chef and co-founder Andy Hollyday serving up top notch “new American” cuisine.
Roasted carrots and red veined sorrel salad with crème fraîche and hazelnut crumble.
Produce and meats are sourced from local farms.
Top left: Sweet pea agnolotti, garlic scapes and almonds. For dessert, fresh strawberry rhubarb. The friendly and attentive staff resemble the cast of a French indie film.
Located in a graffiti-scarred building that once was a dry-cleaner, the exterior has been finished in natural wood planks and dark grey brick, while the interior is minimalist but warm with lots of cedar in the dining room and bar. Hollyday wanted a place with “a neighborhood vibe, where anyone could walk in and it would feel very warm."
He and co-founder Evan Hansen decided on rustic, seasonal dishes with portions that are unusually small by American standards but which rely on quality ingredients from local farms. The idea is to offer a shared-plates menu that permits patrons to order several things for the table and taste a variety of dishes ranging from vegetable carpaccio to ricotta gnocchi.
Paying a visit to Hollyday in the kitchen is, of course, a visual treat for a photographer. I record each dish he works on before having a sample of it. First, there’s a roasted carrot and sorrel salad with a shot of crème fraîche and hazelnut crumble – the sauce is a secret but adds an amazing freshness to it and the salad looks like it has been picked just hours ago.
Meanwhile, Hollyday keeps tabs on the glowing embers in the wood-fired grill and an assistant chef adds a log of Michigan hardwood to the flames, while hanger steaks, duck sausages and whole trout await their turn on the grill. There are handmade pastas – chitarra prepared with squid ink or celery root agnolotti – freshly baked breads by the in-house pastry chef and every last garlic clove is peeled by hand.
Up until its opening last year, the Midtown food scene was awash in new pizza, BBQ and even tapas joints so there were some doubts about a sophisticated farm-to-table eatery joining the fray. But Selden Standard quickly won over hearts – and, stomachs – with its approach to food. It quickly vaulted to the top of people’s favorites list and this year the Detroit Free Press newspaper declared it the city’s top restaurant.
Andy Hollyday, chef and co-founder of Selden Standard taking a break.
But back to the menu. I snap a few shots of smoked lamb ribs with yoghurt, pesto and dill before having a nibble. A very simple dish at its base, but the meat and the few ingredients make this a highlight. Then there’s the wine selection, which is small but well sourced. To start, I am recommended a glass of rosé from Clos Cibonne in Provence and a Kerner from Italy’s South Tyrol. The reds range from a Durand Saint-Joseph from Lyon region to a hard-to-find Swiss wine from the Valais region, the grape being a cross of Mayolet and Petit-Rouge. At the bar, I’m tempted by rare single malts such as a Säntis Single Malt from Appenzell, Switzerland or a Nikka, the Japanese answer to Scottish single malt whisky.
After indulging in my fair share of sips and bites of Hollyday’s amassed arsenal of goodies it becomes clear to me that Midtowners, foodies and the general population of Detroit have a culinary gem on their hands. In short, Selden Standard has become the new standard by which to grade all Detroit restaurants.
3921 2nd Ave, Detroit, MI 48201
In 2005, Detroit was facing problems far bigger than trash collection. Still, it had the notoriety of being the largest city in North America without any recycling program to speak of. Enter Matthew Naimi, a man out to boost both the city’s green credentials and its cultural scene. His recycling revolution is a case study in how a creative hands-on approach can build a better community.
Written by Ivan Carvalho
Photography by Stefan Jermann
MEET GARBAGE MAN
The question of what to do with once booming factories is a dilemma Detroit knows only too well. Its urban landscape is littered with thousands of idle industrial buildings in need of a new lease on life. So one pioneer in urban renewal came up with an idea to reuse some of these rundown spaces to help clean up the city.
Set in a sprawling 300,000 square foot warehouse once home to the Lincoln Motor Co. in Midtown, Recycle Here! is the brainchild of Matthew Naimi. A decade ago, Naimi and others noticed that the city didn’t offer any curbside recycling to assist residents with disposing of the vast sea of packaging materials accumulated each week in their homes. Given that his family owned the cavernous Lincoln site, Naimi saw an opportunity.
READ ONLY MODE
Matthew Naimi in his office where he oversees his recycling empire. On the wall, Malcolm X by Eno Laget.
Eno Laget opening the
the Lincoln Art Park
learn about art.
At first, he started out collecting recycling from construction sites — “the only way you could compete with the bigger players was to find a niche,” he said. Word soon got out that he was the man in town to talk to about greening and recycling issues. Later on, at the requests of locals in Midtown, he placed a lone dumpster outside the Bronx Bar on 2nd Avenue. “The response was overwhelming in that neighborhood. Within two months the city took notice and we received a grant.”
In 2007, his non-profit Recycle Here! was born and the Lincoln facility became a popular drop-off point for everything from residents’ pizza boxes to their outdated VCR machines. “We call it reverse shopping,” says Naimi. “People come get a cart and remove recyclables from their car.” The self-proclaimed “garbage man” has seen over 14 million tons of trash pass through his company to be processed. Even now, with the city finally introducing curbside pickup, figures show that often the service goes unused as locals still prefer to make the journey to his facility, where he now offers an arts park.
Rachel Klegon is making sure that children are getting their fair share of recycling education in this playful environment.
RECYCLING AND EDUCATION
Of course, the forward-thinking Naimi was keen to push forward with his eco-friendly initiatives so he launched a sister company, Green Safe Products. It does brisk sales churning out biodegradable cups, cutlery and plates to sell to over 300 local firms in the hospitality industry. His efforts to reduce the need for Styrofoam and other harmful packaging has also seen him promote awareness about good environmental practices with local youth.
Green Living Science, overseen by Rachel Klegon, helps put on field trips for schoolchildren from kindergarten through third grade to see how Recycle Here! operates. On site, organizers took an old steel shipping container and painted it white to make a creative lab where this past summer Detroit artists like Eno Laget taught public schools students the basics of paper-making, mural design and stop-frame animation.
Naimi has promoted street art by allowing the brick walls at his facility to be used as giant canvases where murals have been created in graffiti style and other genres. The park features the imposing mural by Marianne Audrey Burrows depicting a pheasant pacing the shore of the Detroit River, while another piece consists of an image of a brooding owl made by using only spray paint via the hand of artist Brown Bag.
These powerful pictures overlook a vacant plot of land that has been turned into Lincoln Street Art Park, where visitors can admire sculptures made with an assortment of recycled metals and plastics that includes a stalking dinosaur. In addition, artists have been allowed space inside the Lincoln warehouse to set up studios. Among the tenants is Eno Laget, who does beautiful stencil work to create portraits of people like Malcolm X.
«WE CREATED MOBILITY. WE CREATED SUBURBIA. WE CREATED THE WAY TO THE MALL, AND LOOK WHAT HAPPENED TO COMMUNITIES.
THE OPPORTUNITY TO INVENT WHATEVER IT IS THAT COMES AFTER WHAT’S HAPPENED HERE IS JUST REALLY VERY REAL.» ENO LAGET
On a warm Friday morning in mid-summer Mirus catches up with Eno Laget at Recycle Here! and he offers a tour of the premises. A former art director of a Detroit newspaper, Laget enjoys his new career path working to make art in former industrial haunts and the chance to interact with the next generation and teach them about environmental issues in creative ways. “If there’s gonna be life here, it has everything to do with, as clichéd as it sounds, building sustainable communities. We have a chance to be about more than making a buck,” he says. “We created mobility. We created suburbia. We created the way to the mall, and look what happened to communities. The opportunity to invent whatever it is that comes after what’s happened here is just really very real.”
At the Studio of Eno Laget inside the former Lincoln factory. Laget creates stencil paintings that he applies on to cardboard, metal or even used coffee-bean bags from Colombia.
Trained in fine arts at Wayne State University, Laget looks to the streets of Detroit for inspiration. He relies on the tools of urban artists: spray paint, hand-cut stencils and discarded newsprint. At his upstairs studio there are piles of news dailies and spray cans everywhere — a creative chaos one might call it. Laget teaches others about the stencil technique and he enjoys when they realize how a few simple steps can actually develop into something quite cool. Old School funk sounds emanate from downstairs, where Naimi has rented out space to recording studios. The walls begin to vibrate to the tune of electronic beats playing.
Back in Naimi’s office, where a work by Laget hangs, the founder of Recycle This! reflects on how much has changed since he rolled out his first trash dumpster in an effort to try and instigate change from the bottom up in the community. Today, he sees even on cold, blustery days in winter 1,800 coming to recycle and on warmer days people popping in to see the arts park or kids being taught about how best to conserve the planet’s resources. Adds Naimi: “If you’re trying to build a city back, you need to do what made cities in the first place. That’s talking to your neighbors, getting involved, building the social contract. That’s what we do.”
«On my Detroit everything»
Hip-Hop is my vehicle and it's fueling my love
and getting me further.
Photography, video Stefan Jermann
THIS CITY IS ALIVE AND THE ARTIST COMMUNITY IS THRIVING. DETROIT IS A MECCA FOR HIP HOP — REFINED, BEAUTIFUL, BUT STILL GRITTY.
Detroit is not only the birthplace of the assembly line. The sub-genres "Motown" and "Techno" were born here and Hip-Hop is still hot, as Deidre Smith aka "D.S. Sense" affirms. When people like Jeff Mills and Seth Troxler brought the Detroit-Techno to Europe with a first stop in Berlin, it became a phenomenon that still reverberates in today’s music circles. While the genre has developed into various sub-genres over the years, it has curiously become much more popular in Europe than in America. However, once a year in May Detroit turns up the volume and hosts “Movement,” the largest electronic music festival in the Motor City where people fly in from all over the world to see the world's best deejays.
“The Essence,” as the artist’s name D.S. Sense is pronounced, is a wordplay since that is her musical style, playing with words acappella style. Deidre started out as a vocalist when she was still in kindergarten and for the past 10 years she has been very serious about hip hop. While she performs in small clubs and theaters, she also gives workshops on elements of hip hop.
DETROIT DERBY GIRLS
The Detroit Derby Girls practice in a giant hall on the sixth floor of the Masonic Temple. As Mirus was a bit confused about the sport, we looked up the rules online. Roller derby is a contact sport played by two teams of five members each who roller stake in the same direction around a track. Play consists of a series of short matchups (jams) in which both teams designate a jammer who scores points by lapping members of the opposing team. Teams attempt to hinder the opposing jammer while assisting their own jammer.
FOR DECADES NEW YORK WAS SEEN AS THE CENTER OF THE ART UNIVERSE IN THE UNITED STATES BUT TODAY THERE’S A CREATIVE ENERGY BEING EMITTED FROM THE MOTOR CITY THAT HAS ARTISTS EVERYWHERE TAKING NOTICE. BIG EMPTY INDUSTRIAL SPACES IDEAL FOR HOSTING ONE’S STUDIO OR SETTING UP A PERFORMANCE ART CENTER IS ONE FACTOR. ADD TO THAT THE CHEAP PRICES FOR SUCH REAL ESTATE AND IT’S NO WONDER ARTISTS ARE DECAMPING FROM BROOKLYN AND OTHER CREATIVE HUBS TO DETROIT – ONE NEW YORK GALLERY THAT HAS RECENTLY MOVED TO THE CITY EVEN WANTS TO LAUNCH A DETROIT BIENNIAL ON ART IN 2016.
Alexander Calder sculpture at the Detroit Institute of Arts.
MIRUS had the chance to speak to artists, a curator and a gallery director in Detroit to take the pulse of the city’s arts scene. One was Robert Sestok, a local icon of sorts who is known for his massive metal sculptures that are on display at the Midtown City Sculpture Park he opened this summer. Then there’s Nancy Barr, photography curator at the DIA, who tells us about one of her favorite female photographers who is documenting Detroiters.
Finally, there’s John Michaels, a painter who is an artist in residence at the esteemed Scarab Club, a famed local institution that has welcomed the likes of Marcel Duchamp, Norman Rockwell and Matthew Barney.
Robert "Bob" Sestok at his atelier in Midtown Detroit. Just a five minute walk away one will find the "Sestok Sculpture Garden" that is one of the latest additions to the Detroit art scene and one that has been made possible by the initiative of the artist himself.
«FIRE AND WELDING IS A MAGICAL KIND OF THING»
Robert Sestok, sculptor
Companies may fail, governments may collapse, but true artists continue their mission no matter whether the economy is in a boom or bust. For now, one thing seems clear: the creative talent in Detroit today is bubbling over and with new venues and galleries eager to open the Motor City may soon become a destination for cutting-edge culture.
To understand the change underway in Detroit’s cultural scene visitors need to make their way to a patch of green space on Alexandrine Street in Midtown. When I pull up to Robert Sestok’s City Sculpture Park, a newspaper reporter from The Detroit News is interviewing him. “This is my field, and my crops are growing,” explains Sestok to the journalist. His 27 “crops” aren’t stalks of corn but twisting towers of recycled steel, some as high as 12 feet, that populate this once vacant strip of Midtown. After his interview session, Sestok invites me to his studio, where piles of metal are stacked up and various bits of welding equipment sit amid what resembles an adult playground.
Robert Sestok's Sculpture Garden is one of the very recent highlights in Midtown Detroit.
It’s clear that Sestok is keen for the public to engage with his abstract sculptures. It is reminiscent of Jean Tinguely or Alexander Calder. I discover that the sculpture park arose more out of necessity and coincidence than the need for Sestok to stroke his own ego. The space in his backyard was getting too small for all of his works so Sestok started mowing the lawn on the empty lots close to his studio. In the end, the idea for a sculpture garden seemed the natural thing to do. After getting a grant from Midtown Inc. and some donations, the vacant plot was purchased and opened to the public this summer. Having been trained as a ceramicist, I ask Sestok why he wound up working with metal sculptures. “It’s instant gratification,” he replies. “Fire and metal is a magical kind of thing.”
Nancy Barr at the photo gallery with her favorite photograph from Corine Vermeulen.
«I LIKE THIS PHOTOGRAPH SO MUCH BECAUSE IT EMBODIES THE NEW SPIRIT OF DETROIT TODAY»
Nancy Barr, photography curator
Built in 1927 the Detroit Institute of Arts cultural institution is perhaps best known by out-of-towners for the frescoes of Diego Rivera and other great paintings of the past but the contemporary photography exhibit is worth a look. When I meet with Nancy Barr, the curator of photography, she takes me down to the basement where the archives are housed and pulls out some of her favorite imagery from hardwood shelves that appear to be a century old. I notice that there is a large collection of framed photographs still waiting to be archived and Barr mentions that they are hoping to find exhibit space somewhere to feature them. Barr is particularly proud of her exhibits. There’s the work of Dutch-born photographer Corine Vermeulen, who studied in Detroit and decided to return here a decade ago to establish herself as a visual artist. Vermeulen set up a temporary walk-in studio where she portrayed Detroiters from all walks of life: cyclists from the East Side Riders club, staff from Recycle Here! and kids from a local school.
John Michaels is an artist in residence at the Scarab Club and a teacher at the College for Creative Studies.
«IF YOU WANT TO BE CREATIVE, YOU CAN TRULY MAKE IT HERE.»
John Michaels, painter
Right behind the DIA on 217 Farnsworth, one finds a rather stout three-story rectangular structure in red brick that is home to the Scarab Club, the city’s oldest arts club. Formed in 1913, the venue was initially open only to male artists. When architect Lancelot Sukert built the Scarab Club’s current home in 1928, he planned space for galleries, lounges, meeting halls and artists’ studios. Of particular interest, as gallery director Treena Flannery Ericson points out, are the signed wooden ceiling beams that show the names of artists who have passed through its doors. Those who have left their mark here include Marcel Duchamp, Norman Rockwell, Diego Rivera and Rivera’s protégé Steve “Pablo” Davis.
One of the two galleries at the Scarab Club.
ON THE FUTURE
COLLEGE FOR CREATIVE STUDIES
Written by Ivan Carvalho
Photography by Stefan Jermann
CCS traces its roots back to 1906 when a group of local civic leaders, inspired by the English Arts and Crafts movement, formed the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts. The group’s aim was to keep the ideals of beauty and craftsmanship alive in what was fast becoming a hyper-industrialized world of assembly lines and heavy duty factory work. Founding members of CCS sought to teach informal classes on drawing, woodcarving and design.
CCS is one of the top creative schools in the U.S. and offers degrees in fields such as transportation design, product design and illustration.
Currently CCS operates two campuses, both closely tied with the city's history. The first site is the 1958 Yamasaki Building designed by Minoru Yamasaki, who went on to build the World Trade Center in New York.
Its second, and more recent, campus sits inside the Argonaut Building, which was designed by prominent Detroit architect Albert Kahn. The structure originally was owned by General Motors, which ran its engineering and design facility out of here. “This building was where the very discipline of automotive design was developed,” says Rick Rogers, President of CCS. The Argonaut is the site of a new approach by CCS, one that looks to engage younger generations, some still not old enough for the university program, and get them thinking about design during their formative years. “The vision was to have middle class, high school, college and graduate students all studying art and design on a single site. And we have creative businesses in the building that serve as role models for students,” adds Rogers.
Students showing their work and concepts in temporary galleries. Most classrooms can be easily adjusted with temporary walls and then turned into work space the next hour.
The Argonaut building was designed by Albert Kahn and finished construction in 1936. General Motors has donated the building to CCS and in 2009 a completely restored Detroit landmark opened doors to its students. The watchmaker Shinola is taking up one floor where the watch factory and headquarters are located.
Impressum issue no. 4
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ivan Carvalho is a writer for Monocle, a global affairs and lifestyle magazine. When he is not travelling the globe to explore new places, he enjoys spending time with his family in Milan. Carvalho's fields of interest include design, architecture, food & travel and haute horlogerie. See more of Ivan Carvalho's work.
ABOUT THE FOUNDER
Stefan Jermann is a portrait and reportage photographer and he regularly shoots for editorial and corporate clients. Having published his own print magazine Truce and several books, Jermann wanted to start a new magazine for the digital world that evolves around neighborhoods in larger metropolises little explored. When Jermann is not capturing film or video, he works as a creative director developing print and digital projects. See more of Stefan Jermann's work.
Special thanks for local assistance & research
A big thanks to
BRIDGET RUSSO AND THE WONDERFUL
FOLKS AT SHINOLA
LEICA SWITZERLAND FOR THE «M»
WE HAVE PUT IN HUNDREDS OF HOURS TO MAKE THIS ISSUE HAPPEN, PLEASE DON'T RE-USE ANY OF THE CONTENT WITHOUT APPROVAL OF THE PUBLISHER. PAYING RESPECT TO THE SOURCES OF INFORMATION AND ITS AUTHORS MEANS A GREAT DEAL TO US. HOWEVER, IN CASE WE HAVE MISSED TO CREDIT A SOURCE, PLEASE DO LET US KNOW.
follow us on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest