A few months ago, responding to the steady stream of media reports about Detroit’s creative/hipster renaissance, I wrote a list of hyperbolic things you could say about “America’s Comeback City.” I just didn’t believe that a small cadre of twentysomethings in live/work lofts and urban farms actually constituted anything more than an anecdote. Anyways, I also included a callout to people who live in Detroit, because, never having been there, I was curious how it felt to live in inquisitive glare of GOOD Magazine and the New York Times Sunday Style Section, while also living in a shrinking, former economic juggernaut of a city. So, after posting the article, I had a nice chat with Achille Bianchi and Michael Burdick, two locals who had a lot to say about the whole thing.
So first off, who are you guys, and how did you each end up in Detroit?
Achille: I’m a journalist and photographer in the city. I’ve been down here for nine years, now. Graduated in 2003, came down here pretty much immediately after I graduated. My sister was down here studying design at the College for Creative Studies and I didn’t have much direction, so I applied for university here, and haven’t left since.
Michael: I grew up outside the city, in a suburb about twenty minutes away. Went to College for Creative Studies for illustration when I was 18 and yeah, also never really left.
So you’ve both been there for a while. I’m curious when you became aware of this media narrative that there was a surge of hip, young people moving to Detroit?
Achille: I can pinpoint that exactly. It was 2009, and actually [Michael’s] boss, Toby Barlow, broke a story about a $500 house in northern Detroit, with a couple friends of ours, Mitch and Gina, who run the Powerhouse Project. And then, kind of before then, 2003 to 2008, there was some cool stuff going on, but no one [nationally] gave a shit. But as soon as that story hit the New York Times, that’s when it all started.
Michael: And then, two years ago, Phil Cooley, the owner of Slows, got on Huffington Post person of the week, or something like that.
Achille: So, I’d say 2008-2010 was the “ruin porn” era, and the 2010 to present is the “hope porn” era.
You guys are both from greater Michigan. Do you guys find that most of the people that you know who have moved to Detroit are from the general region? Or is there an influx of transplants that you hang out with.
Achille: I’d say about 80% of the people we know are [from] Michigan. Whether or not they left at some point and came back, that depends. Most were not born and raised in Detroit, but maybe the metro area. I think in the last few years there have been an influx of people coming from bigger US cities, like Chicago, New York, Portland, San Francisco, etc.
It seems to me that that’s what happens in most areas, young people move to the biggest city near them.
Michael: It’s a pretty good mix. I think a few years ago, the main crowd I spent time with was definitely college friends, a lot of whom were from Michigan. [A lot] had the mentality of wanting to be in school or in a city but still be in Michigan. Continuing that, through the years, a lot of people I knew were from Michigan. But there started to be a trend of people who’d traveled a lot, or were transplants who’d spent time in other areas around the world who just wanted to do what they were doing somewhere else, or in Detroit specifically. No one’s really defined why they wanted to do it there, but there is a good mix of people who wanted to be here.
Is there any sort of backlash to people who moved to Detroit because they thought it was cool?
Achille: I just had the conversation with somebody today, actually.
Michael: I think there’s a couple different backlashes that are common. A big one is the transplants. It’s a difficult town to live in, so I think for a lot of the kids who come, and want to check it out, we’re a little skeptical at first. Because it’s not like other cities, so you definitely feel, [as you said in your post], they’re “just stopping through on their way from Brooklyn to Portland.” So, it’s hard to befriend people at first, because you don’t know if they’re just here because they think it’s going to be sweet or if they’re gonna find out it’s not what they imagined and leave. Or if they actually want to stay. Or if they’re the come to do good, stay to do well types. Or if they’re in it to experience an [imagined] scene for a little bit and then move back to New York or whatever..
Achille: The people who want to be here want to be here. There’s people that come from across the United States because they have these preconceived ideas of what Detroit is. You come here and you either like it or you don’t. I’ve met people who have been here for a year that are leaving, because they can’t do it. But some people are like, “I fucking love this city.” It all kind of depends on how hard you’re willing to work and how much you’re willing to sacrifice to be here.
Michael: And what you’re breaking point is. [Achille’s had his] car broken into. I’ve had my car broken into a few times. You get mugged and stuff like.
Can you elaborate on what makes it hard to live in Detroit? Are you guys in the city center? Does where you live matter?
Michael: We live in Corktown, which is between Downtown and Southwest.
Achille: We’re roommates, by the way.
Michael: Corktown is just on people’s agenda right now because of Slows, and everything. But I guess what’s difficult is you have this constant reality of what the city actually is. You get a daily reminder that it’s a very economically depressed city. It has failing schools. We don’t have a public transportation system.
Achille: We have buses, but it’s not great. The mayor wanted to cut Sunday service.
Michael: It’s not a proper public transportation system. You need to rely on a car, here. And then there’s a lot of homeless people. So you have this environment that is kind of depressing. Then you have people who live in your neighborhood who are in pretty poor economic situations whose only way out is through crime. A lot of times you deal with break-ins or muggings. I think most of our friends have encountered a situation like that. You have a lot people who have been here for a while, and reach a breaking point. How many times can you have your car broken into until you’re like, “Enough of this – I’m going to move somewhere else.”?
Achille: I include in my yearly budget the cost of a new window or a catalytic converter or something along those lines. I think it also depends on the timeline. You live in the city long enough, and something’s gonna happen to something you own or yourself. But I got mugged in 2008 and that was four years ago, it’s been so long, I kind of forgot about it. The first few months after it happened, I was on my toes a little bit. You tend to forget about it.
But then, I got hit by a car in December, probably on purpose, in Southwest, and that’s like….
(Interupting) Wait. You got hit by a car on your bike on purpose?
Achille: Yeah. That sucked. But the long enough timeline, you look at it, and you know, shit happens. But for me, it’s like that kind of stuff happens and it makes me want to stay here and work harder. But that’s probably contingent on us being Michiganders. I think if people didn’t have a stake in the city, like we do, then they’re the ones who have less hefty breaking points.
Michael: And it’s not like those incidents are a rite of passage or a badge to wear.
Achille: No. They just suck.
Michael: They suck and it’s the reality of living in area where that stuff happens. I remember when I got mugged, I thought well, I can either stay here or leave and the idea of leaving just reminded me that everyone I knew was leaving. And I didn’t want to, because I was sick of people giving up, I guess. I wanted to make an impression on myself, and solidifying my desire to be here. I felt like, I’m this white kid, who lives in this very black, economically depressed neighborhood and I’m a target. It humbled me. I thought about how can I not look like an asshole and how can I get respect from other people.
Achille: I think it’s a humbling, maturing experience in general. It’s not something to be proud of or wear as a badge. You learn how to carry yourself day to day, and respect your area. You don’t flash your shit around and be humble.
You don’t carry $400 in your pocket.
Michael: Yeah. You don’t wear jewelry.
Achille: I’m not walking through Brush Park or Mexicantown on my iPhone or fumbling through my wallet. I just don’t do it. Like I said, it’s a maturing experience. It puts you on a fast-track to knowing where you’re at. But some people take it and they say fuck it. Others say that shit happens.
Michael: Contigency seems to be the word. Your rent is low, so you can afford to get a new window once every six months. But after a while, you learn not to leave your backpack in your car.
Achille: My car is pretty much spotless these days.
Ok. We should probably talk about what’s good about the city. I get the sense it’s not all young kids starting food tricks.
Michael: It’s totally not.
Achille: [What makes Detroit a good place to live] is not about food trucks and photography. I think it’s the general mentality of people here. One of the things I noticed before the media rush of 2008 was there wasn’t necessarily a willingness to embrace a collaborative spirit that there is now. Now, I think, everyone realizes the more they work together, the more they can get done and that’s a great thing about living in Detroit now. It’s been happening for decades, but I feel like there’s an evergrowing DIY movement here. As we talk, we’re in a hackerspace that I’m a part of called Omnicorp Detroit, which is 25 members sharing a workspace and tools and hanging out and making stuff every day. So I think it’s the opportunities, here. It’s not just the cheap rent, but the fatigue the mainstream of everything. Living in a city like New York to work my ass off to pay rent, I don’t have to do that here. I can work three days a week to get by or I can work extra extra hard and do a ton of awesome stuff.
Really build something.
Achille: Exactly. One of the opportunities of here, we have the opportunity to sculpt what’s going on here. Where if I were to move to a bigger city, you’re kind injected into the flow of things and you really have no say. But in Detroit, the more you do, the more you get to have a say. It’s like planting your stake, you have to put work into it if you want it, but it’s there.
Michael: Everyone says their city is unique, but I’ve never really been somewhere this inspiring because of how diverse the landscape is. There’s a great music scene, which is really refreshing, and everyone likes to party. There’s a lot of opportunities on various projects, although they’re not always paid, it’s great to contribute to things where you believe in what you’re producing. As an illustrator, that’s just rad for me. I can make posters or logos for cool projects. There’s a really great sense of friendship that I’ve found.
It does sound pretty different from some of the places I’ve lived, like SF or LA, where there’s definitely an anonymity that’s a little oppressive.
Achille: So, if you’re familiar with Matthew Dear, he’s one of my favorite musicians, and I forget what magazine it was in, but an interview came out this year and he was talking about the time he spent between New York and Detroit and he said, when you’re in Detroit, you have this great sense of ownership over this void that sucks you in. The thing that really resonated with me was that in New York, it feels like you’re not as accountable for your actions there. You can get lost in this group mentality where you can go with the flow and piss somebody off and it’s no big deal, because there’s nine million other people there. But if you’re not a good person here, people know about it before they even meet you. So it’s sort of a self-censoring city to an extent where we keep each other in check.
Michael: There’s a soccer league that includes twenty different neighborhoods and rule number is don’t be a dick. And within that league, a lot of relationships are formed. You go to each other’s neighborhoods and people fucking talk to each other. You really have to be on check, here.
Achille: You’ll get laughed out of Detroit if you’re an asshole.
Michael: People talk.
Achille: It’s a very tight knit community. You’re less than 1 degree removed from everybody. That’s not to say we’re a gossip city, but word tends to get around, whether you’re doing good or bad.
Do people connect their idea of Detroit contemporarily, as the “historic motor city”? Do you think about the legacy of Detroit, or is it just happen to be where you live.
Achille: I did a Huff Post piece about this once. Yeah, to some extent, but most of us are too damn busy to really consider the past. You know, I’m not really invested in the culture of the history of Motown or the Motor City. It’s cool to think about. I’ve been to Hitsville. I’ve been to the Packard Plant, but I think most of us are really thinking far forward. This is our home town and we have ownership of it, and I think the same is true for any other rust belt city.
Michael: I think a lot of us have dropped the nicknames. It’s not Motown. It’s not the Motor City. It’s not the Paris of the Midwest. It’s not the D. You had all these different decades of nicknames. For me, using those nicknames is just people being nostalgic, wanting something from the past. You see that a lot of that when older generations come to visit. They’re talking about what Detroit used to be like back in the day. But you know what, who cares? Every decade has it’s strengths and weaknesses. Now, we’re focused on what’s happening now. Who knows what that this is beyond people working on stuff they care about, but that’s what it is.
It’s interesting to hear you say that, because when the national media writes about it, there’s definitely a sense of nostalgia, like Detroit the former workhorse of American industrialism that’s fallen on hard times.
Achille: In journalism, we like to call that drive by journalism.
When people come from out of town who don’t know the city, what surprises them?
Achille: I don’t know what necessarily surprises everybody, but I do know that everybody is surprised. I think that people find the more underground stuff. They come here for the DIA or Midtown or Slow’s, and that’s cool, but they see all this other great stuff that’s happening that they never even heard about, because no one focuses on it.
I think it’s really hard to define, because it’s so dynamic and widespread. There are little networks of people doing everything everywhere.
Michael: Everyone whom I’ve had visit has left a little astonished. It’s hard to explain. I had a friend come visit from Portland, and when he left he emailed me to say, “I’ve never been more motivated.”
So what did he see?
Michael: It’s honestly just taking him to meet people.
Achille: It’s definitely the people.
Michael: Yeah. My sister, who lives in Brooklyn, I made come out for our birthday, and I’m more extroverted, she’s more introverted. I made her stay up with me all night and hang out and party. She was really impressed with the relationships I had with people. We ran into peope the next day getting coffee, who’d we’d seen last night and [she was surprised] by the way we acted. She said, “These people act like they haven’t seen you in six months.”
That’s what I’m excited about. The motivation a lot people have, that drives you to do whatever it is you’re passionate about. And this solid Midwest work ethic. And then the relationships are very personal.
Is there stuff to do every night?
Achille: There’s too much to do every night. I was just telling Michael before we called you, I was like, Dude, I gotta go to bed early tonight and get some sleep. It feels like there’s like 7 different things to do every night. Because everyone gets off their asses and does stuff. Whether it’s an art opening or a DJ party or whether somebody’s doing a video or doing a photoshoot. There are a whole variety of things to do every night in the city.
So in closing, it definitely seems like there’s some sort of zeitgeist going on in Detroit, but the story of it is not as much a story, but there’s just a personality that’s dominant there right now.
Michael: I think what’s bothersome about the story is there’s this grand, utopian, optimistic ideal of what Detroit is. A lot of people read these articles and want to move to Detroit and work on an urban farm. And it’s not that simple. You have to work really hard.
Achille: It’d be like me as a journalist trying to go to New York and capture the New York story in a single piece. You can’t do it. It’s too dynamic. This city is huge, too.
Michael: I haven’t read the article that’s actually described it. We had this little joke of saying that Detroit is more incredible and fucked up than anyone could ever blog about. Aren’t you getting tired of hearing about the Detroit, too?
Yeah. That’s why I wrote the post. Every time I see a story about Detroit now, I thought, this is a joke and I’m sure people in Detroit hate it.
Michael: People are just here, working.
Achille: It’s like any city. Some people are working on education. Some people are trying to improve public transportation. Some people are freelance. Some people are just being lazy and partying. To everybody in the country, it’s like some huge deal, but to us, it’s just everyday. Everyone’s just trying to pinpoint where the next movement in culture is going, and Detroit is a good story for now.
Photo credit: Flicker user buckshot jones, used under CC license.