Friday, August 30, 2013

Can The Makers Save Detroit?

Does Detroit need to be saved?

I think it is a valid question, and one I need to examine because there is a taint of white paternalism infused within that sentiment. And not surprising because I am 1) white, and 2) an arrogant know-it-all, and 3) introspective enough to admit it. But, still...

I watched the documentary Detrotopia the other night, and it all looked pretty bleak, but, growing up in NW Indiana, working in the shadow of the mills of Gary, nothing that is unusual to me. I'll tell you what won't work in terms of community revival, is building casinos... Then again, as one gentleman in the movie so succinctly put it, turning Detroit into urban farms is quite simple "Boole-sheeit!"

But the one thing that is certain is that Detroit is the canary in the coal mine. The other thing I noticed was, what you think is a bug is actually a feature, and in that I'm talking about the residents of Detroit.
Remember New York City in the 1970 and 80s? How many dystopian movies were made about that city, ranging from Neil Simon's "The Out-of-Towners"to the penultimate "Escape From New York", which advocated just slagging it all off, and letting it slide down into muck and mire of the abyssal plain of the Eastern seacoast, where it belonged?

And, if you can stand listening to the current redneck wisdom about urban blight, it was all the fault of them damn liberals handing money out to good-for-nothing moochers and takers and rewarding sloth and punishing success with "confiscatory taxation" (but really, hush now, cain't say it too loud, but really blaming it all on the You Know Who's...knowing nod of the melon head...), and thank goodness it all ended with the rise of the conservative mayors and their get tough policies.

(Please ignore the fact that, currently, places such as the former shithole known as Brooklyn, now Artisanal Brooklyn, is still a shithole, and the reason the artisans, makers, and  "creatives" flock there is Cheap Rent).

Never mind that it wasn't just NYC, but every major city suffered a population decline, and thus a shortage of revenue, and thus a decline in services, public institutions, and quality of infrastructure, etc. And, come on now, do I really have to say what really caused it? It's fairly fucking obvious, and so I won't.

Now, the New Republic seems to see a way out for Detroit, and maybe other cities. I've read about innovation districts before. They certainly represent one way forward, but I really don't think we can rely on the technocrats to show us the way.  Nevertheless...

Item: The Foodie Movement of the past decade or so has spawned, in turn, the Artisan Food Movement. I see this is as a good thing, turning away from the razor-thin-profit-margin downward-spiral processed food trend of the past seventy years. Value-added and quality of life is once again recognized as an alternative profit maker, and all to the good. But we can't really on everyone making tasty food for everyone else, like some sad craft barter faire outside a Grateful Dead concert, because 1) too much of the feed stock comes from the processed food maw (maw? that's not the right word, that's a massive intake portal, I need a word for a massive extruder spigot, hmm, maybe "spaw"), and 2) there's a limited market for value-added food as most cannot afford it.

Item: Still, there's no reason for the value-added model not to work on a large scale. Look at Japan from the 1950s on. Have a look at what is happening to "content", e.g. Hollywood spaw, where the big giant dinosaur studios are frozen spitless and witless in the "zero-risk" behavior, and therefore churn out Mattel and Marvel brand franchise movies, hoping that, well, tentpoles is the way to go, and you can only make your nut on the international market (thanks, James Cameron), so let's keep the concepts dumb and familiar. Meanwhile, you got these fast little furry mammals cranking out independent film, with original content, that is fun, quirky, curious, risk taking, and playful (because, honey, "play" is taking risks within established boundaries, and, if you ain't being playful, you ain't being creative).

Item: If want to search for "content" (because in a food-powered make-work robot peasant future, "content" is the only valuable commodity), you don't do it through process, you do it through relationships and (surprise!) connections. (PLUG). I don't care how cool your 3D printer system is,  if you are cranking tchotkes or bland appliances with it, it ain't that cool. I really don't give a shit about how cool your motion capture and CGI rendering is, if you can't relate the underlying meanings and story elements of your special effects to your audience, it ain't that cool. If there is no creative fire behind the tech to power the vision, nothing will happen.

Item: At the risk of stereotyping, I think an obvious question to ask is: Who seems to be a major cultural contributor over the past several generations (example: Jazz, R&B, rap, hip hop), in the sense of sea-change cultural contributions? I'm going to argue for people of color. I will further argue people of color in urban settings. (Of course it has little or nothing to do with race. The reason blacks are more creative is completely socio-economic). Why? Dense connections and relationships populated with maximal interactions, with (no-not novel, but um) maximally permutative situations, usually in groups below the Dunbar number, and with . Oh, true, each of these has been co-opted and suborned for a wider (read white) audience. (I mean, can you think of a single rock and roll song you can't march to?), and that's well and good, as it just means a further generation of relationships and ideas through an open source schema.

Item: It's not a tech path, it's a tech face. Meaning there is more than one way for a new idea to propagate, and more than one group to do the propagating. Parallel evolution. We all here about STEM careers, but the market reality, we have found, despite all the hype, is really not not there. Which means, if private enterprise will not step up to the plate (and they haven't yet), bootstrapping has got to happen. (Although, if it were me, I'd be bombing urban centers with Raspberry-Pis, Arduinoes, Lego shit, but most importantly, pencils, paper, glue, balsa wood, lithium battery power tools, construction materials, and carting in mobile foundries and welding stations with gas generators on trailers, and get the kids exposed at an early age to cool art/industrial stuff like that, but that's my fantasyland).

Look, you had early 90s urban design and styles inspired African-American creatives, and if you believe in the magic number 18 (development cycle-wise, either in months, days, or years, which I do), then we are due for the next renaissance. As the New Republic article pointed out, all the elements are there in Detroit.

So, who is gonna save Detroit? Well, looks like Detroit is gonna have to save Detroit, but the New Republic article makes a good case for why and how it can. What about your city?

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