Cool factor lures the young, artsy to Detroit

Posted on June 29, 2011

Detroit, city of 100,719 vacant parcels and three Starbucks, has discovered its marketing niche: land of the young, daring and bohemian. And more businesses, foundations and city leaders are investing in the idea.

It celebrates the city’s gritty appeal to youthful adults and the artistically inclined — think of Chrysler LLC’s “Imported From Detroit” slogan that debuted in a Super Bowl commercial featuring Eminem — as the source of a raw creativity that makes Detroit unique.

It’s the ethos that seems to drive many events and investments in Detroit these days even as the city undergoes an epic battle against dwindling population and prosperity. The push is on in tourism, private investments, housing plans and marketing.

And there are growing grass-roots efforts by artists and foundations to promote Detroit.

The latest example came Tuesday, when the Kresge Foundation announced its third annual $25,000 no-strings-attached fellowships, among the most lucrative awards for individual artists in the nation, to 12 area residents who will use the money to pursue their creative endeavors and contribute to a high-profile local arts festival in 2013.

Even neighborhood-level events are finding donors, like this month’s Willis Village Block Party, sponsored by the influential Midtown Detroit group, which attracted the young and artsy around Avalon International Breads and other small retailers.

Recently, the Woodbridge home of Angela Topacio and Matt Didio hosted 300 people for the annual garden party of the Detroit Artists Market — the first time in decades the event was held in the city.

“My friends in New York, L.A., Europe all think Detroit is really cool, and, thankfully, so do more and more people here. The energy seems great right now,” said Angela Topacio, an artist and managing partner of Gyro Creative Group downtown.

The Detroit Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau has been targeting the young for four years now. “The 21- to 34-year-old demographic is the best target audience for Detroit,” said Larry Alexander, CEO of the convention bureau.

The brand identity resulted from surveys of more than 1,300 visitors and focus groups in five cities that identified Detroit as “the American city where cool comes from,” Alexander said.

“They are open-minded and adventurous opinion-setters. This age group is considered to be the best type of visitor for whom Detroit can be positioned as a new destination, ripe for discovery.”

A recent success: The Detroit Movement electronic music festival on Memorial Day weekend, which attracted record paying crowds of nearly 100,000. Downtown hotels such as the DoubleTree Fort Shelby say young tourists are definitely a presence.

“We are pleasantly surprised at the number of young people who come into town to enjoy an event and make a weekend out of it. It’s not something we counted on,” said Bill Aprill, director of sales at the hotel.

Loft dwellers younger

There also is anecdotal evidence that loft dwellers downtown are getting younger.

The average age of current residents at the Lofts at Merchants Row has dropped to 33. A few years ago, more residents were over 40, according to Dover Realty Advisors, the asset management firm for the 152-unit Woodward Avenue lofts.

Some Detroiters say making the city hip is not the same thing as fixing its many woes, but it doesn’t hurt, either.

Someone who delves into both the rising bohemia and basic structural problems of Detroit is Jeff DeBruyn, who works with the city’s homeless as well with the grass-roots group behind the Imagination Station.

That’s the name given to two blighted homes in Corktown, owned by small entrepreneurs who aim to create a digital media center with volunteers’ help.

“You have to welcome the enthusiasm the arts and culture scene is bringing, and so many of the people involved in it are really sincere. It can be inspiring,” DeBruyn said. “But once in a while you encounter an artist who thinks they are saving the neighborhood by doing an art project. And we have so many issues like public safety, fixing the schools, jobs. I hope all this new energy can get transferred to those issues.”

Gilbert pitches in

There are other major campaigns from the private sector and large institutions.

Quicken Loans Inc. owner Dan Gilbert has gone on a buying spree in the past year, acquiring two downtown buildings and signing contracts to buy two others that he hopes to fill with technology and Web-oriented jobs, which tend to be staffed by young workers.

The company moved 1,700 employees and its headquarters to Detroit last year from Livonia.

By 2015, local and national foundations will invest close to $1 billion in Metro Detroit — one of the largest investments in a single community in U.S. history, said Kresge Foundation President Rip Rapson.

It has led to programs such as the $2.5 million Creative Corridor Incentive Fund, which helps “creative businesses” move downtown.

The city’s core struggles with an office vacancy rate of 30.5 percent, according to Grubb & Ellis Co., a commercial real estate advisory firm.

Another big push is being led by Wayne State University, Henry Ford Health System and the Detroit Medical Center, which aim to attract young, educated people through its Live Midtown campaign.

Those employers this year began offering workers as much as $25,000 in loans to buy a home or as much as $3,500 in rent assistance.

Quicken, Compuware Corp. and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan are considering a similar incentive to lure workers to live downtown, though no programs have yet been established.

“We are definitely on the right track. Five years ago, I wouldn’t have said that,” said Louis Glazer, president and co-founder of Michigan Future, Inc., a nonpartisan, nonprofit in Ann Arbor that studies ways Michigan can thrive in a knowledge-driven economy.

“All the artist stuff matters because it encourages creativity of all kind. But it’s the big business that’s just as important. And most of the leadership in the city gets this now, and that’s what’s so encouraging. It’s the only way we are going to compete.

“You go to truly great American cities — Boston, Seattle, Denver, etc. — all of them havens for young talent, and this idea of promoting all this creativity in many forms isn’t even being debated. It’s just the way things operate.”

The idea of Detroit as a raw, creative space is getting plenty of help from outside media and art circles.

Earlier this month, BBC Radio ran a half-hour special called “Unbuilding Detroit.” International photographer Andrew Moore explored the beauty of the city’s abundant empty buildings for his critically acclaimed book “Detroit Disassembled.”

Recently, Whole Foods Market, which is considering opening a story in Detroit, sponsored the screening of a documentary film a made by a Los Angeles director about Detroit’s urban agricultural movement.

“Urban Roots” has been screened in 70 cities and has resonated with audiences, says director Mark MacInnis. “Everywhere we have gone (to show the film), I’ve had so many people say Detroit looks like such an exciting place. They say ‘We want to move there,'” said MacInnis, a Detroit native.

By Louis Aguilar, The Detroit News