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How Urban Artists Are Reinventing Detroit

Creative labor is rebuilding the Motor City, one (art) piece at a time.

When you cruise Detroit’s Grand River Avenue, the scenery can blur into a swirl of vacancy, grit and colors. Sure, you’ll glimpse old buildings splattered with fresh paint. But to truly grasp the big picture of what’s unfolding here, you need to stop. Get out of the car. Crunch over the grass sprouting from sidewalk cracks. Cross busy streets that lack any form of crosswalk signals. Stand face-to-face with a mural.

In one, you might stare at a man’s muscled back, skin looking reptilian against the brick ridges. “From ashes we rise,” reads the tattoo across his shoulders. (At least it did, until someone painted over it with another graffiti mural, as is customary in this outdoor gallery).

Along this half-mile of the avenue, dubbed The Grand River Creative Corridor, 100 elaborate murals await. The beautification project embodies the hard truth about rising from ashes: The dust tends to stick around for a while.

A mural by Malt, a Detroit artist, decorates the Grand River Creative Corridor. 

It’s a sentiment Detroiters understand better than anyone. A fresh crop of doers and makers has learned to embrace it—even channel it—within shops, museums and public installations like this corridor. These creatives are drawing silver linings in the wake of a financial crisis, with products such as raw denim, scrap-metal furniture, belt buckles and kitchenware smithed by hand. Their ambition has forged an urban frontier, where old and new are tumbling over one another as the Motor City reinvents itself. Michigan’s largest city now offers visitors a rich mix of tours in historical buildings and art galleries, while repurposed factories and graffiti murals (some 10 stories tall) carve additional trails to explore.

For Detroit, the 20th century dawned with meteoric rise—Henry Ford and the American auto industry, glittering skyscrapers and museums. In 1950, Detroit was America’s fifth-largest metropolis. But then decades of suburban sprawl, coupled with shifting industrial trends, hollowed out the city, leading to the country’s largest municipal bankruptcy in 2013.

“It’s a city designed for 
2 million people, now with only 700,000 people,” says Claire Nelson, who founded the Urban Consulate in 2016 to unite Detroit’s artists and entrepreneurs. 
“The artists 
see that
 landscape,
 empty lots
 or empty
 buildings, and
 they see opportunities.”

In a tangible way, art helped lead Detroit back from bankruptcy. Rumors spread about a proposal to gut the city-owned Detroit Institute of Arts and auction off its collection (exceeding 60,000 pieces) to pay the bills. Instead, after public outcry, officials devised an alternative that transferred ownership of the institute to a private foundation with an agreement that shrunk the city’s debts.

The main halls of this museum display Diego Rivera’s famed Detroit Industry murals. Completed in 1933, they seem to have anticipated Detroit’s arc, with images of manufacturing might interwoven with symbols of life and death. The murals remain one of the city’s most elaborate and iconic art fixtures.

That legacy inspires lifelong Detroit artist Erik Nordin. He says today’s art movement is stewing, like “a fantastic creative soup” in a marrow-rich stock. It was rendered from the bones of Motown and jazz, seminal architecture and works such as Rivera’s paintings. The spirit of hard labor and innovation also fuels this creative community.

Erik and brother Israel Nordin turned a former steel factory into a studio for their Detroit Design Center on the city’s west side. With sparks flying, they use cranes to assemble scrap metal sculptures and public art installations. You can watch one of their works, the Dburst, descend every New Year’s Eve for Detroit’s version of a ball drop downtown.

Israel, on left, and Erik Nordin work in their Detroit Design Center.

A couple of miles from the Nordins’ studio, visitors to the up-and-coming Corktown neighborhood tour Ponyride, a former warehouse that serves working artists, a blacksmith studio and Anthology, a hip coffee shop. The 30,000-square-foot space runs as a nonprofit, charging a fraction of the market rates for rent. Start-ups such as Detroit Denim launched in the co-working space before opening permanent stores.

Détroit is the New Black, a French-inspired fashion brand, is based in Ponyride; a downtown flagship store opened in 2016. 

The inspiring rebuild of Detroit is drawing visitors and residents alike. “I came back and saw this enthusiasm and influx of energy,” says Jordan Zielke, co-founder of Golden Sign Company. He returned home and started the hand-lettering business in 2014 with partner Kelly Golden after the couple spent a year on the west coast. They’ve since done work for notable businesses with storefronts across the city, including Carhartt, Shinola, Detroit Bikes and Third Man Records.

Erik Nordin says Detroit’s industrial graveyards are fading. That’s why he and Israel recently dug through a vacant skyscraper awaiting renovation. The brothers salvaged a pile of “junk”—adding machines, shoes, rusted nuts and bolts. They grafted them together as an artifact sculpture, like a time capsule from the Detroit of their youth. “We’ve watched the city in decay for so long, and we’ve been here through it all,” Erik says. Now they’re watching a new Detroit replace the old. Or in the case of their sculpture, like all the murals covering decrepit buildings, pieces of the old are building the new.

Murals up to 10 stories tall accent the downtown skyline. 

Emerging Detroit Destinations

Where to experience the artistic buzz in Detroit:

Avenue of Fashion Several blocks of small businesses along Livernois Avenue bring fresh sophistication and culture to this historical area. Baker’s Keyboard Lounge, established in 1934, remains the world’s oldest jazz club, while spas, galleries and apparel stores add variety. The Popup Shop hosts various businesses in one space, where a wine tasting event is a best-kept secret (held the first Saturday each month, for only a
 $5 donation) (avenueoffashion.com).

The Belt Walk through this redefined alleyway with suspended framed art pieces and strung lights. The project helped revitalize downtown’s former garment district (thebelt.org).

The Belt

"Cultural Living Room" at Detroit Institute of Arts A 2013 redesign of Kresge Court reshaped one of the museum’s most impressive architectural spaces. Designers added chic furniture (with iPads at tables) to the glass-roof atrium, plus a menu with cocktails, wine, coffee and food (dia.org).

World-Classy

Detroit became the first U.S. city named a UNESCO City of Design in December 2015. The accolade, shared with Buenos Aires, Budapest, Singapore and others, recognizes cities where creativity has played a vital role in sustainalble redevelopment.

Step Inside

The World's Largest Brick Building Featuring more than 1.8 million bricks inset with colorful tiles, Detroit’s Guardian Building has towered above downtown since 1929. Public tours via Detroit Experience Factory venture inside the old pillar of artistic excellence after visiting The Belt for a taste of innovative development (guardianbuilding.com).

Guardian Building; photo by Kevin J. Miyazaki/Redux

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