Detroit and Berlin both know something about abandoned buildings. After the fall of the wall when the former east opened up, parts of Berlin looked a lot like Detroit today, where scores of buildings stood unclaimed, their purpose unclear. While officials worked on a city’s future, Germans like Dimitri Hegemann, relished in exploring the relics of Berlin’s industrial past.
"We were very curious...so when I could go in… I was curious like a young boy," he says. "What is this building? Oh, it’s empty? Let’s look inside. And this happened 1,000 times. We just invaded. This was, you must understand, the frame of these days. The atmosphere was burning. It was an amazing situation."
In the basement of a now empty power plant, Dimitri Hegemann makes his rounds. The man who used to explore old abandoned buildings now owns one. He transformed a hulking, cavernous structure, a reminder of Berlin’s industrial heyday, into a techno club. Called Tresor, it opened in 1991, two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Tresor became legendary and was one of the greatest creative symbols of the new Berlin. All over the city, creatives turned empty buildings into spaces for art, parties, and dancing. All of this helped get the grey, dreary areas of Berlin pumping again. Through techno music, Hegemann created a scene that would lure music lovers and creative people from across the globe.
What Hegemann did may have been easy in Berlin but difficult in Detroit. Hegemann came to the Motor City a number of times. He loves Detroit and its techno legacy and was intent on opening a club here.
"Detroit really reminded me of Berlin because of the hidden buildings, the possibilities. If there’s a city in the United States, I think it’s Detroit — the history of the music, starting from Motown to Iggy Pop, Madonna to techno to the Eminem hip hop thing. I think it’s missing marketing."
Marketing, lack of investors and city bureaucracy became roadblocks for Hegemann, and although he tried, he was never able to open a techno club here.
Burkhard Kieker is the Director of Berlin tourism. He recalls his own trips to Detroit and says a city down on its luck needs to turn its image around. Through confronting its past such as the Holocaust, the wall and the cold war, Berlin was able to move forward. Kieker says the process of reinvention takes time, but if Detroit follows Berlin’s model, Michigan's jewel can re-create itself.
"The first thing I would recommend is be proud and be proud of your past and don’t hide it," says Kieker. "And try to reinvent yourself by looking to the future and what is the future. Germany and the U.S. – industrialized nations – we can’t compete with what’s coming up in Asia. We are no longer production nations. We now focus on the things in our head, in our minds. Intelligent industries, creativity - things which nobody can steal."
He suggests the Motor City look beyond manufacturing and use its legacy of design to move ahead.But Berlin has an advantage in that it’s the capital of Germany. Berlin’s creative sector was heavily financed by the government. Parks, transportation, new infrastructure and culture have been two decades in the making.
"Creating the right environment for the arts has been going on for 20 years," he says. "This is heavily subsidized by the city government as well as the federal government. For example, Berlin is the only city in the world with three opera houses, which costs the city 120 million euros. Two thirds of it is paid by the federal government otherwise we couldn’t afford it. Berlin is a cultural hub."
Detroit is working on its image. Commercials like the Chrysler Super Bowl ad gave Detroiters an overwhelming sense of pride and let America know that we were down but not out. Millions of people saw the commercial, huddled around televisions and computers. Within 24 hours of being posted online, the video received millions of hits. By watching it America was silently rooting for Detroit. And while some cheered from their living rooms others are in the trenches getting their hands dirty, like muralist Halima Cassells.
Cassells left Detroit in 1998 pledging never to return. After years of struggling as an artist in Brooklyn she came back to Detroit. Cassells says that for her…changing Detroit’s image begins in the neighborhoods.
"I think whenever a vacant lot is turned into something beautiful like an outdoor gallery or a garden or a pocket park," she says. "I think when an abandoned building is boarded up in a creative manner or even just painting the boards a color and keeping the grass mowed and planting some flowers I think that definitely alters the environment from being something that’s scary looking to something that shouts, ‘We care, somebody cares…that definitely in turn alters the image."
Cassells says she loves living as a full-time artist.
"When I came back I knew that I was going to make my life, a very nice life as an artist. Because it is so affordable, and there’s so much work to be done. There’s just a huge amount of space, of opportunity, of people that are on the same wavelength in terms of wanting to create for a common good and make this city look reflective of all of the genius and creativity here. Because Detroit is full of genius."
Her work is not just painting commissioned murals. Cassells paints boarded up, abandoned homes and turns empty lots into outdoor gardens and galleries. She says her work as an artist creates a domino effect and has brought her community together.
"A couple of friends who are artists said, 'You know what? I’d like to take this vacant lot and do something here.' I know that people credit us with helping them start outdoor galleries in their neighborhood."
Some of the region’s decision makers have galvanized around the idea of ushering in and supporting artists. Laura Trudeau is Senior Program Director at the Kresge Foundation. Trudeau is in charge of Community Development in Detroit. She says Detroit’s reinvention is linked to supporting a creative class.
"Some folks have said that Detroit was just destined for oblivion, that our relevancy in the twentieth century was only in our relationship to making automobiles," says Trudeau. "And our sense has been that Detroit has fabulous people, it has creativity. Coming out of the auto industry we have all these folks that are really good at inventing things and being innovative. And what’s kind of the next life for Detroit. And we just couldn’t help but believe that the next life for Detroit included a role for creativity in the arts."
Like so many Detroiters, Trudeau has heard stories about artists moving here.
"One of my children lives in New York City, and he called me and told me that one of his friends told him that Detroit was the new hot place to be because artists could afford to work here. And in his group of friends folks were looking for a place where there was an open attitude about participating and an open attitude about contributing to something exciting that was happening. And that the buzz was that that’s Detroit right now."
While Detroit doesn’t have federal financial subsidies, we do have a foundation of music, manufacturing and design genius.