Can Detroit Live Up to Its Hype?

Boosters promise a city poised to become the next start-up hub. But driving around the downtown's empty streets, I'm not so sure I see a rosy future.

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Where I live in the Bay Area, there's a certain glamor to Detroit. It's the heart of what Bruce Sterling termed "dark euphoria." "Dark Euphoria is what the twenty-teens feels like," Sterling said. "Things are just falling apart, you can't believe the possibilities, it's like anything is possible, but you never realized you're going to have to dread it so much."

Detroit is the place where Bay Area types imagine an urban tabula rasa, a place where enough has gone away that the problems of stuffing millions of people into a small region can be reimagined, redesigned, remade.

So, when we arrived in Detroit, I was excited to see what was actually happening on the ground, to see what was there outside the square frames of Instagram.

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Anywhere you go in Michigan, people tell you about the Madison Building. Down by the Tigers' new stadium and the Detroit Opera House, extremely successful local businessman Dan Gilbert bought and rehabbed a gorgeous old building. The roof is so nice and fancy that you can rent it out for a wedding reception and relax in chairs that cost more than many houses in the metro area.

But the real attraction of the building, for us, was that it's the home of Detroit Venture Partners, the start-up hub of the area. DVP is run by Josh Linkner, a Detroit native who founded and eventually sold ePrize, an online promotions platform. It's on the same floor as the formerly futuristic Detroit People Mover, a monorail which loops endlessly around the still mostly deserted downtown.

Linkner's office space contains his own portfolio companies as well as those of Bizdom, an accelerator that's also funded by Dan Gilbert. There's no doubt about it, as Linkner put it, "We're the dominant early stage tech VC in this region."

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DVP is a traditional venture firm in the sense that they invest in digital-only companies that are trying to make something big out of what a few kids in a room can build. An old friend of mine from college, Jay Gierak, is one of them. HIs company Stik is like an Angie's List for lawyers, realtors, and other professional services. He and his cofounder Nathan Labenz recently moved their company from the Bay to Detroit, where Gierak grew up, and received $2.5 million from DVP. In press coverage of the funding, the company's move to Motown got more attention than the money did.

People want to be excited for Detroit. They want Clint Eastwood and Eminem to be right. They want grit to count for something in today's economy. Linkner, for his part, is sure that it does. "I'll put a Detroit entrepreneur up against anyone from the coasts and I think we'd kick their ass," he tell us. He quotes the Chrysler commercial, "The hottest fire makes the strongest steel." 

It's easy, conceptually, to get excited about all of this. You almost get giddy looking out at all the old buildings of downtown Detroit and imagining that you could buy one for the same amount as a nice house goes for in Noe Valley, let alone Atherton. 

But, at least for me, that vision requires thousands of other people committed to building the same kind of city. People like Linker and Gilbert or Gierak and Labenz are here, but what about the other few thousand that are needed to make the city feel vibrant? Not to detour into a ruin-porny segment about the state of the city, but the number of abandoned buildings in Detroit -- and the feeling they toss into the air -- is truly unfathomable to someone raised on the west coast.

Linkner, who is a self-proclaimed booster for his city, admits that the lack of density is a--if not the--problem. 

"Things tend to be spread out," he said. "Something on one block and something else four blocks later. We don't have a place you can stroll around for 8 square blocks."

But he also argued Detroit needs to tell its own story in "a better and more cohesive" way. And that I'm not so sure about. For me, the narrative of Detroit has outstripped at least what I could see of Detroit. Good things are clearly happening, but the lack of connective tissue is a bigger problem than you might imagine. Between downtown and an area like Corktown, which has an excellent coffee shop, the oft-applauded Slow's BBQ, Honor + Folly, and a couple other bars, there's just nothing. When we left Slow's on a Thursday night at 9pm to drive the couple miles to our hotel, we got about halfway when I looked in my rearview mirror and realized that there wasn't a single other car behind us, nor approaching. There were no bikes or pedestrians, either. 

If I was filled with dark euphoria, I might say that this is a fascinating thing: this is a design problem that can be fixed! Put in inflatable architecture between the cool stuff. More bike lanes! Create lighting and safety corridors. Plant trees. Hell, put in the world's longest water slide during the summer. Something, anything, that might end up connecting this place to itself. 

But I do not know that I have that sense of euphoria. The story requires a fairy tale ending. And the reality is so daunting. I can practically hear Linkner reading this and saying, "He's soft. He's not made for Detroit." And that's probably true. 

This post originally appeared on The Atlantic.

About the Author

  • Alexis C. Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology.