Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
At the Rust Belt Market in Ferndale, the maker movement is remixing Detroit's industrial heritage.
The first factory to churn out automobiles via assembly line, the Highland Park Ford plant once testified to Detroit's manufacturing prowess. Though it's a National Historic Landmark, the abandoned factory now slides ever further into disrepair, with shattered windows, flaking ceilings, and insistent weeds splintering the cement.
A few miles north, though, the city is experiencing an industrial renaissance in the form of small-batch makers. In 2011, the Rust Belt Market took over a 15,000-square foot big-box store on the corner of Woodward Avenue and 9 Mile in Ferndale. The neighborhood has long been a haven for artists and craftspeople. Main Street is dotted with colorful murals, cafes doling out locally-roasted coffee, and shops hawking retro vinyl and vintage threads.
The former Old Navy had been sitting vacant for nearly four years before Tiffany Best leased it with her husband and business partner, Chris. The building's facade still looks like a chain store, while the inside is pared down to exposed ventilation and strands of twinkle lights. When the weekend bazaar opened, the owners allocated 70 stalls but had a hard time filling them consistently. A little over a year ago, they increased revenue by dedicating 4,000 square feet to an event space.
Now, the market features more than 50 artisans who pay about $100 per weekend to deck out an 80-square-foot space with their goods. Many take a cue from the city's history. Even with its name, the market acknowledges and subverts the notion that the post-industrial landscape is unequivocally blighted and used up.
"People sense the history in these pieces," Wolfe says. Last summer, he dashed to the smoldering remains of the First Unitarian Church of Detroit—which burned down in a suspected arson—to recover about 100 bricks from the structure. (Constructed in 1889, the building was another registered landmark.) He also has a number of bricks that once lined the 87-year-old Hudson's department store on Woodward and Gratiot. The 25-story building was imploded in 1998. Paradoxically, demolition has "created a surplus of historic things for me to use," says Wolfe.
Motor City Brick is now Wolfe's full-time gig. He does some printing in his home, but the heavy lifting and sawing occur in a former distribution center that he rents for $200 a month. Best reports that many of the long-term tenants at the Rust Belt are making a go of a creative lifestyle. "It's encouraging, because it wasn't that way when we first opened. Almost everyone had something else," she says.
Dave Hudson, owner of furniture company Hudson Industrial, still has many something elses. Hudson is constantly working with his hands—in his day job, making 3D vehicle animations for Ford; playing drums in a rockabilly band; and tinkering with antique cars on the weekends.
Hudson fashions handsome tables, shelves, and more from reclaimed wood and metal, and prefers materials that nod towards iconic Michigan products, like the bubbly Faygo and Vernor's sodas. He says that the president of Faygo spotted his work on Instagram and requested a custom table made from the beverage crates. ("I'm doing that free of charge, of course," Hudson says. "You can't charge Faygo for their own crates.")
Hudson has set up a workshop near the intersection of Hilden and I-696. Right now, it's a place where he fabricates his wares—but by spring, he hopes it will double as a showroom. "It just feels good to be at the shop, all greasy and sweaty, blasting heavy metal music, sparks flying everywhere," he says. "I'm covered in dust by the time I'm done. It's a visceral, raw feeling."
While Metro Detroit has a history of pop-up, weekend-long alternative art festivals, such as the decade-old Detroit Urban Craft Fair, there wasn't a spot for artisans to peddle their wares year-round before the Rust Belt. "This is where their customer base can come and talk to them," Best says. "It's like a lower-expense brick-and-mortar." The market is launching new initiatives to get more community members in the door, such as a Valentine's Day breakfast with heart-shaped flapjacks.
The genre of "ruin porn"—gawking at the skeletons of once-prosperous factories and photographing them with a dreamy Instagram filter—is practically a tourist industry in Detroit. But it's only part of the story. "The Maker movement has moved beyond the craft show into a serious livelihood," says Best.
Detroit's art scene has exploded, with venues such as Ponyride, Red Bull House of Art, and Trinosophes serving as incubators and exhibition spaces for up-and-comers. Numerous organizations, including the Kresge Foundation, offer substantial grants to emerging and established artists. The Miami-based Knight Foundation is rolling out grants totaling $9 million. This winter, in a much-publicized move, Brooklyn-based art space Galapagos purchased buildings in Highland Park and Detroit.
Much of the work at Rust Belt reveals an unrelenting optimism about Detroit's future. "I've been rooting for the city since I was a little kid," says Wolfe. "I sometimes depict dilapidated factories, but then I put a nice skyline behind them with a sunset."