Between 2007 and 2012, photographer Corine Vermeulen worked on the series Your Town Tomorrow. It started with her making explorations by bike after she first settled in Detroit. Vermeulen was fascinated by the green city landscape and how people started to develop urban farming after so many houses had come down. She talked to the residents of Detroit that she met on the road, later portraying them in her photographs. The availability of space made new forms of economy possible – an ecological and self-sustaining economy – against the backdrop of harsh poverty. In Vermeulen’s series, you get a sense of the diversity and creativity of the inhabitants in the city, even in difficult circumstances like these.
The film Generation Startup had its local premiere this past autumn at the Detroit Film Theatre. The documentary, directed by Cheryl Miller Houser and Cynthia Wade, depicts a number of young entrepreneurs who have come to Detroit and are struggling to start their businesses. Among the companies portrayed is Castle, a tech-driven firm run by three guys providing maintenance services for homeowners. You see them inspecting run-down houses of the kind that are bought throughout Detroit, sometimes without the new owner ever having seen the property. Meanwhile, they’re working on their own acquired house, rebuilding it step by step, creating a space in which to live and work. The first winter is spent in tents inside the freezing-cold house. After some time, though, the company starts to be successful and the house is rehabilitated. Detroit, according to the documentary makers, “is a city that was founded on innovation, entrepreneurship, and creativity, and is seeing a renaissance because of it.”
There’s a lot of historic drama visible in Detroit, and it is tempting to draw conclusions from that. Yet the city is complicated and layered and cannot be read that easily. Even for the people living there, it’s hard to define the moment between bankruptcy and renaissance. What is clear, though, is that Detroiters are getting sick of one-sided representations of their city as an abandoned, picturesque ruin (there are actually 700,000 people living in Detroit). A look at some of the houses and the new ways of inhabiting them – through the works of artists and entrepreneurs – lends a glimpse into the vitality and imagination present in the city.