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Q&A: Philip Lauri on What Makes Detroit a Living City

Philip Lauri has more talent and ideas in one long lock of hair than most Detroit nay-sayers have anywhere. Truly, he is what makes Detroit’s “Creative Class” worth watching.

He is founder of Detroit Lives!, a project he defines as “a creative factory with a social mission of telling a good story about Detroit.” He is a filmmaker, a clothing designer, mural painter and blogger – and he loves the city that defines his work.

I met Lauri in 2009 to see his Gratiot Avenue mural – a mix of whimsy and social message. I had heard about his newest public-art project, and I was curious to find out what he has been up to lately…and we got into pretty much every aspect of his life, the lives of his friends and what he thinks about what’s happening in the city. And I’m still very much on board with his vision and mission.

Q: What is the latest with Detroit Lives!?

A: Lotsa stuff. I’m finishing up a film on David Blair, the local poet and musician. As it is right now, it’s going to have an entire animation sequence layed over footage of Blair delivering one of his best (in my opinion) poems. In May, I’m starting work on another documentary going to Poland to look at a city that has suffered a post-industrial fate very similar to Detroit’s. The idea, though there’s no predicting how this will actually unfold, is to show some comparison/contrast between the two cities and what problems/opportunities re-definition amidst globalization is posing to cities all over the world. I can’t express how excited I am about this film. I am working with a great team here and over in Poland, so it should be great piece, ideally very reflective of the redeeming components of re-definition in cities.

Public art: The MANTRACITY mural series (mantra + city + monstrosity) is going to start taking more shape once the weather warms up. The idea is to paint effortlessly positive and uplifting murals all throughout the city with messages that make people feel good about the city. The first one has been started with a message of “We Kahn Do It!” in reference to the architect Albert Kahn, who designed three buildings that are next to the wall we are painting (the GM building, the Argonaut and the Fisher Building). There are four or so more planned for spring, so it will be an ongoing series with a large collection of them done by Fall. I am doing this project in conjunction with Chazz Miller at Public Art Workz.

Community engagement: DL! and the Detroit Creative Corridor Center are teaming up to form a more cohesive ongoing partnership. First, we are establishing a DETROIT LIVES! Digital Resource Exchange that will essentially be an online portal of positive, developmental information, data and statistics that support creative innovation in the city. We will be using that information and the digital exchange to create a seminar series of sorts reaching out to businesses, professional organizations, entrepreneurs and artists about concentrating investment and work in the city to cultivate localized creative industry.

Clothing line: By April, there will be all new additions to the clothing line available online or in area retailers throughout the city and suburbs. So far, the new stuff is looking quite nice. There will be some brand-new items unveiled and some new takes on the original stuff. Aside from that, I am doing an artist series poster and apparel release where local designers will create some new DL! wares and such. Should be nice.

Q: What was the response to your movie and mural?

A: Both have been positive so far. Responses to the film (“The Farmer and the Philosopher“) have kind of died off to be honest because I suppose it’s getting “old” now, which signals it is time to make a new one. The good news is that new film releases are on the way. That said, when people do bring up the film, it is usually with positive remarks which I’m quite thankful for. I hope as the films continue to be released, I can keep the interest alive and keep people engaged.

The mural continues to make people smile from what I gather. I don’t necessarily talk about the mural all the time, so it’s kind of fun every now and again when it comes up in random conversation and I tell the person that I was the one who painted it. They are usually surprised. I kind of like that. And then there are the conversations with folks that will tell me it makes them laugh every day when they drive by it. That’s all I could ever ask for. I like the idea of public art being an accessible medium that doesn’t just engage people, but actually makes them happy, too.

Q: What do you think about Detroit’s progress lately? In other words, does Detroit live?

A: Well, it’s all quite interesting. There are a lot of historically significant things going on right now. I think the Detroit Works project is shaping up to be something interesting. I cannot make any predictions about what will come, but I have heard in varying capacities that it might be a pleasant surprise to many people the sorts of actions that are going to come out of it as a planning/action process. I hope that’s true. I hope our mayor rises to the occasion and puts some meat and bones behind a lot of the things he is addressing. It’s all a tough task, so I realize these things take time, but the opportunity before us to create lasting models for growth in cities is enormous. We just have to rise to the occasion.

Regionally, there’s a lot of development happening right now in the Rust Belt that makes me happy. Youngstown is making marks with its Youngstown 2010 (and now a 2020 plan) and Jon Fetterman out in Braddock is still getting positive attention. Groups like GLUE (Great Lakes Urban Exchange) are providing a lot of dialogue amongst fellow Rust Belter’s and conferences like the Rust Belt to Artist Belt are happening. I think it’s all healthy dialogue that is providing a larger narrative about the region that helps put planning and actions in motion locally to keep up with everyone around us– not to mention the value of sharing the thinking behind localized innovation. When something works in a lot of these cities in the Rust Belt, it should be our duty to share the thinking so that we can all lift each other up. I like the idea of a Rust Belt brotherhood/sisterhood. It kind of expands the sentiment you feel locally that “we’re all in this together.”

From a developmental perspective, I like seeing folks like Tom at the Green Garage making headway with their office and business accelerator. He and his wife even purchased the El Moore, a beautiful old apartment building left for dead, that they are going to renovate. Just fantastic stuff. Detroit Venture Partners are making headway with business development. Then there’s projects like the Broderick Tower redevelopment happening, and apparently the Roxbury Group is trying to spearhead renovation on the David Whitney Building, too. I like that there has been a lot of activity lately in that area, and I sincerely hope that Governor Snyder thinks twice about pulling the plug on the developmental tax credits for the purposes of future progress.

So yeah, I think Detroit is doing well these days, though in our position, there is always a lot of (hard) work to do. So there’s nothing to sit back and marvel at for more than a few days. It’s important to recognize the fruits of our labor and genuinely be thankful for the things we can do on a daily basis because it’s too easy to get so wrapped up in daily work to forget about the value of our progress, BUT, we’ve got to keep chugging. The good news is that that’s what we’re used to. So don’t think for three seconds that the train won’t keep moving— hell or high water.

Q: In blogging about the city, what kind of misconceptions do you hear/see and how can Detroit solve them?

A: I mean, it’s kind of an obvious one, but I feel the misconception I am most acutely positioned to defeat is the notion that Detroit is dead and hopeless. If the title of my efforts doesn’t make it obvious, I wholeheartedly disagree. Way too many people are starting to see the opportunity that is tucked in the Detroit story, and that is resulting in a lot of forward thinking– from innovative business models like LOVELAND, to neighborhood organizations making a realized impact like Georgia Street Community Collective and Public Art Workz, to people and initiatives that are seeing that the cracks in our system reveal opportunity because of the fact that we have to start over in a lot of ways. Starting over just allows us to perfect the model, and then ideally pay it forward with other cities that will inevitably suffer fates very similar to ours. Detroit will be an innovator just because we happen to be one of the first behemoths to fall. We are forced to create the model, and what a grand opportunity indeed that is. Sure, hard work, but my work is geared towards understanding the opportunity that that situation presents.

Did I actually even answer the question?!

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