This has been a trying day for Detroit. The decision to seek an Emergency Manager is both one step forward and one step back. It can seem like the deck is stacked against Detroit and the region.
But I’d like to share something I heard Friday at Creative Mornings Detroit. The speaker was John Houshmand, a New York-based artist, musician, furniture maker, sculptor and environmentalist. His work of late (and forgive me for over-simplifying it) focuses on creating functional art. These everyday objects elevated to the sublime, like his microslabs of wood that he wraps around glass tables, making urban, organic furniture.
He started his talk by noting how “lucky” we were to be in Detroit. He later added, “I’m here just two days and I’m kinda in love with Detroit.” During the question-and-answer portion of the event, someone asked him to explain what that luck thing meant. The following off-the-cuff response came. I have written it up in its entirety with limited editing. I hope it reminds you of the very important fact that sometimes, when newcomers arrive, many of them wish they could stay and live out this strange story called Detroit.
Now, John Houshmand:
“You’ve got amazing building product inventory out there. And the architecture! I’m used to New York City, and you’ve got cooler architecture here, I don’t what anyone says. There’s some amazing stuff that I’ve seen in the short time I’ve been here. We drove around, we went out to Cranbrook, we saw everything in between. We walked all around downtown. We looked at a bunch of the projects that you’re renovating. Just from that standpoint alone I think that’s amazing.
I see what Dan (Gilbert) is doing in terms of creating a multi-layered cake of businesses and projects and interactivites. In New York, people don’t develop buildings and think about that community. Let’s create community, let’s create interactions. … New York is so monetized. I’ve actually done some developments in Manhattan, and it’s just about the building. Here, I see interactivity. I see young people. Walk down a city street in New York these days. I went there in 1980 and people were reading Normal Mailer. Now they’re just dragging their sorry asses to work to be able to pay $3,000 rents. You guys – maybe you’re Midwesterners but you all seem happy.
If I wasn’t stuck where I am … I called my wife yesterday and I said, “Hey, maybe we should think about moving to Detroit.” And she said, “Shut up.” Because I say that every time I go somewhere. But really. I think you have aesthetics here that are really, really endearing. You also have a scale that’s really cool. … In the downtown area, you’re at 10 to 20 stories. That’s a human scale. We went up in some of the buildings and looked out and it was sort of like, “Wow. I exist.” I’ve had clients in Manhattan who live on the 80th floor of some building and you don’t exist. It’s totally theoretical. You can’t even hear anything out there. The windows are all shut.
I think one of the greatest things about this country is that people with ideas getting together and doing something and making their world better. As simple as that. And I see that happening here. New York? I’m sorry. It’s just too much of a monetized system. … You’ve got to live a little bit. You have a much better shot at having real lives here and a story that I think is very cool and growing than in Manhattan, which is a rich person’s paradise. I lived there for a long time and I’ve owned apartments and I did that. It’s just. It’s about living.”