Art, Business, City Transformation

Inspiration is always just around the corner in Detroit’s vibrant and growing ‘maker’ community

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Years ago, when it started to become a thing to write about Detroit in positive terms instead of the wretched ones we all got used to, it became clear that the city wouldn’t be saved by giant conglomerations or a mega retailer or even Corporate America.

It would be saved by the makers.

makers 1Instead of having the Big Three, there would be hundreds of smaller businesses taking up those vacant shops and empty houses. There could be life among the ruins – entrepreneurs who might start as a solo act but would soon hire one, two, then a dozen workers to help grow their ideas into money-making enterprises.

To see a panel of these makers and doers come together to talk about how to take the next steps – how to build a community, how to involve the neighborhoods, how to make sure education and children remained top priorities – is an outgrowth of how far Detroit and its fortunes have come. There is a decidedly strong momentum among these business leaders to say, “We did it. Here’s how. Now you show up and do it, too.”

The event was the Model D MakerLab, a collaboration between the online magazine and The Henry Ford, the Dearborn-based museum and its Maker Faire event, which will take place July 25-26. Now in its fifth year, Maker Faire is a mardi gras of ideas, creating thinking and the people who got in trouble as children for taking things apart. The difference between them and us is that they actually put the parts back together and came up with something functional and, dare I say it, cool enough to monetize.

makerlabThe event’s speakers were as varied in geography and backgrounds as you could get. There was the youngster, Clement Brown, Jr., owner of the FAME Shop, a makerspace of sorts where not only Brown makes his products but kids of all ages can experiment with fashion.

There was the veteran, Ralph Taylor, owner of Caribbean Mardi Gras Productions. His extreme creations of feathers, sequins, lights and elegant drama are the stuff of parade legend. There was the newbie, Stacy Burdette, Founder & Executive Director of Kalamazoo’s Hacker Gals, who seeks to create a physical space where women feel safe and excited to hack or create new ideas.

And there was the advocate, Jen Guarino, vice president of Leather for Shinola. Guarino also is the Founding Chair of the Makers Coalition, a group of business, educational institutions, non-profits and service providers coming together to build a trained cut and sew industry for America.

So what is a maker? And how they are different than any old business in Detroit or anywhere else for that matter? Really, all of us are makers whether you work in leather, cloth, code or words. It’s a mindset where we value the things – whether they are physical or in the online worlds – that people create with their hands, explained Guarino.

maker 4Many of us are descendants of people who were “trade workers” or folks who sewed the clothes that we wear and the cars that we drive, Guarino noted, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. But in recent generations, our culture has added a stigma to this manufacturing or worker class. That has to be removed and this work must be honored for its contribution to our everyday lives and our society, she added.

Makers have a set of values that help them establish a kind of community from the word go, noted Kristen Gallerneaux, Curator of Communication & Information Technology for The Henry Ford. They have a mindset that is about democracy – about giving all of us access to their tools, workspaces and knowledge. That bonds the makers together along with their curiosity, work ethic and teamwork mentality, Gallerneaux said.

Makings things makes you a better person in many ways, Brown explained. For him, having the FAME Shop gives him the access to kids like him – kids who are impressed with labels rather than with themselves. He uses his shop to show them how things are put together, such as a $200 pair of jeans. Tearing those pants apart is a very dramatic demonstration, Brown said.

“It’s about dispelling the myth of brands,” Brown said. “They realize: ‘I can do this myself.’ And that’s where I win. They make the brand; the brand doesn’t make them. … The FAME Shop isn’t just a place where things are made. It’s a place where we create identities.”

maker 2A highlight of the day was going to some of these makers’ shops after the Trinosophes event (and amazing coffee). Seeing the colors, textures and sunlight streaming into the windows of Bethany Shorb’s new workplace there off of Gratiot across the street from the Eastern market area was inspiring to say the least. It’s no wonder that her Cyberoptix Tie (and Scarf!) Lab is filled with new ideas and creations; she lives and breathes Detroit’s creativity from her second-story workspace.

Detroit is constantly trying to revive the past and push forward. Embracing its maker mentality and putting these creative geniuses in front of audiences is a key part of keeping that past present. It makes living here like being on a continual journey of discovery – you never know what great space is going to open up to you next. Detroit, for many of us, is about finding these hidden-in-plain-view spaces where inspiration lives and sharing them with the world. May our fascination with the city never fade, and let us all continue to praise the makers of Detroit.

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