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The “Creative Class”

There are those who imagine that Detroit is a blank slate waiting to be written on with niche market and artisanal entrepreneurial projects that will save the city and create the next Brooklyn or Berlin by attracting young urban pioneers—what urban planner Richard Florida calls the “creative class.” Images of romantic ruination spur dreams of self-reinvention and economic resurgence and there are many young, mostly white, “creatives,” in addition to artists, flocking to the city from around the world even as its longtime residents flee, suggesting that ruins and their representation create a mythos almost as appealing as it is appalling.

The creatives are the entrepreneurial adventurers who present themselves as fueling the city’s comeback in what has been called “solutionism.”2® John Patrick Leary cites solutionism as a form of media-friendly utopian idealism combined with “the technocratic fantasy that systemic problems can be managed away with the right experts and right digital tools.” He notes that the area of downtown Detroit controlled by Dan Gilbert, for example, provides no real solutions to such complex problems as urban unemployment or the funding of urban public schools. EM Kevyn Orr’s suggestion that the city’s huge financial debt is a function of “financial mismanagement,” however, is an example of blaming the city by reframing the problem of city decline as local fiscal mismanagement, as if the city needs only some people with “better calculators and faster Internet connection.”29 Fundamental social change in Detroit requires more than “innovators” or individual solutions by members of the “creative class” and demands large-scale employment, civic infrastructure investment, and economic integration of the region.

Martha Rosler, an activist artist and culture critic, cautions that the public works of artists should not be confused with the projects of creatives. Rosler rejects Florida’s conflation of the category of “artist” with the larger economic group of “creative class.” Although artists have increasingly come to adapt the entrepreneurial strategies of creatives, many are committed and socially engaged, occupied with playing a role in social transformation. The public practices of others, however, may be entered into the creative class thesis in which, Rosler argues, they “transform cities, not by entering into transformative political struggle but rather to serve as unwitting assistants to upper-class rule.”30 It must be understood in this regard that culture is not necessarily viewed by the business and urban planning community as a “cultural good” in and of itself but as a “strategic asset” that may be instrumentalized to enhance the value of the urban business community. Entrepreneurial creatives, not to be confused with artists, are, at best, cut off from or blind to traditional forms of urban working-class organization; at worst, they are objectively antagonistic. “What often remains,” writes Rosler, “is a nostalgic and romanticized version of city life in which labor is misperceived as little more than a covert service function, for the production of ‘artisanal’ goods, for example, and the creation of spaces of production and consumption alike (manufacturing lofts, workshops, bars, taverns, greasy spoons, barbershops) obscured by a nostalgic hazeT1

Recent examples of companies who make expensive artisanal niche goods that construct a made-in-Detroit “brand” include Detroit Denim Co., which produces handmade jeans that sell for $250, and Shinola, which produces luxury watches, handmade bicycles, and leather goods. These companies present themselves as modest startups and promote the idea that buying something made in Detroit supports a distressed economy. The company behind Shinola, however, is Bedrock Brands, which was started by Tom Kartsotis, a founder of the Fossil brand of watches, making him, as the New York Times notes, “a mid-price watch mogul looking to go luxury under the cover of charitable business practices.”32 Shinola purchased its Tribeca flagship store for $14.5

million, which is not exactly what one would expect from a company that presents itself as a modest outpost of local craftsmanship. As Crain’s Detroit Business reported in 2012, Kartsotis began the Detroit luxury brand after commissioning a study in which people were asked if they preferred pens made in China that cost $5, the United States at $10, or Detroit at $15, and the Detroit option was chosen even at the higher price.33 Shinola plays on such liberal sympathies with portraits of its workers and even a “factory livecam” showing watchmakers at their work stations on its website. Like venture capitalists such as Dan Gilbert and his real estate empire in downtown Detroit, Shinola attempts to capitalize on Detroit’s historic name brand in order to map the idea of Detroit’s resurgence onto its own speculative investment and profits.

In a series of satiric videos, filmmaker Oren Goldenberg and friends lampoon the fixation of creatives on rescuing Detroit with their own invented genre called “hope porn.” The short video “Save Detroit,” for example, promoted an actual Kickstarter campaign for an online comedy series (until a private backer was found) and pitched a fake campaign to raise $500 million dollars to save Detroit (for $1, you get one ride on the People Mover; for $500, an abandoned house; for $20 million, the Water Department). In the summer of 2013 two more satirical video shorts were posted: “Detroit PopUp City” and “Detroit Diamond City,” as part of the Detroit (blank) City series of send-ups where everyone is fair game, including urban farmers, local newscasters, Dan Gilbert, city mayoral candidates, and EM Kevyn Orr (see detroitblankcity.com). Among other targets, “Detroit Pop-Up City” parodies backyard farms as uncomfortably similar to the sharecropping past that the parents and grandparents of black Detroiters struggled to leave behind.34 As Detroiter Paul Clemens witheringly notes, “No Parisian is as impatient with American mispronunciation, no New Yorker as disdainful of tourists needing directions, as is a born-and-bred Detroiter with the optimism of recent arrivals and their various schemes for the city’s improvement.’^5

 
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