In Detroit, Artists Rebuild with the City or Get Squeezed Out

As the Motor City gradually climbs out from bankruptcy, a new creative class is thriving in the margins.

Music Features
In Detroit, Artists Rebuild with the City or Get Squeezed Out

On the American side of the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel—the second-busiest crossing between the U.S. and Canada—five American flags proudly wave over the Detroit River toward Canada. The lone Canadian flag and modest row of buildings across the river in Windsor pale in comparison to the Detroit skyline, headlined by the seven-building World Headquarters of General Motors, known as the GM Renaissance Center.

A man named Wayne is panhandling in front of the tunnel on a warm July afternoon. He proudly wears a Detroit Lions t-shirt under his open short-sleeved blue flannel, a VA card on a lanyard around his neck and a newsboy hat to block the sun, but not his grin, as he hollers at cars about to enter the border crossing to Canada. Wayne has been in Detroit for 36 years and has lived through his share of dark periods in a city whose population tumbled from 1.85 million in 1950 to under 700,000 in 2013, when Detroit went broke.

Four years since the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, however, it’s difficult to see the impact while walking through Downtown Detroit, with its bustling commercial center and new developments. And you certainly wouldn’t know it judging by Wayne’s cheerful disposition. “It’s better here man!” he says.”I haven’t seen the city do this good in a looong time.”

Detroit is indeed in the early stages of economic revival, though it’s more visible in some places than others. Dan Gilbert’s Quicken Loans empire moved its headquarters downtown in 2010, luring a flurry of young professionals to the city. Following a government bailout in 2008, General Motors is thriving again, Blue Cross Blue Shield towers over nearby Greektown, and trendy menswear manufacturer Shinola markets its leather goods and watches throughout Detroit like it’s New York couture.

“You get used to a certain level of stimulation living in a city,” says Zach Saginaw, who makes music as Shigeto. “But more so than that, I wanted to be home, where it felt like there was a chance for community to be built—and for physical things to be built, like a studio.”

If there’s been one constant in Detroit’s population through its many transitions—from the white flight into the suburbs following the 1967 riots to automobile manufacturing plants closing one after the other—it has been artists. Detroit has been a relatively affordable place to live for creative souls, reflecting its people’s hustle to endure. The city’s music, in particular, has broadcast that resilience to the world: Motown in the 1960s; the proto-punk of the Stooges and the MC5 in the ‘70s; the hugely influential Detroit techno scene in the ‘80s; the garage-rock revival led by The White Stripes and the mainstream rap domination enacted by Eminem in the late ‘90s and early 21st century. Now as the city rises again, its artists find themselves in a volatile position: rise with it, or be squeezed out.

Downtown Detroit, with Ford Field on the left, Comerica Park on the right, and the GM Renaissance Center in the distance.

Corktown is a small historic district about a mile west of Downtown. It’s one of few areas outside the city center beginning to see an influx of luxury lofts and apartment developments. New, hip businesses dot arterial Michigan Avenue, including one of Detroit’s first new-wave coffee shops, Astro Coffee. Astro could be labelled decidedly hipster, but it’s a hub for artists. On a recent afternoon, the latest album from Montreal indie band TOPS played inside, a temperamental barista wore a shirt with a pug on it, and a community of creatives—who all seemed to know each other—slowly filled out the cafe in the early afternoon. The music changed and Black Mahogani by Detroit techno producer Moodymann came on.

On a bench outside the shop, Zach Saginaw, 34, sipped a coffee and smoked cigarettes with his younger brother, Ben. Zach makes music as Shigeto, a jazz-inspired electronic project forged on live drumming and spatial sound effects that pay homage to both the Japanese ancestry on his mother’s side and influential artists on the the avant-garde Ghostly International label that signed him in 2010.

Like the Ghostly label, the Saginaws are originally from the college town of Ann Arbor, about 40 miles west. In 2000, Zach went to the New School of Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York to study drum performance, but left after a year and a half, saying it felt like it was a “jazz academia prison.”

Feeling lost, he moved to Europe for four years before settling in New York and beginning to enact some of the musical concepts that have made him one of today’s foremost jazz fusionists. “I was one of the first people to get noticed who were playing drums to a beat like that,” Saginaw says gratefully. “I wanted to do something current musically, but that was also changing, and history is still being written in electronic music in so many ways. Guess I got what I wanted.”

Ben Saginaw, left, and his brother Zach Saginaw.

He moved back to Detroit in 2013, with the city on the brink of bankruptcy. His grandfather, a Polish immigrant, grew up in Detroit, as did his father. His brother Ben, a ceramics artist and a musician in the industrial band Ritual Howls, was already laying roots there.

“I was looking to stay in a New York-type environment, where it was connected and involved with current culture—music, art, food,” Zach says. “You get used to a certain level of stimulation living in a city. But more so than that, I wanted to be home, where it felt like there was a chance for community to be built.” He pauses for a second and then adds, “and for physical things to be built, like a studio.”

Saginaw is certainly at home in Corktown. High Bias Recordings, where his music is mixed and engineered by the studio’s owner/operator Chris Koltay, is across the street. And a popular weekly event he helps host called “Monday Is the New Monday (MITNM)” is at Motor City Wine, a stone’s throw from where we’re sitting on the sidewalk.

The night before at MITNM, the same techno and disco-house that shaped Detroit’s identity as a hub for global techno 30 years ago played inside as a diverse crowd moved on and off the dance floor. Outside on the patio, seats were hard to come by on a comfortable summer evening, the music playing softly on the outdoor speakers. Saginaw says the weekly showcase is the primary inspiration for his new album, aptly titled, The New Monday, which came out Oct. 6 on Ghostly International.

The New Monday jumps from jazz to soul, like it always has for Shigeto, but now there are elements of rap (the stellar “Barry White,” with Detroit’s MC Zelooperz), R&B, house and Detroit techno (as on the jazzy dance-floor silk of “There’s a Vibe Tonight,” with singer Kaleena Zanders) mixed in.

“Understanding record culture gave me hope for music,” says Saginaw, ”’cause it pays so much homage to the track. The outcome is solidarity and bringing people together on a dance floor, or in a cafe—that’s what a good singular track brings no matter what type of music it is.”

“The weekly is how I got interested in Detroit music,” says Saginaw. ”And understanding record culture gave me hope for music, ‘cause it pays so much homage to the track. The outcome is solidarity and bringing people together on a dance floor, or in a cafe…that’s what a good singular track brings no matter what type of music it is. So this time, it’s less about a personal statement. That was the big epiphany for the record.”

The idea that the dance floor reigns supreme has been the spirit in Detroit since producers like Derrick May, Juan Atkins and Kevin Saunderson championed the techno movement in the early 1980s. “The Belleville Three,” as they called themselves, ushered in new waves of likeminded artists from Carl Craig to Moodymann to Matthew Dear. Since 2000, these artists, and now some of the best-known talent from around the world, have celebrated the culture at the Movement Electronic Music Festival in Downtown’s Hart Plaza, a couple hundred feet from where Wayne panhandles in front of the tunnel.

We leave the coffee shop and head to High Bias, across the street. The walls of the studio’s control rooms are lined with modular synths, and instruments are everywhere. The downstairs studio is filled with drum kits and keyboards. The feeling of a musical playground is driven home by Saginaw’s giddiness when we arrive.

In between listening to mixes by Tijuana-based psych-gaze band Mint Field, who are staying at the studio while they record for a period, Koltay kneads a sourdough loaf in the kitchen and cracks jokes about being one of the “aging hipsters who’ve been here for more than 10 years.” Before going full bore with High Bias in Detroit, Koltay had a studio in Cincinnati and did live sound for bands like The War on Drugs and Deerhunter. In 2002, when he got an opportunity to secure a space where people could come to him, he started building out his current location, and it’s been a go-to Detroit studio ever since. Koltay fixes his shaggy black hair behind his ears and reminisces about the sleek facility that he remodeled, upgraded and eventually completed in 2004. “Everyone has a laptop, but it was like, ‘Who do I know that has $75,000 in equipment and lives in Detroit?’” he half-jokes.

A mural on Joseph Campau Avenue in the encircled city of Hamtramck.

Meanwhile, the Saginaws are discussing an ambient show they’re putting on later in the month, as well as another big project they’re working on together: a converted auto garage uptown in Hamtramck that they’re turning into an art gallery, music studio, ceramics studio and home base for their newly founded label, Portage Garage Sounds (PGS). It’s the opportunity to truly build something physical that’ll create the feeling of “home” for Saginaw, and Detroit is one of the few cities left where artists can purchase property to build into a haven.

Five miles north of Downtown, Hamtramck isn’t technically in Detroit. It’s two square miles surrounded by Detroit. A city within a city. What was once a 90% Polish area in 1970 has become Michigan’s most ethnically diverse city, with large portions of the population hailing from Yemen, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

Joseph Campau Avenue runs through the center of a hardly developed business district, and we watch the neighborhood pass by from the window of Yemen Cafe. Two Muslim boys on a single bicycle ride past political ads touting candidates for Hamtramck’s city council—the first majority Muslim council in the country. Five girls wearing hijabs walk hand-in-hand past a series of murals; some of the art seems trivial and misplaced, while some of it honors the area’s Muslim heritage. Older Muslim men smoke cigarettes and argue as the No. 95 bus zips by with only two visible passengers.

Off of Lumpkin Street, one of Hamtramck’s two highway exits, parents open their folding chairs at Pulaski Park and watch their kids play tee-ball. Across the street from the park, we pull into the driveway of the Portage Garage, a low-slung white hunk of a building that the Saginaws recently bought. On the other side of the garage is an enormous empty parking lot, and everything is surrounded by a residential area—not exactly where you’d expect a gallery and studio to go up, but the Saginaws want to build in a community-minded way.

“It scares us that we’re the ones who bought a garage and turned it into a gallery,” Zach says. “We’re not a community organization, but we’re artists who have our studio in that community and we want to give back.”

Ben’s Hamtramck Ceramck Studio occupies one portion of Portage (which used to be a neon-sign workshop). They’ve done commissioned work for restaurants and pump out a number of art projects from the massive kiln in the still under-construction garage (pictured left). I watch an artist named Patrick sculpt a ceramic iPhone being held by hands that will soon have handcuffs around them—the piece is entitled “You’re a Slave”—as Zach tells me about their “Community Kiln” project, which aims to teach neighborhood kids how to make ceramics and sculpt. In the front room of the garage is a 14×17 gallery that will be used to showcase artwork from their PGS collective, as well as a retail shop selling, among other things, records released by the PGS label. The plan is to have about six releases a year, mostly in the dance/electronic realm, all by Michigan-based musicians. “We’re focused on diversity,” Zach says, “and the mentality of an artist-run label is of being there to support or progress artists, not just contain them.”

The Portage Garage in Hamtramck.

In the back room is a wood-paneled, soundproof studio, complete with an isolation booth. Once you’re inside the Garage and the studio, what’s outside might as well not exist. But PGS isn’t just a hangout, because the property also contains a two-story house that the Saginaws plan to move into once everything is complete, as early as this year.

When Zach Saginaw first moved back to Detroit, his studio was in an old elevator factory that had been converted into lofts in the Grosse Pointe neighborhood, 10 miles up the river. He says the area became gentrified quickly, and soon musicians and artists were replaced by startups.

“Its interesting to feel like you are the gentrifier and then you’re the one getting pushed out,” he says. Most important, the experience has shaped his outlook on becoming a bigger part of the Hamtramck community. “We want to establish our existence here before we can get on the level. We have an opportunity to do it right…in a way that isn’t invasive and exploitative. It’s not impossible to have both. It’s exciting but we want to be careful and gracious and open.”

A mile and a half northeast of Downtown lies Detroit’s Eastern Market District, home to the country’s largest historic public market, which sees more than 40,000 visitors on Saturday mornings. It’s a stark contrast from much of Detroit. The central square around the market has been concertedly developed since 2006 by a public-private partnership called the Eastern Market Corporation and is surrounded by a wine shop, ice-cream parlor and some modern restaurants. Eastern Market Corp’s website touts a “Healthier, Wealthier, Happier Detroit,” and one can see the district’s current state as a window into the future of the city.

A short walk from the market at the Inner State Gallery, co-founder Dan Armand shows me the current display, a collaboration with Los Angeles’s Thinkspace Gallery. Inner State and its 1xRun printing business are thriving, shipping 1,200 packages a month to more than 50 countries.

“Artists can afford to live here super cheap,” Armand says. “And now selling art online…if you can do that and build relationships via email, then you don’t need to be in New York.”

Artist and studio manager Nic Notion in front of a mural he painted in the Eastern Market section of Detroit.

1xRun’s print studio manager, Nic Notion, is also a notable local artist and a Detroit lifer. His art offers visceral landscapes of the buildings that inhabit the city, whether or not anybody inhabits them. His work often focuses on the rocky relationship between citizens and police. Recently, Notion was commissioned to paint a mural for Detroit, Kathryn Bigelow’s film about the 1967 riots. The mural is his interpretation of the iconic moment when Congressman John Conyers stood on a Dodge Coronet and addressed African-American rioters using a bullhorn. Notion lives in a loft by himself on the same stretch of brick buildings as Inner State. He started working there two years ago, when he was maintaining an urban garden and teaching kids about art and botany at the YMCA. He’s been renting his loft for 12 years and modestly says that he was “taking advantage of the situation” when he jumped on at 1xRun. But Notion—who can’t walk a block in the neighborhood without seeing an acquaintance—is the model for a local artist who stayed no matter what came up.

“People don’t know the hustle and struggle it took to stay out here,” he says. “They tried for seven years to get me out and now the landlord is one of my biggest fans. If something is key to what you’re trying to do, you can’t give it up. If I would’ve left this block, it would’ve taken away the narrative of what I was trying to do, and with certain things there’s no compromise. And there’s no compromise to me leaving this motherfucker.”

Ten years ago, Notion shared the loft with six people. “Danny Brown used to record vocals in there,” he says, pointing to a small closet by the front door. There would be periods where they’d go without heat for weeks at a time—no picnic during the frigid winters. But now he says he wants to turn the loft’s main room into a gallery so he can showcase his work and tap his full potential.

“We used to run from wild dogs chasing you; now people are walking their dog and eating ice cream,” Notion jokes. “I embrace it for my own health, ‘cause this isn’t the time to fight tanks with dirt rocks. I feel Detroit in everything I do, but I’m always expanding who I am.”

Nic Notion’s mural advertising the Kathryn Bigelow film Detroit.

The map of Detroit today could be compared to a Monopoly board, with houses and hotels filling some properties, while others remain empty. Walking up Woodward Avenue, where Downtown pushes towards Midtown, I pass a couple of developers talking about “access points” for a semi-complete chic urban plaza. A hundred yards up the avenue to the right are Comerica Park and Ford Field, where the Tigers and Lions play, respectively. Across the street are the Fillmore and Fox Theater concert halls, and in the near horizon in Midtown the nearly completed Little Caesar’s Arena, where both the Red Wings and Pistons started play this season. These are the red plastic hotels on the Monopoly board. The new residential and retail locations that surround a $2.1 billion, 650,000-square-foot entertainment district in Midtown are the green plastic houses.

As I drive with Zach Saginaw down Michigan Avenue toward southwest Detroit to visit MC Zelooperz, his collaborator in the ZGTO hip-hop project, we see the empty Monopoly squares: an old foundry, crumbling manufacturing plants, boarded-up storefronts, and even the grand Michigan Central Station, which has been defunct since 1988. Numerous proposals have been drawn to redevelop the station, but none have stuck. As we head back toward Corktown, the skies open and it suddenly starts pouring. Things seem to change fast in Detroit. Just a few minutes up the road, we’re parked in the lot of a beautiful new distillery with a vintage feel. We sit in the car for a moment, waiting for the rain to pass before popping in for a drink, and Saginaw ponders the city and what we saw.

“It’s been a sleeping giant, but all eyes are on Detroit now,” he says. “There’s a right way to have economic and cultural growth…to make things better. And most people do it the wrong way. But now, there’s time to decide where it goes.”

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin