Everything was going rather predictably at the preview event for an upcoming arts initiative in Detroit spearheaded by Gary Wasserman, a well-known steel mogul, philanthropist, and patron of the arts in Southeast Michigan. Inside the Williamsburg studio of Markus Linnenbrink there was the requisite colorful, unprovocative artwork chosen for public display, the starchitect with an approachable design, and talk of revitalization of a bankrupt city through the arts. There were even sandwiches. But once the conversation moved into specifics about Wasserman Projects– namely, the launching of a public outreach initiative involving a modular pavilion, $250 chickens, and Zimbabwean mushrooms– that sandwich nearly fell out of my mouth.
Having lived in Michigan for most of my life before moving to New York, I feel like I’ve heard it all when it comes to grand plans for Detroit’s renewal. And I’m not even from Detroit proper. At Bushwick Open Studios, James Cornish (a Detroit native) sneered at the fact that media attention– in the form of a “Cosmopolitan article,” specifically– was spotlighting “artists who had just moved here and started urban farms.”
For Cornish and many Detroit residents, living in an economically shattered city isn’t glamorous, it’s about getting by on one’s own accord. From this perspective, the city’s well-documented problems are not going to be solved by utopian projects or romantic, impractical initiatives.
At the press event last week, Wasserman said rampant “survivalism,” among other things, was what propelled him to leave life under the grey skies of Detroit for a sunnier existence in Florida for the last 15 years or so. “I got fed up with the politics and I got fed up with the racism, and all of the negativity,” Wasserman said. “Everything was only about survival. There’s a very big difference as a volunteer when you’re involved in survival compared to creating a margin of excellence, which tends to be exciting and rewarding. Survival tends to be a cycle that repeats.”
But now, Wasserman said, he’s found reason to return, convinced as he is of a new opportunity to do something excellent. Lucky for him, the arts have a pretty solid ground to stand on. “Even at its worst moment, the cultural infrastructure of this city has remained intact, and that exists mostly in the Midtown area,” he said. Having long been involved in the arts, naturally Wasserman is launching an ambitious art and social outreach enterprise. Wasserman Projects has been in the works for a couple of years and will finally open its new Eastern Market-based facility this September.
Though some of the initiatives of Wasserman Projects are super ambitious, even outlandish, Wasserman’s attitude is far from the unbridled optimism we’ve heard from the likes of Philip Kafka, the ad-man behind that Detroit banner in Bushwick. Unlike Kafka, Wasserman sounds like a seasoned Detroiter. “Detroit it not having a renaissance, it is not a comeback, it is not a revival, it is none of those things,” Wasserman argued. “Detroit is not the first city to fail, it is the largest city to ever fail, and as such it becomes a laboratory that the entire world is looking at for, ‘How do you deal with these communities where the economic underpinnings are just gone?'”
The Wasserman Projects physical space will open this fall in what will be a 9,000-square-foot complex complete with a modular indoor pavilion. “This space will be a combination kunsthalle slash chamber concert hall,” Wasserman explained, gesturing toward the model. “There will be an additional gallery space for Detroit’s makers or art community or even someone making food.”
Nick Gelpi, a Miami Beach-based architect, designed the indoor pavilion. Markus Linnenbrink, a Williamsburg-based artist by way of Germany whose textured, colorful stripe paintings are instantly recognizable, has created the design for the interior walls. “Color is what I love, and what I discovered in my last 25 years of painting is that people love color,” Markus explained. “It’s a very simple, basic concept and it’s also a way of luring people that maybe are not that crazy about art.”
The model for the pavilion sat atop a table inside Markus’s studio, the site of the preview event, and showed that the interior of the building will look almost exactly like any one of Markus’s paintings. “So you’re basically immersed in color, all around,” he explained.
The introduction of Gelpi’s “protofurniture,” massively uncomfortable looking stools with legs and essentially no butt support, as the public seating that would be available inside the structure seemed like another ill-advised architect’s misinterpretation of essential human nature. It was telling that even after he insisted, “They’re actually quite comfortable to sit in,” not a soul attempted to do so.
But heads started turning as soon as Wasserman began to describe a Belgian artist’s work, set to become a permanent installation at Wasserman Projects in Fall of 2016. He described Koen Vanmechlen’s Cosmopolitan Chicken Project as a study in “multiculturalism” with chickens standing in for people. The artist has been crossbreeding national chickens (representing the U.S. is the Jersey Giant, the largest chicken breed) for decades to create strikingly beautiful birds and artwork that depicts them. Still with us? Well, starting in the Fall of 2016, Vanmechlen will install a breeding space at Wasserman Projects where a special Detroit chicken will be hatched.
“There is no place that has been more challenged by diversity than Detroit and this project speaks so very elegantly about diversity, because as the chickens have cross bred they’ve become disease resistant, they live longer, they’re stronger,” Wasserman explained. The goal is to create, “a Detroit poulet de Bresse,” he said.
A poulet de what what? Well, the poulet de Bresse is a very fancy French chicken indeed which Wasserman said fetch approximately $220 a bird. “But because Detroit is a very different place with different social and political meanings, the goal is to create a Detroit poulet de Bresse that would sell for the same price,” he said.
“This will be a social outreach program where people who are interested will be given the chicks and payed to raise them, then we will collect them back when it comes time for processing,” Wasserman explained. “So it is an urban empowerment idea as well as an art program, as well as– in Detroit, with its vast space– a use.”
If you thought things couldn’t get any weirder, consider the “immunology component” of the project. The organization will also be introducing a special high-protein mushroom developed by Zimbabwean scientist Chido Govera, who developed these nutrient-dense mushrooms to be grown by marginal communities. “Because mushrooms literally grow in shit,” Wasserman clarified.
The mushrooms, which will be modified to contain antibodies, will not just be grown and harvested in Detroit, they will also be fed to the chickens. Wasserman said the antibodies will potentially be transferred to the chickens, though it was immediately unclear what exactly these antibodies would protect against.
“It’s not urban farming. Urban farming is not about exceptional quality, it’s about sustainability,” Wasserman said. “This goes a step further and also is about excellence and creating revenue from excellence.”
Silence fell over the room for a moment before a reporter piped up. “Who would buy this chicken?” she wondered. “Restaurants,” Wasserman replied simply. The reporter, still skeptical, pressed on: “If you cooked it at $220, what would you have to sell it for?” Wasserman replied gleefully before changing the subject: “It’s expensive, but perhaps it sells in the most expensive restaurants. It’s crazy, I know, right!?”
Wasserman was intent that the project will be a groundbreaking one for Detroit. During the talk, he made multiple references to initiating “a new paradigm”: “There’s this unusual energy that is emanating from this quite bizarre place,” he said. “This project for me is about discovery and optimism and that is perhaps one of the most unique aspects of where Detroit is today. The city that was the poster child for ruin porn today become the laboratory for a new urban experience. It offers a place and a space to do things and, in the words of Andrew Herscher and architectural anthropologist from the University of Michigan, it offers ‘unreal estate.’ It offers the possibility of access to space and places and things, resources, that in a conventional place the creative economy would never be able to access. ”
Wasserman made it clear he was repelled by the thought of doing anything average and that rather than setting out to address a problem, he was intent on creating exceptional new experiences.
“This is meant to be, in the Jane Jacobs model, a thread in the fabric of what creates an urban experience,” he said. “This project does not solve some urban crisis. But what it does do– it’s in Detroit’s Eastern Market which is perhaps the most vibrant corner of the center city– if you come to buy a bushel of tomatoes or some asparagus, someone will say, ‘Oh you’ve got to see what you’re doing over there. These people are crazy— they’ve got live chickens and llamas and art.’ And they’ll come and they’ll look.”
Recently, on a trip to Detroit, I made a brief visit to a neighborhood just inside the border of Eight Mile known as Palmer Woods, which can be reached by traveling up Woodward, one of Detroit’s main thoroughfares. On the way there is a Detroit more familiar to outsiders– abandoned buildings, boarded up businesses, empty lots overgrown with weeds and greenery, and almost no one out on the streets. The only centers of activity are a couple of liquor stores. But cross into Palmer Woods (which is still part of Detroit proper technically) and you’ll find a charming suburb with impressive Tudor-style mansions and perfectly manicured lawns.
This stark divide is a reminder of the vast difference between areas that are thriving and those that are struggling in Detroit. Obviously, nearby suburbs are doing remarkably well by virtue of their separation from the city, see: Oakland County. But a few high-functioning neighborhoods are a part of Detroit proper and some are even in the city’s center– you’ll find new restaurants, bars, and retail shops all over Corktown and Midtown. Eastern Market is another area that’s bustling with economic and cultural activity.
It makes sense that new enterprises choose to open up inside these areas where businesses located near one another can exchange customers and reap the benefits of an already high-functioning area. Just down the block from the Shinola flagship store (a luxury bike and watch manufacturer started by billionaire Fossil founder Tom Kartsotis) is Jolly Pumpkin, a craft beer brewpub that serves thin-crust pizzas and truffle fries, as well as Fellow Barber, a barber shop with locations in Williamsburg and San Francisco’s Mission District. This particular location offers a $50 straight razor shave.
But Lucy Carnaghi (full disclosure: we’re friends) has stepped outside the box of established business districts to open a restaurant, along with her cousin, Molly Mitchell. They make what Lucy calls “ruggedly fresh” food at Rose’s Fine Food with ingredients bought from local farmers (some of whom work at the restaurant). “You can eat food that was in the ground that morning,” Lucy said.
They fresh bake all the pies, desserts, and bread in house. “We’re essentially a bakery and a restaurant in a kitchen that’s about the size of a linen closet,” she explained. “It’s crazy.” This is high-quality food to be sure, but it’s all done in the great tradition of Detroit’s diners. But we’re not talking frozen-french-fry Coney Islands or even a Duly’s Place (as seen on Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown), instead they serve what Lucy described simply as “real food.”
The food looks really reasonable by New York standards, but it’s a bit on the pricier side for Detroit causal dining. “It’s definitely a higher price tag than probably most people have seen for food,” Lucy admits. “But it’s also food people remember their grandparents cooking. If you can get them to sit down and enjoy themselves for a minute and feel welcome and they try the stuff, they’re pretty much completely hooked. And we always try to make it a generous experience so people don’t feel like they’re getting fleeced. There’s a lot of explaining about why they’re paying $8 for a plate of eggs.”
Lucy and her cousin have hired what she estimates is half their staff from the immediate neighborhood. “We made a really special effort from the start to hire from the neighborhood, because, I dunno, you can’t just go in and colonize,” Lucy said. “You just can’t.” Rose’s also pays their staff a living wage, while tips are divided equally amongst all of the workers and offers a discount (10 percent) to people who live nearby.
The neighborhood is informally known as the Lower East Side of Detroit, but some real estate forces are pushing to rename it the Marina District. Like many other parts of Detroit, the area is clearly divided between a mostly black area north of the restaurant that’s more run down, and a mostly white, middle-class area to the south, home to some new developments.
“There’s a little bit of affluence mixed up with some poverty and everything in between, and they all come to the diner which is very cool and we’re very happy about that,” Lucy said. “We have a pretty sturdy relationship with the community because we’ve ended up hiring their kids, their nephews, their nieces. All the young people that work for us, everyone comes up here to see them. I feel like we’re a part of the neighborhood.”
The owners say they have intentionally opened a restaurant that serves the needs of their immediate community, and it shows. Often there are lines extending out the door. “We didn’t want it to be a place that felt like it was just for one sort of person. We’re not just a Ferndale restaurant [a city just across the border from Detroit in Oakland County] that decided to open up in the city to have clout,” she said. “Diners are for everyone, they’re the most egalitarian space in America. You can go in without feeling like an asshole and just sit down and order some eggs. It shouldn’t be that hard.”
Lucy said they ended up in the neighborhood when they found a defunct diner that fit their needs (well, sort of– the leftover equipment was totally outdated and the place in desperate need of renovation) but their decision had a lot to do with pushing beyond relatively thriving areas.
I asked Lucy if there were any neighborhoods she wanted to avoid. “We were actively not looking in Midtown or Corktown or anything like that— no flam to anything that’s going on in those places, because people are doing cool stuff and what not– because they’re already behind the curve in a kind of shallow, aesthetic way and you’re actually not serving the greater needs of the city of Detroit at this point,” she explained. “People just haven’t had services of any kind for so long. But pushing out, away from the white centers of commerce and diversifying the experience of the city is the most important thing I think developers should think about right now, and not just developers but anybody who’s thinking about opening a business. It’s about integrating everyone’s experiences.”
With all this in mind, I asked Wasserman at the preview event if he’d considered opening up the arts center outside of the center, in an area that was more bereft of cultural institutions. “We most certainly have. What’s happening in Detroit is so fragile. There is no place that is like rock solid, wherever you go you’re pretty much on the edge,” he argued. “But that’s where the outreach program comes in, with offering people the opportunity to raise the chickens.”
He detailed several other outreach initiatives, including a project called Cosmogolem, a mobile installation “that looks like a transformer” and will move through “marginal communities.” Kids will be instructed to write down their fears and concerns on paper and plop them into the Cosmogolem. “Then at a later time, all of those thoughts are sorted or assembled and then they are talked about in a group,” he explained. “The child doesn’t have to own that concern, she is relieved of the stress or embarrassment of it.”
Somehow the whole idea seemed very hands-off, and weirdly patronizing. Though Wasserman’s good intentions are undeniable, there was something sticky about his repeated use of very charged language, in referring to Detroit as a “laboratory for a new urban experience,” which made it seem as if this whole thing were some crazy experiment.
However the problem with the scientific method and its application to humans is the relocation of people to the position of subjects, or even worse, objects. “It is the responsibility of society to figure out what do you do with redundant people and redundant places. Left to fester, they will metastasize,” Wasserman explained.
Wasserman’s preoccupation with “excellence” is admirable in many ways, but it also smacks of exceptionalism, something very different from what we’re seeing happen at places like Lucy’s business. Not to mention that only one of the four creative collaborators mentioned at the event is based in Detroit, a city that’s well known for its creative capital.
At the preview, I felt very far from Detroit, particularly when Wasserman took a moment to warn the small audience of journalists and PR reps about making a common mistake of comparison. “Detroit is often compared to Berlin or Brooklyn, and it’s not a correct comparison,” he said. “Brooklyn has the greatest city in the world 1,000 feet away from it. Detroit only has itself.”