So a screen-printed canvas banner isn’t exactly in the tradition of Diego Rivera’s proletarian frescos, but the message this building-sized advert is sending to Bushwick residents is loud and clear. Detroit: the land of opportunity, Bushwick: nearing saturation.
The mysterious mural appeared out of nowhere a couple of weeks back. Being from Michigan and knowing Detroit pretty well, my ears perked up when a friend alerted me to a new Detroit-themed billboard that seemed to appear out of nowhere in Bushwick. I had to check it out.
The canvas is dominated by a detail from Diego Rivera’s famous 1932-1933 mural inside the Detroit Institute of Arts, which depicts the Detroit of that era, an industrial city at its peak and the prime example of capitalist progress (and ultimately, its decline). The implications are pretty screwy here, since Rivera was a Marxist. Was whoever put up the image in Bushwick calling for people to rebel against their capitalist overlords in New York and move to Detroit, a place associated with $100 houses and unbridled opportunity and freedom? Well, sort of.
After some asking around, I found the billboard, but to my surprise there were no markings on the banner indicating a source, no self-serving hashtags or Instagram handles, not even so much as an illegible signature.
I wrote an email to Paulina Petkowski – she’s founder of Playground Detroit an arts organization connecting Detroit artists with New York City-based artists to forge collaboration and support – asking if she knew who was responsible for the billboard. I figured she of all people might know the answer, since she has one foot in the Buswick art scene and another in her hometown of Detroit. “I have NO idea. Been wondering myself,” she wrote back.
The mystery remained. But Paulina did mention she’s noticed a slew of calls to “#MoveToDetroit”:
On the Brooklyn Bridge:
On the Williamsburg Bridge:
Ok, so this is definitely a thing, I realized. And it’s not altogether surprising, given recent developments.
Back in December, Galapagos Art Space surprised everyone by announcing the arts organization was moving to Detroit from its home in Dumbo, which is consistently ranked as the most expensive neighborhood in Brooklyn and one of the priciest neighborhoods in the entire city. Galapagos revealed on their website they’d bought a massive, 600,000 square foot building in Detroit “for the price of a small apartment in New York City.”
On top of that, 2014 saw the closing of countless DIY venues across Brooklyn. Detroit probably started to seem like a pretty decent alternative for a lot of Brooklynites. DIY venue owners are the first ones to admit their operations are ephemeral by nature, but the closing of Galapagos, a place with comparatively much greater resources, was a major blow in a different sort of way. What seemed like a solidly Brooklyn institution was suddenly abandoning ship.
It was around this time that I first reached out to Paulina to gauge her feelings on all this loss. To my surprise, she was anything but disappointed, for one, to see an organization like Galapagos go. “I think it’s great and I feel like, I dunno, I feel like I saw this all coming since 2011,” she said. “I’ve kind of been trying to alert people just to the possibility of this connection happening [between Detroit and New York City] and why it can be beneficial. I think people are so nervous to have change happen.”
Over the years, Paulina and I have both seen acquaintances, artists, friends, and other professionals pack up and move to Detroit for cheaper rent and a slower pace of life. But I wondered, is this happening more and more? Are people leaving New York in droves? “It’s definitely happening,” she said. “There’s definitely an exchange, but it’s not a one-way thing – there are a lot of people who do a back and forth kind of thing. I think that’s the best way to do it.”
And it’s not just artists, it’s tech people and chefs too. One of Detroit’s newest fancy restaurants, Antietam, is run by Gregory Holm, a chef who was originally based in New York City.
As it turns out, the person responsible for the mysterious billboard was also a New Yorker with a foot in Detroit’s restaurant industry. After searching fruitlessly for clues, I finally found the answer on Twitter – a Manhattan-based advertising firm called Prince Media was behind it. Philip Kafka, president and founder of the company, is also co-owner of a new restaurant opening up in Detroit, KATOI.
After visiting the the city a few years back, Kafka said he was drawn to Detroit. He began buying up real estate and employing “creative interests” there sensing that Detroit was a place that “wasn’t being appreciated or better yet taken advantage of,” he wrote in an email. “The intrinsic value in every other city has been TAKEN hostage by the MAN.”
As silly as this might sound coming from an ad exec, Kafka was serious. So why the billboard? “People in Bushwick are cool, they appreciate ideas and art,” he wrote, and as for Detroit, “there is plenty of space to live the way you want to live, work the way you want to work, it is the last frontier in America, and the creatives of Bushwick should consider it as a place to express their art.”
Is he actually trying to get young “creatives” to bid farewell to their overpriced, shoddily renovated boxes and move to Detroit? “All in all, we felt the people of Bushwick would see value in a non-commercial message about Detroit, and could also find value in Detroit………GO GO GO!”
While Kafka might see Detroit as a wellspring of opportunity, in more ways than one, others have a more balanced view of the city. Paulina, for one, is careful about overestimating the joys of living there.
“Everyone says there’s all this stuff happening but when often you get here it’s kind of difficult to integrate,” she said. “I know a lot of people are shocked with the insurance prices of cars and stuff. But there’s also the other side of Detroit where there is a strong sense of community where people are willing to work together.”
Paulina believes each city poses distinct, but opposite challenges for artists: whereas New York City is impossibly expensive for most people, it has a thriving art market where people are actually willing to buy art. And Detroit is delightfully affordable, but it’s tough to actually sell art there.
So maybe a back and forth between artists in both cities could benefit everyone involved. “New York just has so many resources, that if you can integrate that with being in Detroit, it can make whatever you’re doing more successful,” Paulina explained. “A lot of people in Detroit, they underestimate the value of their work because of the local market, or lack thereof. Some people here [in Detroit] just don’t really care what the national and international art scenes look like, and I’m trying to get them to care. It’s one thing to be a struggling artist, but I don’t know why you should be struggling to support your work.”
Maybe a back-and-forth between the two cities could benefit the artists of both.