Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Dream of the '90s is Alive in Detroit (Or, When Did We Become Europe?)

"Do you remember the '90s? You know, people were talking about getting piercings and getting tribal tattoos, and people were singing about saving the planet and forming bands? There's a place where that idea still exists, as a reality, and we live in it. Detroit."

Well, swap out "planet" with "city" and "getting piercings and getting tribal tattoos" with "making pickles and roasting coffee" and you've got Detroit. Detroit as the new Portland? You bet. See, back before Portland became a caricature of itself, the city was pretty sincere about its whole schtick. And now it's more sincere about it than ever - never imply to a Portlandier that Portland maybe isn't as great as Portlandiers make it out to be. And the same goes for Detroit.

"...when people were content to be unambitious, sleep 'til 11, just hang out with their friends, and they had no occupations whatsoever, maybe working a couple of hours a week at a coffee shop ... Detroit is a city where young people go to retire."

When the dot com bubble burst, Portland was awash in creative types who, in one fell swoop, lost their jobs and their collective asses overnight. Because of the low cost of living, more unemployed creative types from all along the west coast fled to Portland seeking asylum. What rose from this was a sort of hipster utopia, a place unlike any other in the country. A place where the dream of the '90s lived on.

Enter Detroit circa 2008-2009. The "renaissance" was already underway, but then the bottom fell out. And - like a bearded, mustached, plaid-clad phoenix rising from the ashes - the hipster colonizers came. Like they did in Brooklyn. Like they did in San Francisco and Venice Beach. Like they did in New Orleans post-Katrina. They came in waves. They came from the suburbs, from other cities and other states, from other countries. They came ... and they started making pickles.

Yes, Portland, we too can "pickle that."

If necessity is the mother of invention, the economic collapse and double-digit unemployment rates of just a few years ago certainly spurned on the surge of entrepreneurial energy and creativity we see here now. Those of us who hadn't already fled to Fake New York were stuck, whether we wanted to be or not. So we launched blogs and started making clothes. We reclaimed empty structures and opened art galleries. Everyone became a DJ or started a band. Those that didn't started making pickles or roasting coffee. Many did a combination of these things. We heard of this thing called a "pop-up" and ran with it like the wind. "DIY" wasn't so much a call to action as it was a means of survival.

Most of my Detroit friends are merely partially employed, or we work as freelancers in the fields of journalism, photography, graphic and web design, PR. At any point in time we're juggling half a dozen different "projects" that may or may not add up to one full-time job, and we work in bars in the middle of the day and spend our nights going to techno shows and art gallery openings hosted by our other somewhat-employed friends. Also, we drink. A LOT.

I recently sat down with Dee Gifford, a recent transplant from Toronto who, along with her partner Jason, just opened the Brooklyn Street Local diner in the hipster colony of Corktown. One of her many gems of Detroit observation included, "People really like to drink during the day here!" Yes. Yes they do.

The night before that, I was at Foran's where I met a couple from Portland who had just moved to Detroit. They had no jobs here, no family here, they just decided "What the hell, let's move to Detroit!" And why not? The best thing about living in Detroit is the cheap rent and cheap booze. One can easily be partially-employed here and still have a grand time. This couple from Portland joked about how Portland is EXACTLY like Portlandia, and the guy quipped that no one really "does" anything for a living there. They make their way as bloggers and artists and spend the rest of their time in bars. "'Okay, it's noon, I wrote my blog post for the day, I think I'll go to the bar now.'"

I like to make fun of these people. (To be fair, I like to make fun of everything.) Until I look in the mirror and see myself wearing skinny jeans with 15-year-old Converse All-Stars at 2:00 in the afternoon on a Tuesday as I'm about to go "work" at the bar on one of my half a dozen freelance "projects" and realizing that my primary self-identified gig is as a blogger and it dawns on me, sweet mother of Jack White I am one of these people. I am a hipster colonizer living the dream of the '90s in Detroit.

I like to call us the modern-day Beatniks. We work just enough to pay our bills and enable our drinking habits (actually that probably puts us a bit ahead of the Beatniks, which was basically another way of saying, poetically of course, "homeless people who read poetry"). We hoard enough money to be able to flitter off whenever we feel like it in order to explore the progress of our kind's colonization in other cities. We eat at their restaurants and shop at their farmers markets and troll their live music venues and come home with many tales to tell that inevitably end with a firm and sincere proclamation that Detroit is still better, and post it as a status update on Facebook.

This phenomenon isn't really unique to Detroit (oh, I know, what happens here only ever happens here and has never ever happened anywhere else in all of history ... except, no). It's been happening all over the country, for at least a decade now ... really, and this surely can't be mere coincidence, since the sun set over the greatest decade our generations have ever known - the '90s. What's really happening is that we are becoming Europe. We only want to work 20-30 hours a week and make a full-time living doing it. We want a bottle of wine at lunch every day and a nap in the afternoon. We want two months off every summer and be able to come and go as we please on our own time as it is convenient for us otherwise. We just want to make pickles.

But Detroit lends itself particularly well to the dream of the '90s. Where the cost of living in post-colonized cities like Portland has skyrocketed (some would use The 'G' Word to reference this, but I know how Detroiters like to quibble over the exactitudes of that definition in a way that is indicative of a rather systemic forest-from-the-trees mentality that is, yes, very unique to Detroit and congratulations there), Detroit is still a dystopic "blank slate" utopia. Rent in hipsterific neighborhood pockets like Hamtramck and Corktown is as cheap as it is in Tijuana (aka "Mexican Detroit," or where Detroiters should winter), booze is cheap, entertainment is cheap, whole buildings are cheap if you want to buy one and open your own gallery or coffee shop ... for the young person in search of early retirement, there is no place like Detroit.

Alright, I've written my blog post for the day, I think I'll go to the bar now.