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Quelque Chose, Irgendwas, Qualcosa, Something Detroit: Foreign Journalists Invade the City

A German, two Dutch, an Italian, and a Brit journalist walk into Detroit ...  and what they found was more than a punchline.

Lately, the Detroit-in-the-news business has been good. From Next American City to the New York Times, everyone seems to be writing the "Detroit could be Pittsburgh" story, then there are the Toby Barlow specials, and, of course, all of the ugly doom that has come from the people at Forbes.

Time Inc. even bought a house in The Villages, named it the "D-Shack," and will spend a year here, hopefully digging up something more inspired than what they've put out so far. Hipster journalists have come here to write about how other hipster journalists are coming here (i.e. Vice Magazine's "Something, Something, Something, Detroit" piece). A local blogger even created "Assignment Detroit: The Drinking Game" to pass the time while reading all the Detroit stories.

I recently overheard someone say, with disdain, "Why is everyone interested in Detroit all of a sudden?"

Really? You don't know? How heavy is that rock you live under? How dark is that hole? It's obvious: Detroit is an easy story. It's a journalist's wet dream. When two of the former "Big Three" file for bankruptcy, the unemployment rate is nearing 30 percent, and corruption and government go together like Sweet Lou and Trammell, it's a story.

But not everyone's taking the low-hanging fruit. Model D sought out a collection of journalists -- all from across the pond -- who reached beyond the bottom branches and found more to the Detroit story.

Forget the clichés

"Basically, forget about the clichés. Detroit is not all about the car companies going own the drain," says the German, Steffan Heuer. "There are interesting things in small pockets and people are moving (to Detroit)."

Heuer has written for a number of German publications. He's currently the U.S. correspondent for the German business magazine Brand Eins, as well as a contributor to The Economist. Recently he did a piece for the German business journal 1585 about Detroit.

"The topic (of the issue) was opposites -- things that have gone from the top to the bottom or the bottom to the top," he says. And that is Detroit, at its face value. However, Heuer says, before he even dropped in on the city, he started to find evidence that Detroit's story hasn't been given its fair shake.

"There is a lot of anecdotal evidence," he says about Detroit's push away from decline. "I'm not saying the streets are paved (in) gold and that the jobs are coming back. And if you look at the stats, it doesn't look good. But if you look at unused potential, the space, the artists, it has (more of that) than a lot of these places that are rebirthing have."

Heuer says the decline is amazing and rapid and visible -- all things journalists love. The ruin fascination -- or ruin porn, as some call it -- will definitely draw people in, but "in that there are amazing crops of resurgence."

He likens Detroit to a de-cored apple, surrounded by the more affluent suburbs. But, while here, he found people trying to stitch it back together.

"Culturally, Berlin can be similar," he says. "After the wall fell it was a place you could do anything, do what you couldn't do in other places. There was space. You could start a theater, or an underground bar. This wasn't possible in London or Paris." In Detroit, it's all possible.

Open to anything

"I felt that anything could happen, basically. Paris is great but it's so structured, so many rules. In Detroit, it was like you could start over again," says the Brit, Susan Connie Marsh, art director and editor for the Paris-based art and fashion magazine Under The Influence. "It felt like I was five again. It seemed a little dangerous but completely open to anything."

Marsh's magazine is dedicating an entire issue to Detroit. That's why she was here. She says it's not going to be a guidebook, or a history book. It's going to showcase Detroit's creatives -- writers, artists, musicians -- and that's it.

"It was very beautiful," she says of her time in the city. "Walking down the street, on one block, I could hear traffic, city noise, the next block was a field and all I could hear were insects."

Marsh traipsed around the city for a few weeks. She didn't know too much about Detroit before she got here. She knew the music, she knew it was considered rough, but she suspected it'd be similar to her own hometown, industrial Sheffield back in England. "I had a feeling it was going to be great, and it was better than I would have (ever) imagined," she says.

The whole story

"Detroit has an incredible amount of potential," says the Italian, Emanuele Bompan, a journalist for the daily environmental paper Terra, and a weekly magazine called Left, both based in Italy.

Bompan didn't come to Detroit to do a piece specifically about the city. Yet, when he got here, he knew the whole story would be here in Detroit.

"The first thing I saw was an old train station," he says. "It was so fascinating, a real landmark of the city. It has the potential to really attract people. People in Italy would die to see something like that. Sure, we have a lot of Roman stuff, but nothing like that."

Michigan Central's decaying beauty is an obvious first stop, but Bompan went further into the city, which, he says, a lot of journalists fail to do.

"There are very interesting phenomena happening in Detroit," he says. "We know Detroit from the TV: industry gone to wreck, nothing but poor people. But there are a lot of people willing to change the city. There is a chance here. People are building the city not municipally, not with politics. It's young people, dedicated workers making their chances and space in Detroit."

Struggle and inspiration

"Detroit is in layers," says one of the Dutch, Jacqueline Maris, a radio journalist for Netherlands-based VPRO Radio. She was in town, along with the other Dutch, photojournalist Daimon Xanthopolous, recording a three-part program about Detroit. "There isn't one moment in history for its decline, or one episode. There are different layers of decay or closure. But flowers seem to blossom in the ruins. And Detroiters are not waiting for the city of Detroit to come to (their) rescue.

"There are a lot of stories in Detroit," says Xanthopoulous. "On one side the decline of Detroit is very visible and journalists look for this crisis. And there is an amazing struggle happening in Detroit. But there is also incredible inspiration in the city. The people behind the bar -- they are artists; they are trying to make stuff with empty buildings. The creative people are feeling the negativity and trying to change that through art. "

But, you can't escape some of Detroit's realities. These two, Maris and Xanthopoulous, were robbed back in April while recording and shooting in the Brewster Projects. "I expected to get robbed, but that's not the point of the story," Xanthopoulous says.

"It was a shocking experience but it doesn't (factor) into my conclusion of Detroit," Maris says. "I'm open to the city and a lot of people in these situation, who are trapped, still love their city."

The project they put together documented the struggle of the city and, as Xanthopoulous puts it, they tried to put a face to the crisis. Their piece was entered into and won a European radio award last month.

Something, something

The problems of Detroit aren't lost on anyone. These four subjects aren't blind to the ills of Detroit (especially the two who were robbed) but, at the same time, they also aren't drunk off potential.  The city is in a financial crisis. The abandonment is glaring. The lack of vision coming from local leaders is frightening.

"I got complete silence from anyone in the city," Heuer says. He called city department after city department and no one called back to respond to his media requests. "It was all private organization that reached out. The Cooleys" -- Phil of Slows fame and Ryan from O'Connor Real Estate and Development -- "and Diane Van Buren in Indian Village, they called back. … They were all private organizations, private residents, and these types of groups reviving Detroit."

The city's leadership needs to be part of the picture if Detroit is going to really rebound, he says. "These are small drops in a huge bucket. Without public funding it'll be a hard road. Cities in Europe that have rebounded all had the support of the government and a vision to fix them. Without a very substantial public commitment, change will be hard."

With that said, Heuer's on his way back.

"I've convinced my wife to come to Detroit for a weekend," he says. "We're going to look at houses. Not for speculation but for living. If I'm writing about this great experiment, I might as well live in it."



Terry Parris Jr. writes something, something, something about Detroit each week in Model D. Send feedback here.



Photos:

Who is Detroit?

Time Inc.'s "D-Shack" in Indian Village

Steffan Heuer - Provided

Susan Connie Marsh hanging out in Slows patio - Walter Wasacz

Emanuele Bompan riding the People Mover - Giada Connestari

Jacqueline Maris interviewing Ken Cockrel Jr. - Daimon Xanthopoulous

Daimon Xanthopoulous - Provided

Unless noted, all photographs by Detroit Photographer Marvin Shaouni Marvin Shaouni is the Managing Photographer for Metromode & Model D.


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