Not many people in Detroit are still hanging around waiting for that magical new industry, business or person that will come along and sweep us all up in a tide of renewed prosperity and jobs for all.
Instead, in every corner of the city, people -- usually young, and often from somewhere else -- are taking advantage of cheap real estate and a supportive community to create spaces to make varying kinds of, well, stuff. For some of them, it's a creative outlet and not much else; for others, the mission goes much deeper. It’s not about coolness, or wow factor, or some nebulous idea of doing stuff because you can -- although that’s there. It’s about seeing the potential not just in cast-aside objects but in overlooked people, the people the national media never bother to see when they parachute in.
One place where that happens is the Mt. Elliott Makerspace. Housed in the Church of the Messiah a few blocks away from the Belle Isle Bridge, the space houses a woodshop, bike repair, screen printing equipment, and a dizzying variety of electronics, among other things.
Jeff Sturges is the self-described conductor of all this creative energy. His first exposure to the area was during his graduate studies in architecture at Cranbrook Academy of Art, where he pursued his interest in architecture as a vehicle for social change. From there, he headed to New York, where he helped launch the Sustainable South Bronx GreenLab and the NYC Resistor hackerspace, but Detroit called him back.
Sturges was one of the co-founders of hackerspace OmniCorp Detroit, and now has created the Mt. Elliott Makerspace aimed chiefly at young people. He wanted to spur nothing short of a revolution in the culture here, and start where all real change has to -- with young people.
Detroit’s manufacturing past left it with a legacy of skills, but also an assembly line culture where people are waiting to be told what to do next, Sturges says. Getting past that to a place where people are thinking creatively and determining their own future is the goal of the Mt. Elliott Makerspace. "Most of what we’re doing here is teaching (children) how to look for something, and how to ask each other," he says. "We’re planting the seeds to inspire kids to be curious."
And some of the kids who visit the makerspace’s weekly open shops have taken that and run with it. Take Raven Holston: she’s traveled to New York to be on a Make Magazine panel about youth makerspaces, worked with Sturges and other kids on a robot arm and repaired the stereo that was pumping Christmas music into the space on a recent Sunday. She’s also the resident soldering iron expert, teaching lots of other kids how to use that tool. And she’s 10.
Her favorite thing is to design and build model houses out of cardboard and Styrofoam they have around the space; her real goal, though, is to be a journalist because she loves to tell stories, she says.
Boosting already bright kids like Raven, and helping other kids find their own path, is why makerspaces exist, Sturges says.
"We're looking at kids who are exceptional and getting them on the path to genius, and the kids who are adequate, we want to bring them to the level of exceptional." Teaching young people creative problem solving, collaboration and persistence is more important than the hard skills they might learn -- although those are important too. Eventually, kids could turn the things they learn at the makerspace into a business -- the "lemonade stand" entrepreneurial model.
Sturges sees the Mt. Elliott Makerspace as nothing short of a place for transforming lives; he wants to break the cycle of poverty and racism, but more than that to hand people the tools for determining their own future.
"We’re trying to change the mindset of waiting for something to happen, to making things happen," he says. "We're encouraging individual agency, so people can create the world they want to live in and increase people’s ability to create happy lives for themselves."
Sturges also helped create a series of maker classes at the Detroit Public Library’s HYPE Center. It’s about as different an atmosphere from the Mt. Elliott Makerspace’s church basement vibe as you can imagine. Bright, colorful furniture and carpets, video game consoles, big-screen TVs tuned to the Create channel, and dark wood shelves lined with books and movies create a welcoming, "hangout" feeling.
On a recent Saturday, yarn, fabric, and sewing machines were spread out across two tables for the "wearables" class. The library hosts a class almost every day of the week, on such topics as arduino robots, graphic design and bike tech. A study room has been repurposed into a neatly organized space for class supplies and houses everything from sewing machines to robot kits.
Linda Curley-Brown, head librarian for the HYPE Center at the library, says maker classes were a good fit with the HYPE space’s mission to engage teens in activities hat will spark learning. "I think this is such a great opportunity," she says. "The different things we have done are new to them. It opens the door to other possibilities. We want them to see a future."
Khalif Daniels, a freshman at Henry Ford Community College, is one of those kids who discovered new skills and opportunities through the maker classes. He was looking for a job at the library, and Sturges hired him as an assistant at summer camps. Daniels is an aspiring actor and is majoring in theater, but he learned some cool tricks, such as how to build speakers out of paper. Now, he’s an electronics whiz and has been drafted by his parents to fix things around their house.
That’s the kind of thing Steve Teeri, a customer support assistant at the library, envisioned when he began exploring maker classes at the library. He met Sturges at some maker-related events a few years ago and asked for his help bringing a makerspace to the library. After wining a grant from Cognizant’s Making the Future program, they launched the maker program in June of this year with a series of summer camps. Since then, a core group of teens have coalesced around the free, drop-in classes, and more float in and out when they see an interesting project
"That’s what a makerspace is all about," Teeri says. "We want the participants to pick up new skills and become problem solvers and creative thinkers -- and instructors to their peers. We want the teens sharing information with each other and teaching each other what they’ve learned."
Valerie Sobczak is a student in Wayne State’s honors program and teaches the wearables class with Christine Ferguson. Teaching each other is, she says, the essence of maker culture, and it’s something she sees the teens do all the time. "My favorite part is after I have taught a craft, someone turns to me and asks a question and another teen starts answering," she says. "When that happens in our own space it makes me really happy."
Library makerspaces have met with some resistance nationally -- people question whether scarce resources could be better used to purchase books and other more traditional library materials. But Teeri says that the research and reading skills nurtured by learning to make things reflects one of the key reasons libraries exist -- sparking knowledge and creativity. "This fits in perfectly with what libraries have always tried to do," he says. "They’ve been helping people research how to make and create for centuries."
Amy Kuras is a Detroit-based freelance journalist.
Photos by Marvin Shaouni