'More than just a place for a party,' Berliner Dimitri Hegemann sees Detroit as place for new ideas

For Dimitri Hegemann, who was in Detroit over Thanksgiving weekend to talk about his vision for the abandoned Fisher Body Plant 21, simplicity and sharing are guiding principles. He uses few filters when presenting his ideas, choosing transparency over secrecy, selflessness over ego-driven ambition. His message: this is about you, not me, Detroit not Berlin. (His favorite spot to visit here, unsurprisingly, is the Detroit Zen Center, whose raw food recipes helped Hegemann overcome flu-like symptoms he acquired on the flight from Germany.)
When he talked at Trinosophes at a public workshop to share ideas for the building, his quiet, soft-spoken delivery held over 200 people in rapt attention. He did the same in meetings at the Mayor's Office, with Detroit Future City and the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation (DEGC); at dinners with planners, architects, city councilmembers, Detroit techno and art people, and Michigan's honorary consul of the Federal Republic of Germany.

Dimitri Hegemann presents at Trinosophes
I was with him for all of it. Hegemann stayed in the spare lower flat in my house. He got acquainted with my cat, Prince, an overweight yet skilled predator who hunted down a pesky mouse that Dimitri said darted around the kitchen while he sat at this laptop. Prince became a minor celebrity among his friends and contacts on the other end of his Facebook posts, most of them in Europe. Good kitty! Actions, the common language among all beasts, speak loudly across oceans.
This is a journey -- a long and fruitful one, we all hope -- and I feel privileged to be on it. Full disclosure: I am working as a consultant, organizer and biographer of sorts for this project. I helped (with the aid of other key Detroit supporters) to arrange our first Detroit Berlin Connection Conference at MOCAD last May. I went to Berlin this summer to get an intimate look at the city's critical mass of creative entrepreneurs, social innovators, and assorted art and music outsiders -- all contributing to make the city stand out as a center for art and culture, with a growing local economy based on creative industries. What imaginative projects flourishing or failing there can be brought to bear in Detroit? Plenty, in fact.
Model D has been an important media partner for this project. An avalanche of media attention has come of late, beginning with this Wall Street Journal piece (unfortunately now behind a paywall), but Model D was there first. Catch up on stories here.
Space pioneer    
The man who wants to move the needle on cultural development in Detroit helped establish the 24-hour social landscape of Berlin by opening clubs (beginning in the 1970s in West Berlin, long before the fall of Wall) and starting a record label (Tresor, in 1991) that is distributed worldwide.   
Hegemann does not identify as a developer. He also distances himself from the title "nightclub owner," and says these days he spends little time in the four dance and experimental music spaces (Tresor, Globus, +4Bar, and Ohm) inside the massive, repurposed power station Kraftwerk Berlin. He leaves that to much younger people in his company who program the events calendar and run day-to-day operations.
Instead, Hegemann, 60, is more comfortable with the term "space pioneer," his mission "to transfer abandoned industrial ruins into cultural spaces."
Some of the time he was here was spent correcting what has become a misrepresentation of the project's intent: that is, that Hegemann is solely interested in opening a techno super club in Detroit. Some at the talk at Trinosophes say they heard him say he would bring a four-day party scene (common in Berlin) to Detroit. Super sexy narratives, maybe, but untrue.
What is true is that the project idea resembles the conversion of the former East Berlin power station into Kraftwerk Berlin, which retains the clubs as a source of energy and inspiration, but aspires to be much more. For Detroit, Hegemann imagines a nonprofit with green spaces, around and inside the building, perhaps a greenhouse, being a large part of the plan (that said, no formal plans have been drawn, nor structural engineering consultation or testing of the grounds, not yet).
A marketplace for quality food vendors, a restaurant, multiple spaces for creative industries, maybe a space set aside for neighborhood families with children -- all adding up to benefit the immediate community -- are paramount. And a club, yes, a club to generate excitement and help establish a living acknowledgment to the power of the Detroit techno brand.

A packed house at Trinosophes listens to a presentation by Dimitri Hegemann
Over a year ago, when I interviewed Hegemann for a piece on the comeback of the Tresor label, inspired in large part by the successful repurposing of the Kraftwerk Berlin building, he answered the same questions this way:          
He believed the new energy for the company had to come via a new club, because he says, "the club is the perfect platform for new ideas." He wanted a place that would appeal to people seeking "adventures in contemporary and classical art, music, and dance; for some, a place for romance and fantasy, where you can have an experience that just says 'Wow!'"
To that, he added: "I'm currently most excited in getting young people involved in developing skills to do creative work. I see the club as more than just a place for a party. I want the music to stimulate discussion and new ideas. This is what it's all about for me now."
Marriage of romance and reality
And this is how it remains, over a year since we began talking about a way to marry Detroit soul and inspiration with confident Berlin ideas and the city's track record for executing those ideas, however risky and unconventional.
The marriage analogy is apt. When asked repeatedly why he is so interested in Detroit, Hegemann says, "it's like falling in love when you're young, the kind of love that lasts forever."
Hegemann fell for Detroit even before the fall of the Wall, about a year before, in fact, when he heard the music of Final Cut, which featured Detroiter Jeff Mills. It continued to grow when Mills told him about Underground Resistance, the group he joined along with Mike Banks and Robert Hood. It was the music of UR and other Detroit techno artists that helped Berlin transition from a divided city of occupation to a city of opportunity.
Today, Berlin is also a city rich with collaborators and creative partners. The fiercely independent, competitive lone wolf model that still dominates in the U.S. (including Detroit, where creative lone wolves are the rule not the exception) has been replaced by a model based on sharing and cooperation.

Dimitri Hegemann with Mario Husten of Holzmarkt in conference room at Office of the Mayor of Detroit
There was another message delivered by Hegemann and Mario Husten and Gudrun Deertz from Holzmarkt, an urban village that took no state money for its project on the banks of the Spree River.
The message was this: find a building and do your own Fisher Body 21. Build partnerships and create together, share your vision with others that think like you do, turn your shared vision into productive action. Don't wait for us to act, do it yourselves.
He ended the talk to loud applause, saying he was "rich with confidence." Proposals and talk of money come later, he says, likely in early 2015. He came with ideas and inspiration, ready to create a team of believers, not with money.
And he came powered by momentum, from a place still touched by the euphoria born out of reunification, which swept through Berlin for over two decades. A bit of that euphoria was left behind when Hegemann and his team flew back home. It's here, I've got it, and it's not going anywhere. We'll attempt to put it to proper good use in the New Year.
Walter Wasacz is a former managing editor at Model D.    

Read more articles by Walter Wasacz.

Walter Wasacz is a writer and the former managing editor of Model D. You can find more of his writings here.
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