If you make it here, you can make it anywhere: Detroit creates new ways to live large

First things first. My hands are extremely soft. Oddly so, and to the point where people comment on it when they shake them. This used to not bother me. In fact, it got to the point where I would preempt any such grasp by pointing it out myself -- an amusing, most-times awkward ice-breaker.

Looking back, I can see how I got this way. As a young man, my father, the oldest of seven in a hard-working, blue-collar Detroit family, sweated it out in his Dad's West Side heat-treating factory, but had the aspiration and the where-with-all to eventually change shirts, so to speak. So he put himself through school, ultimately becoming a CPA. From there, any callous-building skills that he once may have honed were slowly transferred into a blinding dexterity with a calculator. In the end, he no longer built stuff, if indeed he ever did in the first place.

This is not an insignificant trajectory, and it's one that has had a direct impact on the softness of my own hands. You see, from this backdrop my accountant father raised four rather thoughtful, yet undeniably inept sons when it came to the mechanics of their physical world. We weren't (or aren't) unskilled in the broad sense of the term, nor were we lazy in any way, working odd jobs ourselves in pursuit of following our father's collegiate path. Still, we never really learned to build anything -- with our own hands. Even though we broke a plenty of things, we weren't particularly adept at fixing them.

The truth is, beyond never really learning the difference between a straightedge and a level at home, the build-stuff ethos wasn't necessarily valued in the mass-production/mass-consumption culture of our day. A culture that, in many ways, valued, and still values, a certain throw-away mentality as economic engine.

Fast forward to present-day Detroit. Our DIY moxie continues to be all the rage, with the likes of CBS News giving us an entrepreneurial nod as a great place to start a business and countless written raves on the art-scene-as-community-builder (New York Times, Toronto Star), urban farming and the food movement (the Guardian), and more. And it's all true. Much of this story, however, begins and ends with Detroit-as apocalypse, which certainly has opened my mind to the idea of raccoon hunting, but isn't the whole truth.

The crisis-as-opportunity moment has indeed created some ease in terms of the cost-of-doing business, a let's-try-it open-mindedness enjoyed by certain sets, and more. But there's something seemingly deeper going on. It's not only that it's now becoming trendy to make stuff, and Detroit is once again leading the way, but we may have actually stumbled upon a new way to live. Closer to the things we eat. Closer to the things we listen to and sit on. Closer to the things that entertain us. Closer to each other. All this, in no small way, thanks to people making things with their hands. And it's having a very village-building, Little House on the Prairie effect.

One eye-opening embarrassment of an episode that brought the point home to me personally was a cornhole tournament -- that's a bean-bag tossing game for those uninitiated -- that my brother (Model D co-founding partner Brian Boyle) and I helped organize at Roosevelt Park. As happens with these things, we were a little bit behind in our planning and quickly needed to secure more game boards to pull the thing off. Of course, in our pre-disposed, synthetic minds, this meant finding more of the plastic, store-bought commercial boards that we had already proudly forked over good money for ourselves.

Our co-organizer, however, had different ideas and before you know it there were five guys -- most self-taught in the ways of woodwork -- in his "shop" hand crafting these things from recycled materials. The embarrassing part was my own uselessness during this aww-shucks, what-can-I-do-to-help moment. Even so, somewhere in this beer-drinking, male-bonding episode a sort of cornhole micro-community was born. We even asked local artists to paint them, ultimately using the boards as the tournament prizes, none of which would have happened had we purchased the plastic sets with the big Spartan helmets on them. I get calls to this day asking for the "official" Detroit cornhole specs so people can make their own boards.

Not long after the cornhole episode my wife and I began to holiday gather and, like many others, wanted to purchase as much as possible locally. The great thing is we didn't even need a retail outlet for much of it. Our friend and artists Andy Kem, inspired by the experience described above, was handcrafting some amazing cornhole sets, one of which we purchased for my father-in-law. I found myself in Brian Merkel's Corktown cottage getting a tour of the curing meat in his closet, as I purchased some of the tastiest sausage available, anywhere, from his Porktown Sausage brand. Molly O'Meara (along with partner and Model D food & drink specialist Noelle Lothamer) was just beginning to kick out Beau Bien jams from a local kitchen, which made perfect holiday stuffers, and Handmade Detroit was guiding us to some other crafty items.

And these aren't one-offs. This is an epidemic. The Greening of Detroit is literally growing our own tree stock and replanting them in neighborhoods around the city, while supporting the production of 130 tons of food to help feed residents, and selling a portion to local restaurants. Beehive Recordings is pushing up some of the best music this music city has to offer and giving the stuff away -- yup, giving it away, as in free -- on its website. The folks at Power House Productions are buying houses with their neighbors and turning them into artist living spaces and sculptures, while transforming an entire neighborhood immediately north of Hamtramck.

You name it: art, beer, clothes, bread, movie houses, hostels, furniture, canning, micro-funding, retail, granola, pickles, red dwarfs -- it's all happening right now and I'm pretty sure it isn't a fad. It's not only trendy. And, these little micro-communities are supporting each other, pushing the sticky web out even further and helping make Detroit the largest small town in the world along the way.

Swirling somewhere in all of this stew is the oft-missed pure joy and connectivity these people get from making something. Yes, joy in the heart of the apocalypse. You can hear it in their voices, they can't help it. They not only love the journey toward a final product, but most times see, first hand, the support and impact their work both garnishes from, and imparts upon, their little corner of the world. And somehow, in their own little way, there's pride in helping us all get one little sausage closer to what has been a growing distance between ourselves and what we consume.

And it's catchy. They buy each others stuff and help each other out, like Supino Pizza giving Porktown Sausage some space in its kitchen to operate. They inspire others to do the same. They even get someone with hands as soft as mine to start thinking, "Hey, I just might be able to make something, too," or at least get me to try and banish the electric force-field that has been lingering between me and my leaf blower for years. For some, it's beginning to feel like Walnut Grove around here. It's getting intimate and contagious in all the right ways.

Who knows where it's all headed, but if the real apocalypse ever approaches we'll be able to weather it better than most. Even if the economy continues to teeter, I figure I should be able to barter three Porktown sausages and a tree sapling for a jar or two of Beau Bien jam, with room left on the balance sheet to relieve some of my guilt for downloading all those super-sweet Beehive tunes. Either way, give yourself a hand Detroit, even if it's a soft one, and then get out there and make something.

Jim Boyle is vice president of integrated marketing for Midtown-based Lovio George, a co-founder of Hamtramck art space Public Pool and a guy who never want to face in a cornhole tournament. His assertive response to a piece by Mitch Albom was one of Model D's most widely read stories in 2009.

All photographs © Marvin Shaouni Photography

Contact Marvin here.
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