In downtown Detroit, at the headquarters of the online-mortgage company Quicken Loans, there stands another downtown Detroit in miniature. The diorama, made of laser-cut acrylic and stretching out over 19 feet in length, is a riot of color and light: Every structure belonging to Quicken’s billionaire owner, Dan Gilbert, is topped in orange and illuminated from within, and Gilbert currently owns 60 of them, a lordly nine million square feet of real estate in all. He began picking up skyscrapers just three and a half years ago, one after another, paying as little as $8 a square foot. He bought five buildings surrounding Capitol Park, the seat of government when Michigan became a state in 1837. He snapped up the site of the old Hudson’s department store, where 12,000 employees catered to 100,000 customers daily in the 1950s. Many of Gilbert’s purchases are 20th-century architectural treasures, built when Detroit served as a hub of world industry. He bought a Daniel Burnham, a few Albert Kahns, a Minoru Yamasaki masterwork with a soaring glass atrium. “They’re like old-school sports cars,” said Dan Mullen, one of the executives who took over Quicken’s newly formed real estate arm. “These were buildings with so much character, so much history. They don’t exist anywhere else. And it was like, ‘Buy this parking garage, and we’ll throw in a skyscraper with it.’ ”
One of Gilbert’s new downtown properties is an iconic Kahn creation from 1959 called Chase Tower, previously the National Bank of Detroit Building, which spans a full city block. Now nicknamed the Qube, the building houses hundreds of Quicken loan officers who sit or stand at small desks, working their phones. Employees are encouraged to write on the walls, which also display the latest tallied results in competitions between internal sales teams. Stenciled on the walls as well are the Quicken credos, 19 bits of pithy wisdom the company calls its “Isms.” (“The inches we need are everywhere around us.” “Numbers and money follow; they do not lead.”) Above the workers hover decorative, spacecraft-like orbs, in peach and pink and aquamarine, matching the colors of the cabinetry and carpeting. The overall atmosphere resembles “The Wolf of Wall Street” as art-directed by Dr. Seuss. When a loan officer closes a deal, the resulting mortgage contract is printed out in the nearby basement of the old Federal Reserve, another Gilbert holding. In rooms where armored cars once deposited bags of money, rows of printers run hot, spitting out tens of thousands of contracts a month, a total of $80 billion in residential mortgages last year.
Gilbert, 52, is a fist of a man, small and compact, with a cubed jaw, narrow eyes and lips, his hair raked back in a mold. In person, he is affable and reflective — sensible, even, in his unequivocal fervor for Detroit. He was born in the city, and although his family moved to the suburbs when he was still a toddler, his father continued to operate a bar in Detroit and his grandfather ran a couple of carwashes.
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At 9, Gilbert started buying candy and reselling it at a profit to his friends. As a teenager in suburban Detroit, he delivered pizzas he made himself. He spent a night in jail while at Michigan State for running a sports book, with the police handing him Egg McMuffins through the bars in the morning. (The charge was later dropped.) After starting his first company, Rock Financial, he fell under the sway of the Thomas J. Peters business tome “In Search of Excellence” and became fixated on the idea of creating a positive corporate culture. He turned Rock into a web-based mortgage company, which in 1999 was bought out by the software behemoth Intuit and renamed Quicken Loans. Three years later, Gilbert bought back his company but kept its new name. Quicken Loans is estimated to pull in more than $1 billion in revenues each year, and Gilbert is No. 408 on Forbes’s list of the world’s richest people.
Gilbert has a tendency to analogize, often plucking his comparisons from the worlds of gambling (he owns four casinos, including Detroit’s Greektown Casino-Hotel) or sports (he also owns the N.B.A.’s Cleveland Cavaliers). Detroit is his mission; he has gone all-in. He has brought 12,500 employees with him to downtown, and along with other private investors is funding the construction of a light-rail system that will connect the central business district with the neighboring Midtown district. Through his umbrella company, Rock Ventures, he formed a start-up incubator called Bizdom and a venture-capital firm, with some of the funded companies already expanding into other Gilbert-owned office space. He told me: “Here, man, oh, man, it’s a dream. Anything can be created in Detroit. Down here, like in basketball, you can create your own shot.” Investing in Detroit, he said, wasn’t like sitting at a roulette table and hoping it landed on 7. He was affecting the outcome — in a positive way, he hoped. He held to a maxim that you could “do well by doing good.” He could enrich a city and himself at the same time.
Gilbert believes in Detroit, not just as a partisan local booster but in his bones as a businessman. And his belief has a perverse sort of economic logic undergirding it. At the start of the 1950s, the Big Three car companies began to leave the city, seeking lower taxes and lower wages and brand-new corporate campuses elsewhere, and they whittled their work forces through automation. Most retail and other manufacturing jobs and almost all of the white residents followed suit, fleeing en masse to the suburbs or to other places entirely. In the half-century since, the city’s population has sunk to 700,000 from a peak of close to two million, and almost a third of its vast housing stock sits vacant. But this means that property costs have dropped to the point that barriers to ownership — to a sort of mogulhood, even — are absurdly low. Some of the city’s competitive advantages remain, including a world-class transportation network of roads and rail and waterways, with almost half of U.S. imports from Canada passing through. Even Detroit’s bankruptcy filing in December (making it the largest American city ever to take such a step) has its upsides. For everyone other than the city’s 32,000 pensioners and 100,000 creditors, the default should make Detroit less dysfunctional and more attractive. And in downtown, at least, Gilbert’s campaign seems to be paying dividends: Occupancy in residential real estate has climbed to 99 percent, and office vacancies are at 11 percent, the lowest rate in decades.
The belief in Detroit’s imminent revival has spread far beyond Dan Gilbert and the skyscrapers of downtown. Out in the neighborhoods, there is a legion of mini-Gilberts, longtime Detroiters and recent transplants alike, who have united around a conviction that the city has fallen as far as it can go — that the time to buy in is at hand. Just a couple of years after Detroit slid into what the national news media incessantly called a “post-apocalyptic” collapse, the city now teems with a post-post-apocalyptic optimism. When I visited this spring, Quicken Loans had a new slogan emblazoning its downtown office towers and company shuttles, and everyone I spoke with outside the city center seemed to be uttering it like a mantra: OPPORTUNITY DETROIT.
Economists fret that Detroit, in the absence of the manufacturing economy that built it, no longer has any reason to be. And indeed, large chunks of the sprawling, 139-square-mile city have literally vanished: Of Detroit’s 380,000 properties, some 114,000 have been razed, with 80,000 more considered blighted and most likely in need of demolition. But the new prospectors have an abiding faith that cities, like markets, are necessarily cyclical, and that the cycle has finally come around. It is the same ethos that turned other urban disasters into capitalist boomtowns — New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina or the cities of Western Europe after World War II. If the scale of Detroit’s failure is unprecedented, then so (the local reasoning goes) is the scale of its opportunity,
In the process, the Motor City has become the testing ground for an updated American dream: privateers finding the raw material for new enterprise in the wreckage of the Rust Belt. Whether or not they’re expecting to profit, Gilbert and other capitalists — large and small — are trying to rebuild the city, even stepping in and picking up some duties that were once handled by the public sector. Shop owners around the city are cleaning up the blighted storefronts and public spaces around them. Only 35,000 of Detroit’s 88,000 streetlights actually work, so some owners are buying and installing their own. In Gilbert’s downtown, a Rock Ventures security force patrols the city center 24 hours a day, monitoring 300 surveillance cameras from a control center. Gilbert is proposing to pay $50 million for the land beneath the county courthouse and a partly built jail near his center-city casino, with the intention of moving the municipal buildings to a far-off neighborhood; his goal is to clear the way for an entertainment district that flows south, without interruption, from the sports arenas past his casino and into downtown. Detroit’s new mayor, Mike Duggan, told me he had no problem with the private sector doing so much to shape his city: Other metropolises had their entrepreneurs and deep-pocketed magnates who built and bought and financed things. With a state-appointed emergency manager overseeing various aspects of Detroit’s operations, with many civic services inoperable for years and with a dire need for investment, Duggan said he felt lucky that his town was getting its turn.
There are no real assurances that gains will be spread democratically across the city, or that city planning and public resources will serve the needs of everyday Detroiters. But the hope is that private individuals will keep the greater good in mind. Heaster Wheeler, the assistant chief executive of Wayne County and former executive director of the Detroit branch of the N.A.A.C.P., the nation’s largest chapter, sent me a list of Detroit real estate investors who were committed to reviving the neighborhoods through their work. “Black Dan Gilberts,” he called them. Since 2000, Wayne County has held one of the world’s largest real estate auctions, offering about 20,000 properties a year that were acquired through foreclosure — some 5 percent of Detroit’s housing stock. Last year, 2,300 bidders took possession of 10,500 of these properties, with a dozen buyers each scooping up more than 100 houses. Some speculators have sat on the inexpensive homes, leaving them vacant as they await a recovery. Wheeler was talking about other buyers who have repaired the houses and rented them out, creating an income stream while adding a layer of stability to tottering sections of the city. African-Americans make up 83 percent of Detroiters, but from 2000 to 2010 their numbers fell by a quarter. “The city’s true heroes, its real saviors,” he told me, “were the African-Americans who had a choice to leave Detroit, who had the means, yet stayed. In spite of the public debacles, the racial insensitivities, the public transportation that goes nowhere, the taxes up the wazoo, the unfair auto-insurance costs, they still committed to making Detroit home.”
Early on a weekday morning, Gary Alexander and Siegel Clore, a pair of investors from Wheeler’s list, drove me around the blocks of northeast Detroit where they have accumulated scores of homes. Alexander, 45, and Clore, 43, met in high school and still live in the houses where they grew up. The Alexanders were the second black family on their block in the Aviation Subdivision, near the city’s boundary with Dearborn. “Then one day, I looked up, and every white person was gone,” Alexander said. Clore was raised in Conant Gardens, one of the city’s first middle-class black neighborhoods, where the blocks are now gaptoothed with abandoned property. The house next to his, what he still thinks of as Mr. Edward’s house — named after a World War II veteran who had lived there — he bought for $800 and uses as storage. A decade ago, Alexander and Clore started buying real estate together, but that was right before the housing bust. “We took some hard knocks,” said Clore, who is tall and placid; Alexander is shorter, stockier and more excitable. In 2009, after Clore was laid off by Merrill Lynch, they persuaded relatives and friends to invest in their venture and began combing the thousands of properties in that year’s county auction. They looked for bungalows in middling neighborhoods near the border with the suburbs. They bought 15 houses at the auction for a total of $60,000. Seven of them rented immediately. The next year, they acquired 21 more, at an average of $3,000 apiece.
Clore and Alexander now own 70 houses, 50 of them leased and 20 undergoing renovations. Alexander wakes at 4:30 most mornings, so he can spend an hour or so reading before the tumble of phone calls begins: the hot water that is not hot, the contractor who needs supplies. The men described the exhilaration of not only turning a profit but also owning a part of Detroit, their city, and housing other Detroiters. They wanted me to understand that the work they did was personal. Cruising around these blocks, they felt a responsibility. “We want to have an impact on the community, by putting money into it, repairing it, not sticking on a Band-Aid,” Clore said. His father was an engineer who worked a lifetime in the boiler rooms of Detroit public schools, but the women in his family were all educators. Clore started a nonprofit organization in a local middle school, a program combining golf and math that he hoped would spread. He and Alexander also want to start a business incubator for African-American entrepreneurs, similar to what Dan Gilbert was doing downtown. “A black Bizdom,” Alexander explained.
The two prefer buying houses that are occupied, because scavengers often tear everything sellable out of the unoccupied ones. When scouting, they ring doorbells and talk to tenants, many of whom have been duped into paying rent to someone who doesn’t even own the foreclosed property. Squatters sometimes curse them, and they see many signs in windows and on doors that are meant to scare off investors: “House Full of Bedbugs” or “If You Buy This House, I Will Burn It Down.” Because both men worked as appraisers, they know how to estimate a house’s value and the cost of repairs. They might get $750 a month in rent from a woman who worked in retail or from someone paying with a federal Section 8 housing voucher; to make money in this business, they calculated, they would have to buy and renovate each property for a total of $15,000. They ask about leaks in the basement that could suggest problems with the foundation. As they eyeball a roof for damage, they ask if the furnace works or if it’s there at all.
The two of them took me inside a few properties that were still being readied for tenants. They generally painted, fixed broken windows, replaced the kitchen countertops and toilets, buffed the wood floors and laid new carpet. The workers they hire are often as transitional as the neighborhoods, so they let the men stay in the houses until they’re rented. Clore and Alexander have become authorities on the vicissitudes of blight, both in its broader boundaries and in the arbitrary shifts it can take from block to block. They try to fix up the abandoned properties next to their houses. They paint boarded-up windows white, mow lawns, pick up debris. People sometimes call to ask if a rental property is in Detroit and hang up when they hear the answer. But Alexander said many of their tenants were native Detroiters moving back to the city now that rents were on the rise again in the suburbs. They spoke with nervous excitement about plans to add to their portfolio of homes and even to buy multifamily buildings. Clore plays golf competitively, a 2 handicap, and on the links he sometimes networks with local business types who say they want to invest in his growing business. He and Alexander already manage an additional 50 rentals for out-of-state owners who acquired the properties at auction. If credit eventually eases, they said, they will begin selling off some of their holdings, turning a profit that way. The Case-Shiller index puts home prices in Detroit up 15 percent from the same point last year, although prices are still paltry compared with those of just about every other city in the country. As we talked, Gary slowed to a crawl in front of a home they bought in 2011. Both of its tenants worked, one at Quicken Loans, in the Qube building. The modest two-flat sold in 2006 for $90,000, but they would double their investment if they could get the renters to buy it for just $30,000. “It’s funny,” Alexander said. “She works as a mortgage processor at Quicken, and she can’t get a mortgage.”
Years of neglect have conditioned Detroiters to head to the suburbs for almost all their shopping, spending a total of $1.5 billion a year outside the city limits. For some of Detroit’s new entrepreneurs, that represents a mint of lost retail to recoup. Detroit Future City, a citywide master plan completed in 2012 after two years of meetings and surveys, identified local retail as one cornerstone of a new urban economy, and more than 50 nonprofit programs have been set up to foster small stores. In the Jefferson East corridor, en route to the wealthy suburb of Grosse Pointe, several of the nonprofits have helped a coffee shop and a furniture restorer form the basis of a walkable retail strip, with the Detroit beer baron John W. Stroh III paying for 3,500 hours of private security patrols of the area. In a collection of five subdivisions called Grandmont-Rosedale in northwest Detroit, 12 residents are enrolled in a workshop through the nonprofit ProsperUs, learning in the class I saw about securing credit and financing for their nascent businesses.
Along a commercial stretch of Livernois Avenue, which in better days earned the name Avenue of Fashion, the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation enabled 10 entrepreneurs to start pop-up businesses last September, matching each of them with artists who designed the temporary spaces. The stores opened all at once, in an effort to create a retail destination with spillover traffic. About 3,000 people attended the Livernois opening festivities, in the rain. In a city with an outsize underdog pride, residents seem desperate to participate in the rituals of revival. At 40, April Anderson quit a human-services job to open a bakery called Good Cakes and Bakes with her wife, using a $10,000 grant from a nonprofit organization called Revolve Detroit. It, along with several other of the pop-ups, has since become permanent. Another new store owner on the block, Chad Dickinson, moved here from Nashville, where he built music studios, because he read that 20-somethings were among the fastest-growing groups in Detroit. He bought a historic Tudor near Livernois for what seemed like a steal and started a furniture business. Wearing a throwback Tigers cap over his long blond hair, he told me that he purchased (“for dirt cheap”) and was rehabbing the shuttered Hunter’s Supper Club, the center of the Avenue of Fashion in its heyday.
Rufus Bartell, who was sometimes called the Avenue of Fashion’s mayor and even its Dan Gilbert, owns a corner clothing store there. “Simply Casual is a lifestyle store catering to people who work hard and play hard and making their transition between the two smooth,” he told me. At 49, Bartell, wearing an ascot and sleek Puma sneakers, made it plain that he was a man who wouldn’t be outworked or outplayed. Like just about everything in Detroit, his store is a former something — Grinnell Brothers pianos, back when the wives of auto executives strolled the avenue’s high-end shops, and later a cleaners. He believed that the once-thrumming Motor City was more a land of opportunity today than it was at any moment in his lifetime. For the first time in eight years, sales at his store were picking up. With his nephew, a recently retired N.F.L. cornerback, Bartell is also opening a chicken-and-waffle restaurant on the Avenue of Fashion. And alone or with other partners, he has bought five vacant storefronts there, some 40,000 square feet. He is confident that he can fill it all with retail.
Bartell always juggles a number of enterprises, he told me, purposefully keeping his portfolio diverse. He has also involved himself in the larger enterprise of civic development. “That’s how you graduate from being a business owner to a business leader, and it’s why I admire Dan Gilbert,” he said. Bartell serves on the advisory boards of Detroit Future City, the Michigan Garment Council and a nonprofit organization that funds Detroiters who plan to open unique shops in their communities. On Livernois, he said, four new restaurants and six more stores are preparing to open in the next year or so, and the entire strip has the support of the nonprofit groups and their grant money. Just last month, after six years of considering it, he and a handful of other business owners paid for a billboard on the northern end of the corridor, advertising the revived Avenue of Fashion as a place to “Shop. Dine. Explore.” Most of all, Bartell feels confident that the pendulum has already begun to swing in Detroit’s favor. Along his half-mile of Livernois, there are 51 retailers doing $47.6 million in annual sales. The median household income in the surrounding residential blocks is $56,000, among the highest in the city. Although most of sparsely populated Detroit is seeing very little economic activity or likelihood of any to come, there are a half-dozen retail corridors like the Avenue of Fashion in the city. The business resource center D-Hive has graduated 350 Detroiters from its small-business classes in the last two years and has 100 people on its waiting list for coming sessions. According to the National League of Cities, Detroit was the fifth-ranked city in the U.S. in 2012 in terms of jobs per capita from start-ups, beating out San Jose, Calif. “Detroit is getting ready to hit momentum,” Bartell told me. “When you hit momentum, companies go from small to big.”
Bartell is an unrelenting proponent of the free market, and as he ran the weekly meeting of the Independent Business Association in one of his empty storefronts on a weekday morning, he kept the focus on the moneymaking possibilities in his city’s demise. Of the 20 small-business owners there, all but two of them were African-American. A retired civil engineer named Prema Qadir, who built websites and was looking to start a catering service, complained about the failure of city government to properly educate anyone. Bartell cut her short: “That sounds like an opportunity. Pose it in the form of an opportunity.” Someone else worried over the fate of Detroiters who have stuck it out in homes while all around them their neighborhoods turned to field and ash. “To grow Detroit,” Bartell pronounced, “you have to shrink it. There are opportunities with vacant land.” Buildings were going to be torn down, junk hauled off, land cleared. Those were all potential businesses. “If it was my grandmother living on a street with one house, ‘Sorry, Grandma, you got to move.’ ”
From behind Bartell, a woman who was shifting uncomfortably could no longer hold her tongue. She shouted, “I totally disagree, Rufus.”
“Of course you do. Socialist,” Bartell muttered.
The woman, Tenay Hankins, runs Biz to Biz Match, a service assisting small businesses with grants, contracts and partnerships. She and a couple of other women reminded those gathered that the city had a terrible track record of looking out for its residents, and that Detroiters, particularly blacks, had been ill served by state and local government, redlining lenders and high-rolling private investors. Just recently, blind faith in capitalism buried their neighborhoods under foreclosures and contributed heavily to the city’s bankruptcy. “Detroiters are not respected as far as the value and dollars they bring, the obstacles they’ve overcome to still be here. It’s always looked at as if we’re not instrumental,” Hankins said.
“The question is, what do you do after your skepticism,” Bartell responded, trying to get his meeting back on track. “Every city on the globe, there are things that government hasn’t done correctly. You got to have a plan. Detroit is being rebuilt with or without everybody at this table.”
In Corktown, a former Irish enclave bordering downtown, Phillip Cooley, like Gilbert, is a businessman often described as doing well by doing good. “Gilbert is way better at it,” Cooley told me. “I wish I was doing well. I have a negative bank account.” Nine years ago, Cooley opened Slows Bar BQ there, next to a pawnshop and a bar called LJ’s Lounge that kept irregular hours. As Slows turned into a destination, its success drawing a second wave of settlement, Cooley looked into other local economic development. A relentlessly positive 36-year-old, he still drinks and shoots pool at LJ’s, but he and his partners recently bought the pawnshop and are in the process of converting it into a restaurant with six rental apartments above it. The new chef worked at restaurants in Las Vegas, but he grew up in the Detroit area and contacted Cooley in hopes of contributing to the revival of the city.
This stretch of Corktown is still framed by the colossal ruins of Michigan Central Station, which, like the abandoned Packard plant on East Grand Boulevard, looms as an Acropolis to our dead industrial empire. A few years ago, Cooley and others began clearing the knee-high grass and weeds in front of the relic, believing that the area needed a “Greek agora,” a place where neighbors could be innovative together. He showed me the land beside the rail station where he and 44 students he was mentoring were opening a sushi restaurant that would operate out of shipping containers. Available housing is now scarce in Corktown, but Cooley had just bought a decommissioned firehouse nearby, and he and his fiancée, Kate Bordine, planned to live there and run some sort of business out of part of it. Around the corner, Bordine and two other women are starting a vodka distillery.
Next to Slows, Cooley helped two friends open Astro Coffee, building the milk station and some furniture for them. As I walked with him past the cafe, he stopped to embrace an organic farmer who was eating couscous from a bowl as he read The New Yorker. Like Cooley, the farmer was white, willowy and bearded, and he wore a look-alike checked flannel shirt. A small Ford pulled up, and its driver jumped out. “Is it too crazy to do a Facebook event at Ponyride tomorrow night?” the man shouted to Cooley from the middle of the street.
“For how many?” Cooley yelled back.
“Sweet. Thanks, buddy.”
Ponyride is Cooley’s version of an incubator: a small-business collective in a 30,000-square-foot warehouse he bought for just $100,000 in 2011. Across the street, Dan Gilbert acquired two lots and is busily building a giant Quicken Loans data center and office complex. Despite the abundance of vacant commercial space in the city, very little of it is actually ready for occupancy, with adequate walls and floors and electrical systems. So Ponyride, operating at a small loss, offers work space to 25 small companies starting at 20 cents per square foot. It also has co-working rooms, which house another 25 small businesses. The tenants include a coffee shop, a dance studio, electrical and plumbing contractors, a blacksmith and woodworkers, two brothers who hot-press T-shirts and a blueprint business, which downsized after the collapse of the housing market. In the partitioned room of Ponyride that belongs to the Detroit Denim Company, which produces 100 pairs of bespoke jeans a month, the owner drew designs on a whiteboard while an employee cut material.
The largest tenant by far is the Empowerment Plan, a manufacturer of jackets that convert into sleeping bags for the homeless. Veronika Scott started the nonprofit in 2011, when she was a 21-year-old recent graduate of the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, and she now fills 6,000 orders a year. Gilbert wrote her a check for $250,000 when he visited Ponyride. Seven young African-American women sat at sewing machines, while all around them, black bags with the finished jackets were piled high. Scott acknowledged that she might soon become too large for her space there, but she said the growing number of small companies and light-industrial start-ups in Detroit had created a demand for additional Ponyrides. She planned to go elsewhere in the city, probably to a neighborhood that hadn’t yet seen as much gentrification. Like Cooley, she wants to become an anchor for her own manufacturing cooperative.
Before arriving in 2009, Jerry Paffendorf had no Detroit connections, no reason to head there from Silicon Valley — where he co-founded a short-lived web company — except a sense that the city’s hard times presented a sort of opportunity. Since his arrival, the local tech scene has shown some signs of flourishing. An incubator called TechTown, which opened nine years ago in a 135,000-square-foot former Pontiac dealership in Midtown, has created 85 companies and trained or advised 800 more. Microsoft Ventures and many tech companies funded by Gilbert’s venture-capital firm now lease space in his buildings downtown. TechTown and three other technology incubators claim to have created a total of 7,225 jobs.
Paffendorf has personally created eight such jobs through Loveland Technologies, a company he co-founded in 2009. But in Loveland, he has also provided an invaluable resource for the city’s new prospector class as a whole. Its product is a data-rich online map that offers public information on ownership, zoning and tax assessments for every single parcel of land in the city; for a fee, organizations and developers get a premium version that they can build upon and share. Siegel Clore and Gary Alexander said they sometimes consulted Loveland’s listings for properties under tax distress and at risk of foreclosure, studying which ones were up for auction and tracking what other investors were buying.
Soon after moving, Paffendorf started to play around in real estate, something you can do in Detroit; he bought an empty lot at auction for $500 and then sold parts of it online, with buyers paying $1 for an inch of the property and watching their holdings on a FarmVille-like map. Another year, he and some friends from the environmental nonprofit organization Ecoworks bought 10 houses to collect data on deconstruction: permit times, labor costs, the resale value of the mined materials. If Detroit was going to try to knock down anywhere near its 80,000 blighted properties, if there was going to be a marketplace for piece-by-piece deconstruction, the city needed to know more about the alternatives to throwing all the waste in a landfill.
Through these experiments, Paffendorf realized that Detroit suffered from what might be called an information crisis. City departments were sometimes unable to figure out who owned a property or what improvements to it were needed. The Fire Department couldn’t quickly look up whether a burning building was unoccupied or condemned. The lack of good information was standing in the way of rational decision-making. When problems could be mapped, Paffendorf believed, they came to seem less hopeless, more explainable, more fixable. Hence the idea behind Loveland.
A rangy 6-foot-7, Paffendorf has the wide-eyed open face of a child actor. The GMC Yukon he drove me around in had been broken into several times in the last couple of years, the latest aborted attempt visible in the red and black wires poking out of his steering column like weeds. “Overfished this pond,” he said cheerily. He took me to Detroit’s east side, just beyond the shops and open-air stalls of Eastern Market, where for long stretches you can drink in the unfathomable dissolution of a built landscape. It looked fantastical, like the fallout from an alien invasion. Amid the telephone poles that endured and the mounds of timber and brick, discarded tires were stacked like battlements. Every house was burned, battered or disappeared, the buildings laid low like the massacred in a killing field. Along Gratiot Avenue, a grand boulevard as wide as a river and mostly devoid of cars, the lifeless businesses lined the street like the craggy walls of a gorge. Through an overgrown field, a solitary man entered a doorless school. We passed homes that had atrophied, with verandas folded in like a broken-brimmed hat or the entire thing sunken as if made from wax. Other residences had turned Potemkin, their facades relatively intact but their innards and roofs missing. We came across large colonial-style houses cross-sectioned, entire portions of them gone. With an estimated 5,000 arsons in the city each year, we most of all saw houses charred and sooted. But then, unexpectedly, amid the collapse, with no other inhabited structures nearby, we passed the grandma’s house Rufus Bartell adjudged: a single bungalow, its shutters and ornate metal security door painted bright pink, the manicured lawn topped with a bird pond and stone swans, the hedges shaped into perfect loaves.
With Dan Gilbert and others funding the effort, Loveland and another group called Data Driven Detroit managed a group of 150 Detroiters. Fifty of them were drivers, employee volunteers from Quicken Loans; the other 100 were surveyors, who earned $10 an hour. Over two months last winter, the Motor City Mapping teams logged details on the condition of each of the 380,000 parcels in the city, putting all the data online. Paffendorf pulled over to show me how it works. We were on the corner of Elba Place and Mt. Elliott Street, alongside what remained of the Heidelberg Project, an outdoor art installation begun in 1986 by a local resident, Tyree Guyton. Starting one block over, on Heidelberg Street, ramshackle houses were painted with brightly colored polka dots and numbers and adorned with dolls and other found objects. The project is a one-man assault on blight, a demonstration that beauty and creativity also happen there. Paffendorf’s records showed that 3423 Mt. Elliott was built in 1918 and last sold in 2005 for $11,000. It was the “Party Animal House,” a building ornamented with stuffed animals. But someone had burned it to its brick base. In the last year, six of the 10 Heidelberg Project houses were set on fire. On a tablet, Paffendorf punched in the answers to survey questions, what they called “blexting,” texting a photograph and other information about blight back to their shareable database, where it was checked against other sources and stored.
“Is the property occupied?” Clearly no.
“What is the condition of the structure: good, fair or poor?” Poor.
“Would you suggest demolition?” No need; it had already been taken care of.
Last fall, when a group of Chinese investors paid $9.4 million for the Art Deco David Stott Building, a 38-story downtown tower named for Detroit’s former flour mogul, it was the first time Gilbert was outbid on a building there. He fumed, until he recognized that others wanted in — a sign that his campaign was working. Gilbert’s team has also started an extensive “placemaking” effort, a “quicker, lighter, cheaper” way to fill the public spaces and areas around Quicken-owned buildings with people and events. Jaunty music plays in parks and outside office towers. On sidewalks, there are lounge chairs and giant “Alice in Wonderland” chess pieces. In front of the Qube, in Campus Martius Park, nearby companies have set up a cafe; there is ice skating in the winter, and in warmer months there are Motown Music Fridays, table tennis and a beach. All of this is an attempt to recreate at least a bit of the energy and confidence that pervaded the area back when Detroit was a city of two million and produced most of the world’s cars.
Yet even amid the rehabbed Beaux-Arts and Modernist towers, hardly a sightline doesn’t land on a building gone to seed. Next to a cafe, on the clapboards covering what 60 years earlier was one of the country’s most prominent instrument stores, an artist has painted a grim joke: “Free Coffee With Purchase of Wurlitzer Bldg.” Citywide, a third of Detroit’s remaining residents say they still plan to leave in the next five years. And why not? In a city with the second-highest violent-crime rate in the country and an average of 14 arsons a day, the police and firefighters often don’t arrive when called. Just two years ago, one in three households lived in poverty, a jump of 40 percent in just the last decade. There was only one private-sector job for every four Detroiters, and only half the working-age population was employed. Of the employed, three-fifths commuted to jobs outside the city. A mere 70,700 people both lived and worked inside Detroit.
This is the environment that allows for cheap real estate and easy accessibility. But sometimes a wreck is just a wreck; some goods are not a bargain at any price. The risk to Detroit’s new buyers is that they haven’t bought low enough. The 2012 master plan imagined a city in which the population stabilized at roughly 600,000, with half the overabundant land reclaimed as parks and mixed-green communities, a flowering of carbon-reducing forests and industrial buffers, of greenways and retention ponds, of campgrounds and community gardens. Another Detroit-area tycoon, John Hantz, has taken a real step toward this vision by clearing 150 acres for tree farms, planting 15,000 hardwoods — sugar maples, white birch, oak and bur oak. But that future city isn’t here yet, and neither are any of the Detroits dreamed up by Dan Gilbert, or Rufus Bartell, or the city’s other optimists. When Mayor Duggan told me in April that his entire focus was on increasing the city’s population, he said that each month he planned to demolish 600 blighted properties and install 2,400 functioning streetlights. “And if you give me some time,” he said, “the police are going to show up on time. And ultimately, we’re going to solve the problem of the schools.”
While wandering around downtown, I dropped into a coffee shop, the Urban Bean Company, to ask for directions. It is in a narrow wedge of a building opposite Capitol Park. It sells locally sourced coffee and food; upstairs, amid a sliver of seats, patrons can spin electronic-music records on a turntable. Save for the two owners, though, the place was empty. Ed Siegel sat with his elbows on the counter. He told me he had worked at a New York office of Moody’s, in commercial mortgage-backed securities. Two years ago, he visited Detroit and drove the length of Woodward Avenue, from downtown to 8 Mile Road. He was so sure he was seeing a city poised for rebound that he moved permanently. His partner in the venture, Josh Greenwood, who left a Chrysler truck-assembly plant after a decade on the line, leaned against a wall with his eyes closed, nursing a sore back. He opened the coffee shop initially in 2000, thinking the area was already on the mend, but he had to shut it down during the mortgage-foreclosure mess. Last year, with all Gilbert was planning for Capitol Park — “downtown’s hidden jewel,” Rock Ventures branded it — he figured it was time to start again.
But even there, just two blocks from Gilbert’s Qube, the revival has yet to arrive. The park’s small triangle of grass is still cramped with homeless people and surrounded by walls covered in graffiti. Empty buildings are everywhere. Across the street from Urban Bean, a fire had recently transformed a strip club called the Grind into a blackened husk. The countless small businesses, the swarm of nonprofit groups and pop-up retail, the transplanted young techies and artists, the widespread investment in real estate snatched up at thrift-store prices — for all of that, the new Detroit remains more an idea on paper than a coalescing future. Dan Gilbert has faith: This spring, he bought eight more properties. But he has plenty of money to lose on his conviction, whereas Greenwood and Siegel do not. They got in on what looked like the ground floor, and now they are praying that it truly was the bottom.
“Sitting here, waiting, it’s the hardest part,” Siegel said, twitching with nervous laughter.