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Tuesday, July 9th, 2013

Is Detroit the Next Berlin? by Justin Fox

[ Given the emergence of an artist movement in Detroit, the comparisons to Berlin are obvious. However, in this piece that ran over in Techonomy last year, Justin Fox argues the comparison is invalid. I'm glad to be able to repost it. And I'd also suggest that you might want to check out more of the material from Techonomy Detroit - Aaron. ]

After the fall of the Wall in 1989, Berlin had very cheap housing and industrial space, some in spectacularly grand old buildings. Years of division—with repressive communist rule on one side of town and isolation and economic stagnation on the other—had left the city depressed and underpopulated. Reunification initially only made things worse, as uncompetitive Eastern-side state-owned factories closed en masse.

This translated into, among other things, apartment rents much lower than in any other major Western European city. The low rents and post-industrial landscape drew artists and other bohemian sorts. Then low rents plus a burgeoning cultural scene drew young college grads who couldn’t find good jobs anywhere (German unemployment was high in the 1990s). They could get by in groovy, low-cost Berlin. This influx eventually translated into economic revival. Now Berlin is a boomtown, and everybody’s complaining about the skyrocketing rents.

Detroit’s roughly the same size as Berlin (measured by metro area population). It’s got a lot of cheap real estate, some of it spectacularly grand. It’s got abandoned factories. It’s got great cultural history (mainly on the music front). So … let the young bohemians come and the boom begin, right?

Uh … no. I’m moderating a panel at the Techonomy Detroit conference titled “Is Detroit the Next Berlin?” but I just don’t buy it. Sure, I’m rooting for Detroit’s revival. And the revival seems real, although still in its early stages. Studying and learning from the struggles and successes of other cities (as WDET did with its series on the Detroit-Berlin Connection) is never a bad idea. But the notion that Berlin could be a model for Detroit strikes this outsider as wrongheaded and a bit dangerous. It is an aspiration bound to be thwarted. Here’s what makes Berlin so different from Detroit (and vice versa):

1) Berlin is a political and cultural capital. The economic impact of becoming the capital of a reunited Germany in 1990 was actually a disappointment for Berlin at first, as some government agencies stayed away, and corporations did, too. But the reality of becoming the capital city of a major economic power, and the construction boom that went with that, eventually had a big impact. Berlin also was quickly able to regain its pre-World-War II status as the country’s artistic and cultural capital—thanks in part to massive federal subsidies. So it became Germany’s New York (minus finance and media) plus its Washington, D.C. (minus the huge defense and homeland-security industry). With super-cheap rents. That’s a lot of magnetic power, and by the late 1990s Berlin had become the default destination for creative, ambitious, educated young Germans. Detroit has none of these dynamics going for it except the real estate. Bringing in a few curious artists is great, but expecting a mass inflow of hipsters from all over America is crazy. It would already be a huge victory if lots of creative, ambitious, educated young Michiganders began moving to the city.

2) Berlin reunified. Detroit never had a Wall, but it’s been riven by its own division over the past half century, a stark racial and political separation between the city and the rest of the metropolitan area. There’s clearly been progress made in recent years, with new stadiums and other development downtown, and an apparent shift—born of shared economic desperation—toward more of a we’re-all-in-this-together regional attitude. But the divide is undeniably still there, and it means that even a successful revitalization will of necessity have to take a much different, less-centralized shape than in Berlin. Three quarters of metro Berlin’s 4.4 million people live within the city limits. In Detroit it’s the other way around; more than 80% of the 4.3 million inhabitants of the metro area live outside Detroit proper. Finding ways to tie city and suburbs together remains one of the area’s biggest challenges.

3) Berlin has good public transit. Yeah, its air connections have long been something of a joke, but that should improve dramatically with the opening next year of a new airport. The city is also linked by high-speed rail to the rest of the country’s major cities. Detroit’s got a great airport, but beyond that it’s built quite literally around the automobile. The millennials who would have to begin flocking to Detroit to make a Berlin scenario real don’t seem to like cars much. There’s no easy way around this: Detroit simply can’t afford to build a mass-transit infrastructure right now, and a Berlin-style, youth-oriented metropolis is almost inconceivable without such an infrastructure.

4) Detroit knows business. Yes, the city’s main business has been through a really tough time lately, but metro Detroit is full of private sector expertise—not just in automobiles—and seems to be growing a new entrepreneurial class. Berlin has a startup scene now, but that’s been driven mostly by newcomers. When its long, slow return to prosperity began it was a city of bureaucrats, former communists, and the long-term unemployed. Detroit has a huge advantage over Berlin here, an advantage that should be exploited and emphasized.

5) Detroit has better immigrants. Sure, now Berlin is attracting jet-setters from all over—and has attracted hard-working immigrants from Turkey and Eastern Europe for years. But Detroit, and U.S. cities in general, have two big advantages over their continental European counterparts in attracting ambitious, entrepreneurial newcomers from other countries: (1) we speak the global language, English, and (2) despite occasional problems we have a deserved reputation as a nation where newcomers can thrive. The Detroit area has of course already benefited from its status as destination No. 1 in the U.S. for immigrants from Arab countries, and any realistic comeback scenario for the area and the city proper has to include a big role for overseas immigrants.

There’s an echo here of the competing visions of urbanists Richard Florida and Joel Kotkin. Florida is of course the progenitor of the idea that a new, urban “creative class” is the key economic driver of our time—and that cities (like Berlin) that can attract young creatives will thrive. Kotkin argues that this simply won’t work for most American cities, and that messy, immigrant-filled, strip-mall sprawl is an equally vibrant and more realistic model. Florida, who married a Detroiter, has been talking up the creative-class link to the city’s revival. Kotkin, in a recent newspaper profile of Florida, scoffed that “There’s not enough yuppies on the planet to save Detroit.”

In the case of the Detroit area, they’re both right. Locavore restaurants and design studios aren’t going to bring back the regional economy. That’s going to require other, more mass-scale kinds of business success, and possibly some big-time government investment. At the same time, returning the city of Detroit to its rightful position as economic and cultural heart of the region—which seems like an essential prerequisite to any truly sustainable revival of metro Detroit—will take exactly the kind of building-by-building, restaurants-and-galleries-and-cool-little-creative-businesses entrepreneurship that Florida loves so much. Detroit is not the next Berlin. But it may still get a little bit of that Berlin spirit.

Justin Fox appeared at Techonomy Detroit in a session entitled ”Is Detroit the Next Berlin?” For complete coverage of the September 12, 2012, conference, click here.

This post originally appeared in Techonomy on September 11, 2012.

Wednesday, May 29th, 2013

Berlin: In the Belly of a Whale

Here’s a test to see how many of you are actually serious about attracting creatives and building a creative economy in your city: will you actually watch this 53 minute documentary about Berlin that’s in German with subtitles?

“In the Belly of a Whale” is a great film that consists of talking head style ruminations on the art scene and life as a creative in Berlin. The people featured are “all in” as artists and fully part of that scene themselves (though as you’ll see most of them wear many hats). We get to see plenty of their often very cool art as well as hear some cool tunes.

Given that Berlin has attracted more artists than any any city in the world, it’s a case study worth looking at if you plan to try attracting any sort of creative base. Nobody has succeeded like Berlin.

First the video, then some additional commentary on what I saw in it. If it doesn’t display for you, click here.

h/t BMW Guggenheim Lab

I have generally argued that talent migration is not a zero sum game. However, according to these folks Berlin really has hoovered up a good chunk of Germany’s artists. This makes it more difficult to be an artist today in second tier cities than it was in the past. How true this is I don’t know. The people here clearly take a “global elite” type view. They frequently refer to places like New York and London. They clearly recognize that Berlin is in the top echelon by reputation in the global art world and don’t hesitate to act like it (though they candidly recognize Berlin’s weaknesses).

How does this play out elsewhere? I do think there are certain industries that are extremely centralized. Art and fashion are two of those. There are only real commercial markets in a handful of places. So while secondary cities can perhaps attract more artists and creatives than they did in the past (just as they have more coffee shops than they did back in the 80s or 90s, for example), building a real economy out of this will be extremely difficult. While this might seem insulting, the art would in a smaller city is to some extent scenery or decoration, not the integral part of the city and its economy that it is in Berlin.

This is probably doubly true since even in Berlin there’s no money in art. None of these people really make much of a living from it, except one person who seems to exhibit internationally. They all admit people in Berlin want cool stuff, but don’t want to pay for it. You need international representation to get paid. But what Berlin lacks economically, it makes up for in dirt cheap rents, abandoned buildings without clear title (even today), and an unmatched richness of interaction with other creatives.

I do think it’s fair to say that while perhaps the artists haven’t profited much from their work, the city has. The art scene and the techno scene (which seem very inter-related) have put Berlin on the map and drive huge tourism dollars. So I’m guessing the economic impact is much higher than direct art spending. However, having a collection of artists unmatched anywhere in the world has certainly not succeed in turning Berlin into an economic dynamo, and the city remains “poor but sexy” as its mayor once said.

In any case, if “creativity” is on your city’s agenda, then this is a much watch video. Also must-watch is Real Scenes: Berlin that I previously posted. That one is a nice complement that covers the rise of the techno scene and the reasons behind that.

Wednesday, April 18th, 2012

Real Scene: Berlin

I linked a couple weeks ago to a series of video shorts on Detroit. One of them was a documentary about the city’s techno heritage. The same producer created videos of other techno scenes as well, including the one below of Berlin.

It’s an interesting overview of a slice of Berlin’s famous creative scene, but I wanted to highlight a couple points about it. First, per the video, the thing that originally drew creatives to then West Berlin was a West German law that residents of West Berlin were exempt from compulsory military service. Second, a key catalyst for the explosion of the techno scene was the collapse of the Berlin Wall. This led to a mass exodus from East Berlin that left many abandoned structures with no clear legalities around their ownership or use. The curious and creative Western draft avoiders then went to explore these and ended up creating the techno scene.

I think this is interesting in assessing policies to lure the creative class and what you need to do to support a creative scene. There was no policy to attract creative people to the city. They came on their own to exploit a loophole in a law wholly unrelated to creativity. Once there, they took advantage of cheap, available spaces with few restrictions on what to do, catalyzed by a massive social upheaval.

This suggests the genesis Berlin’s creative environment was an accident that can’t be replicated by others. The one item that seems amenable to copying is cheap spaces with few restrictions. Indeed, this is sort of what we see playing out in Detroit at present. It’s hard for cities perhaps to produce the spaces in the first place, but they can make a choice to keep their hands off when people start experimenting. Detroit did this unintentionally through government incompetence and severe resource constraints. Whether other more capable city governments can resist the urge to intervene is a question yet to be answered. For more thoughts on this, see Detroit as Urban Laboratory and the New American Frontier.

Here’s the video: If it doesn’t display for you, click here.

Thursday, July 7th, 2011

The Coolest and Best City Videos

I have posted quite a few “city videos” in the course of blogging. These are usually unofficial short pieces, often art projects, and frequently featuring time lapse, tilt shift, or other techniques to produce a very cool “music video” about a particular place. I thought I’d share a compilation of some of the coolest and very best of these today. If you have other suggestions, please post a link as a comment.

A lot of these are high quality uploads that more than justify watching them in full screen mode. Enjoy!

You’ve Got to Love London

This one was an instant classic (if the video doesn’t display, click here).

Le Flâneur (Paris)

Here’s a variant on the time lapse approach (if the video doesn’t display, click here). The creator of this video discussed his techniques over at National Geographic, but alas the post seems to have expired (or I can’t find it).

Little Big Berlin

This is such an incredible video. It doesn’t necessarily beat you over the head with the coolness of the place like the London and Paris videos, but instead gives you slices of everyday life in way that reveals the city to you. Even the classical soundtrack (Franz Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody #2″) is awesome. (If the video doesn’t display click here).

Le Tour de France Grand Départ 2010 (Rotterdam)

This one actually is a promotional video, shot for the Grand Départ of the 2010 Tour de France. But it’s a great video about cycling and Rotterdam generally. This one I particularly love since the music is a delightful original composition by Erwin Steijlen, featuring vocals by Alma Nieto and Steve Balsamo. (If the video doesn’t display, click here).

Inter // States (Tokyo)

This video by Samuel Cockedey isn’t as good as the rest of them on the whole, but if you’re a transport geek like me, you’ll definitely like it (if the video doesn’t display, click here).

New York City

The best of the city videos all seem to be from overseas cities (though interestingly the London and Paris ones were made by Americans). Here are a couple of great New York timelapses, however. First, one from James Ogle (if the video doesn’t display, click here).

And one by Mindrelic called “Manhattan in Motion” (if the video doesn’t display, click here).

A Summer Sped Up (Chicago)

Here’s a reader suggestion that I can’t believe I’ve never seen before since I live in Chicago at present. (If the video doesn’t display for you, click here).

Hope you enjoyed these.

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