Detroit's Gleaming Start-Up Tower

More

The Motor City is for hardcore entrepreneurs.

dvp_611.jpg

flickr/gilgamesh

Where I live in the Bay Area, there's a certain glamour to Detroit. It's the heart of what Bruce Sterling termed "dark euphoria." "Dark Euphoria is what the twenty-teens feels like," Sterling said. "Things are just falling apart, you can't believe the possibilities, it's like anything is possible, but you never realized you're going to have to dread it so much."

Detroit is the place where Bay Area types imagine an urban tabula rasa, a place where enough has gone away that the problems of stuffing millions of people into a small region can be reimagined, redesigned, remade.

So, when we arrived in Detroit, I was excited to see what was actually happening on the ground, to see what was there outside the square frames of Instagram.

Rebuilding the Rust Belt. 
See full coverage

Anywhere you go in Michigan, people tell you about the Madison Building. Down by the Tigers' new stadium and the Detroit Opera House, extremely successful local businessman Dan Gilbert bought and rehabbed a gorgeous old building. The roof is so nice and fancy that you can rent it out for a wedding reception and relax in chairs that cost more than many houses in the metro area.

But the real attraction of the building, for us, was that it's the home of Detroit Venture Partners, the startup hub of the area. DVP is run by Josh Linkner, a Detroit native who founded and eventually sold ePrize, an online promotions platform. It's on the same floor as the formerly futuristic Detroit People Mover, a monorail which loops endlessly around the still mostly deserted downtown.

Linkner's office space contains his own portfolio companies as well as those of Bizdom, an accelerator that's also funded by Dan Gilbert. There's no doubt about it, as Linkner put it, "We're the dominant early stage tech VC in this region."

panolong.jpg

DVP is a traditional venture firm in the sense that they invest in digital-only companies that are trying to make something big out of what a few kids in a room can build. An old friend of mine from college, Jay Gierak, is one of them. HIs company Stik is like an Angie's List for lawyers, realtors, and other professional services. He and his cofounder Nathan Labenz recently moved their company from the Bay to Detroit, where Gierak grew up, and received $2.5 million from DVP. In press coverage of the funding, the company's move to Motown got more attention than the money did.

People want to be excited for Detroit. They want Clint Eastwood and Eminem to be right. They want grit to count for something in today's economy. Linkner, for his part, is sure that it does. "I'll put a Detroit entrepreneur up against anyone from the coasts and I think we'd kick their ass," he tell us. He quotes the Chrysler commercial, "The hottest fire makes the strongest steel." 

It's easy, conceptually, to get excited about all of this. You almost get giddy looking out at all the old buildings of downtown Detroit and imagining that you could buy one for the same amount as a nice house goes for in Noe Valley, let alone Atherton. 

But, at least for me, that vision requires thousands of other people committed to building the same kind of city. People like Linker and Gilbert or Gierak and Labenz are here, but what about the other few thousand that are needed to make the city feel vibrant? Not to detour into a ruin-porny segment about the state of the city, but the number of abandoned buildings in Detroit -- and the feeling they toss into the air -- is truly unfathomable to someone raised on the west coast.

Linkner, who is a self-proclaimed booster for his city, admits that the lack of density is a--if not the--problem. 

"Things tend to be spread out," he said. "Something on one block and something else four blocks later. We don't have a place you can stroll around for 8 square blocks."

But he also argued Detroit needs to tell its own story in "a better and more cohesive" way. And that I'm not so sure about. For me, the narrative of Detroit has outstripped at least what I could see of Detroit. Good things are clearly happening, but the lack of connective tissue is a bigger problem than you might imagine. Between downtown and an area like Corktown, which has an excellent coffee shop, the oft-applauded Slow's BBQ, Honor + Folly*, and a couple other bars, there's just nothing. When we left Slow's on a Thursday night at 9pm to drive the couple miles to our hotel, we got about halfway when I looked in my rearview mirror and realized that there wasn't a single other car behind us, nor approaching. There were no bikes or pedestrians, either. 

If I was filled with dark euphoria, I might say that this is a fascinating thing: this is a design problem that can be fixed! Put in inflatable architecture between the cool stuff. More bike lanes! Create lighting and safety corridors. Plant trees. Hell, put in the world's longest water slide during the summer. Something, anything, that might end up connecting this place to itself. 

But I do not know that I have that sense of euphoria. The story requires a fairy tale ending. And the reality is so daunting. I can practically hear Linkner reading this and saying, "He's soft. He's not made for Detroit." And that's probably true. 

* Correction: I initially misremembered the name of Honor and Folly as 'Arbor and Folly,' which would probably be more of a central Michigan thing. 

Jump to comments
Presented by

Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

The Death of Film: After Hollywood Goes Digital, What Happens to Movies?

You'll never hear the whirring sound of a projector again.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

The Death of Film

You'll never hear the whirring sound of a projector again.

Video

How to Hunt With Poison Darts

A Borneo hunter explains one of his tribe's oldest customs: the art of the blowpipe

Video

A Delightful, Pixar-Inspired Cartoon

An action figure and his reluctant sidekick trek across a kitchen in search of treasure.

Video

I Am an Undocumented Immigrant

"I look like a typical young American."

Video

Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion

Writers

Up
Down

More in Technology

Just In