The ambassador

Sep 15, 2010 at 12:00 am

Leave it to a writer to let a line like this fall out of his mouth: "In Detroit, you can see the embers of the American dream are still capable of catching fire." 

Sure it verges on romantic, but, hey, this city needs dreamers — and doers — like Toby Barlow. 

Two years after he emigrated from Brooklyn in October 2006 to become creative director of ad agency Team Detroit (think of him as Mad Men's Don Draper — plus a few Midwestern pounds, minus the baggage), Barlow started popping up everywhere. First, of course, there was his critically well-received 2008 novel Sharp Teeth, a story about werewolves trying to find their way in L.A., written in verse. 

Then as Barlow started attending at creative community functions throughout the week, as observer and participant, his byline was being published on Detroit websites (namely Metromode and Model D) as well as national online outfits like The Huffington Post. His most important soapbox, though, is The New York Times, where he contributes op-ed ruminations about Detroit (and broke the now-famous $100 house story). He's become the de facto voice for national media on Detroit's burgeoning creative community.

Every bit an aesthete, Barlow lives in art, one of the Mies Van der Rohe townhouses in Lafayette Park, to be exact. It's there people from across the world come to crash when they're in town investigating the fascinating 21st century epoch that is new Detroit. 

Barlow's an adman, and a successful one at that, but his criticisms and observations about the city of Detroit are changing people's perceptions around the world. Maybe even Detroiters themselves. 

Metro Times: You're an idea guy by trade. What kinds of ideas do you have for Detroit?

Toby Barlow: There's this blue geometric dome off of Vernor Highway that connects Corktown to Mexicantown. I think Jack White's brother owns it or something. Anyway, it's not being used. I think it should be bought for the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD), because they have all these artists who come to town to do artist in residency projects and they end up having to pay for hotel rooms or ask people to put them up. 

MT: Housing in general, but more specifically the challenges concerning what to do with the city's fleet of abandoned houses is as attractive a subject for budding urban planners as it is adventurous artists. What's your take on the housing situation?

Barlow: Detroit held an auction last year for people to buy houses, but they ended up having to turn people away because the city wasn't ready to deal with the number of people who showed up. HUD should be put in charge of Detroit land usage and help figure out what to do with all these vacant properties. Here's an idea: If there are 10 people who wanted to start a neighborhood and there are a number of houses that we can't do anything with, then maybe the best way to figure it out is to find 10 people to buy 10 houses in the same area for $30,000 each. They'd be an anchor for a new neighborhood initiative. We'll find the block, plot it out and put up a sign that reads: "Who wants to colonize Detroit?" People will come and sign up. They'll put up $1,000 down payment on a $30,000 house and commit to two years. 

MT: Though the rate at which people have been exiting the city has been a trendy story, the last couple years have seen stories of people moving to Detroit. That raises the G word: gentrification. 

Barlow: Gentrification is a luxury problem that Detroit is probably 20 years away from. For gentrification to happen, a city needs an equitable balance of rich, middle-class and poor people. Because of a shortage of space, middle-class people move into places where poor people live, and the rich people move into where the middle-class people live, which gives you your Williamsburgs [Brooklyn, N.Y.]. Detroit has no middle class of any substantial size and certainly has no real upper class. I mean, how many people who make more than a million dollars a year actually live in the city? Probably a couple Detroit Tigers who want to live across the street from the ballpark, right? Until you have those proper proportions, we can't have gentrification. 

MT: When you speak of Detroit, you're using the pronoun "we." When did you start to identify with Detroit so personally?

Barlow: I don't think I'm a Detroiter in any way other than in spirit. I can't claim to have roots here, but I have a visceral love for the city. It certainly trumps any other city I've lived in — New York and San Francisco included. Detroit is a place that has a community I can really relate to, and there's a sweet, misfit energy. 

MT: It's interesting to see you play the role of observer and participant. 

Barlow: It helps to have a split personality. I'm fortunate enough to work for an enormous organization coincidentally called Team Detroit. We have a lot of bandwidth, so we're able to bring resources to bear against different projects in the city. Right now we're teaming up with Greening of Detroit, the College for Creative Studies, Tour Detroit, MOCAD and we just completely redesigned the look of WDET. There are all these great institutions in the city that have suffered a little neglect, historically, that we can lean into. Maybe it's not fair to say they've suffered neglect, because there's obviously been a support network, but let's face it: There are an awful lot of people who live north of 10 Mile Road who only come downtown to catch a game or Sesame Street at the Fox. 

MT: Your ad agency, Team Detroit, was also involved in a recent community project, the hanging flower baskets at the Forest Arms apartment building. How is it that an ad agency is concerned with such a local initiative, one that has no motive of selling cars?

Barlow: We're a creative institution, ostensibly, so we want to bring ideas to downtown. We should be able to have creative thoughts that work. We hired Ryan Schirmang to be our community ambassador. That's where the hanging gardens at the Forest Arms apartments came from, the idea of taking something that's commonly considered an eyesore and turning it into something beautiful. Hopefully that's the start of something bigger, but even if it's not, at least something beautiful was made. 

MT: Being an observer on Detroit, coming from the outside, with such a strong reach in the media carries a lot of responsibility. 

Barlow: Coming in from outside, you realize that this is an old town and that there are people you meet who have really been through it. I embrace this city; it's the city of my heart, but I can't compare to the struggles that others have been through — for good and ill. But there are people who have been through the ups and downs of Detroit who get very cynical and even depressed and believe that there's no chance of turning this city around. To the same degree there are people who are invested in this city and have been doing great work in Detroit for several years and you want to make sure you respect that too. 

MT: You haven't lived here four years yet and yours is one of the most sought-after voices on Detroit. What single message do you want to make clear?

Barlow: Well, there are a few strong voices downtown. Interestingly, there are also a lot that live just outside the city. Anyway, at some point you understand how Detroit is perceived, and then you get here and you can start to understand what's really going on here. When you do, you're able to say, "Look, you might come here and see total devastation — I did too — but if you actually look closer you can see both the real artistic spirit and the real entrepreneurial spirit." You can see the embers of the American dream are still capable of catching fire. 

MT: Is it tricky to tell positive stories?

Barlow: Well one thing I have to be careful about is that trying to tell positive stories about a place where the meme is awful can sometimes only underscore the meme. If I write about how much I love to bike in this town because the streets are relatively quiet, the takeaway from that might be: The city's been abandoned. So, it's tricky to narrate things in a way that provides insight and doesn't just reinforce stereotypes. 

MT: Your Huffington Post article on how a billionaire could make a billion dollars by buying buildings in Detroit and moving operations here sounded awfully practical. Can your break that down for us?

Barlow: My biggest ambition economically for Detroit right now is this "offshore/onshore" mantra. That could very well be the key to this city turning around. I mean, if you're running a media-buying company in New York City right now, you're paying a whole bunch of kids like $30,000 — but what's the square-footage rent you're paying for a high rise apartment in Manhattan? You could buy and refurbish the Whitney Building in Detroit for a tenth the cost of what you're paying to rent in Manhattan and hire a bunch of talented young people here for $30,000 to call up Fox and buy a 30-second commercial spot. The economics behind locating your company in the most expensive real estate market in the world just doesn't make sense anymore. There are great opportunities to create successful businesses here. And it doesn't just have to be the automakers doing all of their media buying in Detroit — all the holding companies that own those companies could move all of their media buying here, as well. Just get out of New York and L.A. — they're too expensive. When will they wake up to the cost of those economics? And it's not about recruiting talent, because we have that — we have people who can do the work. A lot of stuff I put out there, like that article, I don't want it to be incendiary or insulting, I want it to be thought through. Just get it out there so people will think about it differently. 

MT: Last year, the Design 99 art space in Hamtramck became an art collective, Public Pool, that you're involved in, right?

Barlow: It's an interesting project. When Mitch [Cope] and Gina [Reichert] from Design 99 opened the space to ideas, there were conversations with different kinds of artists and things, such as Steve Hughes, Mary Trybus, Jim Boyle, Jesse Doan and some others who wanted to create a collective gallery. It's been a fantastic experience so far. You know, it's very affordable when you get that many people together. I think we've done three or four shows so far, my favorite being the Collective Dream show where visual art, poems, dream and analyst interpretations were interwoven. I think building programming off of art shows is going to happen more. But Public Pool is just one piece of what I see as a really interesting art scene in Hamtramck. I think that whole area of Detroit makes for an interesting cornerstone for a new sort of city limits, in and around Mitch, Gina and Jon Brumit's fascinatingly ambitious project. They're chipping away at it, getting it done. There's nothing else like it anywhere.

MT: Where and how did you find your immediate community of friends and allies?

Barlow: Detroit is a small town in a lot of ways; that's one of the nice things about being in a shrinking city. You find yourself sitting next to interesting people in bars and those sorts of things. I was looking for some artwork and someone had mentioned Mitch Cope because of his sense of art and his collection of Detroit photographers. I was told he knew who was doing interesting work currently. I also wanted to know what was going on with MOCAD because they were really just catching their stride when I got to town. Then Luis Croquer started there, and I got to know him. Frankly, having been in a lot of cities and having met a lot of people who work in big, cultural projects, I think that Detroit doesn't know and can't begin to guess what a blessing it is we have Luis. He's found the most perfect level between pragmatist and visionary of any museum official I've ever met. Plus he's fun, nice and sweet, and works well with his board. 

MT: Detroit does feel like a small town sometimes.

Barlow: The cliché of Midwestern kindness works here. I lived in San Franscico, which you might think is a very open, hippie town, but it's a cold town. The fog rolls in and people go into their homes, lock their doors and draw the curtains. It's not friendly. In New York, everyone's out for their own thing. People want to be famous. There's a less subtle version of that in L.A., where you walk into a room and people look up just to see if you're someone or who you might be with. The great thing about Detroit is that there's such a small amount of pretension, attitude, and affectedness. I think we've turned the corner in realizing that maybe if at least we're having more fun than anyone else, we win. 

MT: What would you like to see more of in Detroit?

Barlow: I would encourage artists but also art dealers to come to Detroit. I think, though, you'd see a change in the art scene if that happened. Right now I think that in a good way the art scene is naive and innocent in a way that lends to positivism and productiveness. I think people are more joyful about actually putting pieces together than they are selling them in a gallery show. Because it's a different market, because there's no market, we create a different definition for ourselves. 

MT: Some people are cynical or worse, weary, of the Detroit transplant narrative.

Barlow: This isn't an overplayed narrative; there's no other place this is happening that can trump the trends in Detroit. I mean, there are a few people moving up to the Catskills from New York City, but that's not really the same. The thing that's actually going to be fundamentally exciting in living and working here is not going to be the creative and cool people moving here from San Francisco and New York, but all the cool people from Ohio, Indiana and from their parents' couches in Birmingham. You look at when Detroit was great and was really kicking out culture and there was more of a regional effort: the Jacksons moved from Indiana, Iggy Pop moved from Ann Arbor. We just need to be a strong regional magnet again, to stem losing people to Chicago and New York.

MT: As a transplant yourself, how do you approach this trickling phenomenon? Also, how much should this be on the city's radar?

Barlow: It isn't and it shouldn't be to a degree. It seems the city government has improved to a great degree in the last couple years, and in the last couple years I've found myself an accidental libertarian to a great degree. I believe in positive government and active government, but in this town we have a broken government, so it's up to us to inform our friends and family on what we love here, what opportunity is here, what's going on here and question them on why it is they're paying the kind of money they do to live where they do when they could be living here. 

Travis R. Wright is arts and culture editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]