Making Things and Making Place in Detroit

Detroit is renowned as the home of the American automotive industry, which “determined the city’s fate and defined its character” (Hyde 2001: 57). Already a growing industrial city by the early 20th century (Zunz 1982), Detroit was driven by the auto boom from being the nation’s ninth largest city in 1910 to the fourth largest in 1920 (US Bureau of the Census 1998). By the 1950s, the population of Detroit reached almost two million residents (Seelye 2011). Unfortunately, this economic golden era did not last, and subsequent decades saw the closure or relocation of many of the city’s auto-making facilities. By the 2000s, Detroit had less than 10 percent of the manufacturing jobs it had during the post-war period (see Eisinger 2014).

As jobs left the city, so did residents, and today the population of less than 700,000 is spread over 139 square miles, leaving approximately 100,000 residential lots vacant (Gallagher 2012). The city’s difficult racial history also played a significant role in shaping Detroit’s fortunes over the past 100 years, with discrimination and distrust exacerbating the social, political, and economic challenges (Sugrue 2005). These challenges remain, and today more than a third of residents live below the poverty line (US Bureau of Statistics 2017). While recent years have brought some positive economic changes, most notably the redevelopment of the Greater Downtown area, depopulation, poverty, and property abandonment remain serious problems.

Given these ongoing issues, it is not surprising that many Detroiters have a strong desire to see the city reinvent itself. At the same time, it is hard to overstate the ways the automotive industry has shaped Detroit economically, physically, politically, and symbolically. Many Detroiters’ entire lives have been bound up with the industry’s fate, such that the General Motors bankruptcy in 2009 felt like “a death in the family,” according to one local resident (Crommelin 2015: 181). Another local resident explained that the cultural significance of this manufacturing history lingers, despite the city’s challenges:

The reason why we have highways and automobiles and even the middle class, it’s because of the mass-production processes invented and perfected here ... It’s a city with a strong history, a strong identity, and I like being somewhere like that.

(Crommelin 2015: 181)

As this suggests, Detroit is viewed not only as having dominated car manufacturing, but also as having pioneered industrialization and the modern American lifestyle (see also LeDuff 2013). It is not surprising that a city so strongly defined by its industrial heritage has found the transition to a post-industrial economy challenging and contentious. A key debate focuses on whether Detroit should remain a place that makes things, even if those things are not cars.

Once again, this narrative is closely tied to the emergence of the maker movement. A pertinent example is the tagline used for Detroit’s Maker Faire, a “festival of invention, creativity and resourcefulness” showcasing DI Y projects, which proclaimed that Detroit was transitioning “from Motor City to Maker City” (Dawkins 2011: 262). Others are also looking to position small-scale manufacturing as a key to the city’s revival. An example comes from local art director Philip Lauri who connected Detroit’s manufacturing history and its new independent manufacturing scene:

So we need to see the whole slate of change as many things: DI Y, whatever, urban gardening, top down solutions ... But then again, we have a core of more manual, labor-driven sorts of things. We can still have this; we can still nurture our manufacturing growth. 1 mean, the notion of craft manufacturing is on the rise. And suddenly consumer tastes are shifting to value that ... So we have got to factor all that in, and our slate, our economic identity, therefore is made up of many different small pieces.

(Crommelin 2015: 182)

A narrative of Detroit as ‘still making things, just differently’ is also evident in the promotional strategy of a high-profile manufacturing business, Shinola, which began making watches in Detroit in 2011. Using the tagline ‘Where America is Made,’ the company claims it is motivated by an unwillingness “[to] accept that manufacturing is gone from this country.” Instead, it is working toward “the reinvigoration of a storied American brand, and a storied American city. Because we believe in the beauty of industry. The glory of manufacturing. We know there’s not just history in Detroit, there is a future” (Shinola n.d.: website).

This somewhat glorified representation of Shinola’s quest to revitalize American manufacturing — and Detroit, as its spiritual home — is reflected in some press coverage, with headlines like ‘In Bankrupt Detroit, Shinola Puts Its Faith in American Manufacturing’ (Muller 2013) and ‘Inside Shinola, The Detroit Company That’s Building Gadgets Made In The USA (Yes, Really)’ (Taylor 2012).

Some observers are cynical of Shinola’s “loving portraits of workers in its new factory, and its flowery odes to local artisanship” (Caramanica 2013: 2), arguing that its campaigns are about self-promotion more than place-making. But while Shinola’s marketing strategy may be heavy-handed (Woolfe 2016), the company’s rapid expansion indicates there is real brand value in promoting its involvement in Detroit’s artisanal manufacturing renaissance (Hackman 2014). Shinola is not alone in recognizing this, and now finds itself “one of several companies betting on manufacturing in Detroit” (Abbey-Lambertz 2013: 9). Interestingly, Shinola is happy to acknowledge this as one reason it chose the city, explaining how focus groups showed that a Detroit connection would indeed boost the company’s brand value (Lewis 2013).

While this suggests Shinola’s strategy is as much about profit-making as place-making, it nonetheless demonstrates the cultural weight of the idea of Detroit being rebuilt as a city that ‘makes things’ again. But given the new industry’s small scale, and the fact that Shinola’s watches sell for upwards of USDS500, is this really a vision of economic rebirth that rings true for the whole community? Like Newcastle, Detroit continues to grapple with this debate and its implications. The next section examines the potential place consequences in more depth.

How Is Place Being Remade through Maker Culture?

In both Detroit and Newcastle, efforts to link the cities’ industrial heritage with new economic opportunities demonstrate how shared understandings of place can be a powerful cultural anchor amid the turbulence of major transition. As such, it is notable that the idea of becoming a ‘place that makes things again’ has been embraced in other post-industrial cities too (e.g. Pittsburgh,

Pennsylvania; see Vennare n.d.). The significance of such shared understandings is not to be underestimated given the real trauma associated with post-industrial urban transformation (Strangleman et al. 2013).

Of course, it is also clear that there are significant prospects for the maker movement to flourish in these cities, given the availability of affordable factory space, and the pool of skilled manufacturing workers. So, for some residents, new small-scale manufacturing will provide a means of staying in the city they love, and using their existing skills. The concern, however, is that the efforts to remake these cities as ‘places that make things again’ will mask the more complex cultural and economic changes reshaping these places. The revived popularity of artisanal manufacturing arguably captures a disproportionate amount of attention, reflecting the marketing savvy of those involved as much as its broader economic significance.

Furthermore, these place-making efforts are often framed in a way which mirrors efforts in cities worldwide, rather than reflecting the unique qualities of particular places. Indeed, the similarity of the debates in Detroit and Newcastle is itself surprising, given these cities’ substantively different post-industrial trajectories (Crommelin 2015). This suggests that the appeal of making these cities ‘places that make things again’ is as much about global trends as local realities, demonstrating the complex ways place-making today is simultaneously local and global. In this respect, Robertson’s (1995: 31) prescient observation that “contemporary conceptions of locality are largely produced in something like global terms” still rings true.

The idea of becoming a ‘place that makes things again’ also raises another important question: who does this new place really serve? Mass manufacturing supported generations of working-class residents, but the maker movement employs mainly well-educated ‘creative’ workers with internet savvy as well as manual skills. While often underpinned by traditional manufacturing techniques, the maker movement is nonetheless a fundamentally new business model, driven by online commerce and providing largely insecure work. Given these differences, the maker movement is unlikely to provide anything like the job opportunities available during industrial boom times. As one Detroit resident explained, summarizing the negative reactions heard around town: [Some locals say| “Here’s this town. We made shit. Now you’re claiming that artists are coming into the city and they’re going to fix it. But how am 1 going to work behind a computer and design a typeface?” For these reasons, efforts to remake these cities as ‘places that make things again’ risk being perceived as exclusionary by some long-term residents, despite the cultural link to each city’s industrial heritage (Dawkins 2011).


It is not hard to see the maker movement’s appeal for industrial cities grappling to find new shared understandings of place in the wake of post-industrial transformation. And while the movement may well flourish in Detroit and Newcastle, local responses are most telling as indicators of cultural, rather than economic, significance. In practice, the maker movement bears few similarities to the industrial revolution that shaped cities like Detroit and Newcastle in the 20th century — it differs significantly in the people it employs, its impact on the built environment, its economic model, and the products it produces. And yet there is clearly a desire to draw this connection, to maintain some continuity in how these cities are perceived as places as they undergo major transitions. In this way, these cases support the neo-Marxist construction of place as fluid and flexible, and as a phenomenon shaped as much by social, political, and cultural desires as by physical and economic realities.

More importantly, however, local debates over Detroit and Newcastle as ‘places that make things again’ demonstrate the ongoing relevance of place as a conceptual tool for understanding the 21st-century city. Contrary to predictions that globalization would make place obsolete, these cases show that place remains important, and place-making remains complex and contested. In this regard, the argument by Wortham-Galvin (2008: 39) that “place is always a remaking process, never a product” rings true. Place will always be a remaking process, one that is integral to who we are and how we interact with the world, including our cities.


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