The Hardest Steel Comes From the Hottest Fire

“The world is but a canvas to the imagination.”  — Henry David Thoreau

Something truly magical is happening in the City of Detroit. And very few know about it.

A quick perusal of my biography will tell you that I am a Detroit native and supporter (some would say apologist- you can take your pick). So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I often see “gold on them there streets” despite a constant barrage of headlines about a state government takeover of city operations, a plunging population and a crime rate that, although improving, still hovers ominously over the city and its inhabitants.

Some of the magic was on display last Friday when I had the pleasure of attending the Revitalization & Business Conference hosted by students from the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business and Model D. The day’s agenda consisted of about thirty Detroit based speakers, the lion’s share of whom I was already familiar with including several I count as personal friends. It wasn’t a line-up from which I expected to glean new inspiration since I had previously heard much of the content in classrooms, restaurants, and pubs around town. Boy was I wrong.


“Life is trying things to see if they work.” – Ray Bradbury

What I witnessed was, forgive me, nothing less than magical. I heard stories from a former Madison Avenue marketer who came to Detroit a few years back a skeptic and is now one

Toby Barlow: Marketer, Author, Dreamer, Detroiter

of its biggest champions. I listened to a young female newbie in town who began selling Asian noodle recipes off of her porch and is now hooked up with a commercial kitchen space and is leading a sustainable food movement that marries Detroit’s growing urban agricultural trade to local restaurants and chefs. I heard from an entrepreneur who originally opened a storefront in the city then began a volunteer project to help others start businesses and currently works as the publisher of Detroit’s leading on-line publication. And I listened to a ground breaking social entrepreneur from Georgia, by way of Tennessee, talk of how his choice to create a new talent retention and attraction center in Detroit above anywhere else because “here, you don’t have to wait in line to make a difference.”

Creativity, we are reminded, is truly a curious thing.

These are only four examples of what I heard at the conference and what you can see every day in Detroit.  If you like micro development and creative industries, check out Ponyride. If you want to be inspired by a talented young man making a difference in the lives of

En Garde Founder Bobby Smith

urban youth, En Garde Detroit is a special story. If unique financing of urban real estate ventures is your thing, you can witness a public-private partnership that included 22 separate lending agencies to close an important redevelopment effort in the city core.

You see, in Detroit everything is harder. But thankfully, it turns out, so are her people.


“F@*# self-doubt. I despise it. I hold it in contempt, along with the hell-spawned ooze-pit of Resistance from which it crawled. I will NEVER back off. I will NEVER give the work anything less than 100%. If I go down in flames, so be it. I’ll be back.” -Steven Pressfield

Some people balk at Detroit’s description as an “open city” or as the Wild, Wild West of domestic urbanism. Those who have hung tough in the city the past several decades feel that these budding brands that focus almost exclusively on ‘new’ energy are a slight to their own perseverance. I understand and respect that point of view, but there can be no doubt that Detroit’s emerging homegrown version of itself as an urban, creative capitol is good for everyone in the city and by extension everyone in Michigan. Because the traditional systems and structures in Detroit are often so damaged, it is necessary to be creative in addressing the most common of problems and the most monumental of tasks. Creativity is often spawned from darkness, and Detroit has seen its share.

How creative is the place, you ask?

How about the story of a recent graduate of a local design college who couldn’t ignore the homelessness she saw around her and resolved to do something to combat its effects on the areas least advantaged. She spent months walking in their shoes and decided that her greatest contribution to improving lives would be to create adaptable garments for them to wear. Despite not knowing how to sew and experiencing some early flubs in prototypes, she now has produced and distributed nearly 300 of her revolutionary products to the homeless that are warm, waterproof and transforms easily from carrying bag to winter coat to sleeping bag. They’re amazing and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if her new product will have massive commercial appeal, too, if she chooses to take it in that direction. She now employs several formerly homeless people she met along the way in her growing business.


“To draw, you must close your eyes and sing.” — Pablo Picasso

“A rock pile ceases to be a rock pile the moment a single man contemplates it, bearing within him the image of a cathedral.” — Antoine de Saint- Exupéry

Sometimes it takes an outsider to see what others do not. Tony Goldman is an extraordinary real estate developer who counts among his accomplishments his leading roles in reimagining SoHo in New York City and the Art Deco District of Miami Beach. He is a visionary. He is a businessman. And he is passionate about the places where he works. At the conference we all watched as he choked up on stage, overcome by his desire to play a part in the city’s turnaround. He talked about what Detroit and many cities like it meant to the country during the industrial era. He blushed about the amazing creative energy he sees in its people. And he shared his own dreams of taking broken buildings and emptied neighborhoods and instilling a new future in them similar to what was accomplished in his other successes. The areas of the city that he spoke of are places that many suburbanites won’t even visit, but his ability to see these places for what they will become trumps the obvious challenges that their current landscapes illustrate. Mark my words he and Dan Gilbert (who spoke to the group the previous evening) will play revolutionary roles in the 21st Century version of Detroit.


“Creativity is thinking up new things. Innovation is doing new things.” — Theodore Levitt

I wouldn’t trade Sue Mosey for any practicing urbanist in America.  She runs Midtown Detroit, Inc., which has spearheaded over $2 Billion in investment in the area in recent

Sue Mosey

years and is pushing for far greater measures in the coming decade. Her real value is in identifying assets, thinking creatively about how to position them, and then never (ever) wavering in making the vision a reality. Sue has lots of partners throughout the city, too. Architects work differently in Detroit than in other cities because they must. So do planners, developers, and financiers (remember that 22 member deal?). As a result, there is something unique in the outcomes, something pure, something dramatically Detroit.

Working on public policy issues in Michigan can be tough. Working on them in Detroit can be downright exhausting. Sometimes it is hard to see through the clouds. I would like to thank a group of business school students for holding a conference that reacquainted me with the city and reminding me that the magic of the place lies in the souls of its incredible people.

Sperimus Meliora; Resurget Cineribus*

We hope for better things; it shall rise from the ashes  

Motto of the City of Detroit*

  • Thanks for reading. Missed the comment earlier.

  • J Dartt

    I’d love for you to also be on Google+. It’s such a growing network to not be on.

    I too, am from Detroit with a strong sense of loyalty. Unfortunately, employment has taken me to Cincinnati, so I root for my teams and my town from afar, hoping to come back home.

    I love hearing these types of stories. I always try to see the positive in the city. Great work!

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  • David Waymire

    Great stuff, Dan. Thanks for the in-depth reporting.