Berlin nightlife impresario and self-described space explorer Hegemann believes in the power of buildings to foment change. He plans to turn parts of the 3.5 million- square-foot Packard Plant into a creative village.
Crunch, crunch, crunch. Amid broken glass, charred wood and rebar, Dimitri Hegemann walks across the snow-covered tomb to American industrial might. The years have been kind to Hegemann, the maven of Berlin nightlife, his white hair receding but still framing a large head that has never stopped conjuring up visions.
His most successful idea became Tresor, the international temple to techno music and a beacon of Berlin’s post-Wall resurgence. Now he’s here to give back to the city that gave the world techno and Hegemann his inspiration.
“Can’t you imagine a recording studio there?” he asks, pointing to the upper floors of a gutted seven-story building on Detroit’s east side. This is building 10 of the Packard Plant, once famous for paving the way to modern automobile production, now world-famous as a symbol of a great city’s decline.
“I find these ruins, they have so much power,” he continues, barely above a whisper. Hegemann has a love for empty space that borders on the religious and thrives in the chaos that creates them.
Before it was fashionable city-planning philosophy, he knew that creativity could inject life into a city. He saw it in Berlin, and now he sees it again in Detroit. “Can you imagine building something and you don’t fix everything?” he says. “You leave it a ruin, like the Acropolis.” Then he’s off again, the snow crunching underfoot, his hands and arms painting pictures that exist only in his mind.
Detroit is only a year removed from bankruptcy, and some say a year or two away from becoming the next Brooklyn.
As Hegemann sketches plans in the winter air, locals worry over the two potential paths that lie ahead for their beloved city: gentrification that benefits the few or a comeback that never materializes. They battle an outside narrative that either celebrates Detroit as the next cool-kid playground or warns visitors not to stay out past nightfall.
Art college graduates Jon Dones and Ash Nowak started their monthly club night eight years ago. It’s become a place where local officials and creatives meet on the dance floor.
“The reality is that it’s a very complicated place to live in,” says Ash Nowak, a Detroit native. “But it is really special and specific.”
Nowak and her partner, Jon Dones, fall into the optimistic camp of local creatives. Their monthly “Haute to Death” parties at the Temple Bar, just around the corner from the neo-Gothic Masonic Temple, attract everyone from local techno legends to members of the mayor’s cabinet.
There are people on Temple’s dance floor who are trying to make the city better, Dones says, “but when you are in these pursuits, shit gets f*cked up all the time. Detroit isn’t necessarily an easy place to live. For a lot of reasons, it’s wildly inconvenient. But it’s also wildly satisfying. When you all get together in a room and share that sort of spirit and, together, you get that release—that’s it.”
Blocks away, past several empty lots, a new row of houses and a storefront mosque, Joshua Guerin chain-smokes Parliaments in the back office of a former barbershop turned Detroit institution.
The hatted, high-energy Guerin has been throwing electronic music nights here at TV Lounge since 2008 and has seen the electronic music scene balloon and spread to underground venues in abandoned union halls and tire factories.
“There’s a lot of new blood, a lot of new energy,” he says. “I attribute that to Detroit being f*cking awesome. New people coming through just get sucked into it. They want to do the same thing I did. They want to make it better.”
Under strings of vintage lightbulbs crisscrossing the darkened main room at TV Lounge, a swirl of dancers underscore Guerin’s exuberance.
In its earliest, late-1980s incarnation, techno—a Detroit variation on Chicago house music that included funk and a number of other influences—was the soundtrack of parties that drew awkward suburban kids and working-class locals alike.
Nowadays, the city embraces its pioneering role in electronic music the same way it takes pride in its Motown legacy. This May, the Movement Electronic Music Festival, will bring tens of thousands of fans to Detroit, as it has since 2000.
Kevin Reynolds fell for techno after attending his first party 20 years ago. He’s since become a talented composer and performed in front of crowds at home and abroad.
“Motor City is gone,” Reynold says while standing in the club’s outdoor area following his TV Lounge set. “We don’t manufacture that many vehicles here anymore. We love to dream about it, but our industry in Detroit, right now, is music. We have a strong talent pool.”
In 2008, when basic city services were underfunded and the police took an hour to respond to emergencies, Reynolds bought a house. He could’ve gone to Berlin to build his career. In fact, his mother told him he should.
But he thought, “I just bought this house.” Within a few months of moving in, his home was burglarized several times.
“Now people from Williamsburg and Berlin are moving here,” he says. “I welcome people to come—instantly. Please move here. Shit, we need you. There’s plenty of room!”
The call goes out but people are already arriving, and the city’s land barons have already made their move. TV Lounge sits in a zone that Little Caesars Pizza founder Mike Ilitch wants to turn into an entertainment quarter. The steel skeleton of his first piece—a new hockey arena for the Detroit Red Wings—is already rising.
Ilitch’s project will connect with the rejuvenated downtown, which has experienced a population boom thanks to Dan Gilbert, founder of Quicken Loans. Gilbert bought up major buildings and subsidizes employees who want to live downtown. When the city couldn’t provide, Gilbert kept the lights on.
A believer in the political power of techno in bringing people together, Collins serves as a conduit between Berlin and Detroit. He poses in Submerge, the officially unofficial store of the Underground Resistance record label.
Musicians and artists who toiled away during the dark years warily monitor the infusion of better-off 20somethings. Their presence and money helps support the restaurants and after-hours spots that have made Detroit so attractive. But a balance must be struck.
“Young people moving in, that’s good,” says John Collins, a DJ and community activist. “Starting companies? That’s good, too. But you can’t forget the people who were here.”
Amid all of these tensions floats Hegemann’s dream. He wants city officials to see the value in creating a nightlife economy with a curfew-free zone, and he wants investors to allow artists to set up shop in empty buildings. The lessons from Berlin are clear: Embrace the night and the rebirth can begin.
“It’s clubbing, but it’s also philosophizing, staring at the stars,” he says, his voice trailing. “It’s beautiful, the night, you know? You cancel the curfew and people will come.”