Detroit's Imagination Station. Photo by Adrian MacDonald.

The Imagination Station. Photo: Adrian MacDonald.

For role models, you could do worse than Jerry Paffendorf. Here’s a guy with a Masters of Science in Studies of the Future.

“I’m one of these people that’s like an artist and a technologist, mixed. I don’t know exactly what I am,” he told a crowd at the NXNE Interactive festival in Toronto last June. “I like to make things that are very interesting, and when I can, I like to make things that are very useful. And I find myself spending a lot of time hopping back and forth.” His presentation was called Living in the Map: Adventures in Making Detroit a User-Friendly City.

I must not be as hip as I think I am because it’s only in the last year or so I got the urge to visit Detroit. I think it was an article in some magazine or other saying how much opportunity was there for the intrepid urban homesteader. Massively declining real estate values had made it a city of limitless possibilities—a crumbling, end-of-civilization ruin that, depending on your point of view, could either be a social nightmare or a wild mixing pot of ideas freed from the restraints of sensible economics. In a city where all real estate value has been reduced to an average of zero, we can all be billionaire investors in the futuristic new ventures of our choosing.

The opportunity to visit aligned nicely. My friend and I were attending NXNE Interactive, and Detroit was an easy stop on the way back to Seattle. I’d done some reading recently about digital manufacturing technology — CNC routers, 3D printers, prefab structures and the like. For a new twist on the whole “ruin porn” photography trend, I thought, how about a photo essay on anarchist digital fabrication laboratories in the city once famous for inventing modern manufacturing process? We’d capture the opposite of decay.

The first “FAB Lab” on my list was Incite Focus, represented by a mysterious-looking black webpage decorated with cryptic occult symbols. Associated loosely with the MIT Center for Bits and Atoms, its physical location turned out to be buried deep inside the halls of a remedial charter school for delinquent youth. Blair Evans, the MIT-educated head of the school, received us reluctantly. He set our heads spinning by casually tossing off a litany of research interests involving an urban permaculture school for pregnant teens, building community solar energy plants, breaking down physical structures to their atomic components and refabricating them. Then he got rid of us and wouldn’t return emails. We were not allowed to take pictures of the CNC router.

So we got drunk, went shopping, took pictures of empty lots and graffiti. The narrative of Detroit as a city-wide hipster revolution of do-it-yourself urban revitalization is everywhere, down to the gift shops, trash-recycling sculpture parks, multiple start-up business journals. The most photographed structure in Detroit is the empty, decrepit ruins of the central train station, an 18-story monolith that sums up the whole story of decay for outside journalists. Across a wide plaza is a bustling crowd and an hour-long wait at Slow’s Barbeque, the most recommended restaurant in the city, widely seen by locals as the cornerstone of the citizen rebuilding effort. Across from both is Jerry Paffendorf’s Imagination Station.

The Imagination Station comprises two townhouses, burnt out, barely standing, plus an adjacent plot of open land, all of which Paffendorf and co. are turning into a community space for art and technology ventures. The long-term plan is to build a four-story greenhouse over the entire property, enclosing both houses and perhaps an adjacent condemned hotel in an urban terrarium. The idea would work, he says, because the city has no zoning restrictions on the height of a greenhouse. And once the houses are inside, they become art objects rather than residences, no longer subject to city governance.

Michigan Central Station. Photo: Adrian MacDonald

Michigan Central Station. Photo: Adrian MacDonald

But this is a side project — Paffendorf is a restless guy, a billionaire of ideas. In three years of living in Detroit, he’s started, by my possibly incomplete account, 16 speculative website projects, four Tumblr blogs and two additional community-driven open spaces through his “inchvesting” scheme. A master of online crowd sourcing from the venture- capital startup trenches of Brooklyn, he came to Detroit and bought two vacant lots for $500 each, then started selling off $1 square-inch parcels on Kickstarter. The properties could be visualized in an interactive mapping system that resembled a virtual reality game with community forums and payment plugins, like Farmville on Facebook but with real land.

There is something scarily hilarious about playing footsie with Detroit’s epic social issues, but on the other hand, the stakes are low and the field wide open. Detroit has 100,000 vacant parcels of land, about two- thirds of the city, and the county auctions off about 13,000 foreclosed properties every year. Of those, about half go unsold. You can’t really say the market is valuing the unsold ones at zero, because there’s often a good reason why they didn’t get bought. Between the taxes and the prohibitive expense of reha- bilitation, if a so-called friend gives you a free piece of property in Detroit, they might be saddling you with a million-dollar liability.

Even so, Paffendorf’s map visualization tools keep growing — last year, his new web- site was WhyDontWeOwnThis.com, in which he and his programmer buddies scaled up the “inchernet” with public data on all the properties in the city – a first in Detroit – and offered themselves as a public resource to people trying to navigate the byzantine property-buying process. In 2012, his biggest project has been NoPropertyLeftBehind.com, a concept to crowd-source a pool of a few million dollars, use it to buy up all the unwanted property in the city at auction and then connect it to the right people through an intuitive shopping- enabled mapping platform geared to favor local neighborhood block associations. If they don’t sell, they just get foreclosed on again and the cycle starts over.

So who knows, maybe Jerry Paffendorf will be the next mayor of Detroit. Maybe he’ll put the entire government online and run it hyper-democratically at a fraction of the cost, converting the city’s land mass into fluidly transferable pixels and model virtual futures with high-resolution community input. This story is still just threads of conversation. In Toronto, the Canadian government sponsors innovation incubator programs for art and technology projects, places like the CFC Media Lab, and works to connect people with opportunities for pursuing their ideas. In Detroit – maybe it’s an American thing – you have to do it yourself and find your team of intrepid intellectuals online.

We tried hard to get another audience with Evans, staked him out at his Blanche Kelso Bruce Academy, waited for an hour and a half as the startlingly friendly school employees, all black, assured us he knew we were there and he was coming. The vacancy numbers in Detroit suggest a moonscape ripe for the plundering — but in a way, the blank spaces hide invisible communities. The city is 85% black, one of the largest black majorities in the country. A whole dimension of urban reality is routinely overlooked by the media, generally to focus on the spaces available to white folks. Paffendorf’s best insight is to move the conversation past cliches.

The school staff went on with their day as we diddled with our phones and cameras in an empty conference room, read some second- hand information off the web and bitched about how misinformed it was, never once venturing out to chat with any of the staff smiling at us about this privately run school for delinquent kids, about life in Detroit, about urban farms and cohesive neighborhoods and limitless real estate opportunities and whatever the hell is the “Incite Focus” lab ...

“Stupid, stupid white people,” I thought when we got home. “Journalism fail,” said a friend. We will be back.