Detroit: the rebirth of a techno utopia

Once a symbol of the American dream, Detroit has become a byword for urban decay. But now things are changing. Electronic music legends including Kevin Saunderson, Derrick May and Carl Craig explain how creative young people are colonising the city’s derelict spaces and striving for a better future…

Electronic snare drums crackle like fireworks as night falls on downtown Detroit. The sound reverberates around the skyscrapers on the waterfront of Hart Plaza, where the self-proclaimed techno rebels of Underground Resistance are bringing the first night of the city’s Movement festival to a climax.

Eviscerated by decades of economic decline, Detroit needs all the heroes it can get these days, and the four shadowy figures on the stage are given a mighty ovation: hometown icons in the place where techno was born in the 1980s, and where this annual open-air electronic dance extravaganza has become a cultural beacon.

“This festival is important because it brings a lot of people to Detroit who would not come for any other reason, so it attracts money to the city but it also shows people a different side of Detroit that they would not normally find out about,” explains Canadian DJ and producer Richie Hawtin. “There are all these art exhibits and photo books and films about the ‘ruins of Detroit’, but this is actually a vibrant place with lots of creative people who really believe in the city.”

Along with Derrick May and Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson is one of the “Belleville Three”, a trio of producers who pioneered Detroit techno in the 1980s. He says that the festival represents a “bright spot of positive energy” in a city where the population fell by 25% between 2000 and 2010, leaving more than 84,000 buildings abandoned. “It’s uplifting; it shows why this place, where this music started, is so special, and why it’s not all negative here in Detroit.”

Urban blight has created a surreal landscape in which prosperous enclaves of bourgeois tranquillity nestle up against derelict blocks, where rotting hulks of shuttered factories loom over deserted lots and forlorn stumps of burnt-out homes poke out from unwanted land that is slowly being reclaimed by nature – creating what’s known as “urban prairie”. The city cannot afford to rebuild: a combination of municipal inefficiency (and corruption) and the collapse in tax revenues caused by the falling population led Detroit to declare bankruptcy last year.

Despite or perhaps because of these woes, pride in the city remains strong. Most of Detroit techno’s veterans have chosen to continue living here, even though they make their living playing in clubs across the world.

One such veteran, Carl Craig, suggests the depopulated metropolis now exemplifies the frontier spirit of the American Dream: “Detroit is a prime example of what the propaganda about the US is all about – you have the freedom to do what you want, and to do it on your own terms.”

For many years, techno’s innovators were feted as Afrofuturist visionaries overseas but remained cult figures at home, where rap and rock reigned. That was until two of them, Craig and May, decided that the city needed a showcase for its greatest creative export since Motown and launched the first Detroit electronic music festival (DEMF) in 2000.

“It was intended to make a statement to the community,” says Craig, “because techno was underestimated and underappreciated here. Our attitude was, how come this kind of thing can happen somewhere else, but it can’t happen here?

Now Movement draws tens of thousands to Hart Plaza over Memorial Day holiday weekend each year – teenage ravers in gaudy cyberwear and fluffy moonboots, elaborately bearded hipsters, pumped-up muscle boys and lithe disco girls, greying bohemians and hordes of electronic music obsessives in record-label T-shirts.

The lineup remains ascetically purist compared to most dance festivals in a country currently gripped by the mass-market EDM boom, which has made fortunes for such populist DJs as Afrojack and Avicii. “We honestly feel that we are historical torch-bearers of this music in the place where it was created,” explains Sam Fotias of Paxahau, the festival’s promoters. “It’s imperative that this city continues to be a beacon for this music.”

Techno is no longer a young music: even the local history museum now displays vintage memorabilia celebrating originators including the Belleville Three in its pantheon of Detroit greats, alongside Eminem, the White Stripes and countless Motown legends. (“We are history now!” Saunderson laughs.) Meanwhile, over at the Underground Resistance headquarters, a more intimate museum, open by appointment only, takes a deeper look at how the genre was shaped by the black culture and politics of Detroit, as well as the influences of Kraftwerk and Funkadelic.

But the sheer energy and verve of the younger generation of local DJs playing on the Made in Detroit stage at Movement suggests techno has not yet become a heritage genre atrophied in past glories.

“It’s amazing because there’s so much creativity going on here. There’s this spirit of people making the best that they can with the shit that they’ve got,” suggests T Linder of the Detroit Techno Militia, a 12-strong collective who play what they call “tough music for a tough city”.

Gathered at a downtown coffee bar that they have occupied for an evening to record their weekly internet radio show, the Militia describe their city as a mass social experiment in post-industrial survival.

“We’re told that it’s over, we’re told that Detroit doesn’t have a future – so we’re going to create that future,” declares Militia member, DJ Seoul. “I’m not going anywhere and I’m going to help contribute to the growth of this city.” He quotes Detroit’s motto: “Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus” (“We hope for better things; it will rise from the ashes”).

Indeed, amid the grim images of Detroit’s decay on TV reports – what Hawtin scathingly refers to as “ruin porn” – there has increasingly been talk about some kind of cultural regeneration; of an influx of artists and young creatives attracted by cheap rents, free spaces to experiment and the progressive aura that techno helped to create.

“I think that what we’re going to see over the next years is a rebirth of Detroit very much in the way that Berlin has been reborn,” suggests Hawtin, who now lives in the German capital.

Independent arts projects and urban farming initiatives on abandoned inner-city plots have generated much media interest, although some locals are understandably sceptical about how much of a salvage operation can be implemented by enthusiastic hipsters when the city needs total financial resuscitation.

Derrick May, however, insists that culture must play a role in defining Detroit’s future. “Visitors are coming to see a city that looks like a disaster movie set, but it could become fascinating if young people can get a chance to turn this shit into something new and exciting,” he says. “We’ve had thousands of these settlers moving here. Maybe, just maybe, some will stay and help to form a creative class that will help rebuild the city.”

As the techno-freaks stream out of the festival at midnight, heading for after-parties around the city and filling the downtown streets with life and laughter, it is tempting to hope that guarded optimism is justified; that something can rise from those ashes.

The title of a recent Underground Resistance track posed the stark question: Has God Left This City? But Underground Resistance artist John Collins believes that Detroit can do more than just survive: “Things had to change, and that’s what’s happening: you can feel it, you can see it,” he says. “After Detroit hit rock bottom, the only way was up.”

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