Detroit: Arsenal of Creativity

Detroit: Arsenal of Creativity

Jenny Lee With Detroit’s auto industry in decline, activists argue for a media-based economy to change the city’s fortunes.


This article was originally published at WireTap magazine.

Jenny Lee

With Detroit’s auto industry in decline, activists argue for a media-based economy to change the city’s fortunes. Detroit: Arsenal of Creativity

Jenny Lee

February 9, 2009

“Michigan will be the next film capital of the world,” Clint Eastwood said in a recent interview following the release of his new film Gran Torino, shot in Detroit. The state’s generous tax incentives for film production have spurred a boost in jobs in a year that’s seen declines in nearly every other industry. While it’s exciting to see the rise of film-based enterprise in Michigan, we can’t rely on it, or any single industry to fill the enormous hole left by the decline of the auto industry. Amid the current crisis we have an opportunity to fill the gap in our region’s economy with diverse local initiatives, including community-based media, which thrives off the city’s creative past and present.

Allied Media Projects (AMP) is the local host of the annual Allied Media Conference in Detroit, which attracts North America’s most creative and skilled media makers and social justice organizers. Launched in 2002, AMP relocated to Detroit in 2007 because of the vibrant media-based activism here. Though we’re a small nonprofit, we bring jobs and visitors’ dollars to the city.

Through the conference, AMP has fostered conversations about community media potentially transforming Detroit and other “dying cities” throughout the world. Folks in Detroit–or anywhere that requires a hustle to survive– know that creativity is an abundant and renewable resource. We can build on that. Here are some key steps we can take to use community media to rebuild Detroit’s economy for the 21st century.

Build Community-Owned Broadband and Wireless Infrastructure

Ensuring that every household in Detroit has access to affordable, high-speed Internet has the potential to transform everything from education to public safety. Every year, the Allied Media Conference showcases new forms of collaborative learning through the Internet–from environmental justice Google maps to digital storytelling exchanges between youth of color in the U.S. and youth in Palestine. These kinds of projects utilize the Internet to expand students’ belief in what’s possible.

Community-wide access to the Internet also expands our ability to distribute life-saving information during an emergency. Having access to local news and information online is now critical in Detroit as our local newspaper conglomerate, the Detroit News/Free Press will be cutting their home delivery service to three days a week. We need broadband and wireless infrastructure to ensure the most vulnerable populations in the city are not further marginalized. We also need creative minds dedicated to inventing the technologies that will utilize the Internet and the wireless spectrum to advance public safety and our human right to communication.

President Obama has promised to build broadband infrastructure and increase the speeds of existing cables. Detroit needs to maximize the benefits of federal grants and subsidies. Policy changes at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) could make it easier for neighbors to share Internet connections wirelessly the way Wireless Ypsi, a community collective dedicated to bridging the digital divide, has done in other parts of Michigan. The collective has built a free wireless network for much of the city of Ypsilanti, by partnering businesses with community organizations and individuals. We should support FCC changes that would make it easier to apply the Wireless Ypsi model in Detroit.

Community broadband and wireless infrastructure will benefit small, independent businesses. More people in Detroit are starting their own small companies–from web design to handmade beauty products to urban agriculture. Through the Internet, these businesses gain access to free and open source software, e-commerce platforms, web 2.0 communication tools and a global market, making it easier for businesses to be successful with relatively low overhead.

The actual construction of the Internet–laying fiber optic cables and building wireless mesh networks–will also create jobs. To maximize the long-term benefit of broadband infrastructure on our local economy, we have to prioritize community ownership of that infrastructure so the knowledge and jobs stay local. Relying on Comcast or Verizon to build our communication networks means profits and decision-making power will stay concentrated in those companies’ hands. Community and municipal ownership is the way to go.

Cultivate The Local Music Economy

Hundreds of independent recording studios exist in basements across the city. Young people are recording their own music, pressing their own mixtapes and selling songs online. With increased access to high-speed Internet and the proliferation of free and open source software, young artists are breaking down barriers to the music industry.

Detroit produces some of the best music in the world, with groups like Slum Village, Invincible, Underground Resistance, and many others, receiving global recognition. Historically, the city has also spawned legends, such as J Dilla and Aretha Franklin, who have changed the shape of hip-hop and soul music. The challenge facing Detroit is to not just be a launching pad, but to become a place where artists can stay and thrive.

Seattle is confronting that challenge with its “Seattle City of Music” campaign, which puts municipal funds into the local music economy. The money supports everything from music venue construction to free outdoor festivals, music education and record labels. It’s important that music-based development models be rooted in, and accountable to, the existing music community.

Local musician unions such as San Antonio’s Local 782 help ensure that local media economics are accountable to local artists. According to their mission statement, Local 782, exists to “bring awareness, support, and innovation to San Antonio’s music community.” They do this by strategically “uniting musicians to create opportunity by organizing, educating, and performing.” As Detroit celebrates the Motown Records 50th anniversary this year, we should be honoring its legacy by exploring models like these at the grassroots and governmental level.

Teach Media-Arts and Community Economics

Barry Gordy started Motown Records with an $800 loan from his family. It went on to become the largest independent record label in the world before it was sold to MCA in 1988. But today in Detroit, the city with the highest high school drop-out rate in the country, the easiest way for a young person to develop their entrepreneurial skills is by selling drugs. That’s the conclusion reached by the Detroit Summer Live Arts Media Project, a youth media organization that has been conducting research into the city’s drop-out crisis and proposing solutions. The study also found that schools don’t teach students realistic, independent strategies for turning their dreams into realities. Instead, young, talented artists hold onto the unrealistic dream of getting signed to a major record label.

Detroit should look at models such as the High School for Recording Arts for lessons on how to integrate media arts and independent economics into the standard curriculum. With schools in Los Angeles, Minneapolis and New York, HSRA is designed to retain youth who might otherwise drop out of school. Classes include graphic design, social justice, and music theory. The HSRA offers workshops in conflict resolution through hip-hop writing. They use popular media such as film and music to teach English, algebra, and world history. A one-to-one student-computer ratio allows for more individualized learning, while classes in how to run a record label foster collaborative learning and cooperative economics.

We should also be providing advanced training for adults through community media centers. These community media centers could be located within public libraries, schools and recreation centers, bringing new vitality to institutions that are struggling to keep their doors open.

We need local residents with skills in video and audio production in order to fully leverage the state’s film industry tax credits. It’s cheaper for film productions to hire local residents–if they have the required skills – and that keeps more of the money in the local economy. With these skills and access to equipment, people can do more than work on Hollywood productions.

For example, with help from the tax incentive program, local filmmaker Rola Nashef is expanding her award-winning short film about Detroit’s Arab American community, Detroit Unleaded, into a feature-length film. Local residents can make their own movies, telling local stories and sparking new images of Detroit.

Support Allied Media Projects

A media-based economy is the right solution for Detroit because we need more than jobs and a tax-base to revive our city. We also need the imagination, communication, and collaboration that come from people creating and sharing their own media. We need the innovative solutions that organizations like the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality, Detroit Summer, Centro Abrero and the City of Hope Network, among many others, are developing.


As we communicate and evolve those solutions with people in other places, facing similar problems, we develop an economy of ideas and strategies. This alternative economy grows through the Allied Media Conference.

We invite you to join us in Detroit for the 11th annual AMC, July 16-19, 2009, as we gather to explore the theme “We Are Ready Now: Media and creativity to transform our selves and our world.” Later this year, AMP will be opening a community media center to foster local media-making and resource-sharing year-round. Together, we can build a media-based economy for Detroit.

For more information email: info AT alliedmediaconference DOT org

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