This is the fourth in an occasional series examining the recession's impact on culture, The Recessionary Arts. Find out more about the series here.
It's difficult for Detroit-based Jerry Paffendorf to describe everything he does in a few sentences. At any given time he can be a web designer, a real estate mogul, a crowd-funder, an artist for the social networking age -- sometimes all at once. But his modern outlook and unbridled enthusiasm are indicative of the growing number of young people entering a blighted metropolis deeply affected by the recession.
Though the long-haired, bespectacled Paffendorf has quickly entrenched himself in Detroit's culture, he hasn't been in the city for long. After spending some time as an artist in Portland, Ore., Paffendorf got his "Masters of Science in Studies of the Future" from the University of Houston-Clear Lake in Texas and went on to work for startup websites in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Brooklyn before making the move to Detroit a few years ago.
Since then, he and his organization, Loveland Technologies, have dug into a number of creative projects which seek to, as he puts it, "take the journey from being interesting to being important." But that distinction -- interesting versus important -- has been difficult to discern in Detroit, a city that finds itself mired in seemingly endless economic shambles, while at the same time playing host to an influx of young people moving in ("I can buy a house or a plot of land for 20 bucks and do whatever I want with it? Sign me up!") who are forming a budding community of artists, musicians, tech entrepreneurs and farmers in the city.
And there's plenty of room for them. In the past 10 years at least 237,500 people -- 25 percent of the entire population -- have left the city, leaving about 70,000 vacated buildings in their wake. Detroit's mayor, Dave Bing, plans to demolish at least 10,000 of those by the end of his first term.
On some streets only one or two houses are being lived in: a few lights amid the surrounding grey. Multiple books in the past few years have compiled photographs of the decay -- even inspiring a subgenre that some are calling "ruin porn."
A recent piece in GQ by Detroit native Howie Kahn followed a demolition team as they made their rounds, knocking out decaying homes in struggling neighborhoods. "There are no conservation groups or historical preservationists attempting to save these blocks," Kahn wrote. "The loudest answers thus far have come from artists and farmers who have moved to the city, those well-meaning ecocrats and conceptualists whose beliefs are rooted in the transformative power of installation art and organic kale."
But Paffendorf wants to save those blocks and make art at once. He wants it both ways: to become a part of this new community while also subverting it; changing the way the city does business, finding owners for many of these decrepit properties and making "exciting stuff," as he says, with a "dash of awesome sauce."
And there is a whole lot of exciting stuff on his plate. Some recent projects include Micro Real Estate, which sells square inches of land to anyone for a dollar. He hoped to create "a real life version" of an online community, a living version of the popular Facebook game Farmville.
"Our mantra was: 'how big can you make an inch?' We wanted to creative an interactive map of the city that you can actually utilize," Paffendorf says. "Where you see these little grids, you see who owns things; tell a story about what you wanted to do with your land and make it happen."
By selling individual, shapable plots of land, the goal was to build a colony in a public space. There wasn't really a master plan beyond that. For a while, he says, he was known as "that crazy 'inch' guy running around."
Though the project has sold thousands of inches -- to artists, companies, organizations, and other individuals -- nothing has really come of the space just yet. One inch contained a solar-powered web camera, but that got shot down the day after they installed it, Paffendorf says. Another arts group out of Brooklyn put up a "10-foot-tall LED post," in Paffendorf's words, but that was removed as well.
So what was the point?
"I want to make things creative and interactive," Paffendorf says. "I'm not a huge fan of art that just calls itself art and sits in a spot. But sometimes the best way to put things in context is to call it 'art,' which is a catch basin for things that don't make practical sense. I guess I got a little more of the Duchamp vein in me."
To date, his most expansive project has been the Why Don't We Own This Campaign, which took the Micro Real Estate project and made it very, very macro.
For this campaign Paffendorf and Loveland Technologies created an easy-to-navigate website that makes it easy for a user to access available properties -- via a browser-friendly grid -- through the 2011 Wayne County Foreclosure Auction. With the help of this website, 5,815 properties were auctioned off between September and October of this year, for a total of $20,580,806 in sales, according to Why Don't We Own This, making this one of the largest real estate auctions in U.S. history.
Indeed, Paffendorf's tactics have spurred both appreciation and slaps in the face from locals and the city-at-large. University of Michigan architecture and urban planning professor Andrew Herscher, who is publishing a book called the "Unreal Estate Guide to Detroit" this spring, says that the issue with facilitating large auctions is that even though Paffendorf is making them more user-friendly, they're still mostly unregulated, drawing just as many speculators and large investors as potential homeowners.
"The [auction] sort of relies upon the idea that all these right-minded people are going to do the right thing, and I really wonder if that assumption is viable," he says. "Is the presence of this auction really going to change anything?"
Paffendorf, for his part, hopes to do whatever he can to make sure that development of these properties moves forward in either a functional -- or artistic -- capacity, though sometimes he admits to simply throwing ideas out there and seeing what happens.
"You try things and some work, some don't, you retreat back into your shell a little bit, and then you try again," he says. "I try to just listen to people, go to neighborhood meetings. Social permission goes a long way. You'll get smacked if you don't make friends, don't put in some time to get people's stories."
Paffendorf speaks hyperbolically, and his plans are peppered with pop culture references -- the micro real estate campaign is similar to "the end of Ghostbusters," because the good guys were "taking the form of the destructor," and also "sort of like Dungeons and Dragons" as in -- you become "the dungeon master" of your own domain.
He's also one of the principal minds behind the "Detroit Needs a Statue of RoboCop" Kickstarter campaign, borne out of a random tweet-suggestion, which raised a whopping $67,436 to build an actual statue of Robocop somewhere in the city. The project drew a firestorm of attention; some complained that a statue of Robocop wasn't the most optimistic symbol for the struggling region. For Paffendorf, that wasn't really the point. The point was: get people involved. Make something.
"Thousands of people got into this thing," he says. "For me it was a clinical interest in harnessing the energy. And this one really worked."
The statue's construction process continues with its proposed location on the Wayne State University Campus, and you can follow its progress over at the Roboblog -- though the last post was all the way back in June -- and you can even score a personalized Robo-badge to thank you for your donation.
His ultimate goal is to make the entire city interactive and create an app that's sort of a "geiger counter for land ownership," where you press a button and it "tells you who owns the land you're standing on." You can see a version of the master plan over at Living in the Map, another one of his projects. Paffendorf believes that this is the next step in finding owners for all these plots of land, though he says many city officials have been hesitant to cooperate.
"There needs to be a simple, elegant way to apply for property," he says. "For any kind of use -- a potential homeowner, an artist, a little park. The city needs to open it up so we can all have a conversation about it."
Conversations and action, lots of big ideas versus the actual time and effort to carry them out in a cohesive way. Paffendorf seems to embody the Occupy Wall Street spirit of the generation. But will these projects ultimately make a tangible difference, or is it a much longer road ahead?
"I don't know what will come of some of these things," he says. "I'm just doing my best to continue to lose money while making things that people like."
Flickr photo by James Grimmelmann.