A bold vision to “reinvent the American dream” in Detroit

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Philip Lauri wants to re-imagine the city of Detroit. He is the founder and director of Detroit Lives! a social brand dedicated to launching projects and ideas that will strengthen Detroit as a community and city.

Detroit Lives! has captured the attention of media ranging from Monocle to Time. And no wonder: Detroit Lives! constantly finds bold and imaginative ways to create a positive vibe about Detroit. For example, Philip and a peer once snuck into the abandoned (and iconic) Michigan Central Depot train station, arranged scrap metal to etch the message Detroit Lives! in the snowy ground where the main hall used to be, and then sold prints of the resulting image — an iconic portrayal of the city’s past and potential future trajectory.

Detroit Lives! is a creative multimedia effort. In addition to guerilla art, Detroit Lives! sponsors community goodwill projects, sells merchandise displaying its ubiquitous Detroit Lives! branding message, creates films, and generates editorial content on its blog – just like a multi-channel brand.

Philip, a Detroit native, founded Detroit Lives! after returning to Detroit in 2008. I interviewed him recently to better understand Detroit Lives! and how he’s improving public perception of the city. This is his story.

What’s the mission of Detroit Lives! in one sentence?

The mission of Detroit Lives! is to re-imagine Detroit.

We seek to help create a new and more positive image of Detroit. We manifest ourselves just as any brand does — like Nike, for example.

Nike makes basketball shoes, hockey sticks, skate decks, short films, clothing — you name it. Detroit Lives! does something similar, just on behalf of a city. We make T-shirts, posters, and paper goods that we sell in retail outlets – products that carry positive messages about Detroit. We make films that relate the message of possibility from the mysterious underbelly of Detroit.

We paint murals to make people smile. And we have a blog to create engaging dialog about Detroit.

We aim to create collisions of culture in the city, essentially bringing together Detroit residents in ways they might not have expected in order to envision a new future for the city.

What’s an example of creating a collision of culture?

Right now, we’re working to create a basketball tournament that will be played on historically significant parks throughout the city with teams represented by different neighborhoods from various areas of Detroit.

We’d use the universal language of sports to celebrate Detroit’s heritage to create collisions that normally would not have happened. We are going to introduce people from different neighborhoods – people who otherwise might not have met each other.

In Detroit, it does not matter if you are black, white, green, or something in between: everyone loves sports. A basketball tournament is a way to bring people together.  Sean Mann has already shown the power of this with the soccer league he started.

Why did you create Detroit Lives!?

It was my shoot-from-the-hip reaction to having people’s jaws drop to the floor whenever I told them I was moving to Detroit in 2008.

I grew up in Detroit, moved away, and in 2008 found myself in a position to return to the city after I was laid off. I was free as a bird and could have moved anywhere I wanted. My best friend’s mother was terminally ill, and I decided to move back to Detroit to help my friend handle that situation.

Philip Lauri

People were confused when they learned I was moving back to Detroit It seemed criminal to me so many people had a wrong idea about the city. I saw an opportunity for young people to breathe life into the place and to create a more fruitful environment.

Detroit has its problems. But those problems and cracks in the system are revealing opportunity.

Where did the name Detroit Lives! come from?

The concept of Detroit Lives! came about even before I moved back home. I’ve got a notebook where I sketch ideas all the time. One day the phrase Detroit Lives popped into my head, and I just wrote it in my notebook without really doing anything about it. The idea took hold as an action later on.

You say Detroit has its problems but also an opportunity. What kind of opportunity?

Detroit has the opportunity to reinvent the American dream.

In a lot of ways, Detroit is the epic failure of the American dream. We have lost half our population. Our economy is in shambles. The pain of the city is visible.

The American value system has eroded. As a country, we have destroyed our sense of community. Well, a lot of cities don’t need to confront that erosion. They have their own industries that support the people. They don’t have to make hard decisions about how to rebuild community. They don’t have to reinvent themselves.

In Detroit, we have to confront our problems because we don’t have shining facades to hide them. Because our problems are so painfully visible to everyone, we are forced to confront them with solutions.  And in Detroit, where resources are scarce as it is, oftentimes those solutions are new and exciting because it’s the nature of how we create.  In doing so, in creating these new ideas, we can actually rewrite the rulebook for what a strong and vibrant American city should be — from the ground up. It’s up to the city and its people to decide how we treat that opportunity

I personally believe Detroit can rise from the ashes and create something entirely new.

How is Detroit Lives! helping to reinvent the American dream in Detroit?

By doing small things that become enormous beacons for hope

Here’s an example: Someone who owns a bunch of houses in the Woodbridge neighborhood (where I live) commissioned us to paint a mural in a dingy alley near my house as part of a larger project we were doing in the city.  The message for this particular mural was to read: “Wake up start dreaming.” As we painted this mural, a neighbor watched what we were doing and was so inspired by the message that he organized 30 people to clean up the alley.

The story illustrates what Detroit Lives! is trying to do: be a part of systemic change, one step at a time. I want people to believe something better is possible. I hope people saw the alley being cleaned up and were inspired to do something positive in their own neighborhoods, or saw the mural and thought, “That mural made me smile.”

It’s also exciting to see our message spread in other ways via non-traditional forms of “product placement.”  Recently, the band Flogging Molly wore one of our Detroit Lives! T-shirts on television. Seeing a successful band on national television wearing one of your T-shirts with a positive message about Detroit is cool because suddenly your message has a national audience.  All of this came from a very small isolated action — the creation of a T-shirt.  But that small action becomes part of such a larger process and beacon of hope.  The multiplier effect of that is fascinating. I hope Detroit Lives! spreads a socially driven message to achieve results in a place you don’t expect.

I’m impressed by how many imaginative ideas come from Detroit Lives!, like the way you performed a bit of guerilla art in the Michigan Central Depot. How do you find fresh ideas?

I find ideas by just living in the city and experiencing random stuff that comes to me. It’s very hard to describe.

I am formally trained in business and creative marketing, but I have an artistic sensibility that was passed on from my grandpa. I’m always thinking product, marketing, and branding but through an artistic lense. The coming together of those elements creates a hybrid effort known as Detroit Lives!.

The idea for the guerilla art exhibit came on a cold February day after a snow. A friend and I went into the abandoned Michigan Central Depot the train station and were just walking around.

I don’t even remember how the moment happened: we just started carving the words Detroit Lives! in the snow and gathered scrap metal and a camera and started taking a picture.

We did not go into the train station with the idea of creating guerilla art. It just naturally happened because we were exploring the train station.

I can’t even tell you how many people have bought prints of the art we created in that train station.

In a city like Detroit, you are forced to confront things that inspire creativity. When there is blatant racism and political problems in your face every day, it makes you think: how can we do things differently? How can we make things better? How can we make people more invested in the community? These are things I’m always thinking about because these problems are all around. It’s about having a solutions-oriented mindset.

Earlier you cited Detroit Lives! as a brand. What words come to mind when you consider the city of Detroit itself as a brand?

Raw. Resilient. Strong. Capable. And cultural. It’s such a cultural city. We are lucky we don’t have to work on creating a culture. It just bleeds out of us.

What kind of culture?

A creative culture. We can do anything because we have to — and with very little resources. Musically, artistically, design wise – a creative culture just oozes from us.  Even beyond the traditional creative sector, too.  The auto industry in its mechanical beauty was such a creative solution to manufacturing.  That creative culture we have is therefore very dynamic.

What misconceptions do people have about Detroit?

Everyone says Detroit is dangerous, which it certainly can be in some parts. But all cities have dangerous areas, and Detroit is really a vibrant, fun place to live. It has rich, cultural traditions that people can be part of. It’s a city of secrets. There is so much to discover in Detroit. People come here with low expectations and then they are surprised.

Examples consist of places like D’Mongo’s Speakeasy or the Dabl’s African Bead Gallery, which has beads from African tribal villages that are hundreds of years old. And the museum is fashioned out of a striking building that’s covered with glass. You walk into this studio and you cannot even fathom how this building has been covered with shards of glass. It’s just crazy.

Belle Isle is another example. We have one of the largest islands within the city limits of any American city, designed by Frederick Olmsted, the same person who designed Central Park – a magnificent place.

Let’s fast-forward 10 years. How do you think Detroit will evolve?

I think in a lot of ways, 10 years from now, Detroit is not going to be a revolutionized place. It will still have a struggling education system and unemployment will probably still be nipping at our heels. The population will be denser. Neighborhoods like Brightmoor will be more vibrant and developed [editor’s note: Brightmoor is a notorious impoverished and troubled neighborhood]. We’ll see more collisions of culture among different neighborhoods.

People will be happier. Those of us who live here now will see our work start to pay off.

In 10 years, Detroit will stand for sustainable growth. Detroit will stand for Progress. People will look at Detroit and say, “Holy shit –they might be doing it.”

Detroit will stand for progress more than anything.

What’s the most rewarding aspect of being part of Detroit Lives!? What’s the hardest part?

The hardest part is just keeping the dream alive. It’s easy to get in a rut when things happen on your block that are really terrible: people getting beat up or mugged. You question how hard you want to fight for this place when things like that happen. Sometimes it is tough to be motivated in a place that’s so raw. Detroit is not for everyone.

That said, hands-down, the most rewarding part is being part of something new and innovative. And Detroit Lives! is something new. We are creating commercial activity out of socially driven projects and ideals. We are commoditizing goodness. When we create products out of goodness, I’ve done my job.

The pursuit to commoditize goodness is a fascinating journey.

What is the future of Detroit Lives!?

I’m exploring the notion of having a media consultancy work with others to tell their story, for instance weave their branding into the city of Detroit. One of the organizations I’m working with is the Detroit Creative Corridor Center. They said they liked what we have done with our brand and asked us how we could help them tell their story of developing Detroit’s creative sector.

I’d like to develop a spinoff company or part of Detroit Lives! that takes on more multi-media development to help other entities. This would help Detroit Lives! develop stronger revenue streams that help us to develop more creative, socially driven projects — events and activities to deconstruct the notions of separation we create.

As we continue to come up with interesting ways to do that, I think Detroit Lives! can be a part of something that contributes to some part of a revolution of the human spirit.

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