Re-Making Detroit: How Jeff Sturges and a Merry Band of Makers Are Building a New City - Literally

Behind the Research

8.18.10 | In September 2009, the editors of Time, Fortune, Money and Sports Illustrated came up with a novel idea to tell the complex and evolving story of an American city’s decline. They bought a house in Detroit and set-up an impromptu bureau to produce a year-long series of reports and videos they called Assignment Detroit.

In an introductory essay, Time editor-in-chief John Huey explained why one of the world’s biggest media companies came to own a $90,000 house in one of the country’s hardest-hit urban centers: “Not all that long ago, Detroit was one of the richest places in the country, the citadel of the auto age, the ‘arsenal of democracy,’ the nexus of technology and innovation. Today it struggles for its life: not one national chain operates a grocery store in the entire 138-sq.-mi. city limits of Detroit. The estimated functional illiteracy rate in the city limits hovers near 50%. The unsolved-murder rate is about 70%, and unemployment is around an astonishing 29%.”

Jeff Sturges knew these and other dire facts well. Sturges left New York for Detroit the same month the media moved in. Far from being deterred by the city’s statistics, though, he was inspired.

Sturges, a 33-year-old veteran of the MIT-backed South Bronx GreenFab and NYCResistor, a group that boasts, “We learn, share and make things,” saw a chance to make something incredible in his new hometown: a difference.

“Given its rich history of manufacturing and making, and its current circumstances being in dire straits economically, I thought, What could really help Detroit?”

Photo by Garrett MacLean.

The answer, in part, is the Mt. Elliott Makerspace (MEM), a soon-to-open community center and workshop where Sturges and others will teach young people and adults about the joys of making—everything from carpentry and wiring electronics, to crafting and knitting. MEM is funded by the Kresge Foundation, a national philanthropic group founded in Detroit.

Over the weekend of July 31-Aug. 1, Sturges and over 20,000 other people interested in sharing their projects and skills participated in a Maker Faire in Dearborn, Mich. Sponsored by the five-year-old quarterly magazine MAKE, Maker Faires are held annually in various U.S. cities and in the U.K. This was the first large Midwest gathering. 

Sturges sees making as a natural tool for educators. “Making and experimenting is something we beat out of kids after a while,” he said.

Pointing to programs at places like San Francisco’s Exploratorium and Parts and Crafts, a series of workshops in New York City and Boston, Sturges insists that the key to instilling a love of making, as well as learning, is to engage students early and often and to encourage them to become maker-teachers themselves.

“As we get old, we lose that confidence and inclination to want to make things,” he said.

But inspiration can be contagious. “When parents are present and observe the educational experience their kids are having, they tend to help out. You can see that the parents want to get engaged more.”

Dale Dougherty, editor and publisher of MAKE, recently profiled Sturges and was impressed with his work. 

“Jeff is really on the ground trying to make things happen,” Dougherty said in an interview. “I think he’s just dropped into the community and said, ‘What can I do here? Where can I set up physical spaces and engage kids in making things?’ He’s making pretty good progress.”

Dougherty went on to explain the natural connection between education and making.

“We have a lot of teachers coming to Maker Faire,” he said. “The big thing that teachers see is that kids are engaged. They sit down and want to do stuff, moving from being directed to learn to being self-directed… They’re able to explore in a much more open-ended way.”

“All the distractions disappear when you work on something you care about,” Dougherty added. “It’s not like we’re feeding castor oil to kids. They want this.”

Photo by Garrett MacLean.

And to those who think kids will always choose computers over soldering irons, Dougherty notes that projects such as launching your own rocket are still pretty irresistible. Families don’t need a garage or special tools to get involved, however; ”Making can be cooking. It can be craft. It can be lots of things. You can be doing it and not be aware you’re doing it.”

While makers emphasize real world craft, they don’t eschew digital tools. Bre Pettis, a collaborator of Sturges from his days at NYCResistor, has become something a mascot to the maker’s movement. He uses his website, videos and blog to promote all sorts of projects, including MakerBot, a 3-D printer Pettis developed that allows users to render objects designed on their computers.

It would be hard to come up with a better metaphor for the overlap of makers’ forays into the digital and physical than a device capable of “printing” virtual designs into actual objects.

As Sturges explains, the digital and the physical can—and should—co-exist, especially in an educational setting.

“Maker culture isn’t just about cutting through material. It’s about programming and interface. Someone who’s a video game designer is just as much a maker as a furniture maker,” said Sturges. “I think we should continue to focus on video games as a learning tool but bring in craft, too. It’s important that we’re not being too specific in our disciplines.”

Mixing and recombining disciplines comes naturally to Sturges. He earned his master’s degree in architecture from Michigan’s Cranbrook Academy of Art, a school he described as “very interdisciplinary, with a craft and theoretical base.”

“It’s always strange when [schools] want to cut out arts and music when they should be intertwined with engineering and sciences,” he said. “I think the richest education experiences are multi-sensory. If we just sit down and talk to kids, I think it works for some people, but I don’t think it works for all people.”

The slogan of Detroit Maker Faire was “Motor City to Maker City,” a deft reminder of a city shaped by the legacy of one of America’s best known inventors and where, until recent years, generations of makers literally built the engines of America’s economic growth. But rather than working on an assembly line, makers are self-directing their innovations and embracing a spirit of cooperation.

“We’re big on sharing information,” Sturges said. Whereas automakers might have hoarded their knowledge for competitive reasons, makers see sharing as essential: “We’re constantly and frequently standing on each others’ shoulders instead of remaking the wheel. We’re not making the same mistakes twice. This has incredibly positive implications for Detroit.”

Dougherty also emphasizes Detroit’s maker history—and its future. In this blog post, he discusses the origins of the slogan “Motor City to Maker City”—first suggested by Diana Rhoten, co-founder of Startl—and how to change Detroit’s narrative.

“There’s a capacity for making things here,” Dougherty said. “What excited me about being here in Detroit, there were people already doing things and if we can connect them so they realize they’re part of something bigger, that’s a start.”

“My goal really is to network people together, to let them see what each other is doing,” he added. “We don’t have to know where it’s going. Let’s just open the doors, let ‘em come in and see what people are doing.”

“I have to believe,” he said, “that there is a new Detroit that makes things differently.”

Top photo by Bre Pettis.

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