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Retooling the Motor City: Can Detroit save itself?

A retooling plan for Detroit – involving controversial razing, shrinking, and repurposing – is under way as the Motor City tries to save itself.

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A new influx of artists to Detroit has created "the most fertile art community in America," says Mr. Nawara, who operates his studio out of a rented turn-of-the-century mansion in Woodbridge, near downtown. He says he wants to help reestablish Detroit's identity as a world-class music incubator, just like it was during the heyday of Motown.

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"I see such strength here. The automotive industry left everyone jobless. So the attitude now is 'let's do something we can do on our own.' And I think music and art is a part of that," he says.

Entrepreneurs can be found popping up in pockets throughout Detroit due to affordable rent, ample space, and a growing community of hungry young business and creative types who see the city's downturn as an opportunity to take risks they couldn't afford in other large metropolitan areas.

For it to succeed, Detroit needs to rebrand itself as a place that nurtures creativity, says Eric Ryan, a native who relocated to San Francisco several years ago to launch Method Products, a start-up company that specializes in boutique cleaning products. Speaking to a conference on entrepreneurship held in Detroit in March, Mr. Ryan said he believes Detroit is now at a point where it can feed off its unique energy as an underdog to spark invention.

"Weird changes the world, and Detroit could see a little more of weird in terms of creative ideas," he said.

Entrepreneurship is generating growth in some neighborhoods close to downtown. In Nawara's Woodbridge, the total population grew 13 percent in 2009 compared with that in 2000. Similarly, the population of Near East Riverfront, where Kelli Kavanaugh opened a bicycle shop in 2008, grew 13 percent during the same period.

Ms. Kavanaugh says she and her business partner chose to open Wheelhouse Detroit along the Detroit River because they saw more businesses thriving in the area where ample green space was attracting people interested in recreational activities. One sign she was right: In 2007, 600 people signed up for the first year of the Tour de Troit, the city's largest annual bike ride. By 2010, participation tallied 3,200.

Still, she and her partner are holding onto their full-time jobs until they're certain the business is here to stay.

"Owning a business in Detroit is something you have to really want to do," she says. One advantage, she says, is "the strong sense of community" among the people who choose to sink roots in the city. "People here are willing to go the extra mile for someone with an initiative that they are supportive of. In some ways, there's a little bit of a small-town feel, which is really nice," she says.

Evidence of that small-town environment is the escalation of urban farms in Detroit that are repurposing empty lots.


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