David Hoppe

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:: New York’s Midwest awakening

by David Hoppe

Might New York’s art scene finally be on the verge of a Midwestern awakening?

Last Sunday’s New York Times featured a story, “Last Stop on the L Train: Detroit,” about the exodus of New York creatives — well, actually, make that Brooklyn — from the city that never sleeps to a city that, as far as many outsiders were concerned, slept with the fishes.

The NYT has published several stories like this in recent months. All of them document how the sky-high salaries of the financial services class are driving up prices for everybody else, making what used to be America’s creative capital unaffordable for creative people.

One such person, Philip Kafka, the owner of a company called Prince Media, is quoted, in the latest NYT piece: “You can find your purpose in Detroit, which is nearly impossible to do these days in New York.”

These New Yorkers are drawn to Detroit’s rock bottom real estate prices. But then, it appears, something deeper takes hold. As Ben Wolf, an installation artist who has been in Detroit for the past three years, says: “Initially I was attracted to the freedom of space and materials I found here…But what has surprised me is how Detroit has allowed me to mature…I came here thinking I might help save Detroit, and instead it has saved me.”

Detroit, of course, happens to be the Midwest’s most extreme urban destination, which probably helps to account for the way it has managed to penetrate the cultural provincialism endemic to New Yorkers, whose interest in the rest of America has tended to evaporate, like water in a shallow pan, west of the Hudson River.

But those of us who have chosen to make our roots in other parts of the Midwest know the experiences recounted in this latest NYT piece are well worn and true.

Take, for example, where I am living now: Michigan City, Indiana. This is an old town, where, for years, manufacturing was king. Back in the day, it was said, people in Appalachia who needed work would get on Highway 421 and drive until the road ran out, here, at Lake Michigan’s southern shore. The town boomed through the 1960’s.

Then the economy changed. One manufacturing plant after another bit the dust; the few that remained were automated.

It’s taken 30 years and a generational shift for people here to come to grips with the idea that the old jobs aren’t coming back. But the town’s in the midst of a rebirth. The low cost of living and proximity to the lake — as well as the fact we’re a train ride away from Chicago — are drawing creative entrepreneurs. Minneapolis-based Artspace is rehabbing a vintage downtown office building as a live/work hive; galleries and boutiques are taking hold and, always a harbinger, new restaurants are popping up like mushrooms.

Just as in Detroit, young creatives are finding a kind of soul in Michigan City — a unique character born of hard work, Midwestern community, and the timeless character of the Indiana Dunes.

As another Midwesterner, Kurt Vonnegut, liked to say, “If this isn’t nice, what is?”