The “Disney-Sized Imaginations” at Loveland Are Out to Reverse Detroit’s Decay with Digital Maps

10/14/10Follow @wroush

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Wello Horld (“Hello World” with the initials reversed), a social networking startup that aimed to bring the avatar concept from virtual worlds like Second Life and World of Warcraft to the open Web.

“We got excited about taking forms in cyberspace and applying that to the Internet in general, so that on Facebook or other pages you could see your friends were with you virtually,” he says. “That arc led us from Brooklyn to San Francisco and into the Silicon Valley rabbit hole. The culture was just not a good fit for our team and the creative sensibilities that I and a lot of my friends have. In the end, the investors replaced us with people from MySpace and Yahoo.” The company eventually imploded, and none of the work Paffendorf and the other founders had done ever saw the light of day.

That led to a period of soul searching—and location searching. “We all have Disney-sized imaginations, and building stuff is our passion, but we were thinking about how to do it differently,” Paffendorf says. “And I forget how it came to my attention, but I started reading about Detroit, and I did the standard WTF that happens when you pick up on Detroit after not looking at it for a while. You say, ‘Wait, what? 50 percent functional illiteracy? 40 percent vacancy? Half of the population has left? Homes cost $50? I started to get this spider sense that this formerly great, amazing, dirty, crazy city would be a great place to work and help put things online.”

Paffendorf, Carter, and a few people they’d met in San Francisco—including Larry Sheradon, now Loveland’s lead developer and chief technology officer—decided that the Motor City could be a stage for some ideas they were having about virtual worlds, virtual goods, micropayments, and actual real estate. They found a studio in a Detroit artists’ mecca and former auto factory called the Russell Industrial Center, laid out a 10,000-square-inch-grid on the floor, and started pre-selling square-inch parcels on Kickstarter, a fundraising site for indie projects.

Virtual map of Hello World microhoodThe proceeds allowed them to buy an actual lot, at 8887 East Vernor Highway. To help new “inchvestors” visualize what they’d purchased, Paffendorf and Sheradon built their own “entertainment fundraising” system that was part progress bar, part virtual map. “As money came in through PayPal, their payments were represented in these beautiful, rainbow-colored blocks that were also interactive objects leading to their personal profiles,” Paffendorf explains. “But what we were almost accidentally building was a social network for space, for geography itself.”

As a supplement to the virtual map, Loveland team member Alan Languirand also built a streaming webcam that looked down on the East Vernor lot, so that owners could see their actual inch-square properties. The camera was stowed in a birdhouse and powered by a solar panel at the top of a 21-foot metal pole. Unfortunately, the arrangement was short-lived. “On the first day, somebody chopped it down and stole the solar panel,” says Paffendorf.

For the second microhood, Hello World, the Loveland team decided to try something different. It’s putting half of the money from inchvestors into community grants. One is a giant outdoor sculpture of a cat, designed to help revitalize the area around a key pedestrian overpass. Other grants have gone to a project to rehabilitate Spaulding Court, a row of Corktown townhouses that have deteriorated into crime havens; a series of online documentaries called “Detroit Lives!”; the Georgia Street Community Collective garden; and a community art gallery called the Yes Farm. So if you’re buying land in Hello World, “You can do it because you want the inches, or because you want to buy art supplies for kids,” says Paffendorf.

Just as Loveland was putting Hello World together, a call came from Jeff DeBruyn, a community organizer and president of the Corktown Residents’ Council, asking whether the group wanted to help transform a pair of houses at 2230 and 2236 14th Street, across the park from what Paffendorf calls “Detroit’s most iconic empty building”—the old Michigan Central terminal. “It’s one of those buildings that has gone over the line from dilapidated to Roman ruin status,” he jokes. “It’s beautiful.”

One of the two houses burned last winter, and the other was vacant; they were available for $500 apiece. “We wanted to get involved in something that was … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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