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

10/14/10Follow @wroush

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more understandably practical, and fixing up houses matched that bill perfectly,” says Paffendorf. Since mid-summer, the whole Loveland team has been working on the property’s overhaul. (They’ve put some great photos and videos about the project online.) “The house that burned is being mostly torn down and the grounds are turning into a rotating public arts space,” Paffendorf says. “Every three months there will be a new work. Next door, we’re making a media center. There’s kind of a startup culture going on, where people with small businesses or whatever, who have no clue about how to get themselves online, can get help from programmers and designers.”

To help pay for all that, Loveland has started taking on consulting gigs. This first is a contract to help with fundraising for an independent documentary film called “Lemonade: Detroit.” But this time, instead of selling square inches of land, Loveland will be selling individual video frames in the movie. “Thirty frames a second times 90 minutes is 162,000 frames,” says Paffendorf. “They brought it to us to modify the entertainment fundraising idea so that anybody who buys a frame for a dollar also gets a producer credit on IMDB [the Internet Movie Database]. It’s a way to add some significance to being an investor; it takes the Kickstarter idea up a notch.”

But all of that—Plymouth, Hello World, Imagination Station, the lemonade movie—is just a prelude to what could be come Loveland’s biggest and most important project, which brings together the company’s experience in virtual mapmaking with its concern for urban rehabilitation. It’s called Living in the Map.

Interactive map of Detroit's Corktown districtWhat Detroit really needs, Paffendorf says, is fine-grained “digital social map” that could aid in Mayor Dave Bing’s program to “resize” the city. By some accounts, two thirds of the land in Detroit is unoccupied, which means services such as police and fire protection and water and sewer maintenance are stretched needlessly over a vast area. Bing is running for reelection this November in part on a platform of mothballing the abandoned areas in the form of land banks and concentrating city services in the remaining healthy pockets. The problem, says Paffendorf, is that “they’re drawing up a master plan for how to intelligently deal with this Swiss-cheese environment, and they’re trying to do it with no maps.”

Or, rather, they’re doing it with outdated paper maps and drawings that lack information about the legal disposition of each parcel. To manage the process of land consolidation, the city needs an interactive, Internet-based, parcel-by-parcel map that’s open to everyone, Paffendorf says. “We started realizing that if we could get the real-life data, we could use the same social map system we have [for Plymouth and Hello World] and apply it to the whole city,” Paffendorf says. “You could mouse over every parcel and see who owns it; if it’s the city, if it’s private, if it’s vacant, if it’s for sale, then you could click on it and comment on it. Block by block, people in the city could have a conversation about the things they want to see.” Using information contributed by Data Driven Detroit, a project of several local foundations to track neighborhood-level social, economic, and environmental indicators, Loveland has already built a demonstration map for Corktown, the historic district where Tiger Stadium once stood.

Clearly, Detroit needs the ideas and the sweat that Paffendorf and his merry band are pouring into their adopted home. But whether Loveland has a future as a real business is an open question. “It hasn’t worked out that well for us on the money side yet,” Paffendorf acknowledges. “We’re not doing so well month to month; we haven’t hit that viral point yet where we can’t stop selling inches.”

Gradually, though, Paffendorf thinks things are changing in Detroit–and that the Internet will help to accelerate the city’s rebirth.

“Four years ago, we didn’t live in a Facebook world, but now we do,” he says. “So it becomes very easy to share all of these updates and strategies and stories. It becomes easy for the first explorers who would have stayed out of a [blighted] area to take pictures and for five guys to come after him, and that has an effect on transparency and city government. All of those things are going on at once. It’s definitely having an impact on Detroit, and I think that people are settling into a healthier conversation about what the future of Detroit is going to be.”

Meanwhile, the inch-by-inch real estate sales will continue. “Honestly, the response that we have gotten to the Internet project is ‘More please,’” Paffendorf says. “That comes from the city itself, but also in surprising ways from the people who live in the neighborhood where we built. We are doing the fundraising to buy kids art supplies, and when they see what we’re doing, it frees up their thinking. They say, ‘You’re building a little city right here?’ It’s a laugh—and that’s great.”

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

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