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

10/14/10Follow @wroush

It would be easy to dismiss Jerry Paffendorf and his friends as a bunch of art-nerd carpetbaggers from San Francisco who see Detroit as the latest canvas for their airy-fairy ideas about virtual communities and social entrepreneurship.

In fact, that’s how some locals reacted when reports surfaced in The Detroit News last year that Paffendorf had bought an abandoned lot on the city’s east side for $500, renamed it Plymouth, and announced plans to resell it, one square inch at a time, on the Internet. “People brought up stuff like, ‘Who does this hipster f*ggot think he is, moving in from San Francisco with stupid Internet ideas,’ or ‘It’s illegal to represent that you are offering land for sale if it’s not real,’” Paffendorf says. “And there was some skepticism that I would want to stay in the city.”

For the record, Paffendorf isn’t gay. His girlfriend, Mary Lorene Carter, is the community engagement director for Loveland, the company Paffendorf set up to pursue a range of creative projects, including Plymouth and another developing “microhood” called Hello World. And now that Paffendorf has been in Detroit for a year and a half, people have stopped asking him when he’s leaving.

LovelandBut getting an accurate fix on Loveland is still a bit difficult: the project would be an unusual addition to any city, let alone Detroit. It’s part artists’ collective, part consulting firm, part neogeography experiment, and part non-profit foundation. It started out with the previously mentioned real-estate microtransactions experiment—the group sold 10,000 square inches of Plymouth to a total of 588 “inchvestors,” each of whom can log on to the Loveland website and see where their parcel is located. Lately, though, the company’s efforts have gotten a lot more hands-on. This summer Loveland and a group of community organizers bought a pair of abandoned houses near the old Michigan Central Railroad station in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood and are rehabilitating the property, with the aim of turning it into a public art exhibition space, digital media center, and small-business incubator.

They’re calling it Imagination Station. But don’t be fooled by the name. You don’t have to stay long in Detroit, Paffendorf says, to realize that the city needs more than imaginative ideas—it needs action.

Jerry Paffendorf“With the deep troubles this city has, you can’t just do a happy dance,” says Paffendorf. “[Loveland] started out as this really apolitical, creative act; selfish isn’t the word, but there was the joy of being the author of it and having it be really playful and not worrying about where it goes, but just making something cool. But the more we work on things, the more we get approached by people who say, ‘What you guys are doing is so fantastic—have you considered partnering with these guys? Or applying this not to inches on an empty lot but to sustainable farms? Could you break a $10,000 house into 10,000 shares and put a family back inside it and feel social ownership? When those kinds of opportunities come around, you start to feel obliged to work in those directions. Then it becomes less of a cool idea and more something that’s needed.”

Part of Paffendorf’s hunger to make a difference stems from the failure of his previous entrepreneurial venture. The 28-year-old, six-foot-five entrepreneur, who’s been called a “Shaggy lookalike” (unfairly), has always been happiest when sliding back and forth between the real world and various virtual ones. I first met him about four years ago, when I was working on a story about Second Life and he had just left a job as “resident futurist” at virtual-worlds builder Electric Sheep Company. His next gig, with a group of fellow programmers and designers in Brooklyn, was 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 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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