“Detroit, Just West of Bushwick,” read the first billboard that popped up in Bushwick, Brooklyn, this spring, with a working class scene from one of Diego Rivera’s “Detroit Industry” murals. “Detroit, Be Left Alone,” a second one preached soon after, again in Bushwick. And then a third sign appeared, in two locations in Brooklyn and two in Manhattan — “Detroit: Now Hiring.”
No one quite knew where they were coming from or who had put them up.
But when an unrelated photo popped up on Instagram — “Move to Detroit” spray-painted on a girder of the Brooklyn Bridge — the campaign’s anonymous crusader finally revealed himself.
“I rent billboard spaces where others don’t see value. That is how I saw Detroit on my first visit four years ago,” said Philip Kafka, the 28-year-old man who then put his passion behind the billboards with his SoHo-based company, Prince Media. “I saw great buildings, a deep and rich cultural history, and met amazing people.”
He now owns six buildings in the Motor City, one of which will house his new restaurant, Katoi, across the street from Detroit’s most photographed “ruin porn,” the Michigan Central Station. “I want people to know that in Detroit you can afford to make art, be a chef, buy houses, start a business, do anything if you work hard,” he said.
It is now well-documented that some of Brooklyn’s much-written-about creative class is being driven out of the borough by high prices and low housing stock. Some are going to Los Angeles (or even Queens), but others are migrating to the Midwest, where Detroit’s empty industrial spaces, community-based projects, experimental art scene and innovative design opportunities beckon, despite the city’s continuing challenges.
“Brooklyn lost its whole sense of adventure for me,” said Ben Wolf, 31, a Pratt Institute graduate who, after more than a decade in New York, moved to Detroit almost three years ago to continue creating his site-specific installations and sculptures, made from rotten boards, rusty stairwells and peeling paint, or as he said, “the decadence of abandonment.”