Could a new club from the Tresor cofounder help revitalize Detroit's nightlife? Max Pearl heads there to find out.
The chit-chat quieted as they sat down at a circle of fold-up tables. The guest of honor introduced himself, even though everybody already knew who he was. "I'm Dimitri Hegemann," he said. "I'm from Berlin, and I'm a big fan of the city of Detroit. I'm here to ask some questions." This was the fifth meeting of the Detroit-Berlin Connection, a coalition that "brings together creative individuals and communities in the two cities with the goal of driving cultural and economic growth in Detroit." While the group is drawn from all walks of life, there is one local tradition in particular that tends to dominate the discussion: techno.
Hegemann opened Tresor, arguably techno's most historically important nightclub, in a former bank vault in East Berlin in 1991. It relocated ten years ago to an old power plant in Mitte, the scale of which can't really be grasped unless you see it in person. He also founded Tresor's record label, which has remained one of techno's most respected platforms for nearly three decades. Tresor owes much of its fame and distinction to Detroit artists, and in the same sense, so does Berlin's techno scene as a whole. The arrival of Midwestern dance music in Germany in the late '80s and early '90s, catalyzed by the explosive energy of the post-reunification period, helped fuel a musical revolution that was heard around the world. Now, at the age of 62, after 30 years of working alongside Detroit musicians, Hegemann's decided to pay it forward—by helping ensure that a viable nighttime economy can grow as part of the city's wider revitalization effort.
Last summer Hegemann announced plans to open a nightclub in Detroit's Packard Automotive Plant, one of the largest abandoned properties in the city. A Spanish developer named Fernando Palazuelo purchased it in 2013 for about $400,000 at a foreclosure auction, then outlined a $350 million proposal for developing it into commercial units and office space. He brought Hegemann onboard as a consultant, and together they dreamed up a nightclub for one of the Packard's many buildings, complete with a pop-up restaurant, a hostel for international visitors and an art gallery. The whole project would be built in phases over a ten-to-15-year period, with plans to include a spa and artists' studios, plus a "recreational complex with a racing component"—a nod to Detroit's firmly-rooted motor racing scene. I remember scrolling in a state of moderate disbelief through the renderings of this modern, luxurious entertainment complex, thinking, "How the hell could they pull this off?" It was in this moment that I decided Hegemann and I had to meet in person, and when I found out he'd be in town for this year's Movement Festival, I booked my flight and started scheduling interviews.
Hegemann arranged for us to meet at a coffee shop on the main strip in Hamtramck, a neighborhood that still retains the look of mid-century Main Street America, albeit with a 21st century ethnic mash-up. It's surrounded by Detroit on all sides but is technically its own city, for complex bureaucratic reasons that aren't worth getting into here. Hamtramck was a Polish factory town for most of the last century, but the main automotive plant closed almost 40 years ago, and since then the demographic has shifted with an influx of Bengali, Pakistani and Yemeni immigrants. In 2015 it became the first US city with a muslim majority. As I walked up Joseph Campau Avenue to the coffee shop, groups of women floated past me in simple black niqabs.
It's not difficult to get Hegemann to talk. The challenge is keeping him on track, as he tends to speak in winding, sometimes philosophical monologues that get further off topic the longer you let them go. When I walked into the cafe he was answering emails on his phone, peering over his reading glasses while typing slowly with one finger. I got my coffee, sat down, and asked him what he thought of that week's meeting of the Detroit-Berlin Connection. "I think we've made a great progression," he offered, happily, in his charming German accent. It was the first time that so many people from the City Council had been to one of his meetings, and they seemed ready to come along for the ride.
Until recently it was tough for the group to get Mayor Duggan's ear. The administration's got enough on its plate: entire neighborhoods without running water, a 53-percent rate of functional literacy, hundreds of thousands of foreclosed homes on bad mortgages. And it's not just crisis issues that are taking up the mayor's agenda, but other, high-profile cultural initiatives that require the support of the city, like the Red Wings hockey stadium in Midtown, which will cost hundreds of millions—and offer no revenue share in return. That, and Mayor Duggan just doesn't seem like a very artistically inclined guy.
"Most of these people, they don't understand the intensities I'm talking about," Hegemann explained, speaking softly, with a reflective cadence and a conviction that makes it hard to doubt anything he says. "It's like talking to a wall, you know?" It's been a long process since the DBC was first conceived, and with little to show for it until just about three months ago. "I think some of the walls are starting to talk back to me now," he laughed.
Techno is a real revenue driver in Berlin, he said, and it could be for Detroit, too. "When I came to Detroit, I was really surprised that there were no clubs here," he explained. "Last call for drinks is 2 AM. That was when I started to understand why so many American artists end up working in Europe. They don't have places to work here." The problem, according to many members of the DBC, is that the city and its constituents have failed to recognize the impact that the music has had, both at home and abroad. Where places like Nashville, New Orleans and Austin have successfully spun their musical history into a marketing angle, Detroit has never embraced it in the same way, despite having a heritage to rival any city in the world. And it's bigger than techno and house—from big bands like McKinney's Cotton Pickers to the Parliament-Funkadelic, The Stooges and the Motown record label, it's produced an inordinate amount of world-changing music throughout the century. Mike Banks spoke up during the DBC meeting to add that, at one point in the '90s, Submerge Distribution was second only to General Motors in the number of packages they exported overseas. That metric says a lot about the strange disconnect between how the music is celebrated abroad, yet so often overlooked at home.
So the momentum may be there, but a nightclub in the Packard Plant isn't going to come easily. First of all, the property is a disaster. It is emblematic, iconic even, of how far the city has fallen since its post-War mid-century boom—so striking that tourists come from all around the world just to gawk at its hulking, desolate beauty. (They used to sneak in, but Palazuelo's company now hires 24-hour security.) It's on the city's East Side, cut off from Hamtramck by the highway, about two and a half miles from Downtown. It's not a neighborhood you'd want to get caught in alone at night. In fact, it's not really a neighborhood at all—mostly just empty lots with yellow-green grass and maple trees punctuated by an occasional vinyl-sided house. As you approach the highway there are other low-lying industrial buildings with commercial businesses in them, plus a gas station and a pizza shop, and that's about it.
The soil is contaminated with arsenic and selenium from decades of dumping industrial waste. The place is full of asbestos. Many of the buildings are structurally sound, though some are collapsing because of metal scrappers, who slowly demolished parts of the plant by removing valuable parts. Between razing the structures and cleaning out polluted soil, city officials said they could already be looking at $20 million, and though he's owned the building for almost four years, Palazuelo didn't hold a groundbreaking ceremony until three months ago. So they've got their work cut out for them, and standing amidst broken glass and waist-high patches of weeds, gazing into the mouth of this toothless concrete monster, it's hard to imagine that one day a complex of shops, offices and leisure options could stand in its place.
"You would be surprised how many tenants want to be involved with the Packard," said Kari Smith, an architectural preservationist, and now the project's director of development. She was sitting at her desk, in front of a wide steel-framed window, with the Packard staring back at me from behind her. "People want to be part of the regeneration of these buildings," she told me, "and they want to be part of something that's a little bit more urban and chic and hip." I'd asked her whether the location itself might be an obstacle in filling these buildings with the businesses they're hoping to attract.
She countered that, with the speed and intensity of the development in other parts of the city, businesses are now looking outside of revitalized focal points like Downtown and Midtown. "Downtown has become horrible to park," she continued. "Horrible to get around in. The prices are skyrocketing. It's hard to find residential units—rental or purchase. Plus there's the connection with the highway right here. You bypass all the Downtown traffic, and the parking that we'll have on site will be a lot easier."
Smith, who has attended a number of DBC meetings, is one of the many who seem to have fallen under Hegemann's spell. "What he did for Berlin," she said, "from 1989 forward, it was transitional in terms of bringing East and West together after the Wall fell. I mean, just think of the magnitude of what he was able to do with music." Two summers ago he invited her and the Packard's new owner to Berlin so they could experience Tresor in full swing—and hopefully understand his vision for Detroit. Mike Banks and John Collins, two of the architects of Underground Resistance, were booked to headline that night, and they all flew out together. "It was amazing," she told me. "We've remained friends ever since."
They're not the only Detroiters that Heggeman has invited for an authentic Berlin clubbing experience. He actually had an envoy of Detroit city employees over for one of Tresor's 12-hour parties. As she explained this to me, I couldn't help but smile at the image of a group of Midwestern bureaucrats walking sheepishly into the hulking Kraftwerk building, then coming out ten hours later soaked in sweat, holding each other up by the shoulders.
The night before Smith and I met, I was out for drinks at a bar in Corktown, a gentrified strip just outside of Downtown. I struck up a conversation with a group of young transplants, mostly DJs who moved here within the last few years to be a part of the city's music scene. They expressed a degree of disbelief when I described the scope of this plan to put a nightclub in the Packard Plant. Among other things, they found it hard to believe that locals would even have the disposable income to party every weekend at a place like Tresor. I summarized their concerns for Smith and she brushed them off, naming all of the projects that once seemed impossible.
"People said the Westin Book Cadillac was never coming back," she said, referring to the high-rise hotel in Downtown that had trees growing through it as late as 2003. They were equally incredulous about the FD Lofts building, a former factory in the booming Eastern Market district, where two-bedroom apartments are going for half a million dollars. "That building was abandoned, contaminated beyond belief," she explained. "If you look at this place, it's very easy to say this is never going to happen. And that's OK. We have it phased all out across ten to 15 years, and soon people will start changing their attitude."
There's another, perhaps more pressing issue, that could keep this club from opening: are there actually enough people in this city to sustain it? "Outside of the festival weekend there's not remotely enough party people to sustain a Tresor-sized club," one RA reader commented when I reported the news of it last year. Another one echoed the sentiment: "This all sounds well and good, but for non-Detroiters, or people who haven't been to Detroit any other time of year besides Movement weekend, the party scene there is largely dead." Anyone who's involved in the dance music scene will tell you that "dead" is an exaggeration, that there's actually a strong sense of momentum, a feeling that's stoked by the influx of artists who are moving here to be a part of it. But the point still stands—that it's a declining population of 700,000 people in a city built for 2 million, and that despite all the talk of revitalization, all of the stories about artists and entrepreneurs moving to town, the pool of people going out all the time is still a fraction of a place like New York or Los Angeles.
"I think 200 to 300 people at an underground party here is an amazing success," said Ryan Spencer, who organizes an event series called Freakish Pleasures. A native of nearby Ann Arbor, he's been DJing and putting on shows since he moved here seven years ago. He paid me a visit on a rainy afternoon in March in the lobby of my hotel, a former Holiday Inn in Corktown that became a boutique operation when a Los Angeles developer snapped it up in 2015. More than one person joked that, before the marble countertops and modern lighting fixtures, it was mostly known as a place to buy sex and drugs—or as the only place with last-minute vacancies during Movement week, when everything else had sold out. "The impression I get," he continued, "is that there's a lot of these low-key weekday hang-outs where you're chilling, listening to music, having a beer and maybe 30 people roll through. That seems to be more the scale on which stuff is happening."
What Spencer told me, and what I've witnessed first-hand, is that outside of the one week when 100,000 people descend on the city, going out mostly means intimate gigs in bars, with tight-knit crews who see each other every weekend. There are occasional weekends that pack in "maybe five events with 300 people each," he said, but in terms of house and techno, they don't always hit those numbers. "Theo Parrish does these invitation-only parties," he told me, "with a password that gets passed around on note cards. It's very community-based, with free barbecue and great sound. But at the height of the night there's, like, 75 people there, and you're talking about a lineup with Moodymann, Rick Wilhite and Marcellus Pittman." These are artists that draw thousands on the European festival circuit.
What makes the Detroit scene stand out from its counterparts is this unlikely concentration of talent, considering the population size next to the weight of its cultural impact. But they may be missing the critical mass of people they'd need to sustain a permanent new nightclub—particularly one on the scale of Tresor.
Here's the thing about all that: Dimitri Hegemann isn't a numbers guy. He's a dreamer, which is a word that almost everyone I interviewed used to describe him. "I grew up in a small village, and when I was young I wanted to do something good for the world. I wanted to change it," he told me, looking up between sips of coffee. "One day I realized, 'Oh, they don't want you here.' So finally I landed in Berlin and I met other people with the same experience, who said, 'They didn't want me.' When we all got together we created a new attitude, a new consciousness. The city offered us opportunities—there was tolerance and all of this freedom, so it was like a big experiment."
This was in 1978, and when Hegemann arrived he threw himself into West Berlin's hard-edged avant garde, playing bass in the post-punk band Leningrad Sandwich while organizing shows in appropriated spaces. In 1982 he oversaw the first-ever Atonal Festival, which channeled the lawless industrial zeitgeist exemplified by bands like Einstürzende Neubauten, DAF and Psychic TV. It would take a few years for house and techno from the American Midwest to catch his ear, though by the turn of the '90s, he would become one of Detroit's most influential advocates in the European market. The pieces started to fall into place when, at a Chicago record shop called Wax Trax!, Heggeman pulled a white label record by a group called Final Cut—the group that launched Jeff Mills' international career. He called the 313 phone number hand-written on the record, invited Mills and company to perform at Atonal 1990, and just like that, they struck up one of the most intense transatlantic dialogues in the history of music.
This was barely months after the Wall fell. Hegemann describes the four or five years that followed as a period of unparalleled creativity, of total cultural upheaval. "Our common problem was having no space to experiment with their ideas," he said. "So what happened? The moment the Wall came down we took all of the space we wanted and tried to realize our visions. Because the authorities had other problems—bringing these two systems together, the socialist and the capitalist, figuring out what to do with the East German army, or how to get the traffic organized."
He didn't come up with this whole Packard Plant idea just because he's a fan of Detroit techno. It's tied to a utopian philosophy about how partying—like art or theater or literature—constitutes an essential part of the social fabric of any healthy city. His perception of music's transformative social function is idealistic in a retro, almost kumbaya kind of way, and it would seem naïve if he hadn't personally seen what techno did to unify and uplift his city in the years after the Wall fell. Last year he even wrote a book, called Happy Locals, aimed at urbanists and city planners, that argues for the importance of nurturing youth culture through social policies. He now tours Germany giving talks, urging policy makers, bureaucratic gatekeepers, really just adults in general, to trust young people to build the world they want to live in.
"People want to be part of something in these small cities," he told me. "Because there's nothing to do. And because there's nothing, they wait until they're 18 and then they move to Berlin. And what happens to those cities? The mainstream takes over, and it gets more and more boring. So my mission, when I do these workshops in small cities, is I try to coach the people in charge. I tell them very simply: the future lies with the young people, so let's try to keep these people who think differently. They make your city rich because they have the ideas."
Hegemann is a huge advocate for reallocating abandoned buildings in Germany as cultural spaces for young people. Berlin wouldn't be the artists' paradise it is today without the victories that the '90s squatters movement won—often in physical combat with police—for the right to occupy such spaces. The myth and legend of its "poor but sexy" counterculture is a big part of what seduced artists and dreamers from across the world to settle in the city's central neighborhoods. (Some say the pull was too powerful, now that soaring rents have forced artists out of the neighborhoods they helped popularize.) In the German city of Bremen, Hegemann told me, you can just look up a directory of available spaces online, then submit a proposal describing what you have in mind for it. "Berlin can be a model for Detroit," he explained. "Give people a space, even a free space, and maybe they can stay there for two years, like a center for start-ups."
The obstacles he's encountered in Detroit have been a source of great frustration. First of all there's the 2 AM alcohol cutoff, a curfew that was once enforced by Henry Ford as a way of keeping workers on their best behavior. Then there's the American car culture and the lack of public transit, which not only makes for drunk drivers but also gets in the way of building lively, dynamic neighborhoods—the kind you can enjoy by walking around. In fact, the reason he likes Hamtramck so much is because it's one of the only neighborhoods outside of Downtown that is dense enough to have a significant amount of foot-traffic. "This street, for me is the only place where practical urbanism could happen," he said, gesturing out onto the main strip. "If this gets discovered by young entrepreneurs, or whatever you call them, this could become a really hot spot."
Hegemann will never singlehandedly improve Detroit's public transit. So he's decided to focus on one problem he might actually be able to solve (though it's still quite ambitious): the liquor laws. The 2 AM cut-off is a state law, meaning it needs to be revised by the Michigan House of Representatives, but when I called up one of the mayor's assistants, he spoke confidently about the likelihood of writing and passing a new piece of legislature. One of the ideas floated at the DBC meeting was to lobby for a designated nightlife zone with extended hours. But at this point nobody's put anything down on paper, and the politicians who have taken this project on are still meeting with community members to get a sense of what's best for the city.
As of my last meeting with Hegemann in May, this was the highest bullet point on the list: to create an arts and nightlife district—which they're tentatively calling the "Creative Corridor," or "CC Detroit"—where they can foster a number of cultural institutions all within two or three miles. It would stretch from the renovated Packard Plant at the far end of East Grand Boulevard, all the way down past Submerge—the record shop and techno museum affiliated with Underground Resistance—and encompass a few other spots like Jam Handy, the renovated sound stage where the Detroit-Berlin Connection now meets.
"It's impossible to predict how this is all gonna go until it takes a clearer shape," said Brendan Gillen, AKA BMG, a Detroit artist who runs the cult techno label Interdimensional Transmissions. I was eating lamb vindaloo with him and his partner in the label, Erika Sherman, AKA Erika, at their favorite Indian spot, in a highway strip mall out in the suburbs. I had put out some feelers in March, trying to figure out who could help me fill in some of the local context, and their names kept coming back, not only as two of the city's key artists—together they perform as Ectomorph—but as history buffs who have witnessed the scene's rise and fall (and rise again). "It's like, we're not at the point where we can watch the trailer for the movie that we're gonna go see this weekend," Gillen reiterated. "We're looking at the storyboards that are gonna change because there's gonna be five editors after this."
Gillen and Sherman look back with a mix of fondness and disbelief at the days when they used to party in the abandoned Packard Plant. "When we'd go to raves there in the '90s, we'd be blowing black crap out of our noses for a week afterwards, no exaggeration," Sherman laughed. "They would decorate with these tarps that kept debris from falling directly on your head. Now that I'm older I look back on that and I'm like, ugh." The most famous of these Packard parties were the ones that Richie Hawtin threw in the mid-90s; he was coming up at a time when kids from the suburbs were taking more of an interest in the city's underground scene. Throughout the decade everyone from John Acquaviva to DJ Godfather and Derek Plaslaiko had a chance to play for crowds that could swell to 1,500 ravers, by some reports.
When I asked if the Creative Corridor idea had a shot, they didn't give me a straight yes or no. Here's the point they did drive home: the city is changing at such an unbelievable pace that, really, anything is possible. Detroit one day could be drastically different from Detroit a few months later. "There's a whole new crowd now," Sherman told me. "In the last year and a half even, there are a shit ton of people now who wanna go out and dance and have a good time, who don't know and don't care about the history." The influx of new kids, she said, has actually solved one of party scene's biggest issues: where jaded older fans don't come out till 12:30 or 1 AM, these kids are showing up and packing the place out at 11 PM.
When they say the city's changing, they don't mean on the typical timeline of urban development. What they're witnessing is a different kind of transformation, which is taking certain parts of the city from zero to 60 at an unprecedented pace. "Last night I went to a restaurant after 10 PM," Gillen said, pausing for emphasis, "and it only got more crowded as we sat there."
Sherman chimed in: "Two years ago you couldn't find anything to eat after 9 PM in Detroit. Or rather, the only option was going to a bar and ordering some garbage food."
"Now, the closest bar to me that serves food offers vegetables as side items," Gillen added. "When I moved to Detroit, the four food groups were pizza, fried foods, corner store food and fast food." Diet might seem like a strange way of tracking the changes in the city, but it actually offers us a pretty vivid reflection of the larger forces at play. And it has interesting parallels with the city's music scene, which, like its culinary landscape, is becoming not only wider but more varied.
"Are you asking me, can a club like that be sustained in Detroit?" I was sitting with John Collins in his office at 3000 East Grand Boulevard, an unremarkable three-floor brick building that is, in many ways, the beating heart of the Detroit scene. It houses the record distributor Submerge, which Collins manages, as well as artist studios, a vinyl shop and a small museum dedicated to the history of Detroit techno. It is also the command center for Underground Resistance. Collins, who helps run the Detroit-Berlin Connection, has been a member of UR since the early days, both as a manager and as a musician.
"I think it can work," Collins said. "Dimitri's a visionary to me. He makes a lot of things happen, and I'm always amazed because the man has these ideas, and then just like that"—he snapped his fingers—"he's on top of everything."
In this city, when it comes to techno, there's no better crew to have on your side than UR, and Hegemann's been one of their fiercest European allies for nearly 30 years. With the Tresor label, he's released dozens of career-defining records from multiple generations of Detroit techno giants; he was also the first promoter to invite artists like Mills and Banks to perform in Berlin. His commitment to spreading the gospel opened doors for them in the European market, leading to fruitful, sustainable careers for countless Midwestern musicians. It has earned him a level of respect that's palpable when he's out and about in Detroit (on multiple occasions I saw people stand up and offer him their seat when he walked into the room). It makes him one of the only people who could pull off a project like this, not only because of his big, unorthodox ideas, but because he's made it absolutely clear that he isn't just in this for himself.
"There are people who invest in Detroit purely for monetary gain," Collins continued. "These foreign investors move in and start buying up property and redeveloping, and they don't care about the people. I'm sure Dimitri wants to make money, but this is about giving back to Detroit."
In almost all of the conversations I had while reporting this story, somebody would inevitably bring up Dan Gilbert, the billionaire businessman who owns much of Downtown. He is the CEO of Quicken Loans, one of the largest mortgage companies in the country; he's also the controversial poster child for the revitalization of the Downtown area. Gilbert, who moved his Quicken headquarters to the city in 2010—and has since purchased over 100 buildings downtown—is exactly one of those investors who locals criticize for "not caring about the people." While he may have earned accolades from some of the country's most powerful business people, his critics question his intentions. They say he's only interested in building his tiny bubble of gentrified affluence in the city center, and that this particular tide does not lift all boats.
Part of the DBC's agenda, Collins explained, is to figure out how this so-called revitalization can benefit long-time residents—not just tourists or foreign investors. They're particularly interested in how music and art can figure into that project, and in that sense there's a lot to learn from Berlin. "It can be a useful model for us," Collins said, "but at the same time, Berlin's Berlin, and Detroit's Detroit. This is still Michigan, so we're not gonna have clubs open 24 hours right now. But things are beginning to change. I'm very optimistic."
Two months after our meeting in Detroit, I emailed Heggeman to ask if he was ready to announce firm dates or details. He was all exclamation points when he got back to me an hour later. "There is some news!" he wrote, linking to an article about the mayor's visit to Submerge in June. "There's also a night ambassador now. Really cool guy!" This night ambassador—an unofficial title—is Adrian Tonon, who is the City of Detroit's "director of customer service," and one of Mayor Duggan's close advisors. When we spoke on the phone one Saturday morning in July, Tonon had recently returned from a weekend with Hegemann in Berlin. He and Banks spoke on a panel at Tresor's smaller upstairs space, Globus, then stuck around for an Underground Resistance party in the main room downstairs. It was the kind of dream lineup you barely even see in Detroit, except when Movement week rolls around, of course: Blake Baxter, DJ Skurge, Mike Huckaby, Scott Grooves and, at the top of the bill, a live set from Mike Banks and UR mainstay Mark Flash.
I asked Tonon if I should refer to him as the "night mayor" (as some cities have done with those in charge of cultural affairs) and he laughed affably. "Here in Detroit there's only one mayor," he told me. But his responsibilities—to mediate between the city's music community and its administration—resemble those of his counterparts in places like London or Amsterdam, where they've created official positions to address these concerns. "Our goal here is streamlining services and getting out of the way of creatives so they can do their thing," he explained. "Like when you want to have a festival or a block party, we want to ensure that you're not fighting city bureaucracy—that the city works for you. Ideally we can hold your hand through things and really expedite the process, like a concierge service." Tonon, a lifelong music fan and former restaurateur, has taken on Detroit's nighttime economy as his new pet project, creating a direct line between the dance music community and the mayor.
He's the one who arranged a face-to-face meeting with Mayor Duggan and the elder statesmen of Detroit house and techno. That was the other piece of news that Hegemann wanted to tell me about—that the mayor showed up at Submerge in June for a meeting with Theo Parrish, Mike Banks and Omar-S, three of dance music's living titans. With a small audience gathered in the museum's main room, Banks made a case for loosening the red tape that keeps the city's nighttime economy from stretching out. UR manager Cornelius Harris spoke, too. "Electronic music is a $6.5 billion industry globally," he said. "It was created here. The question is, of course, how much of this money goes into the city? And the answer is very little."
I was back home in New York, in the early stages of writing this article, when I received a disconcerting text message from one of the younger DJs I met in Detroit. He heard the Packard deal was off the table, that they were looking at another building in a different part town. Had I heard anything about that? No, I wrote back, a little stupefied—I didn't know anything about it, in fact I'd just gotten an email from Hegemann that suggested nothing out of the ordinary. To be fair: the whole Packard development is in its infancy, and with so many variables unsolved, it would almost be weirder if plans didn't change from one day to the next. On top of that, the news came second-hand from a friend who's involved in scene, but not directly with Dimitri Hegemann or the Packard. Rumors tend to fly with projects like these, and this could all be some kind of misunderstanding; Hegemann's been scouting a few locations in Detroit, and it doesn't mean that one idea's exclusive to another.
If it were true, however, it wouldn't be the first time one of his projects went sour. Tresor.Beijing, his partnership with the German non-profit Goethe-Institut, began construction in 2010, then folded before it even opened. In fact this current campaign in Detroit is only the latest in a string of attempts to invest in the city's nightlife. There was a nightclub downtown in the mid-'90s that never got off the ground, and then in 2014, a brief—but highly publicized—courtship with another ex-factory space called the Fisher Building.
I emailed Hegemann that afternoon to ask if there was any substance to the rumor. "I don't know your friend and I am not interested to hear what he is saying," he wrote back almost immediately. "I am a consultant for this project, and so far the owner didn't tell me anything like what your friend is saying." I then wrote to Kari Smith, my contact at the Packard Plant, to see if she had any comment on the subject, to which she responded: "I can tell you that we remain interested in working with Tresor." It struck me as odd that, even after getting a rush of international press, I still couldn't get a yes or no as to whether the partnership would move forward.
The whole point of going out there was to find out if this Packard Plant idea had legs. Six months and two visits later, I don't know if anybody's able to answer that question, especially not Hegemann, whose utopian ideas sometimes omit important logistical considerations. But he's throwing a bunch of ideas at the wall, and some of them are more manageable in terms of size and scale. He and Mike Banks recently went in on a three-floor building a block down from Submerge, smack dab in the middle of their proposed Creative Corridor, that they're turning into a cultural and commercial space of some kind (they're tight-lipped about the details). There's a third building he's in talks over that's only a couple blocks away, a raw basement space that could look and feel a lot like Tresor's subterranean vault. On top of that he's working with Walter Wasacz, the vice president of the DBC, on a weekend-long festival that would bring Detroit and Berlin artists together at a different location on the same strip.
No matter the outcome, Hegemann has accomplished something amazing in galvanizing a group of power players from totally disparate worlds. You can chalk it up to his charm, his unshakeable assuredness or just the fact that he's actually a nice guy (which isn't the case for most big-time nightlife entrepreneurs). Most importantly, however, he has an incredible talent for conveying the gravitas—the world-changing importance—of this project. It may seem like we're talking about clubbing, but what Hegemann's interested in is a higher calling: building a better world through self-expression and communal revelry. In a world where cynicism is the rule, I think he prevails in converting people to his cause by offering a rare dose of hope in the face of unfriendly odds. Yes, it's a long shot, but isn't that what makes it exciting? It could be totally crazy, or just crazy enough to work.