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

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 … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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