To the naked eye, Detroit's Fisher Body Plant 21 is nothing but a deserted building plagued by smashed windows and graffiti. But to Dimitri Hegemann, it could one day be something much more: a thriving arts center complete with a techno club. It won't be the first time the 60-year-old Berliner has pulled off something like this. In 1991, Hegemann saw that same glimmer of hope in an abandoned Berlin department store vault and built Tresor, now one of the world's leading techno clubs.
"Nobody ever thought a big movement like electronic music would start in a club like [Tresor]. But it did, and in other spots like Bar 25," says Hegemann, referring to another seminal afterhours shack in Berlin that closed in 2010. "These kinds of spots brought thousands and thousands of young people to Berlin. It wasn't shopping malls; it was these magic places."
Hegemann recognizes that chance in Detroit. "There's a really good moment in Detroit now because there's a new generation looking for an alternative way to start something. The vibe is good. We could open some doors," he says. "We share similar energies, Detroit and Berlin. I have been in many cities, but Detroit is something special."
To bring his dreams for Detroit closer to fruition, Hegemann has started the Detroit-Berlin Connection, a group comprised of music leaders from both cities who share his enthusiasm for revitalizing the Motor City through techno culture. Their next conference will take place at the end of November in Detroit.
Hegemann first discovered techno during a trip to the US in 1987. After hearing a demo album from a group of Detroit DJs, he invited them to play in Berlin. Then the Wall fell in 1989, turning the city into a raver's paradise. Techno clubs like Tresor sprung up in the bombed-out ruins, uniting people from both East and West Berlin under their shared enthusiasm for this new, harder sound.
Many members of Detroit's electronic music community are supportive of Hegemann's plans—they hope the Fisher Body Plant 21 techno club will fuel a larger cultural revolution. "Detroit is in need of a proper full-on club of a global scale," says Kevin Reynolds, a longtime Detroit DJ. "Berlin was a tough and economically challenged city after the wall came down, quite similar to Detroit [now]. But some saw it as a chance to start something new."
Erika Sherman of Interdimensional Transmissions, a cult record label and underground party production crew, believes the club would not just be a validation of what Detroit's musical community cares about, but also a place they could go to experience their own culture in their own backyard. "The music that we make, that our city is internationally recognized for, is properly represented in many places across the globe, but not here at home," she says.
Sherman also thinks that international techno fans need more reasons to visit Detroit outside of Movement festival weekend. "Techno tourism is real," she notes. "People are willing and able to travel to a different city for a weekend to go to a great party or club. Detroit has an opportunity to be a cultural destination like New Orleans, it just has to change a few zoning and bar laws for that to be possible."
On the other hand, some would argue that Hegemann's grand plan to save Detroit through techno is somewhat romanticized. The reality is that outside of Movement festival weekend, the market for techno events in Detroit is relatively small. Take into account Blank Code events at The Works, a legal afterhours joint that's Detroit's closest thing to a Berlin-style club. The Works is much smaller than the Fisher Body Plant 21, but still scrambles to pack out their parties. In order for Hegemann to fill a much larger club, he'll have to address the fact that Detroit promoters already struggle to get 400 people together once a month, with similar bookings to Tresor.
The media's coverage of the Fisher Body Plant 21 project often makes it sound like techno culture in Detroit is a novel idea—which isn't necessarily true. The city sees a rapid turnover in clubs, often due to some combination of poor management and a struggling nightlife industry. In recent years, major venues like Vain, 10 Critics, and Oslo have been shut down, while iconic spots like Motor Lounge and The Music Institute—where Derrick May, Juan Atkins and Kevin Saunderson nurtured the second wave of Detroit techno—are long gone. As a result, techno parties have moved to lounges, art spaces and bars. Whiskey Disco and TV Lounge are some of the few clubs left standing. "I don't think the scene is large enough to sustain a massive venue," says Delano Smith, one of Detroit's original DJs who watched the scene evolve from the start.
Plus, Hegemann will need to overcome some major hurdles, starting with legal restrictions on how late clubs are allowed to stay open. The Detroit Police Department started cracking down on raves in the early to mid 90s. Sherman says 2AM last-calls at bars have put a serious dampener on late-night culture. "People here have forgotten what it means to dance all night," she says. "Getting to experience things like four or six-hour DJ sets simply [isn't] possible here." Clubs have to battle to stay open, because "no one wants to go out for a few hours and then be forced out the door at 2AM," adds Angie Linder, manager of Detroit Techno Militia.
Hegemann says he plans to look into a special license for the Fisher Body Plant 21. He also emphasizes that his plans go far beyond the club itself—encompassing a larger network of studios, galleries, restaurants, and retail space. "My dream would be to create a big market [in the Fisher Body Plant 21]," he muses. "We can bring different worlds together under one roof. We start in one room then move to the next room and build an innovation center." Hegemann calls this his "one-room strategy."
All things considered, many people in Detroit's local techno scene are rallying behind Hegemann's Fisher Body Plant 21 project. After all, the future of Detroit's economy lies in its exports, and this could be the spark that the community needs to move forward. "There are a lot of people in Detroit who have the potential to make this very successful," says Linder. "For many of my generation, this is the first time we have felt Detroit on the edge of something great," adds Reynolds. "Detroit has always been the underdog."
Ashley Zlatopolsky is an electronic music journalist based in Detroit - @ashley_detroit