The nerdy playhouse
Here's a crew of creatives — in the truest sense of the word — rising from hackerspace ground zero
Published: March 7, 2012
When a gaggle of builders and mechanics crafted their "Banana Car" last year for a contest at the Henry Ford, they wanted it to be loud. They built a rideable toy car with a hyperbolic sound system: four subwoofers, four 6-inch-by-9-inch speakers, and a pair of 3-inch tweeters. When its creators drove it out of their warehouse in Eastern Market and cranked up the volume in the parking lot, they swear you could hear the music downtown clear across the freeway. They put a grass skirt over the wheels and a smoothie-maker on board, painted it mustard yellow and stuck a confetti-shooting cannon on the back. ("To spray in the faces of our opponents!")
After the car debuted at the Maker Faire, an event held to showcase do-it-yourself innovation, a new diktat was declared: No future car should exceed the decibel level of the Banana Car.
Its makers are members of OmniCorpDetroit, a self-described hackerspace located in the heart of Eastern Market. Pushing past the completely tired "computer-hacking" connotation, the term refers to a cooperative where members pool financial and material resources as well as ideas. From tool-sharing and public workshops to collaborative installations, OmniCorpDetroit (OCD) harnesses the innovation that this rattled metropolis runs on. It's about creating, rebuilding, experimenting and inventing together — a notion that members refer to as "hacking."
And it's about hard work, be it bizarre and cerebral inventions or the more visceral act of building an engine. "This is in our blood," affirms OCD member Brandon Richards. "Hard work, innovation and working together."
What gives credence to operations at OCD is the same notion that has recently propelled Detroit into the limelight of international media: It's a city for the assiduous and the inventive, where empty spaces and anarchic settings create a crucible of invention. And somehow, it works.
Back in summer 2010, a dozen or so artists, builders, engineers and one fencing teacher began to renovate a busted-up building near I-75 that OmniCorpDetroit now calls home. A fire had left the floor in questionable condition. "There were holes in the floor that we had to patch," one member recalls. "We used to get yelled at by our downstairs neighbor for dripping beer and other liquids through the holes onto her things."
OCD guy and moped mechanic AJ Manoulian remembers millions of extension cords running everywhere because there was originally only one plug for the airy, 8,000-square-foot space. At least junk removal was easy, as garbage was thrown out a second-story window into a garbage bin below. And plenty of junk there was — Manoulian found strands of someone's discarded dreadlocks lying in what is now the machine shop.
One of the founding members, Jeff Sturges, (who also runs the likeminded Mount Elliott Makerspace), secured finances and the lease on the building, which was once a cold storage warehouse. The initial funds were gathered from all co-founders, each of whom contributed between $200 and $2,000 for a start-up pot of about $5,000. There was no grant funding, total DIY from day one. They rent from the folks at Rocky Produce, who've been "really supportive."
A year and a half after OCD opened its doors, every corner of the cavernous warehouse is occupied and in-process. The first-floor workshop houses a bunch of dusty mopeds and myriad old machines — a table saw, welder and lathe being the easiest to identify. There's even a prodigious 1930s Gorton vertical mill, a beastly anachronism that can "take a piece of metal and make anything."
Upstairs, computer geeks and artists are lost in their respective programming and painting. There is a full sewing station, a 3-D printer, and neat rows of desks cluttered with computer screens, oscilloscopes and other electronics. A well-stocked DJ booth sits behind a wall of speakers made from hacked-up radio components from an abandoned music school; tonight Latin music alternates with an obscure techno beat. Most of these tools and machines have been donated or are shared between members, with a few larger purchases having been voted on as a group and purchased from communal OCD funds.
Member and go-to guy Ken Wolcott acts as an impromptu tour guide. A gangly linguist with fine features, big glasses and a mess of hair, Wolcott weaves through the building's vast intestinal apparatus, pointing out a darkroom, an antiquated freight elevator painted luminous gold inside, and a homemade Tesla coil that "shoots out electricity" in the style of old sci-fi flicks. This place is Pee Wee's Playhouse meets science museum: Outside the bathroom door, a massive stoplight flashes red when occupied; in the kitchen, a little lamp lodged in a houseplant dims and brightens when the leaves are stroked. These arcane little hacks, lodged in the bowels of the warehouse, are what make OCD so dammed fun.
Wolcott is in constant motion, fiddling with things as he raps cogently about 10 different projects, including the guitar molds he's building and his lock-picking club, Detroit Locksport. Wolcott coordinated an informational lock-picking session at OCD last summer and more than 50 people showed up; it turned out to be the largest workshop of the season. As the workshop's flier heralds, lock-picking is "an educational activity centered around nondestructively defeating or bypassing physical (and sometimes digital) security mechanisms." Right.
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