Boat returns from Detroit

Last time we spoke to the nomadic Boat magazine, they were off to Detroit to write, edit and design their latest issue. Now back in the UK, creative director Davey Spens told us how it all went

Last time we spoke to the nomadic Boat magazine, they were off to Detroit to write, edit and design their latest issue. Now back in the UK, creative director Davey Spens told us how it all went…

In September Spens described the thinking behind Boat and how the team (Spens, his wife Erin – the editor – and a host of assembled creatives including designer Luke Tonge) managed to make a magazine about Sarajevo, while stationed in the city for several weeks. I caught up with Spens on email to ask him about their recent experience of the second place the magazine has called home: Detroit.

How did you find Detroit and its creative community? Was it what you’d expected?

“It’s difficult to talk about Detroit without sounding like I’m sugar-coating it. Detroit has some obvious challenges that can make things you might take for granted in other cities more difficult, but I can’t remember ever visiting a place where there is such a spirit of ‘do’, and where everybody is up to something. Detroit is not a city with a partying culture (and thank God, with the way the place is laid out all the residents would be done for DUI) it’s a city with a work ethic, steeped in entrepreneurism. We didn’t expect to fall for the city quite as hard as we did. There’s a feeling in the air that something is changing, and we got the sense it will be unrecognisable in another ten years. Word is spreading and people are moving in from New York, San Francisco, Berlin. One guy I was talking to at a Food Truck told me, ‘Come here while it’s still Mad Max and before it gets all Jetsons again.’ He wasn’t joking.”

Can you tell us about how you worked in the house you rented? Did your contributors drop by with work each day?

“Issue two carries our new byline: An Antidote for Lazy Journalism. It’s not a dig at journalists; as print circulations tumble, old ways of working become harder and harder and research, more often than not, is done at a desk. Google has become a substitute for finding out things with your own two feet. The way our magazine works is that we rent a house and contributors come and stay, and the magazine is blank canvas for them to tell a story. It’s more a base-camp than a house, we have breakfast together and then encourage our contributors to get out there and freewheel.

In some cities finding a house is a lot harder in practice than it sounds. Detroit doesn’t have a huge vacation home rental scene, but it is a city that rewards the people who come to spend time in it. I can’t tell you how many times we would meet someone in a bar, and the next day an email would pop into our inbox with a itinerary for a tour of the city they wanted to take us on. We rented a house from someone who saw our post on Craigslist. Along with the rental came another pair of tour guides.”

When we spoke before, we talked about the idea of Boat as going to places that had fallen off the media map, if you like. How did your experience of Detroit compare to Sarajevo?

“Detroit is the opposite of Sarajevo in that sense. Whilst Sarajevo is a forgotten city, mothballed by the media, Detroit is over-run with camera crews, even the bums have had media-training. The thing is, the media don’t stay in the city for more than a few hours, and they only ever tell part of the story. There’s a plethora of articles and news programs out there about Detroit’s decline usually accompanied by photos of the ‘modern ruins’ that are sprinkled around the city. It’s hard to see it as anything other than lazy journalism; spew some devastating stats and put a huge photo of a burnt out building on the front page for people to gawk at. But that’s not all there is, it just takes a bit more digging.

We had this rule with our Sarajevo Issue: No bullet Holes. With Detroit it was No Ruins and No Urban Farming. We broke the rules this time, because against a backdrop of media saturation it felt important to engage with the issues they touch upon, but understand them as issues in a wider context. One of my favourite pieces in the magazine is Howie Kahn’s article Kaletown, which tackles the question of what the city does with its 138 square miles of land.”

So contributors must have been excited to be part of something celebrating the positives of the city?

“Absolutely. We are constantly blown away by the generosity and energy of our contributors. As an independent publication, regrettably, one thing we cannot afford to do is pay our contributors. This has never been an issue in attracting seriously heavyweight talent – Jeffrey Eugenides wrote a piece to open this issue, and that’s just how it starts. It probably just filters out those people that don’t fit. There’s a quote on the wall of our studio, “Don’t be encumbered by history, Go off and do something wonderful.” I heard it on the plane home in an in-flight documentary about the founders of Silicon Valley. It sums up both the spirit of the people who made this magazine, and the people who call Detroit home.”

In the same email conversation, Spens also quoted a line from Patti Smith, which would equally be at home on a wall in the Boat HQ: “New York has closed itself off to the young and the struggling. But there are other cities. Detroit. Poughkeepsie. New York City has been taken away from you. So my advice is: find a new city.”

So where next for the magazine with itchy feet? Once Spens and family have recovered, we’ll be sure to let you know.

More information on the Detroit issue of Boat is available at and you can purchase a copy, here.

Below, you can also watch director Jonathan Cherry’s film for the launch of issue two which is set it to a poem written by Edgar Albert Guest (1881-1959), born (like Cherry) in Birmingham, England but who moved to Detroit. Coincidentally, Wieden and Kennedy has also launched its new campaign for the Chrysler 300 this week, using a narration of the same poem.


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The Storytelling issue, Oct/Nov 2017, is out now.
We invited writers to respond to our cover image
this month: read their stories inside.
PLUS: Tom Gauld, Oliver Jeffers, Giphy & S-Town

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