Celebrating a Detroit internet pioneer who started people talking about the Motor City

February 16, 2020, 11:14 PM

Lowell Boileau (Photo by Millard Berry)

By Bill McGraw

Before Twitter. Before Facebook. Before mobile apps, Reddit, Google, Instagram, Deadline Detroit, Curbed Detroit, Eater Detroit, Detour Detroit and Motor City Muckraker … there was DetroitYES! and Lowell Boileau.

More than two decades ago, Boileau was an accomplished local artist when he embarked on a path that would make him one of Southeast Michigan’s leading web entrepreneurs. Combining art, discussion and Detroit, Boileau helped introduce many metro Detroiters to a big new thing, using a computer to communicate about your community. You could even do it anonymously.

By the early 2000s, his evolving site focused on Southeast Michigan at a time when Detroit was rarely considered cool beyond the city limits. But Boileau’s project tapped into a latent curiosity about Detroit, especially among suburban young people, and the ever-multiplying online discussions spread the word that many others shared an interest in the nearby big city that many of their parents and grandparents seemed to detest. For Boileau, the increasing clicks propelled the site to big numbers and global acclaim. 

The homepage for Boileau's "Lost Synagogues of Detroit" tour.

DetroitYES! traces its roots to 1994, the Internet’s Precambrian Era, when only about 25 percent of American households owned a computer.

In those early days, Boileau (BWAH-low) built websites to showcase his micropointillist artwork, then launched The Fabulous Ruins of Detroit, a site that offered an admiring take on the city’s crumbling architecture.

Boileau added a discussion forum to The Fabulous Ruins in 1999, which he eventually renamed DetroitYES! Two decades later, the site has amassed more than 23,000 threads on every imaginable local subject and a million posts by DetroitYES! members.

All the content amounts to a vast body of shared knowledge and opinion, and it exists on a searchable database. That combination has gradually transformed DetroitYES! into something else that is new: a crowd-sourced encyclopedia of metro Detroit as well as a catalogue of residents’ grievances and desires over the last 20 dramatic years as the city, fighting for survival on many fronts, attracted international attention.

“Lowell Boileau is one artist and documentarian who was a path breaker, a person ahead of his time,” said Mike Smith, a historian and former director of Wayne State University’s Walter Reuther Library.

The rise of social media and numerous websites that publish news about Southeast Michigan have cut traffic on DetroitYES! in recent years by about a third, and the site lacks the immediacy of more recent inventions such as Twitter, WhatsApp or Snapchat.

Still, DetroitYES! remains vibrant, a souped-up and reliable Model T amid flashy hot rods, with more than 9,200 members who keep discussions flowing on multiple topics every day. Despite the competition, DetroitYES! is still the largest Internet destination for hashing out metro-area issues, big and small. Boileau insists that Windsor be treated as part of the metro area, a rare gesture on the American side of the border.

“The great international metropolis of Detroit,” he calls the region. “If you look from outer space we are one big city, but we’ve got this dumb border. It annoys me to no end.”

One example of what’s hot currently on DetroitYES!: An ongoing discussion concerning Dan Gilbert’s shrinking skyscraper planned for the J.L. Hudson site. It has more than 1,700 comments, examining the project from multiple angles, mixing personal opinion with facts and an international perspective.

“Personally I would love to see Detroit take the approach that Rotterdam has post WWII,” said comment No. 1,660 by a member with the screen name southen. “Preserve every historic building that we have … since both cities have been bombed out, one literally the other figuratively …”

Redeveloping the Vinton Building

After nearly a quarter century, Boileau, 74, is increasingly recognized for his groundbreaking efforts. Over the years a community formed around DetroitYES! Members met at regular gatherings and became friends. Some fell in love and even married. In 2007, an amiable member named Jeff Colby died, and DetroitYES adherents paid respects to someone many of them knew only from his witty postings under the screen name Itsjeff. It was a 21st century kind of wake that was a first for many participants.

“We were truly blessed to have known him and have him affect each of us,” wrote DetroitYES! member Mtm, who had never met Colby in person.

DetroitYES! members have paid particular attention to virtually every development project in the city, and some even joined in an effort to redevelop the 12-story Vinton Building downtown. The project failed and people lost money, but they discussed the entire saga on the site, cheered on and questioned by fellow DetroitYES! members. Gilbert purchased the building in 2013.

“Is anyone else getting a little bit anxious about how much Gilbert owns now?” member dmike76 asked at the time, when Gilbert was beginning his building-buying spree.

DetroitYES! members also participated in the early years of the Georgia Street Community Collective, a non-profit neighborhood service organization that began as a garden in the Harper-Gratiot area of the east side. Georgia Street founder Mark Covington was an active DetroitYES! member.

“DetroitYES! was a positive force for getting people together to do things for the city,” said Kathleen Marcaccio, a librarian from Royal Oak and a longtime member who was once deeply involved in the DetroitYES! community. 

All those opinions, scoops, fact-checks, memories, memes, gifs, cultural references and images on DetroitYES! are the stuff that history is made of, and historians of the future will find Boileau’s forums a rich source of information on Southeast Michigan at the turn of the 21st Century.

Ren Farley, a semi-retired University of Michigan sociology professor who runs the Detroit1701 website, said he encourages people to go on DetroitYES! and post their questions about the city. “You’ll almost for sure get a well-informed answer, and you’ll never know where the thread is going to go,” Farley said.

When first exposed to the Internet, Boileau envisioned a platform for his paintings. He had no idea what was to come.

“I saw this new Internet medium as a new art form,” he said recently during an interview at the Detroit Institute of Art’s Kresge Court, one of his hangouts. “Then it gradually dawned on me that the real essence of the Internet was the interaction. I realized the Internet was far more about sociology than technology.”

The Fabulous Ruins of Detroit

It all began in 1992, when Boileau bought his first Apple computer. The next year saw the debut of Mosaic, a newfangled invention called a browser, which popularized websites. One day he saw images from an art museum and thought, “Pictures on screens! I’ve got to do this. How can I get my art online?”

Boileau is self-taught, and for advice he turned to a friend, Gregg Sutter, the longtime researcher for the late Elmore Leonard and an early computing enthusiast.

Recalled Boileau: “I was watching Gregg Sutter on a computer, and using something called a mouse. It was an epiphany. You’ve got sound, text, images. You could make whatever.”

Said Sutter: “All you had to do was show Lowell the way and he was off to the races.”

Boileau in 1994 launched one of the first websites in Detroit to feature art, his own: lush, luminous and often slightly surreal landscapes – many set locally – done in micropointillism,  a multi-step painting process involving microscopic dots of the primary colors red, yellow and blue. Boileau and artist friend Stephen Goodfellow invented micropontillism in Boileau’s former home on Colorado Street in Highland Park, a co-op living space that was also the birthplace, in 1981, of the Layabouts, a ska band that found its inspiration in radical music and politics.

Lowell Boileau's micropointillist painting, "Late Again."

Putting art on the web led to “The Fabulous Ruins of Detroit” in 1997. Boileau had wandered through the skeletons of ancient structures while traveling in Europe, Africa, Mexico and the Middle East after serving in the Peace Corps in Swaziland in the 1960s. In Detroit, surrounded by an increasing number of blighted buildings, he used the photo-rich Fabulous Ruins to reflect their elegance and history.

“I wanted to do something sympathetic, telling how Detroit got that way,” he said. “The ruins were so beautiful to me. When the sun hit them at a certain time of day it was something spectacular and moving.”

Boileau set the terms of the debate, saying he wanted to answer these questions about the city: What went wrong? How can we heal it? Where do we go from here?

The Fabulous Ruins attracted international media acclaim, and traffic surged to 150,000 visitors a week after Yahoo made the site a “pick of the year” in 1998.

Feedback from the site surprised Boileau. He received a continuing flood of emails filled with passion for Detroit and a yearning to know more about the city and how to become involved in it. The response was an early indication that something was stirring in a generation raised in suburbia.

“The rediscovery of Detroit by suburban kids was emerging,” Boileau said. “They were asking how they could live in Detroit and how they could be part of the solution. People were trying to make sense of Detroit.”

Boileau built other virtual tours -- Detroit’s old synagogues; soul music and gospel music history; Brush Park’s building boom; Milwaukee Junction’s rise; the old Fourth Street Fair and more, all of which remain available on the site. But the emails he received told him people had a need to express themselves about Detroit, so he created a discussion forum in October 1999. In 2001, he named the site DetroitYES! and guided it into a destination that values quality posts and relatively civil conversation.

A number of DetroitYES! members are experts in various fields – cops, journalists, real estate people, city hall insiders, corporate managers. They regularly trade information, break news and advance existing stories, sometimes days before the media catches on. Smart reporters have learned to pay attention.

Rob St. Mary, a veteran Detroit radio journalist and writer, has plumbed DetroitYES! forums for their wealth of information and gossip, from obscure historical knowledge to reaction to yesterday’s headlines.

“It was a great place to find stories and contacts,” St. Mary said. “Amazing the things I've found there over the years.”

Perhaps because Boileau watches over the site like a Project Green Light camera, the level of discourse on DetroitYES is largely more respectful than the comments on, say, newspaper websites, on which a story about maple trees on Belle Isle can quickly deteriorate into a racial brawl.

Michael Jackman, a longtime local journalist who was once a prolific poster, recalls DetroitYES! discussions in its heyday as “demolition derby of ideas.”

He added: “I appreciated the way that it allowed people of different ages, backgrounds, and especially races to mix it up. It’s no secret that Detroit ranks among the most segregated cities in the country, and given our spatial separation, such forums for interracial discussion were uncommon.”

Jackman noted that DetroitYES! appeared at a “generational turning point,” when longtime Detroiters believed the city’s fate had been sealed, while a younger generation saw promise.

“Again and again, these two cohorts provided the site’s most entertaining battles,” he said, “as the old and the new duked it out on every topic of local importance, especially urban design, freeways, and regional planning. I like to think that all that arguing might have helped a new consensus cohere.”

Lowell Boileau's painting, "Autumn."

Boileau said the site largely polices itself these days, but he learned from experience that you need to be a “benevolent dictator” to set the proper tone. He has banned people over the years for bad behavior.

When Detroit was exciting and scary

Soft-spoken and laid back, Boileau is a well-liked figure in Detroit’s creative community and beyond. The son of a Free Methodist minister, he grew up in small towns in Michigan and Wisconsin. He calls Perry, outside Lansing, his hometown. He came to Detroit as a college student, working summers in the late 1960s at such prototypical Motor City sites as Zug Island and the Ford Rouge plant and settling in the “budding bohemia” of the Cass Corridor art scene amid anti-war protests, rising crime and extreme tension between police and the black community.

“I landed in this ferment,” he said. “It was a very scary time because of the crime, but it was exciting and fun. Anytime you’re in a stressed situation people are drawn together. Deep down I loved Detroit.”

Today he lives next to the Upper Rouge River in Farmington with wife Susan Kramer, who is also an artist. Their son, Nic, 32, lives in Detroit and serves as IT manager for DetroitYES! In his spare time, Lowell Boileau plays handball and is writing a novella set in Mexico.

This month Boileau is at work on a mural in the lobby of the No. 1 elevator on the parking deck roof at the TCF Center, a.k.a. Cobo Hall. The image shows his signature style -- long, moody lines of automobiles on a rain-slicked freeway, heading in and out of a distant downtown Detroit. It’s a painting that reflects the commuting vibe of the carpark and the center’s best-known event, the auto show.  

The DetroitYES! site these days needs a major software update, but otherwise it’s business as usual. Boileau acknowledges participation has slipped from its peak around 2010. He blames Facebook, but admits he is attracted to Facebook himself.

Once upon a time, a DetroitYES! thread about the infamous Gar Wood mansion – a lavish old home on the east riverfront taken over in the early 1970s by hippies and then motorcycle gangs -- received 10,000 posts and 2 million views. Those days might be over, but Detroit remains a very discussable subject, and a couple new members sign up almost every day.

While successful on many levels, DetroitYES! has not made Boileau rich. He said he has earned barely $5 an hour from ads and donations for the work he has put in, far less than his art and commercial web business bring in. In attracting worldwide attention, the site has brought other compensation, such as media coverage from near and far and appearances in films, including “Requiem for Detroit?” a 2010 documentary by famed English director Julien Temple. He filmed Boileau driving around town in a big red Cadillac, discussing Detroit. 

“I didn’t do DetroitYES! to make money,” he said. “I did because it was fun. It’s enjoyable. I just love it. With all the money in the world, you can’t buy that.”

Bill McGraw is the co-founder of Deadline Detroit. He was a reporter and editor at the Free Press for 37 years.

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