(Photo by Aidan Un)
Everything at the Department of Making + Doing told a story.
Like the vinyl cutter that a Masterman student used to engrave his name — Imam — into the Batman symbol or the cheery Philly Love Bot, built after a nomadic robot named HitchBot was decapitated by Philly vandals.
In that way, the makerspace wore its heart on its sleeve. Kind of like how Michael Darfler is wearing his right now.
“You could walk into the space and it spoke to you,” he muses, wistfully. “That’s what made the space so exciting.”
It was Darfler’s job to run DMD and now, he has to shut it down.
It’s a brisk fall morning after the space has closed for good, and he’s standing amid U-Haul boxes in various stages of composure, wearing a pair of khaki work pants stained with splotches of white paint. It’s moving day and there’s nowhere left to sit. There’s a pile of forgotten electronics to his left (an ’80s-era portable TV, anyone?) and the wall decorations still need to come down.
“History will be kind to us for we intend to create it,” declares one wall, the oversized letters stretching across its entirety.
The move-out process has made Darfler nostalgic, intensified, he says, by the fact that practically everything around him was created in the space. He keeps finding things that DMD members made, things that mean something to him, things that tell a story.
“Going through all this now is like, womp womp,” he says.
Located on the ground floor of the University City Science Center’s 3711 Market Street building, DMD was a 4,500-square-foot workshop where children and adults alike could learn how to lasercut holiday cards or how to turn LEDs into lightsabers. It was home to three different organizations that hoped to empower youth through the act of building — The Hacktory, Public Workshop and the Science Center’s Breadboard. But at heart, it was a community space.
Its glassy storefront and playful branding beckoned on a corridor that felt largely corporate and impersonal, and that spoke to the space’s inclusive, open-door policy — classes came at a price but there was no membership fee to join.
DMD was just one of the local makerspaces that sprouted up in the last few years, contributing to a maker revival that’s also taken other Northeast cities by storm. But there have been some growing pains. While Washington Avenue’s NextFab plans an expansion to Delaware, other makerspaces haven’t been as fortunate.
"We effectively got gentrified out."
Ambitious projects like Kensington’s 3rd Ward and Manayunk’s The Transfer Station shut down in the last two years. Hobbyist hackerspace Hive76 was forced out of its longtime home after the city shut down the building that housed the space. Meanwhile, a developer’s plans to renovate a former South Philly school into a massive makerspace sparked a contentious conversation about gentrification this summer. The word “makerspace” — replete with scare quotes — suddenly became synonymous with “yuppie.”
So when DMD closed this fall, we wondered what that said, if anything, about the future of the maker community in Philadelphia. Why did it actually close? Were Philly makerspaces doomed? And what could other projects learn from DMD?
That’s why we were standing in DMD on moving day, listening to Darfler talk about what made DMD so special, which turns into a meditation on why humans are drawn to what he called the “very personal activity” of making things with their hands.
It’s the difference between a homemade cabinet and one from IKEA (though, he said, there were some retrofitted IKEA cabinets in DMD): you feel a stronger connection to the piece of furniture that you built with your own hands. The 30-year-old Darfler would know: before he ventured into the world of makerspaces, he made cabinets and furniture for a living.
“This,” he says, gesturing to the space, “is why we do things that are physical and tangible.”
When DMD launched in the spring of 2013, it was something of a maker miracle.
Or, as the Science Center’s David Clayton put it, “the stars aligned.”
First, there was the space. It had been NextFab’s first location — founder Evan Malone transformed the vacant space into a high-tech workshop full of expensive manufacturing equipment, the first of its kind in the city — but in just two years, NextFab had outgrown the space and moved to a larger facility on Washington Avenue. Hoping to repurpose the space and make use of his investment, Malone wondered: What about a makerspace for families?
He pulled in The Hacktory and Breadboard, which were already doing that kind of work, and acted as a sort of fairy godfather, offering to pay for the next two years and supply equipment while the DMD experiment played out. (The Science Center gave him better lease terms to help keep the space active, he told us in 2013.) Public Workshop, another youth-oriented maker organization, joined the founding DMD crew as well.
It all happened very fast, but suddenly, DMD was in business. They opened to the public with a launch party in May of 2013, where children learned to build circuits out of Play-Doh and teens from Public Workshop’s Building Hero Project showed off benches they had built.
“With the addition of the dedication and pioneering programs of The Hacktory and Public Workshop, DMD has huge potential to change informal education and reinvigorate and empower our citizens to be designers and makers,” Malone wrote to us in 2013. “I’m proud to be involved.”
A few months later, they hired Darfler, a former carpenter who had been volunteering at the space.
DMD went on to become a community center, much like a library, except equipped with a laser cutter and a woodshop (and a lot more chaotic). On Wednesdays, a group of Science Leadership Academy students came by to hang out and do homework, and Thursdays were designated for the “Drop In and Do” open house that often drew 30-40 people. The Hacktory held after-school programs. Public Workshop’s teen members came by every Sunday to plan their next build.
Last April, at the Philly Tech Week kickoff at City Hall’s Dilworth Park, scores of delighted children played with DMD originals, like an enormous spirograph and a pendulum that splattered paint, turning kids into pint-size Jackson Pollocks.
All the while, a reality loomed. DMD’s lease was up in November. And as the fall drew closer, Darfler said the partners were forced to tackle some difficult questions.
How can we make this work? Can we make it work? What are the financial realities of this organization?
“You know,” he said, “real baseline questions that in some ways we hadn’t really asked ourselves at the get go because we had the space and everyone was like, yup, let’s just set up shop and get going.”
For one, Malone was no longer going to underwrite the space and the partners couldn’t afford stay.
That’s no surprise: it’s expensive to plant a flag in University City these days, in no small part thanks to the Science Center’s development work. At $35 per square foot, University City has the highest commercial real estate rates in the city, according to a Q3 2015 report from real estate firm Newmark Grubb Knight Frank.
“That corner’s just blown up since we moved there,” said Alex Gilliam, the sturdy and bespectacled founder of Public Workshop. “We effectively got gentrified out.”
For the lease renewal, the Science Center continued to offer DMD partners “well-below-market rents” plus “a small increase,” said Science Center spokeswoman Jeanne Mell.
When asked about growing real estate values of the Market Street corridor, Mell said she couldn’t confirm if real estate prices had gone up but that the Science Center has been actively working to revitalize this corner of the city.
But the decision wasn’t just about money. DMD partners say it was more complicated than that.
In many ways, they had grown apart.
“We had to be honest with each other and say, ‘This is where we see ourselves,'” the Science Center’s Clayton said.
“We want to set down roots and be part of a community,” Gilliam said in a phone interview last month.
The Science Center’s Breadboard program evolved into FirstHand, a STEM program for middle schoolers that pairs students with scientist mentors, and they needed lab space. Midway through the DMD partnership, FirstHand moved into a Science Center building down the street.
"The tools here were only a catalyst for building a community."
As for The Hacktory, founder Georgia Guthrie said that it made sense for them to move out. The Hacktory was ready to launch a membership model like NextFab’s, and Malone had asked that DMD not do that, since that would mean competition for NextFab. He was, after all, sponsoring the space.
The Hacktory has a different target customer than that of NextFab, Guthrie said.
“We think we’ve carved out a different audience than those who seek out NextFab’s services,” Guthrie wrote in an email. “We are much more into offering an on-ramp into the tech/maker world for people of all backgrounds, rather than providing access to the most cutting-edge tools for those who need them for business purposes.”
Still, all the partners talk fondly of the experience.
“We’re stronger as a result of the space,” Gilliam said, echoing Clayton, who said DMD was a kind of incubator that allowed each of the partners to figure out what their strengths were.
And while Darfler’s sad to see the space go, he said it’s the work the partners continue to do that will be DMD’s legacy.
DMD throws its “last huzzah” party on a cool Thursday evening approaching Halloween.
The ice and Federal Donuts fried chicken arrive at 7 p.m. as partygoers spill in from the glittering Market Street sidewalk.
Homemade party favors — oversized Chinese takeout boxes made with colorful construction paper — are huddled on a table near DMD’s heavy glass doors. A closet has been converted into “a memory chamber,” where a filmmaker stands behind his camera, asking what you’ll remember of the space.
Around the corner sits Maximillian Lawrence, the energetic and slightly zany DMD regular who jumps out of his chair when he sees Imam Mahmoud, a gleeful Sudanese-American eighth-grader whose favorite DMD project was that Batman patch he engraved his name into and ironed onto a sweatshirt.
“Dude, how’s school!” Lawrence asks. “You look great, dude, you like, grew nine inches.”
Mahmoud’s eyes sparkle.
Nearby, at the drinks table, in a purple leopard-print dress and the tiniest silver stud in her left nostril, is Allison Frick, the Hacktory’s director of outreach and education. A librarian by day, Frick says she’s “heartcrushed” by DMD closing. She leans in close to tell us that she might duck out early to use the laser cutter one last time.
Malone’s here too, and right after he leaves the party, he sits on the ledge outside the space, posing for one last picture where his business was born.
And there’s Darfler, with his full beard and plaid shirt, flanked by his wife and his swaddled infant son.
“Does he know how to use a solder iron yet?” a partygoer quips.
These are the people who have come to say goodbye to the space, and Darfler will say they’re the most important.
“As much as I’m sure we’d all love to take the laser cutter with us,” he later says to the crowd, “the tools here were only a catalyst for building a community.”
He’ll take that ethos to his next gig: building a new makerspace in Abington.
Photos: Check out NextFab’s brand new North American Street makerspace
Meet the who’s who of local tech community builders: Philly’s 100 RealLIST Connectors
City budgets are getting wrecked by a pandemic. Heed this caution into the fight
Philly makers are stepping up to ease the protective equipment shortage for healthcare workers
Sign-up for daily news updates from Technical.ly Philadelphia