The young people starting their lives in Detroit are not only invested in their artsy pipe dreams, but a better city for all.
On a recent episode of the HBO show “Girls,” Hannah moans to her quasi-boyfriend over the phone from her Midwest hometown: “Why doesn’t everyone struggling in New York move here and start the revolution? It’s like we’re all slaves to this place that doesn’t even really want us.”
Hannah could have been talking about Detroit, which Salon recently dubbed “the official cool-kids destination,” part of a broader trend of educated Millennials moving to Rust Belt cities and towns. A few decades ago, it would have been unthinkable that such people would want to live in Detroit, where white flight, postindustrial decline, and the sub-prime mortgage crisis have resulted in nearly one-third of property sitting empty and boarded shut. But where there’s blight, there’s also cheap rent and vacant lots: ideal habitats for young creatives and their funky art collectives or urban farms.
But Salon’s writer, Will Doig, paints the new Detroiters as pursuing a “romantic fantasy” of “Rust Belt chic,” pointing to a hipsterish lust for “ruin porn.” He echoes many critics of Detroit’s recent “brain gain”: that job-creation, not an influx of creatives, is the real answer to urban decline.
There may be some “creative class” boosterism going on in Detroit, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t also authentic, sophisticated projects in motion. I recently visited Detroit for two weeks and met with some of its newcomers. Many are starting up social enterprises while others are working in creative sectors like advertising. And while they do appreciate the low rent and cost of living in the Motor City, these new, young Detroiters are far from self-absorbed hipsters. In fact, their work is having a meaningful impact on the city’s economy and culture.
Thirty-year-old Amy Kaherl was raised in Detroit’s suburbs. She spent three years in Los Angeles doing a master’s in theology, while living frugally in a shared one-bedroom apartment. When Kaherl finished her degree in 2008, unemployment was inching toward nine percent. Moving back to Detroit, where Kaherl knew life would be cheaper, she fell into a community of people like her, who wanted to have fun while being involved in innovative projects.
“The people here are cool, and the ego’s left at the door,” she told me. “I know New York, I know L.A. You gotta hustle. This is the place where you try to make something happen.”
Kaherl now runs Detroit SOUP, a monthly dinner that charges five dollars for a plate of home-cooked food to generate seed funding for a selected project that promises to positively impact Detroit. Projects funded by SOUP include a park clean-up day for schoolchildren, a homeless outreach program, and a community-run radio station. At first, Kahrel was volunteering, but as SOUP, and Detroit’s overall revitalization, attracted national media attention, a grant came in from the Knight Foundation that allowed Kaherl to fully focus on SOUP.
Funding from Detroit SOUP helped a 5th grade class beautify a city park.
Justin Jacobs, 29, also created a career by fulfilling a need in Detroit. He founded a city-wide sports league, Come Play Detroit, and had an incredible influx of customers within months, because nothing like it existed. What had been a passion for Jacobs became his full-time job—something that may not have come so easily in a bigger city.
Many critics assume that Detroit’s movers and shakers are white and educated. That’s partly true—but many individuals recognize that insularity and seek to push past it. Twenty-seven-year-old Jess Daniel, a PhD student at Michigan State, is disrupting the stereotypical image of Detroit’s local food movement as dominated by the archetypal young, hip, and white urban farmer.Daniel started an organization called FoodLab that incubates small local food businesses and offers monthly workshops on formalizing and developing a microenterprise. FoodLab specifically did outreach in neighborhoods outside the hip, pricier downtown area—and as a result, the majority of its workshop participants are women of color.
Still, Doig and others have a legitimate critique of the cultural divide following the rise of Detroit’s “creative class,” which Richard Florida has championed as the solution to urban decline. It’s certainly dangerous to assume that moving tech companies to a city will somehow benefit the thousands of residents who aren’t qualified to work in those places—in fact, it may push them out of their neighborhoods. Like with all gentrification, the influx of well-heeled white folks is noticed, and not appreciated, by Detroiters of more modest means. Recently, a man called in to a popular local radio show and complained, in response to a discussion about urban agriculture, “Midtown is being taken over by people who didn’t necessarily come from this city, and they’re renovating homes and building invisible fences around them so people who are from here can’t get in.”
Those invisible fences exist partly because of economic boundaries; what may seem like cheap rent to a twenty-something with a college degree, who’s been living in L.A. or New York, could be impossible for a Detroiter of the same age. But they're also a result of long-standing racial divides in Detroit. For decades, black workers in the auto industry were relegated to lower-paying and unskilled jobs, and Metropolitan Detroit was spending $500 less per student than suburban school districts. With the recession in full swing, the employment situation for working-class Detroiters has worsened. Living among Detroit’s dilapidated houses provides a constant reminder of the decline of American industrialism and deeply-ingrained racial segregation.
But many of the young people moving into Detroit—a good majority from the suburbs, where their parents fled following the infamous riots of 1967—are aware of this divide, and want to work toward its eradication, while knowing how lofty that goal is. The “cool kids” moving to the Motor City want to put their ideas to work, and create a culture they enjoy living in. Compared to their counterparts in other cities, who have to put in more hours at side jobs or 9-to-5s unrelated to their passions, Detroiter’s Millennials have more time to do what motivates them—and what aids their struggling city.
Though we may not see job creation and economic improvement instantly as a result of Millennials moving to the Rust Belt, they are part of the overall solution, and they know it. They’re working hard, thinking critically, and contributing. If Detroit and other Rust Belt cities are to be substantially transformed, interventions at all levels—government, private capital, and small-scale endeavors—will be required, and change won’t happen overnight. The Millennials setting up their lives in Detroit are not only invested in their artsy pipe dreams, but a better city for all.
A pop-up beer garden in a vacant lot
Photos by Rachel Signer