Moving to Detroit
Young Ann Arborites chase their dreams
From the December, 2013 issue
Andy Sokoly is one of the few white faces in a church on Detroit's east side. As a woman with a cordless microphone leads a thunderous call-and-response--"Praise him!"--a group of visitors is swiftly ushered to the front. With the November election just two days away, Perfecting Church is bestowing its political blessings.
Founded by gospel singer Marvin Winans, the church occupies a massive modern block at Nevada and Van Dyke. Though it's three in the afternoon, the high, purple-draped sanctuary is packed as Benny Napoleon and half a dozen candidates for city council--all African American--line up facing the congregation. While Winans looks on benignly, a short, wiry man takes the microphone to urge the congregation not to believe the "mainstream media" that show Napoleon trailing Mike Duggan, who is white. "Don't let them Trayvon Martin us!" he roars. "We cannot turn Detroit into Zimmermantown!"
Sokoly, a U-M public policy grad who's here as a campaign manager for council candidate Scott Benson, appears unfazed. The candidates exit as quickly as they came, and Sokoly and another volunteer hop into the backseat of Benson's Ford Focus. There's still time to get in a little door-to-door campaigning before dark.
Two days later, as predicted, Napoleon loses. But Benson, a fit forty-something coast guard veteran with a master's in urban planning, is elected to represent the city's new Third District. By mid-month, he was talking to Sokoly about a possible job on his staff.
Sokoly, twenty-nine, rents a room in a house in Mexicantown, a largely Hispanic neighborhood in southwest Detroit. The home is owned by Summer in the City, a nonprofit that recruits volunteers--many of them, like Sokoly, white kids from the suburbs--to do cleanup and planting projects in Detroit. After volunteering and working for Summer in the City, he's now freelancing for New Solutions, a Detroit planning and advocacy group.
And he's not the only Ann Arbor person in the house, where rooms rent for less than $300 a month. Elise Kulik grew
up in Burns Park and graduated from Pioneer High. After getting an undergrad degree at Boston University and a master's in social work from the U-M, Kulik, twenty-four, now works for Head Start. A Spanish speaker, she visits the homes of Hispanic immigrants, helping the kids with English and offering practical advice to their moms.
Sokoly and Kulik like to hang out at the Woodbridge Pub on Trumbull; another ex-Ann Arborite, Jim Geary, opened it in an abandoned liquor store in 2006. Another regular, Alex Pereira, thirty-four, is a U-M grad student in business. Pereira got excited about Detroit in longtime Ann Arbor developer Peter Allen's real estate class, which regularly makes field trips to the city. He's now transforming a "derelict, uninhabitable building" a few blocks from the pub into a five-unit apartment.
Pereira sees possibilities in Detroit that he didn't in Ann Arbor. "The big players in Ann Arbor have already made their names," he says. "As a new developer, you have to go where you can make the greatest impact."
Traditionally, ambitious young U-M grads have left Ann Arbor for cities like Chicago, San Francisco, or New York. But in the last few years, a small but growing number are going to Detroit. With more than a third of its households living below the poverty line, Detroit is the poorest big city in the county. Its shrinking population, high crime rate, and ruined buildings made it the foremost symbol of American urban decay long before a state-appointed emergency manager--U-M law grad Kevyn Orr--put the city in bankruptcy.
Yet for young people like Andy Sokoly, Elise Kulik, and Alex Pereira, Detroit is the place to be. Peter Allen says it's as though the city is suddenly back on the map. Allen has his real estate students do a hypothetical exercise in which they "purchase" a foreclosed home in a big city, "live" there a year, and then "rent" it for three years, "to see how it pays off as an investment." In the past, they almost always picked homes in popular coastal cities. But "two years ago, for the first time, a couple of students out of about fifty" chose Detroit, Allen recalls. "Last year, it was five. This year, out of fifty-three, twenty-three picked Detroit."
The students reflect a national trend, says Sue Mosey, director of Midtown Detroit, a nonprofit that rehabs housing and sponsors community events in the greater Wayne State area. This generation, she says, is interested in "urban social"--the excitement and density of city living.
"I moved to Ann Arbor from a small town--and after a while Ann Arbor started to seem like a small town," says Lisa Waud, the young owner of the Felch Street floral shop Pot and Box. She recently moved to an apartment in Corktown, the onetime Irish neighborhood just west of downtown Detroit. She's keeping her Ann Arbor store but plans to do "pop-up" sales at various places around the city.
Macklin Underdown, twenty-two, graduated from U-M last spring and now lives in a neighborhood near downtown. His girlfriend has a job in Livonia, and he recently found a job in Detroit developing smartphone applications. He is struck by the spirit of innovation he finds in the city. One friend started a bicycle-powered curbside recycling business. Another bought a "foreclosed school"--for what, he's not sure.
Andy Sokoly says he and friends like being able to walk or bike to their downtown jobs. Sokoly also was drawn to Detroit because his grandfather used to live on the southwest side--very close to the Summer in the City house. That's not unusual. Even young people whose families left the city before they were born--often part of the "white flight" that turned the city from 83 percent white in 1950 to 83 percent black in 2010--often feel a connection.
Most of the new urbanites are settling in a few popular neighborhoods near downtown and along the Woodward corridor--Midtown, Eastern Market, Lafayette Park--and, to a lesser extent, Mexicantown. There are also pockets of young newcomers on the eastern edge of the city near Grosse Pointe, including Yorkshire Woods and East English Village.
Young people moving into Detroit are still outnumbered by city dwellers headed the other way. More than 200,000 have left during the last decade, mostly black professionals and working-class people who took to the suburbs for safer living and better schools. And very few of the newcomers are settling in the many neighborhoods beset by high crime, boarded-up buildings, and vacant lots. On the way to Perfecting Church, I passed through an old industrial district where the few businesses still functioning sported razor wire atop their chain-link fences.
Some longtime residents, both black and white, resent the attention the newcomers attract. For instance, there's been a lot of hype about the new bars and restaurants opening in Corktown. But "Hipsters go home!" read one piece of fence graffiti I saw in Corktown, and some people who've toughed out decades in the city refer contemptuously to the newcomers as "slum tourists."
Midtown's Sue Mosey is unapologetic. "People moving back here helps create a narrative that's hopeful," she says crisply. "And everyone [in Detroit] benefits."
U-M grad Brianna Fritz and her boyfriend, Brian Ellison, meet me for lunch at the Union Street Saloon, a popular restaurant/bar on Woodward in Midtown. Across the street, a man hurls curses in the air; people walk by, appearing not to notice.
Fritz, twenty-eight, does promotional and outreach work for Wayne State's law school. She's excited about the home she just purchased in East English Village; three bedrooms, with "awesome trees" and "in perfect shape." It was listed at $100,000; she bought it for $70,000.
Fritz moved to East English Village from Corktown; she was ready for something more permanent and for a quieter, more residential neighborhood. She grew up in the suburbs but went into the city frequently--she remembers her father, who worked downtown, taking her to the Anchor Bar, where he'd get a beer and she a grilled cheese sandwich.
At U-M, she interested other suburban kids in going to Detroit events and restaurants. She lingered in Ann Arbor for a time after graduation, but always planned to move to Detroit--and a couple of years ago, she did.
Ellison, thirty-nine, grew up in Southfield. A former teacher in the Detroit public schools, he now advises the city on business ventures--and tapped into his own inner entrepreneur last summer by starting a kayak rental business on Belle Isle. Both he and Fritz are absorbed by Detroit-related activities: they play softball in a city league, she's part of a nonprofit trying to open a new theater near Wayne State, and both regularly attend local events like gallery openings and a friend's pop-up beer garden.
At one point, looking around Union Street, whose clientele is split pretty evenly between black and white, Fritz remarks that it's one of the most "diverse" places in the city. Although Ellison is African American, the couple acknowledge that most of the young professionals moving into the hip districts are white. While both live in racially mixed neighborhoods, the black residents tend to be older, usually long-established professionals and working people.
Adam Hollier is an exception. He grew up in Detroit, went to grad school at the U-M, and briefly served on the Ann Arbor school board before moving back home, where he ran for city council this year. At Perfecting Church the Sunday before the election, he shared the stage with Benny Napoleon and Andy Sokoly's candidate, Scott Benson. Despite the support of the church and an endorsement by the Detroit News, he lost narrowly to a better-known candidate.
Hollier, who has a staff job on city council, graduated from one of the city's best schools, Renaissance High. But he says less than a third of his classmates still live in the city--most have professional jobs in the suburbs in Michigan or around the country. He thinks one reason that more black Detroiters haven't joined the new entrepreneurial set is that "they saw no role models growing up." Another factor, he and others say, is the simple desire to live somewhere other than where you grew up.
In November, a few days after a drive-by shooter killed three people in a barber shop/gambling spot on Seven Mile Rd., I call Brianna Fritz to talk about crime. "It's definitely very troubling," she says. "Unfortunately, it's a reality ... When something happens to a friend of yours--a car window broken or someone is mugged--your guard goes up. It's important your guard be up." She makes sure someone walks her to her car if she's out at night and keeps her car locked and empty to reduce the risk of break-ins.
Like most Ann Arbor transplants, Andy Sokoly stresses that the city doesn't explode with crime at every street corner. "If you're aware of your surroundings, it's a lot safer than it's portrayed on TV," he says. Still, that vigilance takes a toll. When he returns to Ann Arbor, he admits, "it's like a weight has lifted from my shoulders."
The other big question mark for young people putting down roots in the city is education: Sokoly admits that if he were married and thinking about having children, sending them to the struggling Detroit Public Schools "would be a long, hard thought."
Craig Regester had that long thought--and left. The director of U-M's Semester in Detroit program, Regester lived in southwest Detroit for eighteen years. But last year, he and his wife made the painful decision to move to suburban Berkley.
Regester explains that they wanted their two kids to stay in public schools but in ones better than they were attending. "I loved my neighborhood," he tells me. "It was truly diverse." But he loved his kids more.
For many Detroiters, moving isn't an option. Longtime residents, black and white, have seen the city erode around them for decades as old neighbors die or move away. Many young people either have no jobs or wait for the bus to take them to minimum-wage jobs in the suburbs. For them, the green shoots along Woodward are little more than a distant rumor.
I was struck by that contrast when I visited an elderly friend of mine in the city. For fifty-some years, she's lived near Eight Mile Road on a street that just barely manages to be "stable." She scrapes by, recently leaving a prescription unfilled because she couldn't afford the $200 cost. Her life centers around her church and her friends, most of whom live nearby.
When I describe the neighborhoods I've been visiting, she looks blank. I ask her if she's ever been to Corktown.
"No, but I've heard of it," she says. "It's supposed to be cute, isn't it?"
[Originally published in December, 2013.]