BY KIMBERLY CHOU
Published September 30, 2008
CORRECTION: University alum Betsy Palazzola's name was mispelled in the print edition as Betsy Palazzolo.
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For the past half-century, urban flight has shaped Detroit’s grand narrative — a departure of people, jobs and businesses from the city to the suburbs.
Now, some recent University graduates are heading back to the city that in many cases their parents and grandparents left behind.
Oren Goldenberg, 25, started a documentary about the Detroit Public School system during his last year at the University. He commuted back and forth between Ann Arbor and the city he grew up outside of — his family lived at 10 Mile and Woodward — but had rarely visited. To complete the project, he moved to Detroit a year ago.
“So many people are going to Brooklyn,” Goldenberg said. “In Detroit, you actually have space to do your art and show your art and the resources (to do so) just in terms of spatial availability.”
In this regard, Detroit is similar to how Philadelphia was two decades ago, when School of Art and Design Prof. Nick Tobier moved there after college.
“If you go to New York and Chicago, there are already places to slot yourself into,” said Tobier, who worked with University students in the city this summer. “One of my neighbors in Detroit this summer said, ‘Detroit is a place for creative revolutions.’ ”
Rent is spectacularly cheap there: $300-400 will start you off with an apartment in Midtown, near Wayne State University. The art and social scenes prove impressive if you know where to look, with neighborhood festivals seemingly every summer weekend and events at the Contemporary Art Institute of Detroit or watering holes like D’Mongo’s and Bronx Bar to choose from. In Detroit, to run into internationally known DJs spinning after-hours parties is not uncommon.
“It’s sort of the perfect confluence of really cheap living and a lot of creative, exciting things going on in the community,” said John Notorianni, 24, who moved to Detroit after graduating from the University in 2006. He lived there for a year, working for radio station WDET, before taking a job with National Public Radio in Baltimore; he now describes himself as “a longing expat.”
“I miss the really fierce sense of community people have there,” he said. “The people who were there were there for a reason.”
A ‘FIERCE SENSE OF COMMUNITY’
The greatest part of the appeal for these University graduates is this sense of community, and the potential to help change (and be changed by) a city that has lost so much — particularly in population and business — to its sprawling suburbs.
Stephen Ward, a professor in the Residential College and the Center for Afro-American and African Studies, researches and teaches classes involving Detroit.
Many students who choose Detroit after graduation grew up in the surrounding suburbs, he said, and more often than not, they also grew up with the idea of an undesirable — if not downright dangerous — Detroit.
“In general, (these students) grew up in the metro Detroit area, with this narrative from their parents or grandparents who perhaps grew up in Detroit, about Detroit having once been a great city and now it’s fallen,” Ward said. “The city declined and their families left. And now they go to the city for shows or sporting events or to hear music, otherwise they have a sense that Detroit is a dangerous place or a place to avoid.”
When Notorianni and his older sister started hanging out in Detroit as teenagers, their parents weren’t thrilled.
“They thought it was crazy,” said Notorianni, who grew up in Farmington Hills. “They still had the idea of what Detroit was in the mid-’80s, when my father was working downtown a lot.”
Those who ultimately move to Detroit hear other sides of the story the more they actually go down there, and sometimes through classes such as Ward’s (whose urban and community studies core course through the RC inspired Semester in Detroit) and American Culture Prof. Scott Kurashige’s (who is a research fellow at Harvard University this year, but usually lives in and studies Detroit).
“By the time (students) graduate they have a different view of the city,” Ward said. “It’s a place with problems but also there’s opportunity, in terms of rebuilding but also for them as individuals to be involved in something.”
LIVING FOR THE CITY
Many members of this demographic — 20-something, college-educated, socially conscious — are white. Not to ignore people of color who have moved to or are considering Detroit (myself included), but the fact that white people are moving to Detroit now stands out in this greater narrative. This is a metropolitan area whose decades-old grudges find root (depending on who’s complaining) in white flight, segregation or Coleman Young’s quotas.
“I think race is the fundamental stumbling block that our country faces,” Tobier said. “If you are white and privileged you can insulate yourself from questions and conflicts that arise from race, everyday.