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‘U’ alumni work to change the image of Detroit

By Andrew Schulman, Daily Staff Reporter
Published July 16, 2011

In 2008, Detroit landed on Forbes’ annual list of “America’s Most Miserable Cities,” and hope that its automakers could compete with foreign counterparts dwindled. As the city’s population continues to decline and its unemployment rate remains higher than the national average, the fear that Detroit is slowly disintegrating remains steadfast.

However, there are increasing signs of economic growth and vitality appearing throughout the city, most prominently through the work of young adults — including University alumni — who are developing new businesses, charities and art projects in the spaces left derelict after the decade of economic struggles.

Among the college-educated Detroit newcomers is 23-year-old University alum Jimmy Tomczak, who founded TOMBOLO — a company that makes sandals from recycled billboard vinyl that imitates the feel of being barefoot — in September 2010. Tomczak said he was inspired to start the company through the University’s fostering of entrepreneurial spirit as well as his own personal vision of a revitalized Detroit.

“My vision isn’t just the shoes, but the vision to promote conscious consumption and creative reuse,” Tomczak said. “And I think that is a much greater impact and a much bigger vision to have, to be able to say that it’s not just the tangible, but both the tangible and intangible innovations that happen as a result of creativity in a place like Detroit.”

Tomczak said he believes Detroit is ready to “experience a rebirth” and the burgeoning entrepreneurial culture has uplifted the city and revamped its business landscape.

“It’s about those people that are connecting and coming back together with the city in mind,” he said. “There are so many things happening like that with youth and different connections that it’s not just about automotive and corporate protection anymore. It’s about the students, entrepreneurs and makers that are out there doing it.”

The shift is partially the result of demographic trends over the last decade. While a quarter of Detroit's population fled in response to economic hardships, during that same time the city saw a 59-percent increase in college-educated residents who are under the age of 35, according to a July 1 article in The New York Times.

Donald Grimes, a senior research associate at the University’s Institute for Research on Labor, Employment and the Economy, said youth play a crucial role in revitalizing the city.

“That’s probably the most important positive indicator that there’s more involvement and more interest in people from your generation,” Grimes said. “They see it as sort of an exciting place to try to work in and revive. You’re sort of on the cutting edge of urban revitalization.”

Mashawnta Armstrong, a 28-year-old University alum, lecturer in the University’s Taubman College of Architecture of Urban Planning, and founder and editor-in-chief of MASH Magazine, said she was similarly inspired. As a native of Detroit, Armstrong published the first issue of MASH this March with the aim of upending misconceptions about the city.

“The purpose (of MASH) is to change that perception of Detroit,” Armstrong said. “We always see the negative connotations in media about Detroit — that it’s dirty, it’s dilapidated. There’s so many negative things that resonate about the city that goes out to the world, and we want to change that with the magazine.”

Because of this, MASH’s second issue will bear an idea Armstrong imagined for her senior thesis at the University in 2008: renovating a dilapidated house in one of the city’s deserted neighborhoods. After the magazine publishes a picture of the house, Armstrong said she will invite readers to the building to suggest renovations and then will work on raising the funds needed to bring the changes to fruition.