This is a piece for the Detroit Beat, a new blog at the Daily. Look for the Detroit Beat link on our website in the fall.
Detroit is almost 140 square miles in size, large enough to fit Manhattan, San Francisco, and Boston inside of its borders.
Some of those square miles live up to Detroit’s reputation. There are vacant lots, crimes, blight, and distressed conditions. However, the remainder that makes up the city’s center could be referred to as an almost second Detroit — and this Detroit has been catching student’s eyes recently as a city that has plenty of benefits for someone with minimal money, an eagerness to find work and the thirst for a city experience.
A tale of two cities
When choosing a city to start in, 20-somethings have specific priorities in mind, such as affordable housing and, most importantly, employment opportunities, John Mogk, professor at Wayne State University Law School said.
“All of the qualities for young professionals that are important — safety, affordable housing, cultural attractions recreation — are all, to some degree, and in some cases to a large degree, available in the midtown, downtown area of Detroit,” Mogk said.
These factors make growing areas like Downtown, Midtown, the East Riverfront and various adjacent neighborhoods like Woodbridge and Corktown not only livable, but ideally suited to a demographic of recent college grads.
According to the 2012 Census, between 2008 and 2012 over 21,000 18 to 24-year-olds moved into Detroit from another city in Michigan. Nearly the same amount of 25 to 34-year-olds entered the city as well, meaning that young people are moving into Detroit, though their level of education is unclear.
A separate figure from the New York Times says that the downtown Detroit area has seen the number of college-educated residents under the age of 35 go up 59 percent in the past ten years.
Young residents play a game of beach volleyball along the riverfront.
Community accountability helps resolve concerns
Growing up, Mary Naoum knew Detroit in the same way most kids that grew up in the suburbs did. It was a destination for sports, or for the occasional musical at the Fisher Theatre. It wasn’t until college that she began to see the city as a creative outlet — a blank canvas of sorts that could be painted with her degrees in performing arts management and community action and social change.
Naoum, who graduated this spring, joined the Prison Creative Arts Project — a University program which allows students to volunteer in local prisons — and held workshops in Detroit. She connected with the city through the Detroit Partnership, an annual University program, and took part in Semester in Detroit, which sends students to live, study and work in the city for a semester. By senior year she knew exactly where she wanted to be before she even had a job lined up.
The Southwest side of Detroit, where Naoum now lives, is a neighborhood marked by its atmosphere. A vibrant Mexican culture exists in the appropriately named Mexicantown, Hungarian culture thrives in Delray, and historic homes are the highlight in Naoum’s neighborhood, Hubbard Farms.
Naoum said she was drawn to the neighborhood because of people she knew and the lifestyle that Southwest offers. There’s a community garden and Clark Park, which is home to constant activities and recreational opportunities.
Above all else, though, Naoum said she values the community of people that surrounds her.
Cafe Con Leche, a central point of the Hubbard Farms neighborhood, is one of only a few cafes left in Southwest Detroit.
“Because safety is an issue in Detroit, I wanted to live somewhere where the residents are taking charge of that,” she said.
In an effort to supplement the police department, Hubbard Farms residents use a community-run texting group and an e-mail listserv that is accessible to members of the community to look out for one another. One of Naoum’s elderly neighbors can consistently be found perched on his front porch, keeping an eye on everyone’s comings and goings.
“We watch out for each other because crime is present, but it makes me feel much better knowing that if I screamed on my block, there’s 5 people who would come out of their house immediately to help,” she said.
Even though crime is more prevalent in Detroit than on the University’s campus in Ann Arbor — according to the FBI 2012 unified crime report, the city was the second most dangerous in the United States after Flint — she said she feels safer in Detroit. It might seem counter-intuitive, but Naoum said her neighbors are what make all the difference.
“In Ann Arbor, people are screaming day in and day out, and nobody does anything about it because one, you think it’s someone being drunk and stupid, or two, at least when I was in Ann Arbor, I felt no accountability for my neighbors,” she said. “With Detroit, I think the opposite is true.”
A wall mural adorns the side of a business in the Hubbard Farms neighborhood.
Growing a future in Detroit
When Cory Froning was a sophomore at the University, she signed up for Semester in Detroit on a whim. An Ann Arbor native, her impression of Detroit was primarily negative — she had heard of the dangers of the city, the violence and the crime. But she decided to participate in the semester long program anyways.
Even though she won’t be graduating for another two years, she said she knew Detroit was in her future from her first weekend in the city.
“I did a complete 180,” Froning said. “I thought, ‘Wow, Detroit is a really cool city. I have nothing to worry about.’ ”
Froning is majoring in Social Theory and Practice in the Residential College, with a minor through Program in the Environment called Sustainable Food Systems, and is most interested in urban agriculture — a practice that is becoming more and more popular in downtown Detroit as a way of utilizing the city’s many vacant lots.
During the winter semester that she spent in Detroit, Froning interned for Detroit Food Academy, which supports young Detroiters who want to open their own food business. The Academy hired Froning for the summer after the program ended and she’s continued working there this summer.
Froning and her boyfriend, who works at Quicken Loans, live in an apartment complex on Adelaide Street in Brush Park. In her area, there are newer condominiums, but also an old abandoned high school and a skate park.
“I live in a really old apartment building that is mostly inhabited by its initial residents,” she said. “There’s so much history, and it’s such a community that there is no way I could feel unsafe.”
Like Naoum, Froning said she feels that her community in Detroit is entirely different than what she was familiar with in Ann Arbor.
“Living in my apartment building with all these old people is so much more welcoming and so much better of an experience for me than, say, living in a U of M dorm,” she said. “It’s ridiculous.”
After falling for her Detroit lifestyle, Froning’s ideal future includes buying up a vacant house on the East side, gutting it, and turning it into a restaurant. In the backyard by the riverfront, she would start an urban farm, and the upstairs of the house would be a yoga studio.
“That would be the perfect life,” Froning said.
Mulling over Motown
The city’s unique set of livability factors, some of which can be attributed to its current economic state, mark Detroit as up-and-coming, but lingering questions about the future create worries about making a long-term commitment.
The lifestyle that Detroit offers to young professionals drastically changes when young professionals become young married couples and young parents. Adding children into the mix can be an even bigger issue. The educational system is still struggling, leaving many within the city forced to choose between paying for a private school education or leaving the city altogether.
The city’s population is still at a net loss, despite the influx of recent graduates, and is now below 700,000, from a peak of 1.8 million during its heyday in 1950.
Current infrastructure issues such as water shut offs and blight also understandably create concerns for students thinking about settling down.
Still, at least for now, some University students have found themselves a home in the city.