BY KIMBERLY CHOU
Published September 30, 2008
CORRECTION: University alum Betsy Palazzola's name was mispelled in the print edition as Betsy Palazzolo.
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. But if you don’t have that luxury, you can’t.”
Moving to a majority-black city like Detroit, for a white person, then, is a decision to jump back into the questions society has yet to fully confront.
“I appreciate the fact that I’m an ethnic minority in a city … I look around and I don’t see a reminder of my own ethnic heritage in the faces around me. And I didn’t realize that I would value that so highly,” said Jack VanDyke, who completed both his undergraduate and masters degrees at the University, and now lives in the city. “I wouldn’t know what I was missing (if I didn’t live here).”
But in the case of University graduates moving to Detroit, it’s more than a construction of black versus white, or even city versus suburb.
“Sometimes the idea is that people at universities come with all the answers, and it’s just a matter of implementing them — that’s far from the truth,” Kurashige said. “There’s also a lot going on in Detroit that people need to learn from.”
To do community work and activism, whether in food justice or the environment and human rights, is certainly a reason to move to Detroit. But there is challenge in creating what can be seen as a comfortable, college-educated class of missionaries.
“They should be trying to work themselves out of a job,” said Malik Yakini, a lifelong Detroiter, educator and activist, “Try to empower the community in which they are working, so that the people in that community can take those jobs and empower others (in turn).”
To become part of the city, you must “transcend your whiteness,” as Tobier said, but more than that, break out from what is associated with whiteness: a certain collegiate and suburban comfort.
Betsy Palazzola, 23, graduated from the University in 2007 and now lives near the Wayne State University campus. Her neighborhood now is much more racially mixed.
“Detroit in a lot of ways is friendlier than Ann Arbor, Palazzola said. “People say ‘hi’ to you on the street. A lot of people find that once they live here for a while they start to know everybody.”
Room to build
This is not a story about Kwame Kilpatrick or common crime, urban blight or SWAT-team raids of after-hours parties. These things exist in Detroit — it would be unfair to pretend they don’t. But to ignore what else is going on outside the city’s more sensational stories would be to fall into the dramatic suburban conception of Detroit as a city where good rarely happens.
“We need various forms of alternative media,” Yakini said. “People only get a part of the picture. There is crime in Detroit; people that live here are impacted by crime. But there are many other realities out there that you don’t hear about.”
Emily Linn, 30, comes from a multi-generational family of native Detroiters. Since graduating from the University in 2000 and moving back to Detroit, she’s spent summers working in Paris and New York, but always finds herself returning home.
“It sounds cheesy, but I do think it’s an especially exciting time to be in Detroit,” said Linn, who runs a small business called City Bird with brother (and 2006 University grad) Andy. “I was in New York for four months this summer, and I love New York, but it also made me re-appreciate the things I like about Detroit. A big part is there are a lot of opportunities to do your own thing or start things, and a great need.”
The city’s lack of people has created a number of problems, obvious as the boarded-up buildings visible from the safety of your car. On the flip side, all of this extra, empty space — physical in terms of housing, as well as space for ideas and innovation — presents opportunities not available elsewhere.
“If you do have a good idea in Detroit, because the city is so starved for good ideas, you might not know what to do with all of the traffic that your good idea produces,” VanDyke said. “It’s a good problem to have, which you probably wouldn’t find in New York City.”
Growing up in the Dallas-Forth Worth area, VanDyke said he didn’t feel any specific geographic allegiance after graduation, and stayed at the University for a masters in urban planning, to pursue transportation activism. Now, as part of a collective, he operates a bicycle shop, The Hub of Detroit, and non-profit bicycle education programs, Back Alley Bikes.
“People sometimes ask me, ‘Oh, you got a masters degree in urban planning, and you work at a bike shop. Do you ever think of working in the field?’ ” he said. “But I am working in the field. I’m ‘shifting the modal split,’ but I’m doing it one 14-year-old kid at a time.”
Campaigning for transportation change in a city like Seattle, for example, with already established bike lanes, wouldn’t be the same.
“Your social capital investment has a way better return in Detroit,” Van Dyke said. “If the city of Detroit has all these bike lane dreams, well, they’re going to need some educational and participatory resources to allow people to use those kinds of bikes at least.”
What it means
Whether you’re conscious of it or not, moving to the city becomes part of the reversal effort, or what Alan Ehrenhalt called “demographic inversion” in an article this summer in The New Republic. Chicago was Ehrenhalt’s contemporary example of suburbanites moving back to the urban center, a city to which Detroit is often compared, for better or for worse.
“There’s sort of a generational shift away from living in the suburbs to living in the cities,” Kurashige said. “People want to be more environmentally conscious, people are interested in both ethnic and cultural diversity in terms of their activities … I think because Detroit’s population declined so quickly and the suburbs expanded exponentially, a lot of the sense of community was lost. (It’s) a connection and a sense of wholeness that people who are part of the suburbs are yearning for.”
Ehrenhalt echoed urbanist Jane Jacobs and the goals of most urban planners when he wrote about American dreams of a “24/7” downtown, “a place where people live as well as work, and keep the streets busy, interesting, and safe at all times of day.” Part of the reason why density is returning to formerly sparse city centers, according to Ehrenhalt, is because “the youthful urban elites” of today are looking for something like this, an experience “vastly more interesting than the cul-de-sac world they grew up in.”
University urban planning Prof. Christopher Leinberger, in his book The Option of Urbanism, suggests that the number of downtown residents depends on supply more than demand. If both Ehrenhalt and Leinberger are right, a two-way pipeline between Ann Arbor and Detroit may someday show Detroit to be more than a textbook tale of deindustrialization.
“Detroit is not going to get better without people investing in it,” Palazzola said.
At the very least, a different consciousness will expose more young people to substance beyond the newspaper headlines: organizations like Detroit Summer, the annual People’s Arts Festival at Russell Industrial Center, Friday nights at D’Mongo’s.
“It feels like even in the last couple of years, there are a lot more kids from U of M that are starting to go down to Detroit,” Notorianni said. “You sort of need them to be stewards to the city, take others down and show them around, and show them what this city is all about.”