Motown love: Why I’m (still) on the D(etroit) train

Me and baby Vera at the old Tigers' stadium, Corktown, Detroit.

Me and baby Vera at the old Tigers’ stadium, Corktown, Detroit.

This is a post I’ve been kicking around for awhile, and with the news of Detroit’s sad but not unexpected bankruptcy, it seemed more important than ever to get off my chest. I have a feeling about the city that I can best describe as visceral, fierce, and sometimes unjustifiable. It is not a place for those with delicate sensibilities or without serious street smarts. I’ve written a bit of background on why we are thinking of leaving NYC after nearly fifteen years and what we are looking for in a future home, and some musings on what life might be like in another place. Detroit was the city that started our NYC “expat fantasies,” starting as a cheap real estate joke (“Why don’t we just buy a house rather than get a hotel room for the weekend?”), evolving into an appreciation of “ruin porn” and pioneer spirit, and occasionally a bone of contention over its inherent dangers and drawbacks. Despite its fairly serious issues, I have a deep and complicated crush on Detroit I can’t shake off, or even explain easily. While I was originally planning to write a straight-forward list of how it fit my personal qualifications for a home base (the excellent airport and proximity to water are two big pluses), Motown’s charms are less simple and quantifiable than that.

It makes me feel patriotic
As a longtime New Yorker, I’m used to being perplexed and even embarrassed by the rest of my country, with their crazy court decisions and Super Walmarts and fattening foods. (Although, to be fair, America has no lock on gluttony, and New Yorkers were the first to get the KFC Double Down and the much-hyped cronut.) I can attest to receiving far different treatment abroad when I state that I’m from New York vs the US. While travel and the wisdom that comes with age have given me an appreciation for the so-called “flyover states” of America, Detroit is one of the few places where I really felt proud to be an American. As Anthony Bourdain said in one of his No Reservations specials: Detroit is where everything cool originated. Think of Motown and classic cars, it is a city of ingenuity and hard work, big dreams and innovative design. Before I visited, I had no idea how amazing the architecture was, especially downtown’s many Art Deco skyscrapers, and felt a little bit angry at the world for not telling me. Thanks to rubbernecking media, I was well-familiar with the city’s many beautiful ruins, and while I was enraptured with landmarks such as the (in)famous abandoned train station, I decided to refrain from posting or promoting this ruin porn, and focus instead on the positives. If I lived in Detroit and traveled internationally, I’d feel confident in stating my home city and thinking of how I actually choke up at that Eminem commercial. (On a related note, I’d like to suggest to Mr. Mathers’ publicist that he should buy a Detroit neighborhood and just offer it up to local artists and non-profits.)

The people have a lot of moxie without pretension
If I were to sit down and make a list of the cities I found most interesting and vibrant, you would see a pattern emerge: Berlin. Buenos Aires. Istanbul. Tokyo. Beirut. Palermo. Belfast. Naples. New Orleans. (I haven’t yet been to Croatia, Vietnam, or Thailand, but suspect their cities would be high on the list too.) They are places who have been through hell and back, through wars, occupations, financial ruin, and natural disasters. They have suffered through a lot, and come through it with battle scars and creativity. I believe that art and humor are (unfortunately) born from suffering, and my nine years married to a Russian have taught me about the Old Russian Soul which knows a lot about suffering and bad weather. Detroiters, both new and old, have proven to be resourceful, spunky, and determined. The city has given way to cool stuff like the Heidelberg Project, guerrilla arts journalism, and numerous pop-up businesses. On my visit, I went to a pop-up German restaurant/block party outside a Corktown factory now housing various artist studios and entrepreneurs. I met a lot of New York/Chicago/LA transplants, all of them full of pragmatism and optimism, without any of the hipster pretension of their former cities. Visiting a cute “lifestyle” shop I’d expect to see in Brooklyn, and which could have easily tipped the hipster scale, I was surprised to find it hosting a free workshop with local brand Carhartt teaching people practical craftsman and building skills. What made me really fall for Detroit was Eastern Market, the weekly farmer’s and foodstuffs market. Not only was it packed with delicious food (much of it grown within the city or even biked in from nearby), fun events, and low prices, there was none of the Mason jar, bacon-covered-donut-taco preciousness of, say, Brooklyn Flea. It was cool to see a wide variety of demographics shopping at the market, pulling kids in Radio Flyer wagons, and eating awesome Michigan produce. I would move there just to get my groceries at Eastern Market every week, and could see myself joining the leagues of “urban farmers” growing stuff in all that vacant land.

It needs you
New York is a city that, at best, tolerates you. Some the most successful of New Yorkers are a paycheck or two away from homelessness, paying more than is reasonable for housing, waiting in long lines for basic amenities like groceries and transportation. One of the many awesome projects of my friend Erik Trinidad is a site that asks simply, “Does New York love you back?” While I’ve had more than a few remarkable moments in this city, more often than not, I’m stepping aside to let people out only to lose my place in line, waiting for the train directly behind this one that never comes, and paying six months in advance for an apartment in a so-so neighborhood with no elevator or laundry. Every Detroiter I’ve met, regardless of their feelings about the city and its future, has agreed that what it needs is more people like me; people who are ready to get involved and support its renaissance, help promote its industries and bring more jobs to the city. While I may not personally have the ability to bring mass jobs to Detroit, I have a lot of experience in travel public relations, and the city could use a publicist!

There’s community
One of my husband’s favorite things about NYC is the anonymity; the keep-to-yourself, mind-your-own business attitude you have to adopt in a city of millions. But after living in a city twice the size where I didn’t know the language or culture, and even having a child there, I see the appeal of community. I’m tired of seeing men avert their eyes on the subway when they see a pregnant woman standing, When I first starting researching Detroit, I quickly got in touch with a few people in the know, including New York Times reporter Jennifer Conlin (responsible for such articles as this one on the young and groovy moving to Detroit), and built a long list of links about how Detroit is getting its groove back. Jennifer told me: “You won’t come here and think it’s a beautiful city, you move here for the people and to get involved in the community.” Every person I mentioned Detroit to had a friend-of-a-friend doing something cool there, or had heard about the urban farming or the small business tax incentives. A few days after I booked tickets there for a recon trip, I met a Detroiter at a happy hour who introduced himself with: “Are you the one moving to Detroit? I live there, know all the cool people, and I already have some ideas about where you should live.” He is part of the clean-up effort of the old Tigers’ stadium, a worthy project that is preserving a part of Detroit’s history and community. Since that trip, he’s introduced me to friends and neighbors who have looked at houses for me, given advice on security, and offered balanced opinions on the city’s future. Without even living there, I have a network of people who are doing positive and creative things for the city, and I have no doubt I could immediately get plugged into a cool group of people in Detroit.

There’s room for dreams (for some)
When I first moved to New York in 1998, I rented an apartment with multiple roommates for around $1,000, albeit it was the crappy one mentioned above with no laundry. My first solo apartment, a one-bedroom in my current neighborhood of Ditmas Park, Brooklyn was $750. Comparable rents now are double or more, yet minimum wage (the type of jobs newbie artsy New Yorkers might get are not salaried) has only gone up a few bucks. I was able to string together an existence with various odd jobs, from “reservationist” at Tavern on the Green, to figure model at the Art Students’ League, while trying to make it as an actress and a writer . I didn’t make over four figures for the first four years in NYC, and it wasn’t until 2002 that I had any sort of benefits. Is there any room left in this city for starving artists? Detroit may be much harder up for jobs, but for an artist or a BoBo with small business aspirations like me, the sky is the limit. In Detroit, I can buy a former industrialist’s mansion, restore it to perfection, and still have savings left over to open a travel book/stationery store and take time off to write a novel. Sure, it’s easy for me to say, with an education, some marketable skills, and a healthy savings account to see Detroit as a utopia. I realize for many of the city’s residents, the economy and job prospects are bleak, and even getting a minimum wage job would be a godsend, but in my position, it offers prospects I couldn’t accomplish in New York without millions of dollars.

I could write an even longer post about the negatives about Detroit, especially the weather, crime, and economy, but there is no shortage of press about the downsides. I’m not sure I will ultimately be able to reconcile my idealized notions of Detroit with the reality and move there, but it will remain a place I will root for. Detroit may be down, but it’s not out.

7 responses to “Motown love: Why I’m (still) on the D(etroit) train

  1. Therese C. Fuller

    Wonderful — great to read. The closest I ever came to living near Detroit was Winnipeg Manitoba!!
    I have a good friend from Detroit — super woman for sure.

  2. Pingback: Motown love: Why I’m (still) on the D(etroit) train | The Notorious M.E.G… | The Cronuts

  3. Pingback: Great Comeback Cities For Travel » World Hotel Discoun

  4. New Detroiter

    I moved to Detroit last year. Your post is perfect.

  5. Pingback: Great Comeback Cities For Travel | Travel News Blogger

  6. I’m experiencing the same phenomenon for some unexplained reason. Worse (better?) still, I’m not even American!

    But on another note, you are the first person I’ve known to acknowledge Belfast as a “vibrant city”. Thank you for the much-appreciated head-nod! 🙂

  7. Detroit is a dump. I grew up there, and got out. It’s unsafe, bankrupt, ugly, no jobs, little culture, uneducated, flat, largely treeless and barren. Why on earth would someone glamorize it? It’s so bombed-out that it’s less dense and urban than your typical boring NJ suburb.

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