Who Moves to Detroit?

Ashley Woods
Model D

If you live here already, a better question might be—who falls in love with Detroit? And, indeed, that was one of the first questions moderator Dave Egner of the Hudson-Webber Foundation asked at the latest Model D Speaker Series event on April 8. The event took place at the College for Creative Studies and was co-sponsored by Next American City, a Philadelphia-based magazine chronicling new trends in American cities.

The discussion on Detroit's burgeoning professional population and housing trends quickly became a chance for four transplants to tell their own stories about falling in love with the Paris of the Midwest. (It was also a great excuse to attend a terrific reception afterward catered by the Majestic Cafe.)

What emerged was an ode to the D, both honest and hopeful, realistic and yet resistant to the "old narrative" of our city's history. We all know that story -- the birth and death of one of America's great cities -- but what about Act 3? To four of Detroit's newest residents, their love stories are only the beginning.

In those first heady moments, love is passionate. At least that's how Toby Barlow tells it. This ad man, who works as executive creative director at JWT Team Detroit in Dearborn, said Detroit was the only natural move for him, since "I grew up listening to punk rock and rock 'n' roll, and all I knew was that the suburbs suck." Living in his unique Mies van der Rohe home in Lafayette Park, Barlow is a convert who has helped spread the good word about Detroit. "This city embraces people. It's an incredibly infectious community, in a good way."

For Luis Croquer, the new director at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Detroit, said "being in Detroit, and working with Detroit, is very much part of the job description." Good thing for Croquer; he said his first visit to Detroit was a little like falling head over heels. "I became a Detroiter instantly," he said -- and this coming from a diplomat's son who grew up in El Salvador and has lived all over the world.

Love is giving. To Meghan McEwen, editor of CS Interiors magazine, a new chapter in her life began when she and her husband left Chicago four years ago for the Motor City. Looking to raise a family, they realized they could purchase a home in Detroit for roughly a third of a price of the condos they considered buying in Chicago. The low cost of living meant that she and her husband could work less, and spend more time raising their sons. "I don't think I could have had all of this in Chicago," she said.

Love is brave. At least that's the story for Kirsten Ussery, the director of communications for Detroit Renaissance. Growing up in a small town in North Carolina, her move to Detroit was a bit worrisome for her family and friends. That attitude usually changes when her loved ones visit her home in West Village. Ussery said, "I was a little naive," regarding her decision to move to Detroit, "but I never really had any negative experiences. That's still true today."

Barlow said he was surprised by the attitudes of his fellow New Yorkers when he accepted the job offer with JWT Team Detroit. For the record, "I'm sorry," was his least-favorite, most annoying reaction from acquaintances. He said, "I thought, in the last couple years, there seems to be something interesting going on in Detroit -- it's a shift, a noticeable shift."

(Not every speaker experienced negative reactions when they decided to move to the D. Croquer said," I come from Latin America, so I was never really worried about that. In fact, everyone said I was going to be safer here.")

Love is intimate. And that closeness is what McEwen says keeps her living in her restored Victorian in Corktown. "It's a small town, and a big city, all at once." In her former life in Chicago, McEwen said she never really got used to the feeling of anonymity that's so prevalent in the Windy City. People who don't make eye contact in the streets, or elbow for a place on the L Train, because they know they won't ever see you again. "The feeling of community, I think, keeps us acting a little more like humans."

Moderator Egner agreed. "It is an overgrown small town," he said. "Unlike Chicago, or Seattle, or LA, if you come here, you can move the needle in a positive direction."

Love is energetic. Croquer thinks one of Detroit's biggest problems is its "enormous self-esteem issue." He thinks finding a way to bring together the creative and corporate interests in the city is one key to Detroit's renaissance. "This city was once thought of as a center of modernist thought. But now, creative industries are not talking to the people who can have the resources to make things happen."

What is one of our great assets, according to Croquer? Detroiters themselves. "They are so passionate, and so committed," he said.

Love is wise. To Barlow, whose one-man marketing campaign to change Detroit starts with his motto, "Stop the Loathing," Detroit is literally a success story. "Detroit's story is the greatest act of hubris in the history of cities in North America," he said. "Everyone that could, left." That the city survives, and fights on, continues to impress him. But Barlow said he thinks reforming Detroit's City Council in order to elect officials by district is necessary "to reflect the rich tapestry of all people now calling this city home."

Love is hopeful. Ussery says pushing for regionalism in political and economic affairs will help make Detroit what it was once again. She said pushing for cooperation between corporations, politicians and cities is also the only way to diffuse the "race issue" once and for all. "Once people from the suburbs and people from Detroit can finally come together and make decisions that are the best for the region as a whole, all the dialogue will change," she said.

McEwen said Detroit has a future if it markets itself as an alternative to city dwellers across the world who are put off by yuppie neighborhoods and corporate chains. "I challenge you to name another major city that doesn't have a GAP," she said. She also thinks Detroit should do more to publicize real estate opportunities in its unique neighborhoods. "In more and more cities, I swear," she said, "You could pick up a block in Chicago and move it to Brooklyn, and you'd never know the difference. You can't do that with Detroit."

There's something about love, how it has a power to heal those who have been hurt before, a way it seems to change people. To McEwen, that's the greatest thing about Detroit, the reason she stays here, the reason, in fact, all four of these new Detroiters said they'd never want to leave. "What people love about Detroit ... what I love about Detroit ... is that we can do something to change it, to make it better. They all want to be part of something bigger than themselves."

That's what loving Detroit means.


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