Snowbirds Come Home to Roost

Toby Barlow
New York Times

Ron and Patty Cooley met and fell in love 42 years ago as students at Eastern Michigan University. After a stint at Ford in the early ’70s, they left Detroit behind, taking over her family’s modest real estate business upstate. The company prospered: for 30 years the two worked together, helping to finance, build and sell more than 1,000 homes.

With their two sons grown, Ron and Patty sold the business and semi-retired down to Naples, Fla. Ron took up golf, sometimes seven days a week, occasionally 36 holes in a day. Patty gardened. Their lives in the Sunshine State were relaxed and tranquil, the sort of serene ending that retirement brochures promise to us all. But, unsurprisingly, the collapse of the housing market had a serious impact on a couple with a nest egg tied up in real estate.

Ron and Patty looked around and did the math. Florida’s economy seemed to be declining even more steeply than the Motor City’s. In Detroit, they had roots, their sons had moved into the city and started a barbecue restaurant, grandchildren had arrived. So, weighing their options, they came back. They moved into a downtown loft, just a few blocks from the empty lot where Tiger Stadium once stood.

I first encountered Ron and Patty at an early morning fund-raiser for a neighborhood charity. Talking to them, I found that just like other new arrivals — the artists and recent college graduates coming here from other towns — they spoke of Detroit’s potential with an almost exalted optimism. Instead of depressing or slowing them down, the move has been a thrilling one and they shared examples of how exhilarating their life is downtown.

Being at the center of things means they can walk to the Avalon bakery on Saturday mornings and to the new Comerica Park for baseball games in the spring. Instead of endless golf, they now go to events like the fund-raiser where we met or lectures on design and sustainable development.

Talking about Florida, Ron sounds like someone who made it onto the lifeboat in the nick of time. Yes, they had to sell their home down there at a loss, but a former neighbor in Naples recently sold a similar house for less than half of what the Cooleys got. Ron estimates that with the nation’s battered 401(k) accounts, it could take decades before Florida returns to any sort of substantial growth.

Meanwhile, Patty and Ron are helping their sons expand their restaurant to a new location. Patty is involved in the local school system’s literacy program. Ron enjoys walking down the street to spend time with his grandchildren, the kind of time that, in his ambitious, younger days, he didn’t get to have with his own boys.

In the nation’s shared imagination, Detroit continues to be worse than a punch line — it’s an apocalyptic wasteland teetering right at the edge of the end of the world. When people hear that I live downtown, they ask, “Where do you get your groceries?” and “Where do you get your dry cleaning done?” and when I answer “Well, at the grocery store and the dry cleaners,” they simply look confused. In fact, few can imagine living a life here.

The truth is that my Detroit — and Ron and Patty’s Detroit — might no longer be a city where dreams come true the way they once did. But this story still demonstrates some important things: how lives and businesses can thrive here, how rewarding it can be to have family close and, at the very least, how nice it is that we’re not in Florida.
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