Detroit might not be the safest city, and it’s certainly not the richest (in fact, it’s the poorest), but it could very well be the coolest city to live and work in right now.
Given that young people and creative people and especially young creative people have been largely priced out of New York, that the Bay Area is basically unaffordable for just about anyone who doesn’t have a fair number of stock options, that Portland is overrun with unemployed mixologists, that Austin is still at heart a college town, that Boston and Seattle are way too squeaky clean, and that investors are doing innovative things like turning an abandoned Motor City auto-part plant into a techno club, Detroit (the birthplace of techno) is looking more and more like the grittiest, most interesting big city in America.
In fact, Detroit, a city well known for its urban decay, record-setting bankruptcy, and white flight, is featured in the latest issue of National Geographic, of all magazines, and much of what the words, images, and infographics in the feature points to is this: Detroit has become a city of opportunity, a city on the rise, a city where young people are encouraged to build businesses, careers, and their post-college lives. And do so affordably.
Tough, real, and cheap, Detroit, with the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy behind it, is suddenly attractive to investors, innovators, and would-be fixers, especially young adventurers … Detroit’s decay is now its engine: Nowhere else in urban America can you do so much with so little money … Every week, it seems, a new business opens in Detroit—grocery stores, juice bars, coffee shops, even bicycle makers.
Indeed, perhaps nowhere else in America can you start a business with less than $500 to your name. Or buy a three-bedroom house for under $10,000. And that’s pretty cool.
A newcomer from Brooklyn who converted an empty hair salon into a busy market tells me: “In Detroit, you can contribute, and your ideas are met with enthusiasm. It’s thrilling. If someone else had my life, I’d be jealous. I moved here with $500, and six months later I was the owner of a successful business.” Another refugee from Brooklyn traded a 70-hour workweek and a tiny room for part-time work and a cozy, if shabby, three-bedroom house. “Detroit offers space and time,” she says. “Here there’s maybe a chance for young people to build a middle class.”
However, young adventurers should also know that Detroit isn’t pretty like Los Angeles or Vancouver is pretty. It’s a gritty city, where sometimes the traffic lights don’t work, where the natives don’t care what you think of them, where the schools aren’t up to par, where the streets can be rough, tough, and potholed.
The city still struggles to provide the most basic services, such as on-time buses, speedy police and fire responses, and lighting … The problem is so basic but so daunting: Many of Detroit’s people are poor and widely dispersed. In 1950 the city housed 1.8 million people, about 84 percent white. By 2013 its population had fallen to 689,000, about 83 percent black. Half its households live on less than $25,000 a year.
But if you’re cool with the grit, and with a city that needs a lot of TLC (many utility upgrades), Detroit’s natives, ex-pats, and transplants will welcome you with open, hardworking arms. They might even give you some bread.
One Detroiter, Aamir Farooqi, a retired Pakistani corporate executive who previously lived in Singapore and who’s bought 150 houses in Detroit, some for as little as $500, likes to hand out $5,000 no-interest loans to young people with solid business ideas. His terms are these: “Don’t pay the money back to him. Pay it forward, to someone else revitalizing Detroit.”
Other Detroiters doing cool things include John Hantz, a successful financial executive who bought “1,350 city-owned properties, plus 450 others,” then “cleared 500 lots, including more than 2,000 tires, and with 1,400 volunteers, planted 15,000 trees.”
There’s also Robert Hake, the owner of a custom sportswear company called MyLocker.net, which “can ship a hundred hoodies for your family reunion in days.” Hake recently moved his business from the Detroit suburbs to the city of Detroit and hired a graffiti artist to do whatever he wanted, wherever he wanted on the walls of his company’s offices. Now those walls are “adorned with icons of Detroit, from Faygo soda pop to boxer Joe Louis’s fist.” In addition, Hake is currently looking to hire another “70 Detroiters to almost double his full-time staff.”
As for that graffiti artist, Antonio “Shades” Agee, he’s a native Detroiter who’s proud of his roots, but isn’t so cool with poseurs sporting his city’s name on their chests.
Agee resents that the [Detroit] brand has become a talisman for people who hardly know Detroit but boast its name on their shirts. “This big flourishing,” he says, “it’s great! I love it. But most people, they wanna save Detroit. You can’t save Detroit. You gotta be Detroit.”
In any case, before you decide where to move next, or where to move after you graduate, give Detroit a look. Or, at least, give National Geographic’s excellent mulitimedia piece on the city a look. Chances are it’ll inspire you, if not to move to the city once known as the Paris of the West and some are calling the new Berlin, then to forge ahead with whatever roadblocks you’re facing now in your work or life, wherever you might be.
Follow me @VaultFinance.
Taking Back Detroit (National Geographic)
Detroit: The City of Opportunity for the Class of 2014
From Intern to CEO: How Mary Barra Named GM’s First Female Chief
Destination Detroit: Finance Jobs in the 313
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