Lots of talk lately has centered on young people moving to the city of Detroit against the odds, bringing creative ideas, fresh energy and investments with them. There’s a buzz around town about this revival, about 20-somethings wanting to make a difference in the city of Detroit where opportunity is abundant. But who are these young people? And what is it about the city of Detroit that is so attractive to them?
“Detroit has been really surprising. I absolutely love the architecture and the unique night spots and restaurants spread throughout downtown and the suburbs,” says Patrick Pozezinski, a 25-year-old who moved to the Midtown area last year in August primarily for school at Wayne State University. Originally from Chicago, Pozezinski grew up in Las Vegas and lived in Kansas while obtaining his undergraduate degree. “I’ve also always wanted to live in a big city – and I don’t consider Las Vegas a big city – and thought that the creative energy, history and location of Detroit would fit really well with my degree.”
“Detroit is full of opportunities for young professionals and in the short time I’ve been here, I’ve already gotten a chance to spread my wings and grow.”
Through WSU, Pozezinski has been volunteering at the Heidelberg Project downtown and has been introduced to some fascinating things people would never discover just by driving straight down Woodward. Off the beaten path is where Pozezinski can be found enjoying what he calls “beautiful” historic architecture, restaurants, the waterfront and the city’s nightlife. “It can use some improving, but the foundation is there to turn downtown into something really impressive,” he says, adding that the city proper has that “sprawling” city feel, but it’s not overly crowded. “It feels like your own city, not everyone else’s.”
And in his own city, Pozezinski has recently been introduced to a new group of guys. “They are all educated, ambitious, very intelligent and fun,” he says. “I have not experienced any negativity toward me for being gay thus far. From my experience, there is a large LGBT population and I don’t see the area to be any less friendly than other large cities.
“Detroit is raw right now. It’s waiting to be shaped again. There have been a lot of doors opened for the LGBT community in recent years, but Detroit really presents a big opportunity. It’s a city that needs a new stamp, a new identity. The creative community and the LGBT community are always trying to find themselves, and so is Detroit. We have a chance to push the boundaries and make something of ourselves and of the city again.”
Back to life
Recent census figures show that Detroit’s overall population shrank by 25 percent in the last 10 years. During the same time period, downtown Detroit experienced a 59 percent increase in the number of college-educated residents under the age of 25, nearly 30 percent more than two-thirds of the nation’s 51 largest cities.
One in particular is 20-year-old Colin Mallory, a theater major at Wayne State University who lives in a Midtown apartment. Mallory is from the Lansing area and relocated to Detroit to live in a dorm for his first two years of college, but decided going forward he preferred living off-campus.
“My apartment is extremely affordable and so much cheaper than living in a bigger city. It’s drastically less than my friends who live in Chicago or East Lansing,” he says. That may be due, in part, to local foundations like Midtown Detroit, Inc., which offer financial incentives to young people who want to move into the city. “Yes, you do get what you pay for, but there are places that have landlords versus slumlords. A lot of these buildings were constructed in the 1900s, but I like that aspect of living in the city.”
Mallory had no problem responding to the Detroit-haters as he doesn’t buy into the stigma that comes with living in the Motor City. “I’m a skinny, little, white gay boy. I’ve never been mugged and I’ve never had my car jacked. I’m not that concerned about it either,” he says, reminding those people that there is 140-plus square miles on the map of Detroit, and like anywhere else, there are areas that are more dangerous than others.
In fact, Mallory said, a lot of his friends travel to Detroit from the suburbs. “Any major social function in Midtown contains people from the suburb,” he says. “A lot of people think the suburbs are the end all, be all of civilization. Rich people send their kids to school here, but heaven forbid they stay the night. I would never want to live in the suburbs now that I’ve lived here. It’s more expensive and I’d be driving back to the city anyway.”
He and his local friends frequent places like the Thistle Coffee House for an open mic night or the Cass Cafe to eat. And they don’t have to drive much as college, art galleries, bike paths, theaters, condos, boutiques and an eclectic assortment of bars and restaurants are all within walking distance of each other.
“It’s really exciting,” says Mallory. “I’ve seen this area grow so much. It’s not just a ghetto wasteland. This is a great place if people would give Detroit a chance. Our generation has the potential to bring Detroit back through our work and our efforts.”
Out of more than 600 people who applied to the Detroit Revitalization Fellows Program last spring, 29 people were hired. One being Dara O’Byrne, 33, who moved her husband Charlie and almost 2-year-old daughter Ciara across the country to start her fellowship in August last year. O’Byrne started working at the City of Detroit’s Planning and Development Department last September.
O’Byrne grew up in metro Detroit, attended the University of Michigan for her undergrad degree, then moved out west to attend grad school at the University of Washington. O’Byrne relocated to be closer to her family and she wanted an opportunity to practice urban planning in the city she considers home. She wanted the opportunity to work on neighborhood plans, community development projects and downtown revitalization strategies in Detroit. The O’Byrnes decided on a place in West Village just three blocks from where her sister’s family has lived in Indian Village for about seven years.
“Our neighbors are great and have been really welcoming,” she says. “There are a few houses on the block where people have lived for more than 30 years, so they are close and really look out for each other. People are involved in community organizations and are really committed to the city. We love our Saturday routine of getting pancakes at Russell Street Deli and then getting all of our produce for the week at Eastern Market.”
When the weather is cold, they visit the downtown YMCA; during the warmer months, they ride their bikes to Belle Isle and the Riverfront. “It’s great how accessible everything is,” she says.
Too good to leave
Born and raised in the city of Detroit, Adriel Thornton considered moving at one point, but he couldn’t bring himself to leave his roots.
“I have family and property here, so it’s not easy to move, but aside from that there is a distinct energy and creative vibe here that blows other cities away,” says Thornton, who works for Allied Media Projects, a non-profit based in Detroit, and lives near the Lodge and Seven Mile area, just 10 minutes from Midtown.
There’s no denying that young people are more attracted to the city now than ever before, but many people still have reservations. In his early 30s, Thornton believes whole-heartedly that the biggest problem with the city of Detroit is the perception of the people. “In mainstream media, rarely do you hear about positive things that are happening in the city. It’s more than budget mishaps and shootings. Somehow we need to balance this view. I’m not an advocate for whitewashing anything, but if you are a resident of this city, or you are someone who is trying to make a decision about whether you want to move here, you are owed a more complete picture of what it’s like to live here.”
Thornton grew up between Detroit and Virginia and settled into the area in the 1990s. “There is life and culture here; people cut their grass, there are jobs and there are grocery stores. You have to get into it and find it. There is no bright neon sign to direct you there,” he says. “Stop making comparisons to what it’s like to live in the suburb. It’s apples to oranges. If you look at this entire city as a whole and make blanket statements comparing it to downtown Royal Oak, you just can’t. It’s three blocks versus arguably 20 blocks downtown.”
But it’s changing as we speak and, according to Thornton, Detroit is beginning to see some of those big city amenities come back. A movement is happening right now as individuals collaborate with organizations like Detroit Soup, Detroit Harmonie, Green Garage and I Am Young Detroit, to name a few.
“Most people I’ve met recently have been pleasantly surprised with what they experience here,” Thornton says. “I’ve been lucky enough to be able to stay here. I love the city.”