Friday, May 04, 2012

Reverse Migration Detroit

Did you hear the news? Cleveland's urban core is thriving. When Rebecca Ryan (Next Generation Consulting) got wind of the story, this is what she Tweeted:

Young professionals fuel downtown growth in #Cleveland What's the implication for other "rust belt" cities?

If you are interested, Richey Piiparinen and I have an answer to her question. By way of a taste, I offer up Detroit. When ruin porn is Rust Belt Chic:

Yakini gives voice to a hard-to-ignore fact: In a city that’s 83 percent African American, many (though not all) of the young movers and shakers who have drawn so much media attention are white. The press has labeled these newcomers “hipsters,” with all the connotations of irony and retro fashion. But what strikes me, when I meet some of these young leaders, is how similar they sound to the longtime Detroiters who are working to jump-start their neighborhoods.

One morning at Motor City Java House, I’m introduced to a 30-year-old visual artist named Amy Kaherl, who is part of that fast-growing demographic. Kaherl runs Detroit SOUP, an organization that gives “micro-grants” of up to $1,000 for projects benefiting the city. It hosts monthly dinners: Five dollars buys soup, salad, pie, and a vote. Entrepreneurs present their ideas, and the winner of a secret ballot takes home the evening’s proceeds. SOUP has funded everything from a community radio station to an enterprise involving winter coats that double as sleeping bags, produced by (and distributed free to) homeless Detroiters. She has come to the Java House today to discuss the possibility of a SOUP dinner in Brightmoor.

Kaherl grew up north of the city, in a suburb called Sterling Heights. She moved to Los Angeles to earn a master’s degree in theology with an emphasis on pop culture. She moved back to Michigan when her mother died in 2008 and marveled at how easily Detroiters welcomed her into their cultural scene. “The ego of when you go to some big cities—‘I’m very important; you should know me’—that feeling didn’t seem to exist,” she says. The poverty here is just too wrenching, and the need for all hands on deck too great, for L.A.–style climbers to get any traction. “This city, man, you’ve got to leave your ego at the door. If it’s about you getting famous, or you moving ahead, then you’ve picked the wrong city because you will be sniffed out within moments.”

Emphasis added. After reading "Detroit: A Biography", I'm sensitive to the critique. Fact is, white suburban brats are moving back into the city. We're seeing the same pattern in one Rust Belt city after another. Prodigal daughter leaves the bucolic outer ring for a global hub, eventually returning to a unique cosmopolitan existence. This migration is, indeed, ironic.

This migration is going unnoticed because NYC, LA, and Chicago are acting as talent way stations. Cutting out the middleman, the suburbs are pouring back into the city. For Detroit, the change is a cataclysm. White flight has come to define the metro. What we have now is black flight, the reverse of the Great Migration. The trend is national.  Everyone is doing the boomerang.

Rust Belt refugees are rediscovering their culture and urban roots. Your grandmother used to live in the City of Detroit. She got out so you could live a better life. That better life now can be found in the neighborhood she escaped. That's why you left New York.


Allen said...

Not to take away from the importance of recognizing the nuances and complexities of things but I think the term thriving is too much. Maybe when compared to Cleveland MSA as a whole, it's thriving. But in general I'd hardly call 2 small Midwest farm towns worth of people thriving.

Jim Russell said...

But in general I'd hardly call 2 small Midwest farm towns worth of people thriving.

That critique rings hollow. Urban core gains represent vitality, no matter how you slice it. How does it stack up against other cities? In that regard, "thriving" might be too much. Show me the data.