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Imported to Detroit: We begin a series on newcomers who hit the town running


(Editor's note: We first found the author of this new series via her stories in Curbed and ReadyMade, then she found us by writing to say she was moving to Detroit and would like to be a Model D contributor. This series is styled as a column that follows the life of a young transplant from Brooklyn to Detroit who will also be tracking others choosing to move here to live, work and play.)

I am the last person you would expect to take rocker Patti Smith's advice.

I hate her music.

But Smith told a New York audience that the city had turned its back on creativity and that it was time to move to Detroit and I completely agree. So hello, my name is Sarah F. Cox and I am new in town. This is the first article in a new column on moving to Detroit.

To be fair to Smith, I mostly hate her music because she was an ex-boyfriend's favorite musician. He lived in the same neighborhood as Smith (Soho) on the west side of Manhattan where we occasionally saw her at the local deli. Though already a massive celebrity at this point for many decades, she wore unassuming distressed tee shirts, and seemed to deflect recognition.

Smith is still on the scene in NYC where Jonathan Lethem interviewed her in March 2010. According to Vanishing New York's report on the event, Smith recalled coming to New York without money, when it was "down and out," and you could get a cheap apartment and "build a whole community of transvestites," artists or writers, or whatever. Asked if young people could still come to New York and make it the way she did, Smith stated that New York had closed itself off to the young and struggling and that it was time to find a new City. She suggested Detroit.

Smith first moved to New York in 1967 but spent the 1980s in Detroit with her family. She can live in NYC now because she's achieved international fame and can afford not to take her own advice.

By the time I'd arrived in New York in 2005, it was probably already too late to achieve any real measurable success in a creative industry. But that hasn't stopped endless hordes from trying and they still arrive daily. In the past six years of being a writer in the alleged-literary-and-publishing-capital of the U.S., I've met countless hopefuls trying to sell that first piece to the New Yorker or the New York Times while spending days as a marketing office drone in a cubicle. The problem with New York is that you can't afford it without a day job, and even then barely so.

The living arrangements we've invented to save money confound our more spaciously living suburban families. Most of us have roommates into our early 30s and enjoy rooms with a view of an airshaft or a brick wall. My second New York apartment, shared with two other girls, had me living in a so-called "rail-road" room where my roommate had to pass through it to get to hers. Surprisingly, I lasted two and half years in that room. It may have forever lowered my privacy expectations but it saved me thousands of dollars.

In a city where making rent sucks up all your time, it's almost impossible to have the energy for creative endeavors. I chose full time work in public relations for a while, telling myself the financial stability would allow me to freelance on the side. But after the 45-minute trek from Manhattan to Brooklyn on the subway, nine hours in an office, and 45 more underground, there seemed no time left to decompress and focus. And while we're on the subject of transit, in the last year, the monthly Metro card became $104. When I moved here it was $71. I've been forced to bike through the rain and throngs of tourists just to get around.

So it's onto the (erstwhile) Motor City and back to car life, where I'm hoping cheaper real estate and a growing creative community will make all the difference. While the cost of gas and carbon-footprint guilt loom, I've been won over by the arts. In Detroit, you can afford to do what you really want and will likely find a community of support rooting for you to succeed instead. This has been the case with the many visual artists and designers I've met and I am hoping to translate this into the writing field.

I've met people that have come here because it was the only city where they could afford a home (with a yard!) and still create for a living. In New York, I always felt that any little success came at the expense of someone else's: my byline meant that someone else's piece didn't get published. In Detroit, I have found the room to cover stories without stepping over someone else to do it. That and all the trees and grass are very, very refreshing.

And while I still refuse to listen to "Gloria," I think I might be coming around to almost like Patti Smith. In New York, she was a nemesis that conjured places I'd rather forget. But from where I sit now in Detroit, she is a writer and therefore a comrade. At the end of last year, Patti Smith won a National Book Award for her memoir, Just Kids.

So I am excited to be here and to be writing in a room with a window that faces a tree and where no one will accidentally see me naked on their way to the kitchen. I am also excited not to have any ex-boyfriends anywhere in the whole Great Lakes region.

Sarah F. Cox first came to Detroit last June for thesis research towards an MFA in Design Criticism at the School of Visual Arts in New York. Interested in seeing her graduate thesis on Detroit? We've got video.

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