New to Detroit: Philly Native Simit Shah Makes New Center His Home

By bar standards, it's still early. So when the Philly-born-and-raised-cheesesteak-lovin'-now-Detroiter Simit Shah pulls open the heavy door to the Northern Lights Lounge, it's not a huge shock to see the place practically empty.

Shah calls this his neighborhood watering hole. He's adopted it in his six months here in Detroit. He moved into the New Amsterdam Lofts, off Cass, just last May when he accepted a CFO position at New Technology Steel, a West Side Detroit steel company and one of the largest minority-owned businesses in the United States.

He's still quite new to the area, he's still finding out about Detroit, still learning the land, and he still hasn't figured out the beer selection of his local bar. "Dude, we have like 50 beers," a female bartender with an asymmetrical haircut and tattoos spilling out from under her short-sleeved shirt says after rattling off eight or so brands.

He finally settles on a Corona with grenadine and lime.

"So, why did I decide to live in the city?" the barrel-chested 30-year-old says, as he hunches up to the bar. "Why did I come to Detroit?

"People were saying Royal Oak and Birmingham to me," he says, smirking and shaking his head with disdain. "Why would I look out there? I looked exclusively in Detroit. It was always gonna be Detroit for me. I'm an urban guy, a city dweller, and I need a city environment."

It was with a little luck, actually, that Shah can now call himself a Detroit city guy. Attending the part-time executive MBA program at the University of Michigan, he was paired up with Sarah Bates who happened to be the CEO of New Technology Steel. She took to Shah and offered him the CFO position. He thought about it and, after two weeks, accepted. This part-time program only met once a month. Shah was flying back and forth between Ann Arbor and Philadelphia. He never had a permanent residence in Michigan. And he had never been to Detroit.

"When I first got (to Detroit)," he says, "I was really surprised at how small the place was. The downtown is so small."

Shah grew up in Philadelphia, went to Villanova University for chemistry, became an investment banker, lived in Italy for a year where he worked on a master's in finance, spent time in London and New York where he continued in the financial industry, and now he's here in Detroit. "I'll always love Philly, of course," which he prefaces every Detroit compliment with, "but I do love it here. I think it's the greatest city -- after Philly, of course."

"It's neat to watch him go through what I did," Shah's friend, Seth Meyers, says. Meyers, who went to high school with Shah in Philadelphia, came to Michigan 12 years ago to attend U of M, has lived in Royal Oak since 2000, and spends many of his nights hanging out in Detroit. "You definitely need to find someone to show you around here, you gotta make friends to find your way."

Shah is aware of Detroit's problems, although he says most aren't all that different than other major problems in other major cities. Other cities have population lose, poverty, blight, foreclosures, perhaps even felonious mayors. These issues are especially prevalent in post-industrial areas, but Detroit has become the poster child for this sort of thing.

"Detroit has its own charm that may not be visible to an outsider visitor," Shah says. "This is an urban, post-industrial city that's on the move but the people on the outside don't see that."

When he moved here, he was shocked by the amount of abandonment throughout the city, and especially downtown. He also didn't understand why downtown became a ghost town after six. And he also couldn't believe the lack of transit options available.

"You need a car here for everything," he says. Philadelphia, mind you, has a subway, trolley-car system and a bus line available. All of which, Shah says, are quite viable.

"Detroit is where Philly was 17 years ago," he says. "We went through an industry transition very much like Detroit is right now. We turned the corner, and I can see Detroit trying to do the same exact thing.

"There's an eclectic vibe here in Detroit," he says. "There are developments, lofts, pubs, bars, but there needs to be more. You can never have enough."

Bring some friends along

Shah says he believes in Detroit. He believes so much that encouraged a Villanova University friend from Philadelphia to go to the University of Detroit-Mercy Law School.

Of course Alexandra Athanasiadis, the new U of D law student, made the decision herself, but it didn't hurt Detroit to have Shah's cheerleading. "Detroit reminds me a lot of Philly," she says. "It's a real up-and-coming place -- a lot of developments."

She says that living in Detroit isn't exactly what she was led to believe when she was living in Philadelphia -- that ours is a large city riddled with crime.

"You know, there are good parts and bad parts in every city," she says. "I expected it to be bigger, and I was baffled there wasn't any transit. But Detroit isn't what people think it is out of state. I'm happy with it and getting to know the city each day.

"There is always something going on, a festival, social stuff, there is a pretty riverfront, the stadiums are downtown, which is so cool -- the national reputation doesn't fit what I've seen."

'Detroit equals potential'

All three Philly-turned-Detroiters say Detroit is a city where someone can really make a mark.

Athanasiadis is here for three years, working on her law degree. She's not sure what she'll do after that but, she says, "You can really make a splash in this city."

"Talented people are really and truly valued in Detroit," Meyers says. "And it's pretty inexpensive to live here."

"Detroit equals potential," Shah says. "There is a lot of potential here, and with the right leader Detroit can come back stronger than ever. I plan to continue here. I came for positive reasons, and I'd like to be a part of the transformation. I couldn't be happier."

And now it's time for another round. Shah's just finished his Corona, grenadine, and lime. Maybe it's all the talk of choosing the city, but he calls the bartender over with the asymmetrical haircut to inquire about another beer. "Hey," he says. "Do you have Ghetto Blaster?" He looks around. "I like that beer -- it's made in Detroit."

Terry Parris Jr. writes for Model D. This is the first in an occasional series that will focus on people moving to Detroit. If you know someone new to Detroit, or if you have feedback on this story, send the info here.

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