New to Detroit: Small Town Guy Chooses to Stick with the City

Josh Fisher was born in a smallish town of just over 24,000 people in Minnesota called Owatonna, an hour south of the Twin Cities. After high school he went west to Brookings, South Dakota, population 18,000, to attend South Dakota State University. There, as one of the 12,000, he earned a double major in Spanish and theater. Then, as Spanish and threater majors are wont to do, it was time for grad school.

"I had a choice to make," Fisher says over a Miller Light in a darkened corner of the Bronx Bar in Midtown, one of his many favorite Detroit watering holes. "I had to decide between Long Beach and Detroit."

Fisher had to pick between a theater master's degree program in a place where the average daytime temperature in December is about 68-degrees, and one at Wayne State University where that same average daytime temperature makes you curse Mother Nature.

And though the 28-year-old's reddish blond hair seems perfectly suitable for the sands of Long Beach, he picked the grit and big city atmosphere of the Motor City. "I chose Detroit because the benefits were better," he says. "And to come to a city with a million people was pretty intriguing."

He came to Detroit because the "benefits" were better, but he has stayed for a far deeper reason. "When I first got here I didn't know what it was that made me love Detroit so much," Fisher says. "But later I realized there is a richness here that I haven't before felt in other places, and it makes me want to stay."

He also realized something else that helped cement his decision to stay, something a little more visible -- his love for Detroit's dive bars. He says the older the place is, the better, and he's quick to share his favorites. "Third's was the best, that was my place," he says, reminiscing about the now closed down Third Street Saloon in Midtown. "Now my place is Jumbo's." Jumbo's, also on Third Street, is one of those buildings you've passed by a thousand times but have never seen -- despite a big green wall that says Jumbo's.

"Detroit is a city of stories," he says. "And I've heard so many of these stories hanging out in these old bars." It's not only that they sell booze at these places, Fisher says, it's the stories and the history that keep bringing him back to these bars. "The history behind the Baltimore is fascinating," he says. "Back in the day the bar had gambling, prostitutes, booze smugglers. It's just fascinating."

And now Fisher has been here six years. He's done with his master's and now works as a designer for Illuminating Concepts, a Farmington Hills-based lighting design firm that has designed lights for the Guardian Building, the Book Cadillac, the Compuware office, and various other facilities around Detroit. He acknowledges that this work isn't theater or teaching, or even Spanish – the disciplines he studied through college. But he doesn't mind. "It was never about money," he says. "It's about whatever I can do to make a living and stay here in Detroit." And, as far as theater goes, he says he does a few things here and there to keep up his chops.

Over the past six years he has ventured away from the city several times but Detroit kept calling him back.

He spent a half year in Ann Arbor and came back. He lived in Asheville, N.C., for about nine months and came back. He lived in Charleston for a summer and worked as a technician for an arts festival but then came back. And he was offered a teaching job in Erie, Penn., making 40k a year but turned it down to stay in Detroit. "I lived on a couch for three months in order to stay here," he says. "My heart is in Detroit, this is where I want to be. There is something stronger here for me."

But why Detroit? It can't just be "richness," can it?

"I can see the hope here," he says. "Detroit had more foot traffic in 1922 than New York City -- that should give us hope. And you know the motto of Detroit, right -- 'We hope for better things; It shall rise from the ashes.' Take for instance ice skating at Campus Martius. It's so simple but it brings people downtown. And Sundays in Detroit are so different than they were five years ago. And now the Dequindre Cut is coming together." All components of hope, Fisher says.

For Fisher, Detroit is a frontier. There is a lot of room for improvement, a lot of space to develop, and a lot of area to explore. "Even after six years of being here, I find new things," he says. "There is so much to explore in Detroit."

His parents, at first, weren't keen on him exploring a city that, well, doesn't exactly have a sterling national image. "At first they were intimidated by the city," he says. "They saw the movie '8 Mile' and said to me, 'Don't you have a better option?' And when they visit they are a little nervous, but they're getting better."

Fisher's philosophy on that is simple. "Come here and let me prove you different," he says. "Come here, and you'll see it's not what you think. The city needs some positive exposure right now. Funk Night was just voted America's best dance party -- there is (also) the history of the city, the artists and musicians here. It's hard to be positive sometimes about Detroit but there is positivity here."

Fisher lives in Woodbridge in a house with hardwood floors and drafty windows. "I am really happy where I am because it's a neighborhood that has young people, but also those that have been there for a while and have a vested sense of community and an eagerness to keep their neighborhood safe, friendly, maintained and intact."

Fisher, in his 6 years here, has seen progress. He wants to see more progress and is eager to be part of it. "It's baby steps," he says. "We're putting together something that will help us clean up and move Detroit forward, and staying here is a big part of the rejuvenation."

Terry Parris Jr. writes for Model D, and does regular features on people who have chosen Detroit. Suggest someone for the New to Detroit feature via e-mail here.


Josh Fisher on the Riverwalk

Billiards at Jumbo's

At work in the new Gryphon Theatre

Outside of the Majestic Theatre

All photographs by Detroit Photographer Marvin Shaouni
Marvin Shaouni is the Managing Photographer for Metromode & Model D.

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