Imported to Detroit: Meeting downtown's residential new wave

"I did not want to miss the party," Jessica Broome told me as we sat at Union Street on a Friday night. She'd biked to meet me for dinner from her apartment in the Kales building on West Adams Street between Park and Woodward. Jessica was describing her decision to leave Ann Arbor after two years so that she could finish her graduate work at University of Michigan while living in downtown Detroit with her dog. "It is such an exciting, pivotal time in Detroit and I did not want to be left out. I may not live here forever, but whenever someone asks me about Detroit in 2011, I want to say I was there." Like me, Jessica has also lived in New York City, and works for herself. She became a resident in June, arriving in the midst of a trend I had noticed: young, creative thirty-somethings leaving quieter parts of Michigan to get in on the action. 

Josh Bartlett also came to the Kales, arriving in July from Farmington Hills where he had been since 2004. "I am not going to say it is what I expected," he told me over coffee at Astro in Corktown, "but I have learned to expect the unexpected." While Josh is pleased with the decision about where he lives, local nightclubs have recently become a problem for other residents in the area. Some neighbors were incited by a mid-July shooting to complain to police about noise and traffic and start a boycott. But Josh has a positive outlook. "The subtext is that we're all in this together," he says, adding that there is a much greater degree of communication and interaction among neighbors in his new home than there was in the suburbs. Furthermore, I called up the originator of the boycott to learn that is was short-lived and things were back to business as usual in less than a month. 

A third downtown transplant who arrived last February, confirms that people run into each other more downtown. Matt Dibble and his wife, Katie, left Royal Oak after 10 years for the Lofts at Merchant Row, on Woodward Avenue between Grand River and State Street. Matt used a burgeoning food scene to talk his wife into making the decision. "We work hard and we eat out a lot; the options down here are amazing." After several years of patronizing Slows, Park Bar, and Rub BBQ together, Matt believes that the shawarma at Bucharest finally convinced her. "The city should subsidize it. It would raise the tax base." Matt and Katie's downtown enthusiasm extends to the architecture of their loft, which is 1,400 square feet with 20-foot ceilings, and includes valet parking. "We call it our Hollywood apartment; it is so pimp!"
Josh and Matt both mentioned walking distance to Comerica Park to see the Tigers as another perk, which allows them to attend a 7 p.m. game and still be home by 10. The walking is especially important to Josh, who says he hates driving completely. Matt feels that his lifestyle is much more active since moving, thanks to the pedestrian environment and, like Jessica, has been enjoying running downtown. Since February he has noticed an influx of other runners in the area. The pioneer of the group, he and Katie moved into a nearly empty building but now see new faces in the elevator all the time. Meeting in the elevator seems to be the trend for downtown friendships across the board.
What I liked most about this crew of city enthusiasts was that they managed to advocate their new lifestyles without blind cheer-leadery enthusiasm. They all acknowledged that the parking provided by the apartment building is key, as there are still blocks downtown where one should not leave a car. Jessica admits that her decision was almost impulsive, and that she found a few aspects of the transition more jarring than she had hoped. "I asked where the recycling was and they told me, 'Oh. Honey! This is NOT Ann Arbor.'" The city of Detroit, lamentably, does not recycle. She's been known to save bags for her Ann Arbor friends to take back with them when they come to visit. Despite this rather unsavory parting gift, she's been pleased with how her Ann Arbor friends have reacted to Detroit. "I lived there for two years and I knew tons of people that had never been east of the airport. Once I get people down here they see that it is actually cool. I don't see why more University of Michigan people don't do it."
I don't live downtown, but I identify with the creative energy of these urbanites. Coming from New York, I feel like downtown has the closest architectural feeling to what I am used to, but still missing some of the key things essential to city living. Mainly, more coffee. Jessica stays tied to school through Skype and works from the Library and Café 1515. Josh's job for Glacéau, a subsidiary of Coca-Cola, allows him to work from home, as does Matt's; he is an entrepreneur and filmmaker who runs Final Five Productions. In Brooklyn there was a coffee shop every two blocks and I managed to be a regular at three that I could get to in less than five minutes of walking. Jessica and I discussed the transition to a place of more limitations and as, it turns out, she's not all that bothered. "After two or three trips the employees know your name and what you like," she says. Options downtown include Chez ZaraRowland Cafe and 1515 Broadway, which provides two more choices than my current location.    

Since arriving in Detroit I have settled in Hamtramck for the time being (and they do recycle, for the record). This brings me to the argument over "Detroit: the City," versus, "Detroit: the metro area." Unlike these three, I've joined the former but not yet the latter and my feelings on that are complicated. Josh calls "the whole city-versus-suburbs thing" a worthless conversation. However, of the three interviewees, he was the one that described his decision as "the right thing to do," and felt that the city needed more people that could effect change. Personally, I don't feel any less invested in the renewal of the City by my address. I thought Matt put it best: "People in Detroit really care about Detroit and I don't get that feeling when I go elsewhere; they really want the city to succeed. I think is what is going to help drive us forward is passion."

In my opinion, you can be a part of that from Royal Oak if that is more your speed -- neighborhoods (and 'burbs) exist to offer a variety of different personalities for the residents that make them up. I think one of the worst things that can happen is for someone to move into an area they are not ready for, have a negative experience, and tell everyone else not to do it. Fortunately these three downtown residents are spreading the word that downtown is life-changing and worthwhile, night-club noise be damned! 

As long as we all keep drawing our friends east of the airport we are in it together. But I will garner these three more cachet when I write about the great creative renaissance of 2011 in a future column. 

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. She's all over the grid now, holding down an editorship for the newly-launched and smartly written real estate blog Curbed Detroit.

Photographs by Marvin Shaouni


Matt Dibble lives, works and plays at his loft on merchants row

Jessica Broome on the River Walk at Rivard Plaza

Josh Bartlett at Cliff Bell's