I’m from Detroit, but now I live here in the Twin Cities, as do a lot of other native Detroiters.
The guy in Edina who fixes my car is from Detroit, and so is my representative in Congress, Keith Ellison. I needed a new bike a few weeks ago, and bought one from one of my oldest friends, who moved here from Michigan long before I did.
New York and Chicago are much the same — full of expatriate Detroiters who left in the face of a failed economy and a poisonous social environment rooted in decades of systemic racial discrimination.
Now Detroit wants us back.
Last week, I returned to Michigan for an event called the “Detroit Homecoming,” funded by a swath of foundations and corporate supporters hoping to attract capital — both financial and human — back to the city. Expatriate CEOs and investors leaned forward in their chairs as we heard from Detroit’s mayor, Mike Duggan, and a wide variety of civic leaders.
I don’t know if all of their plans will work, but if a fraction of them do, it will be a new era for the city. I could tell that many of those around me were tempted to be a part of what might happen next.
I lived in Detroit and its suburbs both as a child and as an adult, and was a federal prosecutor there from 1995-2000. You might imagine that being a prosecutor exposes one to the worst parts of a community. And you would be right. When I left in 2000, it was with the pain of leaving home and the relief of taking off an old and uncomfortable pair of shoes.
That’s partly why it was such a shock to see what has happened. When I worked in downtown Detroit in the 1990s, it was a desolate and scary place. That has changed abruptly as construction and rehabs arise around every corner. Much of the construction is residential; young people are moving in. There is a flourishing restaurant scene, and more bicyclists than I see in Minneapolis.
Problems endure, yes. Racial tensions flare up around gentrification. Public schools have improved, but still fall short in serving children. Large parts of the city are full of empty lots even as over 100,000 housing units stand vacant. The median sale price for a home in Detroit in 2015 was just $19,070.
Some of these facts, though, present opportunities — the chance to use land for new purposes and buy a house on the cheap.
One of my friends, Ron Fournier, already made the move back. Ron and I grew up running and writing together; we coedited the school paper with a few others. But he was the best of our lot. He became a White House reporter, Washington bureau chief for the Associated Press and political columnist for the Atlantic before ditching D.C. for Detroit a year ago. Now he is publisher of Crain’s Detroit Business.
He doesn’t seem to regret it, telling me: “I’m back home with my family. I’m back home also working with political and business leaders who, for the first time in my lifetime, seem genuinely determined to pull together to make Detroit better.”
It’s hard not to have some skepticism about all this. Detroit has been declaring its “renaissance” continuously for the last four decades, after all, and many of us expatriates stopped believing it a while ago. I’ll never forget my dad (an unrelenting Detroit booster) giving a friend of mine a driving tour of the city that inadvertently featured a gas station holdup and a close-up view of an active crack house. Now, though, there are some changes we can see in the form of buildings and businesses and life on the streets. It’s hard not to root for the underdog, especially when that underdog was our home.
The first big event at the homecoming was a dinner honoring fellow expat Lily Tomlin, held in the old Michigan Central Depot, an enormous train station built as a near-twin to New York’s Grand Central Station. It closed in 1988. Since then it has been ransacked in every way imaginable, including twice in movies (2006’s “Transformers” and 2016’s “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”). For the dinner, though, it had been scraped clean, its elegant bones revealed. It was a fitting metaphor: a place ready to be reborn.
Will people move back? Some will, like Ron. More important, people will stop leaving once they graduate from high school or Wayne State or the University of Michigan. Detroit will no longer be creating the diaspora that has helped fuel the growth of places like Minneapolis, and that might just be the best thing for everyone.
Mark Osler is the Robert and Marion Short Professor of Law at the University of St. Thomas.