This is the last installment of a four-part series on millennials and the new economy, based on the author’s monthlong road trip with stops in the Rust Belt, Omaha, and Texas. Read the first, second, and third.
Margarita Barry was nursing her eight-month-old and browsing the news online when a headline caught her eye: “Detroit Declares Bankruptcy.” Pretty soon, her inbox and Facebook feed were clogged with reports from family and friends sharing the news that Detroit had become the largest U.S. city ever to file for Chapter Nine. Barry, a 28-year-old web designer and entrepreneur who was born and raised on the northwest side of the city, knew it would happen eventually. “It was only a matter of when,” she says.
Much ink has been spilled over the infiltration of young, educated transplants to Detroit—a youth hostel here, a craft cocktail bar there, a co-working space downtown purchased for pennies on the dollar. But the bankruptcy hints that Detroit is not quite the creative-class magnet some trend stories frame it to be. Indeed, the infiltration has been overblown; Detroit has famously lost 25 percent of its population in the last decade, and new arrivals are still few and far between—precisely because Detroit’s housing and infrastructure problems remain so dire. Amid the city’s decline, it’s the people who grew up there who feel responsible for the city’s future, a task made all the more urgent now that Detroit has once again been thrust into the spotlight because of its fiscal problems. Shared trauma—of chronic decline, of acute bankruptcy—is a form of bonding. “It’s Detroit versus everybody,” Barry says. “Detroiters are fighting that much harder to explain why we love our city … [to] prove that we matter, that we’re determined to make it.”
When I visited Detroit in May, I saw several new establishments on a few designated blocks in Corktown and Midtown, populated by a handful of newcomers. But far more visible were young native Detroiters leading the charge not to tear down the city and start anew but to build on what they have. They were the ones behind many of the city’s restaurants and food vendors and bike communities. They were the ones organizing in low-income areas, working at and founding nonprofits like Detroit Represent and Young Educators Alliance. They were the ones sporting the most Detroit pride on sites like Rep Your City. “We’re the ones who can handle this,” event planner and media activist Adriel Thornton told me over coffee. He explains that Detroiters are scrappy, used to operating without the support of a larger system. “There’s no sense of loss about something the city couldn’t ever provide,” he says about the bankruptcy. Thornton founded Wink, which promotes queer culture in Detroit, and has worked with the decade-old Allied Media Conference, an annual gathering about media-based social-justice organizing. Other than “getting permits for festivals,” his community work exists in a world separate from municipal politics, without much help or acknowledgment from the city. Thornton isn’t the only young native who, because of Detroit’s financial woes and mismanagement, has taken matters into his own hands; Andy Didorosi, a 26-year-old Detroit native, founded the Detroit Bus Company after reading about yet another discontinued rail project.
Thornton emphasized the importance of natives buying property amid the city’s hollowing out. “We’re still trained to believe in the American dream,” he says with a self-deprecating smirk. He recently “bought a house that’s less expensive than my car.” Barry and her husband also purchased property this year—dirt-cheap at auction—in her old northwest stomping ground. For these natives, putting down roots is a tangible way to keep the city of their childhood afloat.
Seeing others invest in the city has a snowball effect, even for natives who could have easily escaped Detroit. Gabby Bryant, a 23-year-old black woman who grew up middle class in Midtown (née Cultural Center), attended private schools all her life and ended up graduating from Harvard. She spent three summers in D.C. as an intern during college, thinking she would “graduate, work in policy, and live happily ever after.” But when she heard about revitalization efforts in her home neighborhood, she was overcome with a strong sense of wanting to be involved, rather than leaving the work to strangers. She applied for the prestigious Venture for America program, which dispatches young graduates to make a difference in struggling cities through entrepreneurship. The program placed her at Dandelion, one of those start-ups that seem to do everything from strategy to design, and she felt at home as a native in Detroit’s nascent social innovation niche. After a year, she got a job working for the Detroit Institute of Arts. She sees people like her as vital to Detroit’s future.
“When a Detroiter makes a commitment to the city, or a recommitment, other Detroiters join in that effort,” she says.
Even though Detroit’s young natives are at the forefront, they don’t always get the credit. Bryant isn’t the typical recruit for programs like Venture for America, which openly courts young, educated people from elsewhere. “The opportunities seem like they’re geared toward newcomers,” says Barry. “But we’re like, ‘We’re already here, can we benefit from these resources, too?’ A lot of Detroiters don’t feel like their impact is being broadcast as much as some of the new people.”
This invisibility is partly why Barry decided to launch IamYoungDetroit.com, on top of all her other projects (she also designs websites, consults for pop-up stores, and owns a business called Boho Modern). The site profiles young entrepreneurs in the city and makes sure to “tell the story of everyone”—both natives and transplants. Barry doesn’t begrudge the city new brain power or trendy corridors, but she thinks it’s important for natives to “remember our old neighborhoods and where we come from.”