No, this is not a cautionary tale about how to avoid decline in an urban area.
I pretty routinely hear people talk about Savannah or Atlanta becoming the “next Detroit”. There’s sometimes a racist edge to those statements, which often seem to imply that black political leadership leads to decline. Of course, that’s nonsense when one considers how many American cities that have done better under largely black leadership in recent decades than they did under white political leadership for many decades of the 20th century.
It’s also an awkward comparison because Detroit is still reeling from fundamental changes in the auto industry, which unraveled its economic and cultural fabric.
But the comparisons aren’t quite useless. Savannah saw a long period of population loss and only slight gains in the past decade, while suburban areas blossomed. Atlanta’s population has stagnated too. While extremely worrisome in the short term, increased blight and population loss could set the stage for something else.
Take a look at Detroit Pushes Back With Young Muscles in today’s NYT. Here’s a key excerpt:
Recent census figures show that Detroit’s overall population shrank by 25 percent in the last 10 years. But another figure tells a different and more intriguing story: During the same time period, downtown Detroit experienced a 59 percent increase in the number of college-educated residents under the age of 35, nearly 30 percent more than two-thirds of the nation’s 51 largest cities.
These days the word “movement” is often heard to describe the influx of socially aware hipsters and artists now roaming the streets of Detroit. Not unlike Berlin, which was revitalized in the 1990s by young artists migrating there for the cheap studio space, Detroit may have this new generation of what city leaders are calling “creatives” to thank if it comes through its transition from a one-industry.
With these new residents have come the trappings of a thriving youth culture: trendy bars and restaurants that have brought pedestrians back to once-empty streets. Places like the Grand Trunk pub, Raw Cafe, Le Petit Zinc and Avalon Bakery mingle with shops with names like City Bird, Sole Sisters and the Bureau of Urban Living.
Those familiar with past neighborhoods-of-the-moment recognize the mood. “It feels like TriBeCa back in the early days, before double strollers, sidewalk cafes and Whole Foods,” said Amy Moore, 50, a film producer working on three Detroit projects. “There is a buzz here that is real, and the kids drip with talent and commitment, and aren’t spoiled.”
Two keys: cheap real estate and lots of venture capital. For example:
Part of the allure of Detroit lies in simple economics. Real estate is cheap by urban standards (Ms. Myles lives in a $900-a-month one-bedroom apartment with a garage), and the city is so eager to draw educated young residents that it is offering numerous subsidies to new arrivals. Ms. Myles, for instance, received $3,500 from her employer, which, like many companies in the city, is offering rent or purchasing subsidies to staff members who choose to live in the city.
Detroit Venture Partners is offering start-up financing to early-stage technology companies; Techtown, a business incubator, research and technology park associated with Wayne State University in Detroit, is providing support to entrepreneurs and emerging companies through its “Thrive” program. And Bizdom U, an “entrepreneurial boot camp” started by Dan Gilbert, the founder and chairman of Quicken Loans, is offering graduates of its four-month-long course financing opportunities of up to $100,000 if they base their start-up in Detroit.