Coming Home to Detroit
It's been three decades since the author left his hometown. Now the city—a shadow of its former self—is trying to entice him back.
DETROIT—Twenty-nine years ago, I stood in the driveway at 15285 Coram in the northeast corner of Detroit and said good-bye to my parents—and to my hometown. The end was just beginning for both the industrial era and the newspaper industry. The only job I could find was in Hot Springs, Arkansas.
My mother was raised across the street from 15285 Coram. My father grew up three doors down. Their fathers, uncles, aunts, and cousins all lived nearby and worked for the Big Three. Their families were lifted into the middle class by union wages that grew decade after decade until the 1980s, when I left Detroit.
"Be good," Dad said. I was 22, a University of Detroit graduate who had not traveled outside metro Detroit except for a high school trip to Iowa and time spent at the family cottage in nearby Canada. Everybody, it seemed, had a cottage those days. The American Dream roared to life in Detroit every Friday afternoon, when factory workers—riding cars they built and bought—steered "up north" to their second homes. "You'll do great," Mom smiled. As I ducked into my overstuffed Ford Escort, she quickly added, "and you'll move back to Detroit."
Some memories soothe. That one aches—on this day, anyway, because I'm in town to attend the "Detroit Homecoming," a conference of 120 native Detroiters who left the city years ago. I arrive several hours early and drive to the old neighborhood. From that same driveway, I can see the lot where my mom's childhood home once stood; a victim of arson a decade or so ago, its charred, wooden skeleton is buried beneath a thicket of wild flowers and brush. Dad's old house is still in good shape, the only one on the block to look habitable for a middle-class family.
The house at 15285 Coram, where Mom and Dad raised four kids and eased their own parents into retirement and death, gave way to fire this year. Squatters came first, then addicts and arsonists. The tiny lot is now cleared of debris, except for a young tree clinging to the burnt-orange ground where our garage once stood. With twiggy arms and a few fluttering leaves, the sapling seems to be waving hello. Or is it waving me away?
Chuckling at the thought, I pull out of the rutted, weedy driveway. A 10-minute ride north will take me across 8 Mile Road to St. Clair Shores, where I'm meeting my mother for breakfast. I punch "Mom" on my cell phone, and she answers on the first ring. We both say, "You home?"
Before finishing that story, what can I tell you about this "Detroit Homecoming" conference? Bottom line: It's a sales job—all hype and hope and "please invest here." The city's corporate and political elite hope to dazzle the Detroit expats, mostly wealthy businessmen and women who might lay bets on the city. In a small, pre-dinner reception on the conference's first night, I'm close enough to overhear Mayor Mike Duggan schmoozing an investor from Connecticut-via-Detroit, "Thanks for coming," Duggan chuckles. "Leave your money."
We get private tours of the city's cultural attractions (the Motown Museum and batting practice at Comerica Park, home of the Detroit Tigers); of its new industries (the tiny "Shinola" watch factory is no match for the enormous auto plants that started leaving Detroit in the 1950s, but it's hip); and of a few recovering neighborhoods (like Corktown and Midtown).
The organizers didn't invite me for my money. They're angling for a glowing story about the city's rebirth, and I suspect they'll be disappointed by what I eventually write. I'm a cup-is-half-empty guy, a professional skeptic—and Detroit is struggling through bankruptcy that might, finally, mark the rock bottom of a decades-deep hole. The climb out will take years, maybe generations, if it happens at all. A year ago, when the city entered into bankruptcy, I wrote:
I love my hometown. And I hate what Detroit's demise might bode for our country. Wrenching economic change … income inequality ... political corruption … ineffective government … rigid institutions … chronic debt and racism—these are the things that bankrupted Detroit, morally and fiscally, and they're an exaggerated reflection of the nation's challenges.
This is not my first trip home, not by a long shot. My wife grew up in a suburb of Detroit, and we return to Michigan several times a year to visit our families, or vacation at our cottage in the northern woods. Two trips this year were for funerals—my father's and my mother-in-law's.
I'm thinking of my father, an ex-Detroit cop, when Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert sits across from me at dinner. Gilbert owns much of downtown, and he employs a huge private security force to keep those streets safe. Meanwhile, my father's beloved Detroit Police Department is cash-starved and, like the city, a shadow of its former self.
Gilbert seems like a good guy—or at least a guy who cares about the city and is trying to do good by it. He tells a bunch of us, "This city, it's going to shock people in five years." Come on—shock? Really? Yes, Gilbert insists.
Built like a fireplug, Gilbert speaks in rapid bursts of big words and ideas, and with a confidence that is as infectious as it is rehearsed. In five years, he says, downtown Detroit and Midtown—an emerging neighborhood of hipsters and young entrepreneurs—will be knitted together by a new hockey arena/business district. Thousands of abandoned houses and other blight will be erased from every city neighborhood. In half a decade, he says, "smart investors" will have built the first new neighborhoods, developing cheap land in exchange for promises to build police stations, schools, and parks. Smart investors, Gilbert declares, like the "Detroit Homecoming" expats.
"There's no silver bullet here," he says. "It's not going to be one family or one group. It's got to be wide. It's got to be deep."
One after another, Detroit's leading men and woman try to woo us—or our money—back home, leavening genuine enthusiasm from scraps of hope and progress.
"It's not a time of fixes," says Governor Rick Snyder, a Republican. "It's a time of reinvention."
"People are starting to believe in the future of this city," says Duggan, a Democrat, during a PowerPoint presentation on plans to eradicate blight, incentivize housing, and fix the water system.
"We're here to stay," says Walter Robb, CEO of Whole Foods Market, which defied Detroit skeptics and opened a grocery store in Midtown. Not long ago, a local reporter asked him, "How much money do you have to lose before you leave?"
Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors, excites us with plans to build a flagship Cadillac sedan at GM's Detroit-Hamtramck plant. Gilbert and his investor pal Warren Buffett yuk it up on stage. The city's hockey prince, Chris Illitch, gives us a peek at the new arena blueprints. When I bump into Ilitch later, he says the city's political and business leaders have not been this united in 50 years—and I believe him.
It's all so impressive, this conference, and yet, well, this is still Detroit. Barra doesn't bother telling us that she's moving GM's Cadillac brand to New York, of all places. Buffett laughs off Gilbert's attempt to secure investment commitments. Duggan has no good answer for the fate of Detroit's schools.
It's up to the event's keynoter, Dan Doctoroff, to bring us back to earth, to acknowledge the gulf between hope and reality in Detroit. A hometown boy, Doctoroff served for six years as New York City's deputy mayor. He's the conference's realist, telling the expats to temper their aspirations. "The goodwill money runs out quickly," he says, adding that smart money won't come until investors see population growth.
Doctoroff predicts that journalists eventually will grow tired of writing "Detroit comeback" stories and shift to "Detroit missed its opportunity." He urges city boosters and leaders to "think small." Rather than over-promise, do the little things well, he says, and create a "virtuous cycle" of success. Fix the street lights. Repair the roads. Pick up the trash. If one person notices that the city trash service is picking up garbage on schedule, after years of mismanagement, that person might start putting his trash out on time. A neighbor might notice and start dragging her trash to the curb on time, too. One day, Doctoroff says, a suburbanite might drive through that neighborhood, notice how clean it's become, and buy a home.
Doctoroff has big ideas, too. Michigan should look at what Abraham Lincoln did to encourage western migration: Provide urban "settlers" free or cheap land in Detroit. Another idea: Ease visa restrictions so the city can become a home for 50,000 immigrants. Finally, Doctoroff says, the mayor must take control of the city's schools.
The expats applaud Doctoroff. They love his hope and appreciate his caution. To anybody who talks to him afterward, Doctoroff repeats these three sentences: "Don't get ahead of yourself. Don't make promises you can't keep. Say what you can do, and do it."
Breakfast with Mom is at a diner on Jefferson Avenue near 10 Mile Road, across the street from Lake St. Clair—in a modest neighborhood on the southern edge of Macomb County, where in the 1980s pollster Stanley Greenberg famously found a label for working-class whites who considered Democratic pleas for economic fairness code for advantaging African-Americans. I was raised by two such "Reagan Democrats."
People like my parents are good-hearted and tolerant, but social change hit them hard. Longtime white residents left the city—they say the city left them—in waves, after the 1967 riots and school integration in 1976. They love and loathe their city. They romanticize the past and color the present with every shade of cynicism.
While driving to the diner, I tell Mom why I'm in town. "They've brought a bunch of us expats back to sell us on Detroit." I expect her to take the bait—to rant and reminisce, like always. Instead, she shakes her head and says, "I think Detroit is coming back."
"I do, really," she says. "There are some great things happening downtown and midtown." Mom pauses. I think she can see the shock in my face. She says, "For years, whenever you said you were from Detroit, people looked at you with sympathy or made a joke. Now they want to know what you know about the city, or tell you about somebody they know moving back into Detroit."
One of the young imports is her granddaughter, my 26-year-old daughter, Holly. Born in Arkansas and raised in suburban Washington, Holly decided after graduating from college to spend a year or two in community service. She joined City Year and asked to serve in Detroit—a city she had visited three or four times a year while growing up, because my wife and I were determined to remain connected to our families and to the Midwest. After City Year, Holly quickly got a job at The Detroit News, then fell in love and married a local guy. They live in Midtown.
Her 22-year-old sister, Gabrielle, graduated from James Madison University in rural Virginia a few months ago, and now attends law school at Michigan State University, 90 miles from Detroit. That leaves just my wife, Lori, and our 16-year-old son, Tyler, living in Arlington, Virginia. Detroit still feels like home.
We finish breakfast and I reach for the check. It's time to head downtown for the start of the conference. "When are you moving back?" Mom teases. I think of that sapling on Coram, waving hello.
"Someday, we'd love to."
"Someday," she smiles, "you'll do it."