Detroiters On How To Make It In Detroit

Detroit today is not just a tale of two cities. It’s a tale of two narratives: a city declining like no other major American metropolis and a groundswell of entrepreneurs creating a sense of hope for the first time in years, even decades.

How do you tell a story with so much complexity, so many layers and emotions? Through myriad perspectives—those of Detroiters and newcomers, entrepreneurs and artists, execs from the business and nonprofit worlds, a billionaire and scrappy novices, data and urban experts. I spent months interviewing dozens of people. (More on the story behind the story here.)

One version of the story appears in the May issue of Fast Company. Another appears in the above video—a "storytelling, radio/magazine mash-up." (That’s what Baratunde Thurston dubbed a similar session I did recently on New York’s tech response to Sandy.) Both feature the sort of creative and tenacious Detroiters whose insights could help the execs and politicos gathered at this week's Mackinac Policy Conference, an annual economic-development confab that addresses what ails the region.

"Detroit: A Love Story" was filmed at Erwin Penland’s recent Food for Thought conference in Greenville, South Carolina. Some highlights and lessons in urban reclamation:

Hustle and improvise.
In its deterioration Detroit has become ripe with opportunity. It’s the sort of place a 26-year-old college dropout can start a bus company. Andy Didorosi looked at the city’s sad state of transportation services and started a transportation business, despite his inexperience. "I thought, What can I do to fix this?" Didorosi says.

He bought five used school buses only to learn he needed $100,000 in insurance. The insurance company, "treated it like a transportation agency," he says. He tweaked his plans, and called back and asked about coverage for a bar-crawl bus. "They said, ‘Sure, no problem. We do that all the time,’" he laughs, "because sure, it’s less dangerous to bus around drunk people."

Now Didorosi’s changing things up again, expanding the Detroit Bus Company to provide service for an after-school program, commuter buses for downtown companies, and historical tours.

Bring your bull%&$@ radar.
"Amazing things can happen when it’s so cheap to start something" says Josh McManus of Little Things Labs. He’s helping develop Detroit’s entrepreneurial community through efforts such as D:Hive, an unconventional welcome and training center. The city, he says, is "this Warholesque compilation of innovators, entrepreneurs, and artists. But whenever you have innovators converge, you have exploiters. You need to have a tremendous bullshit radar. There’s also backlash. We had a meme pop up: white entrepreneurial guy."

Respect the city's struggles but resist cynicism.
True, other post-industrial cities lost manufacturing jobs and shrank from urban flight and were subsequently hit by unemployment, poverty, and crime. But Detroit fell farther than Philadelphia, Cleveland, Pittsburgh; roughly a third of families in Detroit live in poverty. Because only Detroit had been king. The auto capital of the world. A city of incredible wealth and nearly 2 million residents.

Now? Fifty years later, Detroit hovers around 700,000 residents. However, its physical size hasn’t changed. That disparity explains the 45,000 or so abandoned housing units throughout the city. "Keeping the people’s faith, keeping them believing we can turn the city around is a challenge," says John George, the head of Motor City Blight Busters. For 25 years, his group has been renovating or replacing empty buildings. "Our goal is to change the world," he says. "We just started in Detroit."

Take inspiration from Detroit’s roots.
In the early 20th century, it was Silicon Valley before Silicon Valley, a rapidly growing concentration of entrepreneurs and inventors that gave rise to a new industry that transformed the country and the culture. But, says Dave Egner, president and CEO of the Hudson-Webber Foundation, "We stopped innovating and started protecting. We had built paternal relationships between employers and companies, and community leaders and those companies that paralyzed us. And we didn’t know how to behave."

Egner heads the New Economy Initiative. It’s an unprecedented collaboration between 10 foundations that has pooled $100 million (so far) to "accelerate the transition of the economy" by focusing on nurturing entrepreneurs. The assets, he says, are there: a large creative class; "the most sophisticated logistics transportation distribution system in the world (because of the autos)"; a well-developed entrepreneurial ecosystem. But that ecosystem has been fragmented and under-funded.

If you think you know resilience, think again.
It took Alicia George 10 years to open a coffeehouse in her troubled neighborhood of Brightmoor. "I’m 20 minutes from downtown and midtown where all the excitement and buzz is going on," she says. "We wanted to connect it to our neighborhood." She sold candy and smoothies, took bags of change to Coinstar, whatever it took, only to see her first site burn down. In Detroit, she says, "Nothing comes easy."

John George helped her eventually open the Motor City Java House in 2010. It has spurred a mini-business district in Brightmoor. "The coffee shop is where the world meets," he says. It’s one of the most diverse pockets of the city. You see bridges being built, people talking about recreating Detroit."

It brings people together all right. Alicia and John got married last fall. (That’s one of the reasons this session's called "Detroit: A Love Story.")

Embrace the grime.
McManus is a student of innovation and its history. The city reminds him of a quote by Thomas Edison: "Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work." Working with Dan Gilbert’s team at Quicken Loans, McManus helped turn this idea into "Opportunity Detroit," a Super Bowl ad and campaign. "The great inventions didn’t come from these clean pristine places," McManus says. "They came from transitional places, things that were dirty and grimy and different. Detroit is very much like that. Detroit is what opportunity looks like."

Watch "Detroit: A Love Story" above. After a brief intro, it begins at the 3:44 mark: "This is Detroit. A basketball court in the sky and a hole in the ground."

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  • Cmunk32

    Why is everyone scared to talk about the elephant in the room, 1968 Detroit's riot followed by the great white flight, from that moment it is a African American ran city of greed and corruption. With propaganda of the race card and the man wanting to take the city back, it is policed, governed an populated by African americans. The city is dead! Murdered.. they rob our ex police chiefs, pastors and hold our senior citizens hostage for there government checks. It is the wild west filled with blight and disrepair. The youth are in uneducated criminals, who's goal is to be a hustler, robber, or drug dealer. Getting a job is not even a thought for detroiter when the government pays them every month on the 1st. As far a most are concerned they wanted Detroit and they can have it, we've made the "burbs" quite nice. Don't worry the man doesn't want you city back seeing as how good of a job youve done taking care of it since we left

  • KC

    I grew up there.  Moved to California when my parents divorced. Mom was an RN and Dad a police officer, African American.  Good, hardworking tax paying Americans.  If you have not experienced it, you cannot appreciate it.  Harlem has had a rebirth, so can Detroit.  Get rid of the stereotypical attitudes and give them a chance.  America is not what it used to be either. 

  • Johnr4201


  • David

    Live in Chicago and have a home in Detroit area, go back every weekend  and for the last 4 the wife an dmyself have  gone DT  for DInner or drinks and  are discovering  some great resturants and food.

  • Def

    This is a rather idiotic article. Detroiters can't make
    it in Detroit. Hence why Detroit is not a dying city, but a dead city. This is
    like taking advice from a grocery bagger on how to become a nuclear physicist.
    If you want to see what Detroit will become in the future, go to any city in Jamaica.
    Not where the resorts are, but the locals. Where the people don't care about
    anyone but themselves and want everything provided for them through their own
    sense of entitlement. There is no future for Detroit in the life time of anyone
    that can read this article. All that ever happens here is people talk how great
    it use to be, but no work to make it better is truly done that can make a
    significant impact. Detroit, once great, but never again.

  • Michael James Hoffman

    Chuck, you added no analysis. Therefore your comment means very little to the initiated.

  • jay bacchus

    Debra, it's admirable that you're such a Detroit booster.  But maybe you need a reality check.  Are you a bit intoxicated by your youth?

    For well over a year now, Detroit has been wringing it's municipal hands in agony over cash flow that is so limp there's ongoing official concern about making payrolls each month.  Now the appraisal process has kicked in, as we try to determine how best to sell off the best assets (the DIA and it's artwork).  That is a clear smoke signal from the Emergency Manager that Chapter 9 bankruptcy is more than just talk.  I wonder how many young entrepreneurs keep up with this stuff.

    Financially anemic Detroit has just accepted a huge grant (federal taxpayer money) to build a downtown light rail system.  Normally, you must prove on paper that you will have the resources (the money) to OPERATE such a capital improvement after it is constructed.  This booming, entrepreneurial city is going to operate a downtown light rail system at the same time it is BARELY able to meet existing payroll?  Why does this seem to me not to bear the test of common sense?

    Amid the anguish of the EM's Chapter 9 thrashing, Debra, Detroit's dynamic leadership is right now doing what they do best.  Do you keep yourself up to speed on this stuff?  Detroit's best and brightest political minds are ARGUING that the EM law is racist and unconstitutional.

    A Detroit in bankruptcy will be a black eye you can't even imagine.  It will smear neighboring Oakland County in the bond markets with guilt by association.  Worse than that, Debra, A Detroit bankruptcy will cripple the State of Michigan in the money markets for the same reason.  Here's a brilliant comment I wish was an original thought : 'As Detroit goes, so goes Oakland County and the State of Michigan'.        

    You sound very young, Debra, and I'd bet my Macbook I know your political affiliation.  Accordingly, I'll bet I know who you voted to reelect.  Take a circumspect look at Detroit's recent leadership.  It is going to haunt every single entrepreneur who lives here.

    Debra, I do hope I haven't drowned your idealism.            



  • Woodward Ave

    So what are we supposed to do? Declare a state of emergency and evacuate the city? I'm sitting in the DIA as we speak and I don't see anybody running the hell outta here like the place is on fire. the people who wanted to leave the city are already gone. the remaining are fighters who still have some glimmer of hope that the city will survive. maybe not become the next big thing, but at least survive...besides isn't someone young like Debra the only demographic with enough energy to carry out this project to the next generation? what exactly do you want?

  • debra

    Def, you are so negative..   Detroit is a beautiful city, with a lot to offer.  All Detroit needs is a better bus system or rapid rail.    If Detroit invests in transportation it will be a boom town again.  I own a small homebased business myself.  Owning your own business is the wave of the future.  The people cited in this article started their own business, and is making their lives in Detroit better, inspite of Detroit's problems.

  • Abhike2

    Would love to see a genuine Detorit Renaissance. It's a terriffic city even though I moved away 40 years ago. Between the Tigers, the Art Institute, the waterfront, Ann Arbor, the metro parks, etc., this could be a terriffic place. Again.

  • Kerby David

    I too left over 40 years ago but still call myself a Detroiter. Great sports, great place to grow up and yes I was actually the son of the milkman ! (Twin Pines)