The Detroit Diaspora

 

All but one of these folks repatriated to metro Detroit from China in the last two years.

For four wonderful years, my family and I lived in Shanghai. We knew ours was a temporary move, so we kept our suburban Detroit home while we lived abroad. Each summer, my daughters and I would return to Detroit for about six weeks, missing the ridiculously hot Shanghai summers and enjoying the beautiful Michigan ones.

And each summer, I would question my Detroit friends about the city’s “renaissance.” For decades, people have talked about Detroit coming back from its economic malaise, but there was never much to show for all that talk. Our very first summer back from China saw more of the same, as Detroit declared bankruptcy on July 18, 2013. It was the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. Let’s just say I was happily looking forward to our return to thriving, vibrant Shanghai that fall.

Each summer was the same. I came back and listened to friends telling me the “turn around” was happening. And each summer, I would drive through the abandoned and dilapidated neighborhoods of Detroit convinced that my friends were drinking the Quicken Loans kool-aid. Yes, sporting events drove suburbanites to the city center, but I didn’t sense the rebirth of Detroit, whose population over the years had fallen from almost two million to about 650,000. I wondered if Detroit could ever turn around.

I practically begged my wife to stay in Shanghai, or anywhere in Asia, when it came time for us to move back last summer. I’m drunk on Asia Pacific and would happily live there until I died.  But family, career, and clean air called us back to Detroit. I was very concerned about repatriation and the effect it would have on me mentally and emotionally. Going from a crazy cool city of 24 million people to one that had recently come out of bankruptcy did not seem like it was going to work for me.

Now, we are back in Detroit full-time and I have noticed an interesting phenomenon. Friends of mine who left Michigan for other states and countries, are moving back to metro Detroit. My close friend Jenn Banovetz was the first returnee, informing me when she visited us in Shanghai, that she was moving back to Detroit. I was stunned. She had built an incredible and successful life in Los Angeles. Back to Detroit from L.A.? Really?

My friend Jenn and I at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing where she told me she was moving back to Detroit. What?!?!

And then other friends started doing it too. Another close and long time friend, Tommy informed me he was moving back to the D from the San Diego area after 20-plus years in California. Again, leaving near-paradise for Detroit?

At the Ivanhoe Cafe (Polish Yacht Club) in Detroit with me (moved from Shanghai), Edric (still in L.A. but wobbly), and Tom (moved back from San Diego).

Then, I had a revelation. There is a reverse diaspora happening in Detroit. Diaspora means that people scatter or disperse from their ancestral home, for a multitude of reasons, but mostly because they have to. Historically, people who are part of a diaspora hang on to the culture and collective memory they left behind and, if they can, they return to the original place they fled.

For the last 40 years, metro Detroiters have left the city en masse for a variety of reasons: Jobs, crime, poverty, blight, and even weather. Now, many former Detroiters like me are returning to a dynamic city with amazing cultural happenings, an insanely awesome food scene, craft beer everywhere you turn, first-class sports facilities, and a city center that is slowly bringing retail back to Detroit.

It is not just my friends that are coming back to Detroit. Professionals of all types are returning to be part of the excitement. Detroiter Sarah Welch did her culinary education at the French Culinary Institute in New York and stayed after graduation to work at April Bloomfield’s world renowned gastropub The Spotted Pig. But Detroit called and Sarah came home. Fortunately for us, she and her partners are getting ready to open Marrow in the very happening West Village (detroit.eater.com/venue/marrow). It will be a butcher shop by day, and a farm-to-table restaurant at night, with Sarah as the executive chef.

With Chef Sarah Welch, who moved back from NYC and will be opening a new restaurant in Detroit’s West Village.

Another Sarah, Sarah Berger, is now the events manager at one of my favorite Detroit restaurants, Selden Standard (seldenstandard.com.) She moved back to Detroit from Chicago to be a part of the city’s renaissance. (The restaurant’s James Beard nominated chef, Andy Hollyday moved to Detroit from Ohio). Sarah watched the happenings in Detroit from Chicago, a dynamic city itself, and decided she needed to get back and be a part of it. She told me that watching the transformation of midtown and the Cass Corridor from the windows of Selden Standard — new lofts, restaurants and bars — has reassured her that she had made the right decision to return.

Sarah Berger and I at her incredible restaurant, Selden Standard.

And those returning to Detroit are not just in the restaurant industry. Ryan Cotton, born and raised in metro Detroit, is returning to open the Village Parlour, a high-end hair salon and apothecary, also in the West Village (villageparlordetroit.com). He spent the last 15 years in NYC, styling for salons, editorial and commercial photo shoots, and red carpet clients. He has styled such names as Emma Roberts, Julianne Moore, and Jennifer Aniston, and has decided to bring his talents back home to Detroit.

My good friend Chris DeTombeur recently moved to metro Detroit too. He is not a Michigan native and came here via New Jersey, Florida and Shanghai. Now, he’s starting a new business and is making his own contribution to the area’s renaissance. Most of us returning to metro Detroit, no matter where from, left this city originally for greener pastures, but its allure never left us. (Personally, whether I was living in Los Angeles or Shanghai, I always followed what was happening in Detroit.) Be it for family, economics, or just emotional longing, people are coming back to Detroit.

James, Scott, me and Chris, all repatriated from Shanghai, in the Chinese American restaurant The Peterboro in Detroits historic China town (thepeterboro.com).

The word diaspora may be dramatic, but so is the turn around I see in Detroit. It will never be Shanghai, but then nothing ever will. Even so, I see parallels, including people moving from the outskirts into the city. New businesses are going up weekly. Modern public transportation such as the QLine streetcar (m-1rail.com) are being built. We have been waiting decades for this renaissance to begin and I believe it is finally happening. The best sign I see is people choosing to move to, and live in, Detroit. It’s an exciting time. I’m part of the Detroit diaspora and I could not be happier.

My Buddy James Hutchison and I celebrating our return to Detroit over IPA’s at Detroit’s largest brewery, Atwater (atwaterbeer.com).
The Qline being tested on Woodward. The streetcar is a first for modern Detroit.

 

Detroit!

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