i-D magazine gives us its take on the 'move to Detroit' phenomenon

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Screenshot of the article's header at id.vice.com.
  • Screenshot of the article's header at id.vice.com.

Remember when you'd see an article on somebody forsaking the pleasures of New York for the wilder thrills of Detroit and it was surprising? Yeah, we don't either. It seems that so many articles, essays, and think pieces on why people would choose Detroit over New York have appeared that it's all a blur to us. It's getting to the point where it's exhausting to plow through them anymore.

The latest comes from i-D magazine (which is apparently now a side project of Vice magazine), and there's much to admire about the article. First off, it's written by a metro Detroiter who moved to New York for a time and has moved back. Also, the piece is careful to avoid the cultural land mines other pieces have stomped on with both feet. (It's refreshing to hear an interviewee in such a piece say, "Detroit is not just a blank canvas" or to posit that Detroit isn't "the new Brooklyn.") The piece also aims a critical eye at some of the more effusive "moving to Detroit" pieces and asks a few good questions. ("The positive press ... is so needed but ... is the city really a paradise for the creative?")

The problem is that those questions are rhetorical. The piece carries us along on a circuit through Midtown (thankfully, at least acknowledged as the "Cass Corridor," however briefly) and downtown and Corktown and West Village and never seems to find anybody who says it's not a paradise for the young and creative. It tends to confirm the very thesis it starts out questioning.

Now, that's not all necessarily the fault of the author. A major media outlet can edit a piece heavily. Who knows what was in the original draft?

That said, the schizophrenic nature of the piece gives us whiplash. The author is variously described as an ex-Detroiter and as an ex-New Yorker. (Can you really become an ex-New Yorker in three short years?) We hear about "the grit, the tenacity of [Detroit's] tenants" and how doing creative things in the city is about "carrying a torch" and "continuing the legacy of what has come before." And yet, the reader seems to only be introduced to squeaky clean people living in select neighborhoods that are reminiscent of "an up-and-coming Williamsburg." (Which, unless the author visited Williamsburg in the 1990s, she couldn't have remembered.) The narrative is firmly "inside the bubble" and doesn't get outside of it. 

The problem with all these stories, in the end, may be that the writers are too soft on New York. They all have to apologize to New York, as if the Big Apple were a wonderful place that they're sorry to leave. They can't tell the truth: For the most part, and with a few exceptions, New York is an overpriced, overrated, overvalued place young creatives get conned into seeking out only to find that themselves becoming overworked copywriters living in the shadier parts of Kings County. It's a terrible place to try to pursue your dreams, because the rent is outrageous, you'll pay $5 for a can of Rheingold, and a grilled cheese sandwich costs $10. Not only can you forget about owning a home, you can forget about having ever been able to buy a home. More than 20 years ago, New York became the kind of place you needed a generous trust fund to move to, and you find that money and relative comfort have ruined all the city's forms of cultural expression. To be "from Brooklyn" used to mean something. It meant you were a doo-wop group like the Tokens, or an artist like Jean-Michel Basquiat, or a comedian like Mel Brooks, or a filmmaker like Woody Allen; it meant you were immersed in the history and culture of a place. Today, it means you reside in the shinier parts of Brooklyn, and, nine times out of 10, it means you're actually a rich kid from podunk America who could pay the freight. And 90 percent of those people are brainless morons without a truly creative bone in their bodies. New York sucks: It sucks the energy, ideas, and money out of people who should have known better than to move there.

And what's the truth about people who move to Detroit? Again, making broad generalizations, but being a little more generous: Three out of 10 of them care about Detroit, its history, and the struggles faced by its residents. And you can expect that ratio to shrink as time marches on. The majority of people move here because it's affordable, and they want to do things that they would have done elsewhere if they'd been able to afford to. Many of them have little patience for Detroit's quirks, and want to quickly remake their neighborhood into something you can find anywhere there's money and bad taste. If enough of them move here, all the cool places where you used to be able to find a seat will be crowded with them. As one Detroit wag said about Cliff Bell's: "This place is so cool. If it were in New York, it would be full of assholes!" Yes, we're still in the interesting part of the gentrification process, in which people are able to pursue their dreams on a shoestring, but the process turns everything it touches into boring, inauthentic copies of itself as the years go by. Imagine uniform high-rises planted on every vacant lot in the Cass Corridor, and an army of fussy, pram-pushing power moms coming down Second Avenue across Selden Street, and demanding that the last homeless dude puts out his cigarette, and you see the endgame.

It's impolite and offensive to say all this, but it's much more entertaining than pussyfooting around the obvious, which is what so many people tend to do when comparing New York and Detroit: They act like New York has a trademark on hip urbanity. It doesn't. In fact, New York is quickly becoming a place without any authentic culture at all. When the last 90-year-old guy who worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard dies, the "Big Apple" will be just like San Francisco: a diverse, multiracial, multicultural city of people who share in common only the gobs of money they possess.

If only for this reason, we should hope and pray Detroit doesn't become some new iteration of New York. No need to be overly polite about it.


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