Reverse Osmosis?

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*Editor’s Note: This is an updated version of the feature that ran in the April 2011 print edition.

JoAnne Katz was just 5 years old when her parents moved the family from Northwest Detroit to Southfield. The year was 1959, nearly a decade before the city became a tinderbox of racial unrest but nearly a decade after its population had reached its zenith, at close to 2 million residents.

Of course, the Katzes weren’t the only ones who moved their family out of the city to the then-frontier of newly developed suburbs like Oak Park and, later, Southfield — and then West Bloomfield; and the westward migration continues on.

Jewish Detroit, like nearly all of white Detroit, migrated out of the city in droves. At first, the appeal of larger lawns and less congestion were the allures. But, as crime increased, the exodus became acute. Within the span of two generations, America’s fourth largest metropolis had lost more than half its citizens — and, with them, a significant portion of its tax base.

In his autobiography, Hard Stuff, the divisive, revered and animated former Detroit mayor, Coleman Young, put it like this:

“It’s mind-boggling to think that at mid-century Detroit was a city of close to 2 million and nearly everything beyond was covered with corn and cow patties. Forty years later, damn near every last white person in the city had moved to the old fields and pastures — 1.4 frigging million of them. Think about that. There were 1,600,000 whites in Detroit after the war, and 1,400,000 of them left. By 1990, the city was just over a million, nearly 80 percent of it was black, and the suburbs had surpassed Detroit not only in population but in wealth, in commerce — even in basketball, for God’s sake.”

The population decline that Young, who was Detroit’s first black chief executive, inherited when taking office in 1974 continues — unabated. In fact, as the 2010 census numbers await finalizing, it appears the population of this beleaguered city has fallen to less than 715,000 residents — a number not seen since 1910; Detroit could end up falling from the 11th to the 18th largest city.

Current Mayor Dave Bing, responding to reports of the staggering loss, has vowed to appeal that figure, saying he believes a revised count will show the number closer to 750,000 residents; federal and state aid would be less curtailed should Bing’s assessment hold true.

For perspective, whether the current numbers stand or are revised upward, the city of Detroit lost more people in the last decade than were permanently displaced from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina; New Orleans lost 140,000 citizens to Detroit’s 200,000-plus.

Yet, a new demographic trend could be emergent. One where young people, usually college-educated, often white, and in many cases Jewish, have begun moving into the city.

In December 2010, the Detroit Free Press reported that “[In Detroit], the proportion of white residents rose over the last decade from 12 percent to nearly 17 percent of the population. From 2000 to 2009, whites in Detroit increased 30 percent to 151,984, and young people moving into the downtown area accounted for much of the growth.”

One of those people is Jo-Ann Katz Nosan’s daughter, Blair Nosan. “For my parents, I was the first person they knew who chose to move downtown,” said the 25-year-old, who started her own pickling production, education and event planning business in September 2010.

“I still feel like I get the shock from people — particularly people in the Jewish world. ‘Wait, so, you live … downtown?’” Nosan says. “Emphasis on the pause and wonderment seems to come out of people’s mouths fairly regularly.”

With a profoundly cheap housing stock, and a growing reputation as a city with ample entrepreneurial and artistic opportunity, people are moving to Detroit from Royal Oak, Ferndale and West Bloomfield, but also from metropolises like Boston, Seattle and San Francisco.

The national media — including Time, Forbes, Juxtapoze, the Atlantic, Harper’s and others — has added to the city’s newfound mystique. In just the last several months, the New York Times has reported on how artists are finding opportunities in the city’s decay, or how Detroit is fast becoming a model city for urban agriculture or how a barbecue restaurant is thriving despite the bleak economy.

Twenty-five-year-old Jon Koller moved to Detroit in 2009. He sees himself as a kind of “immigrant” trying to assimilate into a community of “indigenous” people. He came to Detroit not with the “illusion that Detroit needs to be saved” but with the knowledge that this is a critical moment in the city’s story and he wanted to be a part of it.

“We’re fighting a battle,” Koller says. “There’s a lot of people out there who are interested in this place because they can make money off it, and it does enormous disservice to people who live here.”

Raised in Okemos, outside of Lansing, Koller and his wife, Hannah Lewis, live in a one-square-mile neighborhood north of Corktown aptly called North Corktown. Lewis, an Oak Park native and licensed massage therapist, also recently opened her own business in the area, called Detroit Massage and Wellness.

The duo also organizes Soup at Spaulding, “a biweekly dinner (soup, salad and bread) that raises seed money for cool projects happening throughout Corktown and Detroit,” as is stated on the organization’s Facebook page.

Koller, who has a degree in structural engineering, heads up a nonprofit corporation, Friends of Spaulding Court.

Last February, the Friends purchased a blighted and mostly abandoned 20-unit apartment complex, Spaulding Court, located in North Corktown. The plan is to renovate and re-inhabit the century-old complex, which until recently had been neglected by an absentee landlord.

Living in Detroit, says Koller, he has come to understand the profound importance of built space and how it has the potential to tie communities together — or wrench them apart — and why he and his 10-person board (six of whom live within 150 yards of the building) are trying to put in place frameworks, both legal and physical, that make it difficult to displace or price people out of their homes.

The idea, he says, isn’t to simply provide low-income housing but rather to create an economically, socially and racially diverse community by empowering residents to share control of where they live.

He offers as example their plan to implement a community land trust in North Corktown. According to the National Community Land Trust Network, CLTs are meant to “provide access to land and housing to people who are otherwise denied access, to increase long-term community control of neighborhood resources, to empower residents through involvement and participation in the organization and to preserve the affordability of housing permanently.”

Blazed a Trail, Now Taking Stock

Not long ago, “longtime” Detroit resident Jackie Victor heard about Shabbat services at the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue. She had been living in Detroit since the early ’90s but hadn’t spent any time in or around the synagogue.

Since then, she noted, she’s seen a growing and “remarkable” group of young Jewish Detroiters whose commitment to rebuilding the city is “mirrored by their determination to create a vibrant Jewish community in Detroit.”

“After living without a Jewish community in the city that I so love, it is really like a dream come true,” she says.

If you don’t know Victor, you might be familiar with her blueberry muffins, cherry walnut scones or sea salt chocolate-chip cookies. As the co-founder of Avalon International Breads in Midtown (or the Cass Corridor, depending on whom you ask), Victor, who was raised in Bloomfield Hills, and business partner Ann Perault have become rock stars of sorts for the seemingly simple act of opening a bakery in a city that had few — if any — left.

“We knew that there were not a lot of places that seemed or felt like a hearth to pull things together, and pull people together,” Victor says. “And, we knew that there was a dearth of fresh, healthy food. And so that was this opening.”

Today, if you ask Detroiters what they love about their city, Avalon usually comes up in their litany.

“Detroit is a place where the mom-and-pop (or mom-and-mom) business can be reinvented,” Victor added in an e-mail. “Because we don’t have national chains or ‘big box stores’ breathing the marketing oxygen out of our economy, entrepreneurs can learn on our feet, with relatively low barriers to entry and little competition.”

But it wasn’t as easy as renting a space, kneading some dough and turning on the oven. In fact, from the time she graduated from the University of Michigan in 1988 and moved into Detroit, Victor took almost five years to, in her own words, “… discover the city and learn about the people and learn about the movements here and really feel confident to say, ‘I know that I would do really well here.’ And then have the resources and the connections to do it.”

She stresses that she came to Detroit not to do something for the city but rather to be part of a community.

Here to Stay?

On a good day, Detroit is positioned as an incredible city if you’re adventurous, energetic and open-minded. But, because of its chronically failing public schools, notoriously high crime rate and a poor emergency response system — as well as that X-factor called “perception” — there aren’t as many young couples or families willing to settle here.

Unfortunately, the realities don’t deviate far from perception. Thus, given the opportunity, more people are choosing to leave. And when people leave, they take their tax dollars, and civic pride, with them.

Exiting Detroiters take their children, too; and with each child leaving Detroit Public Schools, their $7,000-plus per-pupil allocation from the state goes with them, often to suburban schools that promise a better education — with lower crime rates and higher graduation rates.

But Jackie Victor did it. She’s raising two children downtown, both of whom attend the private Waldorf School in Indian Village. And Jon Koller did it, too. And there are others like Victor and Koller scattered in pockets throughout the sprawling city blocks — determined to make the urban experience their experience.

Detroit has become a dreamer’s paradise, a place with enough space for people to come from all over the world and project their vision onto the city. To that end, Victor argues that creating a “day-to-day” life in the city is more important than coming with a grand vision or master plan.

“I think creating that physical life puts you more in contact with Detroiters of all different kinds”, Victor says, adding  “so that you’re coming in to be part of a community and looking for an opening.”

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