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What it’s like moving to Detroit and what it’s like to stay

Lauren Hoffman - close up on a woman's face with dark wavy hair
Lauren Hoffman Jackie Headapohl | Detroit Jewish News

I’ve lived in Detroit for a little over two years and, in that time, I have been asked at least once a week how long I plan to stay. I get the question from people back home, understandably: my parents in New York, my extended family, my college friends, most of whom live on the East Coast and have never been to Detroit.

But here, too, the question is a constant from my friends, local and transplanted, from community members and parents of friends, from colleagues and casual work contacts, from neighbors. The questions range from “Wow, what are you doing here?” and “Do you like it here?” to “How much longer are you going to stay?” and “When do you think you’ll go back to New York?”

I distinctly remember when, upon meeting a local rabbi early in my time here, the rabbi explicitly expressed that I wasn’t worth significant investment of time or emotion because I would be here for two years at most.

I want to make sure I’m communicating how strange this is: For more than two years I’ve lived here, and at least weekly I am asked when I will leave. I hear similar things from other transplant friends, with the exception of those who have moved here to join their Detroit-born life partners. I haven’t experienced anything like this anywhere else, and I notice that my friends living in New York and San Francisco do not encounter this.

Part of it, to be sure, is the fact of being newish and of having no family ties to this place; part of it is the assumed itinerancy of early adulthood. But part of it, I believe, is a sinister, subtle and deeply set sense of regional inferiority. I am asked when I will leave because it is believed that I would not want or actively choose to stay.

Southeast Michigan is used to young people leaving. For decades, our universities graduated tens of thousands of students straight to Chicago, the Bay Area and New York; if they returned, it was years later, to raise children near supportive parents.

Even as the outflow measurably slows, the transplant from another city remains a relative rarity. We are less and less unusual with each passing year, but there is a lasting element of undue excitement at finding that someone comes from elsewhere. I find that it opens doors in a way that’s unwarranted: My opinion on local affairs I may know nothing about is asked and respected, just being from New York becomes a credential on job applications; new acquaintances are illogically impressed upon hearing only where I am from.

Thinking about graduate school in my future, I am observing that a degree from out of state carries mystifying cache that no amount of local network-building outweighs. It’s assumed that I am or will soon be bored, that I will be pulled elsewhere by better opportunities or simply because I’ve tired of a study-abroad-esque experience in Michigan.

This is deeply insulting to Detroit and people who are from here and stay here. It reveals serious underestimation of Detroit as a place where someone might want to move and stay and live. Frankly, it suggests that I should leave — that I am passing up these unidentified opportunities elsewhere or, that by staying, I’m negatively impacting my social capital, even locally.

And when Detroit born-and-raised people, with their deep and expansive local networks, assume new kids won’t stay, they implicitly choose not to form deep bonds or welcome newcomers into those networks, creating a subtle isolating effect that perpetuates the divide and shallowness of engagement that ultimately makes it easy to leave. The belief that Detroit “isn’t good enough” is ludicrous, but contagious.

We will need to move past that narrative if we want to be the kind of city that attracts talent, that embraces the migration of a young and ambitious global workforce, that creates the kinds of professional, residential and educational opportunities that make people, wherever they are from, want to stay and that provides a viable option for young people to settle more permanently.

As the city and region build the literal and social infrastructure to match and compete with coastal megacities, we need to consciously eradicate the self-deprecation from our vocabulary. World-class cities do not assume that people will leave them.

This is not a promise that I will never move. By the way, the answer I give to the question of whether I’ll stay is that I love it here, that I have never been so compelled or fascinated by a place, and that I plan to spend many years working in and on Detroit, though not necessarily contiguously.

The questions we ask and the answers we give matter, and I hope that my answer is enough for my communities here to think investing in our relationships is worthwhile, enough to feel that I’ve chosen this place as enthusiastically as I have. Detroit is a place worth choosing — let’s treat it and talk about it that way.

Lauren Hoffman is a millennial transplant to Detroit, works at Rock Ventures and is actively involved in the Detroit Jewish community.

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