The top cities for starting something new: Detroit

Why you should consider relocating to Michigan in 2021.
Detroit hero
The lowdown

Why you should consider it: 

There’s lots of affordable private and commercial property available.

Who it’s good for: 

Companies looking to scale up and get creative.

Why now: 

The city is experiencing a post-bankruptcy entrepreneurial boom.

It’s about time but Detroit, finally, is coming into its own. This sprawling city in Michigan epitomises both the US' past industrial dominance – and the despair of economic decline. But now it’s experiencing an urban resurgence. The city’s historic woes have made it the beneficiary of private and governmental initiatives today, such as the Detroit Mobility Innovation Initiative, which aims to improve infrastructure. The University of Michigan has a lot of acclaimed alumni who go on to become successful founders, many of whom would have left for the coasts, but that’s been changing. After all, it’s much harder to stand out in New York, San Francisco and LA.  

Architecture hotspots

Edward Ponti, a British architect and nonprofit activist living in Detroit, explains why the city is well placed to kick-start a small craft-manufacturing renaissance. 

‘You’d be stretched to find a building in Downtown that didn’t now house a restaurant, office space or hotel. Bedrock [a major property developer] subsidised rents; H&M and Nike were brought in; basically deals were sweetened to jumpstart Downtown. So, it’s generally spoken for. But there are plenty of other areas. 

‘If I were a small business, I’d be looking at Eastern Market, an old meatpacking district that’s still a commercial market, and Gratiot. There’s an area called The Villages: the housing stock there is of a much higher quality. That’s where you will find independent bike stores, and old churches being turned into microbreweries. Those are the real hotspots.  

‘In terms of getting around Detroit, a huge asset is that it’s completely flat, which makes it a cycling utopia. The city is also putting a lot of money into segregated parking spaces and bike lanes. This really is a city to have a bike in.  

‘The most important thing to know is that Detroit is 86% Black and, in parts, very poor. That demands a lot of sensitivity. There’s a collective understanding that businesses need to react to that in some way. People coming into the city need to make an effort to develop their understanding of how to positively leverage their social and racial capital in the space. If you don’t make an effort to, then you’re going to struggle.  

‘From an architectural perspective, there are hundreds – if not thousands – of small, light industrial spaces (old tool-and-die manufacturers, workshops and the like), and many with wonderful yet frugal art-deco details, that line Detroit’s old industrial corridors – and which are perfectly placed to take advantage of the infrastructure that put them there in the first place. 

‘In my perfect world (driving around the city, it is impossible not to dream of its potential), many of these spaces would be used as sites for a small craft-manufacturing renaissance, and centres of employment for their surrounding neighbourhoods.’ 

Detroit transplants

Tata Technologies and Microsoft recently moved large chunks of their teams to Detroit, while Ford is renovating Michigan Central Station, at a cost of $740m, to handle a large part of its autonomous vehicles wing. But why are people on the ground moving there, too? 

Kristina and Vadim Oss, an art gallery owner and investor respectively, moved from New York City’s West Village in Manhattan to Detroit’s West Village around four years ago. For Vadim, one reason was because the city is becoming more ‘diverse, multiracial and multicultural’. ‘I haven’t seen a place like Downtown Detroit before,’ he says, ‘where every block has a couple of buildings under construction and businesses moving in every few months.’ 

Shirel Jones is in her early 30s and swapped Brooklyn, New York, for Detroit’s North End five years ago. The city was top of her list because she wanted somewhere affordable for small businesses, where she could set up Lil Dumplins, her dance studio for children. ‘Where I grew up, we didn’t have this huge sense of community feeling,’ she said. ‘Detroit is a big city, but it feels like a small town.’

Find more of the top cities for starting something new in 2021.

This article was first published in Courier Issue 37, October/November 2020. To purchase the full issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

You might like these, too