Despite Tough Times, Some See Opportunity In Detroit

A block of buildings in Detroit

Artists, young professionals and risk-takers are leading to a mini-urban renewal in Detroit. Anthony Brooks for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Anthony Brooks for NPR

Residents of Detroit like to say, when the country catches a cold, their city gets the flu. These days Detroit is sick. The U.S. auto industry is in crisis and there are too few jobs. Crime and foreclosures are on the rise.

That doesn't sound like the best climate for new business ventures, but Ryan Cooley, a Detroit native, thinks he's at the beginning of the city's renaissance.

An Urban Renaissance

Cooley grew up in Detroit but left to become a Chicago banker. Four years ago, though, he decided to come home and take a chance on Detroit real estate, and he bought three modest brick buildings in the Corktown neighborhood. Cooley, 33, said it cost only a couple hundred thousand dollars for all three buildings. Something similar in Chicago would have been four times as much.

He is so bullish on the city that he set up a real estate business in one of the buildings. In another he helped open a popular new restaurant. Slows Bar-B-Q has become the anchor of this mini-one block urban renewal.

A Family Affair

Cooley has partnered with his 31-year-old brother, Phil. Until recently, the younger Cooley was a fashion model working in cities throughout the world, but he says there is no place he'd rather live now than Detroit.

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Phil Cooley says the city is wide open for new ventures and is tolerant of his mistakes and successes. "It's lovely to be able to afford to do that here, one, because the community is so forgiving. And two, because it's less expensive than other places. So it's affordable," he says.

Artists and Families

Music producer Chris Koltay was drawn to Detroit from Cincinnati by the vibrant music scene and the cheap real estate. He says he knew he could afford a whole building. He found one across the street from Slows for just $38,000. The recording studio is packed with guitars, keyboards and microphones.

Koltay has made a loft in the back of the building and for a year lived there without hot water. "It was gnarly, but whatever. Now I'm golden. And it's so wide open, and I think that's beautiful. I've never seen a city that has this kind of opportunity for growth, and I think that's beautiful," he says.

Stories of cheap real estate are becoming legend in Detroit. Mitch Cope and Gina Reichert bought a solid three-bedroom house in East Detroit for just $78,000.

And they didn't stop there.

They bought another house down the street for just $1,900. They're converting that one into a solar-powered artists retreat. Then, the self-proclaimed capitalists bought the house next door for just $500 — and sold it to fellow artists for a tidy profit of $50.

Mitch Cope and Gina Reichert in front of their East Detroit house i i

Mitch Cope and Gina Reichert in front of their East Detroit house, a former Polish deli, which they bought for $78,000. They bought two other houses in the neighborhood — one for $1,900 and another for $500, which they sold to friends for $550. Anthony Brooks for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Anthony Brooks for NPR
Mitch Cope and Gina Reichert in front of their East Detroit house

Mitch Cope and Gina Reichert in front of their East Detroit house, a former Polish deli, which they bought for $78,000. They bought two other houses in the neighborhood — one for $1,900 and another for $500, which they sold to friends for $550.

Anthony Brooks for NPR

They've persuaded other friends to buy the house across the street for just $100. Together they are all hoping to build a budding artist community and revitalize their neighborhood.

Exodus Continues

But while others are moving in and taking advantage of fire sale real estate prices, many more people are leaving. Only post-Katrina New Orleans shed residents faster than Detroit.

There are few shopping malls and grocery stores in the city, and the school system is in disarray. Karen Edelson, a stepmother to four kids, says she loves the city for its art, music and culture but she just can't live there. "The schools are a mess. And I've had friends who moved to the city of Detroit and everything was out of bounds. If you don't go grocery shopping before the sun goes down, then you can't go out at night," Edelson says. She adds that friends who have moved into the city end up driving back to the suburbs on the weekends to do their shopping.

Renewal Gives Hope

Meghan McEwen, a magazine editor and mother of two small children, says you can find a family-friendly life inside the city of Detroit. Her husband is Ryan Cooley, the developer. She admits that the city lacks basic urban conveniences, but because she and her husband were able to find real estate so cheap, she's able to work part time.

And she says it's exciting to be part of an effort to rebuild a city.

That enthusiasm gives Lou Glazer, president of Michigan Future Inc., hope. He says the city will never return to its past vibrancy without young, talented professionals. Glazer says the brain drain from the city has been devastating.

It may not be a flood of artists, business owners and young professionals coming back to Detroit, but many in the Motor City say those trickling back in are giving many during these tough times something they haven't had for a long time ... hope.

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