Despite Tough Times, Some See Opportunity In Detroit The exodus out of Detroit is staggering. At its peak, the city was home to 2 million. Today, the population is less than 900,000 and dropping. But a hearty group of artists, risk-takers and city explorers has launched an urban renaissance.
NPR logo

Despite Tough Times, Some See Opportunity In Detroit

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Despite Tough Times, Some See Opportunity In Detroit

Despite Tough Times, Some See Opportunity In Detroit

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Madeleine Brand.

Residents of Detroit like to say when the country catches a cold, their city gets the flu. It's an indication of just how tough life is in the Motor City. The auto industry is in crisis. There are too few jobs, too many home foreclosures and too much crime. But as Anthony Brooks reports, some people are coming back to Detroit, recognizing that bad times can offer big opportunities.

(Soundbite of car door)

ANTHONY BROOKS: Ryan Cooley climbs out of his car on Michigan Avenue in Detroit's Corktown neighborhood. Behind us, the twisted, demolished ruins of the old Tiger stadium. In front of us, the cities magnificent but abandoned train station, a grand monument to past greatness. But Ryan Cooley is focused on three more modest brick buildings that have been restored and freshly painted.

Mr. RYAN COOLEY (Real Estate Developer): Where my office - the yellow building down there - when we first purchased that, the rest of this street was all vacant buildings. I mean, the weeds on the sidewalk would grow up to your waist during the summertime.

BROOKS: Cooley is 33. He grew up in Michigan and worked as a banker in Chicago. But four years ago, attracted by cheap property, he returned to Detroit and bought these three buildings for a little more than $200,000.

Mr. COOLEY: We thought that was really inexpensive.

BROOKS: For a couple hundred thousand dollars, right? And you got three buildings.

Mr. COOLEY: Yeah.

BROOKS: And in Chicago, not possible.

Mr. COOLEY: No. And in fact, we were looking at something similar in Chicago, and we were looking at, like, just a building that would - needed a whole lot of work for about 800,000.

BROOKS: Cooley runs a real estate business in one of the buildings. And in another, he helped open Slows Bar BQ restaurant, which has became hugely popular and the anchor of a mini one-block urban renaissance. His partner is his 31-year-old brother, Phil Cooley.

Mr. PHIL COOLEY (Real Estate Developer): I found that this is a city that really was wide open. I would definitely consider myself young and dumb, you know. I've learned far more from my mistakes here than I have from my successes. It's lovely to be able to afford to do that here because one, the community is forgiving, and two, it's less expensive than other places, so it's affordable.

BROOKS: Phil Cooley worked as a fashion model in cities around the world, but he says he would rather live here in Detroit.

Mr. P. COOLEY: You know, it's the possibility, the independence of the city that really appeals to a lot of people.

BROOKS: People like Chris Koltay, a music producer, who moved here from Cincinnati.

Mr. CHRIS KOLTAY (Music Producer): This is the most recent thing that I've been working on. See if I can…

(Soundbite of music)

BROOKS: Koltay was attracted to Detroit's vibrant music scene to groups like this called Gardens and to the dream of owning his own recording studio.

Mr. KOLTAY: I guess what drew me here honestly is that I knew I could afford a building, you know.

BROOKS: He found one just across the street from Slows Bar BQ for $38,000. Koltay lives upstairs. Downstairs his recording studio is packed with guitars, keyboards and microphones.

Mr. KOLTAY: And the thing is the spirit of the people that I know is what drew me here. I met people that are like, yeah, I got my own metal shop. And sure, I sleep here and it's weird and I made this loft in the back of the place. And, you know, for a year I lived there without hot water, it was gnarly, but whatever. Now I'm golden. I've never seen a city that has this kind of opportunity for growth. And I think that's beautiful.

BROOKS: Stories of cheap real estate are becoming legend in this city. Mitch Cope and Gina Reichert bought this solid three-bedroom house in East Detroit for just $78,000. And they didn't stop there.

Mr. MITCH COPE: Other houses started popping up, either on a tax foreclosure or bank foreclosure list and for even cheaper.

BROOKS: A lot cheaper. They bought another house down the street for just $1,900, which they're converting into a solar-powered artists' retreat. Then they bought the house next door for just $500 — and sold it to fellow artists for a tidy profit of $50.

Mr. COPE: 'Cause we're capitalists.

BROOKS: Then they convinced other friends to buy the house across the street for just $100. Mitch Cope says they're hoping this budding artist community can help revitalize their neighborhood.

Mr. COPE: We want to bring in people like artists who are interested in working on houses, but are also interested in working in social ways, be a part of the neighborhood themselves and integrate themselves into what is already going on in the neighborhood.

BROOKS: But if Cope and the others are returning, many more people are leaving Detroit. The city once had a population of about two million. Today, it's less than 900,000 and dropping. In recent years, only post-Katrina New Orleans has shed residents faster than Detroit, which is challenged by lack of jobs, one of the highest crime rates in the country and a chronically troubled school system.

Ms. KAREN EDELSON: First of all, it's just not a really safe community, unfortunately. There are areas that are better than others.

BROOKS: Karen Edelson grew up in Detroit and eventually moved to the suburbs. She loves this city for its art, music and culture, but as a stepmother of four kids, she can't live there. .TEXT: Ms. EDELSON: The school system is a mess. And I've had friends who've 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 back out at night. And my friends who live there would drive back to the suburbs on the weekends to go grocery shopping and then come back downtown.

BROOKS: But Meghan McCuen sees it differently. She's a magazine editor and a mother of two small children now living in Detroit. She moved here from Chicago with her husband Brian Cooley(ph), the developer we heard from early.

Ms. MEGHAN MCCUEN (Magazine Editor): I think that there is this misconception that if you're going to raise a family in Detroit, you must be a part of the lunatic fringe.

BROOKS: She says the city does lack some basic urban conveniences like chain grocery stores and malls. On the other hand, she says the cheap real estate allows her to work part time as a freelancer, spend more time with her kids. And she says it's exciting to be part of an effort to rebuild a city.

Ms. MCCUEN: It feels really good to be a part of something that's bigger than yourself. That the sense of community here is a feeling that I've never experienced any other place that I've lived. If you want that perfect urban landscape, you're not going to find that here. But if you have an openness to living an urban existence just a little bit differently, then Detroit becomes so much more attractive.

BROOKS: Coran Pinkins(ph) is also choosing to raise a family in Detroit.

Mr. CORAN PINKINS: First and foremost, I'm homesick and I miss my city. I want to see if I can give back to the community and do what I can.

BROOKS: Pinkins is 38 and grew up in Detroit and then went to law school in New Jersey before he married and started a family outside of Boston. Now he's moving back with his wife and three kids who will attend parochial school.

Mr. PINKINS: Many of us, once we go off to school and then we go to other cities, but we don't come back and give back to Detroit. So you find that there is a brain drain, a sort of a lack of ideas, lack of innovation in the city. So I'm looking to see what I can give back to Detroit.

Mr. LOU GLAZER (President, Michigan Future, Inc.): There's nothing more important. There's nothing more important.

BROOKS: This is Lou Glazer, president of Michigan Future, Inc. He says if Detroit is going to recover, it will depend on Coran Pinkins and others like him to come back and stay.

Mr. GLAZER: All these plans to pick industry X or industry Y get trumped by the absence of talent. So, where you have talent, particularly young talent, which sees Detroit as attractive and are beginning to turning the city to be a vibrant place to live is the single most important thing that can happen in Michigan.

BROOKS: There's certainly no stampede back to Detroit, far from it. But the young artists, business owners and other young professionals moving back represent at least a trickle of hope for a city that needs all it can get.

For NPR News, I'm Anthony Brooks.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.