Against the tide, newcomers move into Detroit

Photos, video and reports by Donna Terek and David Guralnick
The Detroit News
Maria Urquidi rarely uses her car, preferring to ride her bike everywhere. She says she "retired to Detroit" from her job as a digital technology specialist for a school system in the Hudson River Valley of New York.

"The only person who thought my moving to Detroit was a good idea was my accountant," Maria Urquidi says, laughing. She was attracted by the affordability of her classic Mies Van der Rohe townhouse in Lafayette Park. Urquidi, 62, says she "retired to Detroit" from the bucolic Hudson River Valley of New York.

"My kids think I'm nuts."

And that's the reaction most newcomers to Detroit heard when they announced to friends and family they were moving to Detroit, the largest broke city in America.

The latest Census Bureau population estimate for Detroit was 688,701 as of July 1, 2013 — the same month the city filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy. Considering the city's population trend over the past six decades, it's a good bet the total population is less now. Still, some people are moving into the city. The question they hear: Why?

Why deal with blight, crime, violence, poor schools, spotty services, neighbors who don't pay their taxes and a dozen other reasons not to move in?

These newcomers give a variety of answers, but most seem to fit these general profiles:

Urban explorers: These young adults are the children of those who left the city for the allure of the suburbs. They grew up in subdivisions, with malls full of chain stores, functional city governments and the personal safety their parents craved. They move to Detroit for a more "edgy" environment or one that is more diverse, where they can have an impact by getting involved in city improvement projects. And because it's cheaper to live here than in other metropolises.

Property seekers:

The sub-prime mortgage crisis and recession of 2008, and ensuing foreclosures, plus thousands of abandoned homes, have been a boon for speculators and investors, but also for people who see an opportunity to purchase the home they'd always dreamed of but couldn't afford.

Ann Arbor native Kristy Sharrow poses on the roof deck of the M@dison Building in Detroit, where she works.  She moved to Midtown this spring.

Native sons and daughters: They grew up in Detroit, left to find jobs elsewhere, but yearned to come home, or to be closer to family.

Entrepreneurs: Would-be business owners are attracted to Detroit because the amount of capital they need to secure a location is so much lower than in other major North American cities.

Empty-nesters: Some have moved from other states or from Detroit's own suburbs to take advantage of a downtown with all the cultural attractions of other cities, without all the congestion. Or, like Urquidi, they may be retired from their jobs, but still have the energy, experience and will to plug in to organizations trying to revitalize Detroit's urban core and neighborhoods.

Once they're here, these newcomers face the same challenges that longtime residents have faced for years. And challenges tend to bring people together. The new residents profiled in this report say that Detroit has the sense of tight-knit community they've craved — a big city, but at the same time, the feel of a small town.

Deveri Gifford, 32, and Jason Yates, 39, always wanted to open a restaurant. Even before they knew each other, they had the same dream.

But in Toronto, where they met and married, the dream seemed beyond their grasp. "Financially, it was just not feasible to open a restaurant in Toronto," even though it was Yates' hometown, said Gifford, who grew up outside Ottawa. "It's very expensive; lots of competition."

So the couple started to look for an alternative location. Since she has dual Canadian-American citizenship, they decided to look in the United States.

Jason Yates, 39, and Deveri Gifford, 32, moved to Detroit from Toronto, bought a former diner on Michigan Avenue in Corktown and opened a restaurant featuring locally sourced food with vegan and vegetarian options.

They wanted their restaurant to use locally sourced and organic produce. Gifford had read about the urban farming movement in Detroit and thought the city would be a good place to begin their search for a location they could afford.

Yates said, "There seemed to be a real positive energy coming from the people we met."

"Obviously, you see the burned out buildings and you see stuff in disrepair," said Gifford, "but then we also saw a lot of great stuff, and the people we met here were really energetic and doing interesting things.

"The DIY attitude is what we really loved about the city," she said. "The fact that the city is broke really contributes to that DIY attitude because there's this perspective of 'No one else is going to do this, so if I see a problem I'm just going to fix it.' "

They moved to Detroit in early 2012 and served their first breakfast that June at Brooklyn Street Local on Michigan Avenue in Corktown. The eatery serves breakfast and lunch every day but Monday. It's a hands-on business. Yates is executive chef and Gifford does a little bit of everything, visiting local farmers and Eastern Market almost every day.

They described a customer type they say they encounter over and over: out-of-towners who say they want to "save Detroit."

"It occurred to me that it was actually the other way around," Gifford said. "Detroit was saving us because there's nowhere else that we could have done this … and have the kind of support we've had from the community."

"We moved back because Detroit is a part of us," said 29-year-old Darlisha Stanfield, sitting with her fiancé, Jarrett Barnes, in front of their North Rosedale Park home. "We are both Detroit Public School graduates and very proud Detroiters. This is a way for us to invest in the city. We want to raise our kids here."

The couple, both 29, met while attending Renaissance High School but didn't start dating until they reconnected after college in 2008. They've lived in Ann Arbor, Philadelphia and Southfield, moving into Detroit in June of this year. Stanfield now works for Teach For America in Detroit, while Barnes designs and tests airbags for auto supplier Takata Corp.

"The bankruptcy was not a determining factor for our move back home," said Stanfield, who is an administrator for Teach for America. "We saw it as a chance to not only show our deep belief in our city and its potential, but to also be a part of a historic, thriving community. We've been looking for a house in this particular neighborhood for two years."

When Maria Urquidi began thinking about retiring from her job as a technology specialist for the New Palz school system in New York's Hudson River Valley, she also began thinking about Detroit.

She was intrigued by what she'd read about the city's ills and began thinking about possible remedies. "People are going to have to think about how to fix them in a different way than they've done in the past," she said. "And that was very exciting to me, that you couldn't just tweak things around the edges. You were going to have to come up with brand new solutions.

"I wanted to be part of that."

When she came across photographs of the Ludwig Mies van der Rohe townhouses and apartment buildings in the Lafayette Park neighborhood, she was stunned.

"I'd been married to an architect for 30 years and had traveled the world looking at architecture," she said, "and here in Detroit was the largest collection of Mies van der Rohe buildings in the world."

She said she was so smitten she purchased one and moved in last year.

"I certainly couldn't afford to retire in New York state with their taxes — or anywhere else, for that matter. But Detroit was affordable."

Today, she is involved in activities every day of the week. And she bicycles to all of them. She volunteers at Gleaners, the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy and with the nonprofit Transportation Riders United. She regularly does tai chi on the Riverwalk and Zumba at Eastern Market and bikes with Slow Roll Mondays.

Through all these activities she's met tons of Detroiters whom she finds to be the friendliest urban dwellers she's ever met.

"I came for the architecture," she said, "but I'm staying for the people."

Urquidi says Detroit is a great place for retirees and purchased the URL to set up a website encouraging others to follow her lead. Just like the young professionals trying to make a difference in Detroit, "They also have a lot of time and energy and interest," Urquidi said.

"The difference is we're not going to get married in five years, have children and move out of Detroit."

Lesley Daley's life reads like a chapter out of Elizabeth Gilbert's autobiographical novel "Eat, Pray, Love." Daley grew up in London, then lived all over the United States for 20-odd years before she returned to Europe to start a real estate business in Croatia. Then she lived a year in Italy before moving to Bali for four years.

It was in Bali that she first read about Detroit in the only English-language magazines available, Time and Newsweek. It sounded fascinating.

Daley, 56, said the city's financial crisis was "part of the attraction" because house prices were so low.

Lesley Daley read about Detroit's financial predicament while living in Bali. She determined then to make her way to Detroit to settle down. She now lives in a 15,000-square-foot Indian Village mansion.

"It was once a great city so I figured it would come back one day," she said.

In 2012, she and her partner Russell Rhea moved into one of the largest homes in Detroit's historic Indian Village.

The 15,000-square-foot, neo-Georgian mansion that last sold in 1999 for $900,000 cost them $410,000.

"In any other city in America, this house would be millions of dollars.

"We're like a lot of my friends here, who've come from all over the country," Daley said. "We've all been able to purchase these fantastic homes, to be the new caretakers for the next generation and try to preserve what's left of Detroit."

Daley said the blocks of unoccupied homes that make some people shudder don't concern her. She said the media's penchant for publishing pictures of burned-out buildings and stories about packs of stray dogs overrunning the city — which she's never seen — has skewed people's perceptions.

"I think if people knew what the real Detroit was like and they saw all the beautiful homes in the neighborhoods instead of just burned-out buildings – which aren't all over the city," they'd have a different impression.

""The fact that Detroit is not over-populated makes me think it's like a secret," she said with a pixie grin. "People haven't discovered the secret yet. And when they do, they're going to start coming here.

"I've lived in five different countries, and I think this is one of the best places I've ever lived. It really is a gem and I'm glad that I found it," Daley said. "And I intend to end my life in Detroit, Michigan."

But that may not be in her Indian Village home. The couple found out, as most owners of old houses do, that while the price they paid was a steal, expenses don't stop there. The mansion comes with mansion-sized maintenance bills, and in this case, lots of deferred repairs. They have put thousands into correcting jury-rigged plumbing and heating systems and haven't even begun to fix the water-damaged plaster.

So, their dream home is now on the market for $800,000. Meanwhile, Daley is looking into pioneering a neighborhood most "newbies" haven't thought to buy into yet.

"Growing up in Ann Arbor, even though it's just a short drive away, my parents never brought me down to Detroit," said Whitney McGoram, senior account executive at Identity PR in Bingham Farms. "It just wasn't something anyone ever did. So I didn't know anything about it." The 27-year-old now lives in the north-central Sherwood Forest neighborhood with her husband, Andrew, whom she met while living in New Zealand before moving back to Ann Arbor.

After a while she got tired of commuting to Bingham Farms every day. "I wanted to be closer, but I wanted somewhere with character," she said. "A lot of the suburbs to me just didn't have that much character.

Whitney McGoram, right, gets coffee with her friend Katie Land at the Roasting Plant coffee shop in Campus Martius.

"I started spending some time getting to know Detroit and getting to know some of the neighborhoods. We discovered that we could buy a nice big house for what we could get a small apartment in Ann Arbor for.

"I think there're a lot more people who want to move into Detroit," said McGoram, who moved to the city in April 2014. "One major obstacle they're facing is the banks and the foreclosure market. There are a lot of houses, even in this neighborhood, that we know are available but no one can find any information on them. Everything is very complicated. There's a lot of red tape. They just sit there and it's really frustrating.

"I really hope that when this whole bankruptcy thing is done and Detroit gets back on its feet that it makes it easier for people to get into some of these houses."

Engaged couple Sara Davis and Grover Tigue moved to Detroit in June 2013. While renting a home from Tigue's aunt in northwest Detroit, the 37-year-old Davis writes grants and volunteers her time at 4ward Phoenix, a youth journalism readiness program run inside Youthville on Woodward. Tigue, a bass guitar player who left Detroit 20 years ago, is busy playing and traveling with several bands, when he's not working on personal music projects.

"The bankruptcy concerned me to some degree," said Davis, who has two children in the Detroit Public Schools system. "As far as schools, and the police and fire department, and different things like that, that concerned me a little bit, but primarily it didn't."

Davis, a Grand Rapids native who had never lived in Detroit before, says she saw it more as an opportunity.

"I've always felt like I have a civic duty in my life, and Detroit ... needs people to help bring the city back, and I want to be a part of that. "

"This is where I was born and raised," said Tigue. "If you look throughout history you'll find that with any type of economical catastrophe there was always music. And with me being a professional musician, I knew there was something I could contribute to the growth."

Dan Vermeersch and Ryan Havens had a great life. They were both nurses working in suburban hospitals and they loved their home in Shelby Township, 20 miles north of Detroit.

"We were really happy," said Vermeersch, 45. "But one day we kind of looked around and realized our friends who'd always been close by had all moved." They'd gone south to Royal Oak, Ferndale or Detroit. "We found ourselves always driving a distance for our social life with friends."

So the couple began thinking about moving, too. They looked for homes in Royal Oak and Ferndale and found they couldn't match the spaciousness of their Shelby Township home for a reasonable price.

Their friends in Palmer Woods convinced them to look at houses in Detroit. It didn't take long for Vermeersch and Havens to discover the University District near the University of Detroit Mercy -- block after block of beautifully kept brick Tudors built in the 1920s. They were hooked, and in June they moved into the neighborhood.

"The neighbors are fantastic," said Vermeersch, who grew up in the city. The block captain came over right away to welcome them. "I have seen nothing but positivity since I moved to Detroit, nothing but positivity."

Then, two months after they moved in, Ryan's car was stolen from their driveway. "It really does deflate you a little bit," said Havens, 36, a native of Beaverton, Mich.

They'd gotten the usual caveats from friends about the dangers awaiting them in the city, but they'd pooh-poohed them. "This neighborhood is different, we're moving to the good part," Vermeersch assured them. "We had to eat our words a little bit.

Dan Vermeersch, left, and  Ryan Havens dig out entrenched bushes as part of making an old house their own. They moved to Detroit's University District from Shelby Township in June.

"We were fortunate that we were able to find it quickly, it hadn't been taken too far," said Havens, "and whoever took our vehicle abandoned their attempt to steal the tires off it , so we got it back relatively intact."

They were quick to point out that their neighbors were sympathetic and suggested preventive measures, which the couple have taken to heart. The house's exterior is "lit up like a Christmas tree," the alarm system is up and running – and their cars are locked in the garage every night.

"It changed us from our suburbanite thinking to the reality, which is that you live in a city and things like that happen," Havens said. "They happen in every city, and you have to be more vigilant."

When Kristy Sharrow began working in Detroit four years ago she fell in love with the city. "I'd be pretty sad to go home at the end of the workday and to leave on the weekends and go back to Ann Arbor," she said. "I just wanted to be in the city all the time."

The Ortonville native was managing the house Time Inc. had bought in West Village on the east side to use as a home base for reporters for a yearlong project on Detroit. Eventually, she began doing some freelance reporting, too.

While researching an article, Sharrow became friends with Edith Reed, "who at any given time has 11 or so grandchildren living with her," Sharrow said. "And despite the challenges in raising them on her own and battling leukemia and owning a house that is literally falling down, (she) continues to remain the most positive person I have ever met in my entire life."

Sharrow says meeting Edith, her brief "film career" — she's been an extra in four films — and her work with Time Inc. wouldn't have been possible anywhere else. "It sounds cheesy to say, but the city has done more for me and helped me more than I could ever do for it," she said.

This spring she and her husband Patrick Sharrow, 29, moved to Midtown. Kristy, now 28, landed a job as marketing director for LevelEleven, a company with offices in the M@dison building that sells motivational software for sales teams.

"The fact that the city was going bankrupt actually fueled my move," she said. "The negative attention around Detroit, that fueled my passion to take a stand in showing people that it's a great place."

"The bankruptcy definitely concerned me," said Alita Moore, a 28-year-old single mother now living with her own mother in the north central Conant Gardens neighborhood. "Moving back to the city, I questioned whether this was the best time to return home. It put a lot of fear into me as far as the job market. Are people going to be willing to invest jobs here now?"

Moore, a graduate of Detroit's Northern High and Michigan State, is now a business customer care representative for AT&T. After living in Atlanta and Chicago for several years, she returned to Detroit in July 2013. She often takes her 1-year-old son, Malachi, to play at the Dequindre-Grixdale playground, walking past a combination of blighted and well-kept homes along the way.

"Malachi's future in Detroit is bright," Moore said. "He might see a lot of blight now when I take him on walks. He sees a lot of things he shouldn't be exposed to, especially at such a young age. But what I'm going to instill in him is that you have the power to change this. Are you going to be the one to complain about this, or are you going to be the one to change this?"