Finley: Detroit's challenge: Keeping its own
Marie Alexander is exactly what Detroit is looking for: a successful young, professional African-American who grew up in the city and is looking to start a family and put down roots.
Alexander, who works for an automaker, is getting married this fall and she and her fiance are house-hunting. In Northville and Novi.
"It's a very family-friendly atmosphere there, and great schools," says Alexander, 29. "It's a great place to raise kids."
Alexander settled in Grosse Pointe Park after returning to the area from Washington, D.C. She says she loves her hometown, and yearns to be bigger part of its comeback.
But like many African-Americans of her generation and background, her perceptions of Detroit differ from those of the mostly white, suburban newcomers who are crowding into the cool new spaces downtown.
Her family lived in a solidly middle class Rosedale Park neighborhood. Her dad was a cop. And yet her most searing childhood memories involve the dangers of the city. Alexander's mother was shot in 2002 at a gasoline station near their home and was held up again on her own street in 2010.
"I'm a strong advocate for the city," she says. "I spend a lot of time in the city. But I've also seen the worst of it.
"At some point, you want a less eventful life."
Saunteel Jenkins, the former Detroit City Council president who now heads The Heat and Warmth Fund, says that's what separates young people who were raised in the city from their suburban counterparts.
The newcomers have not yet been scarred by the city. They're more likely to see Detroit as a playground.
"For African-Americans who grew up in Detroit, for our whole lives Detroit was on the decline," Jenkins says. "We never saw it on the rise. Our aspirations were to get to a more happening city, like Chicago, or even to the suburbs."
The differing aspirations help explain why the demographics of downtown and other suddenly hip areas of Detroit seem so out of proportion with the rest of a city that is 83 percent African-American.
While those who've recently arrived have mostly positive experiences to associate with the city, native Detroiters have spent a lifetime looking over their shoulders and dealing with inadequate services and inferior schools. They want better for their children.
Jenkins, 44, says Alexander's concerns are common among those of her own friends who've opted against settling in Detroit. Jenkins' brother was murdered in the city and she was robbed at gunpoint.
"It's enough to drive anyone away," she says. "There are many young black people committed to the city, but not as many as I'd like to see."
One of those is Diallo Smith, who graduated from Cass Technical High School, Detroit's middle class incubator, and then left for college in Ohio and a successful career as a financial analyst in Houston.
Life was good in Texas, but he couldn't resist the tug of home.
"A lot of my friends are feeling the same thing — we're not rediscovering Detroit, we are Detroit," he says. "But it's funny, they're either all one way or all the other: They either love Detroit or want nothing to do with it."
Diallo opened one of the coolest venues in the city, the Drive Table Tennis Social Club in the Penobscot Building, combining drinks and food with ping pong.
He and his wife, also a Cass Tech grad, returned with their children to his old neighborhood in East English Village.
He says he was shocked by the number of homes that have been abandoned since he left. And he shares Alexander's wariness about crime and education.
"Schools and safety," says Alexander. "There's got to be an improvement there."
So the challenge for the city in hanging onto its own young people is the same as it will ultimately face in retaining the newcomers: To give them safe neighborhoods and good schools for their children.