John Gerzema: Don’t Short The Motor City

Urban pioneers such as the “Good 
Girls Go to Paris” restaurant create a ‘virtuous circle’ in Detroit.

Given the apocalyptic panorama, any first-time visitor who landed in Detroit and drove around the city for the first time would half-expect to see marauding Mad Max figures come roaring down the street on handmade battlewagons powered by Allison diesel engines. Long in economic retreat, the median home price in Detroit dropped to below $8,000 in 2009. The 80,000-seat Silverdome stadium sold for $583,000—roughly the equivalent of a studio apartment in Manhattan. Far more compelling than the statistics was the city’s landscape: abandoned factories, vacant commercial buildings, and neighborhoods where three-quarters of the homes have been boarded, burned, or bulldozed. In the most desolate residential areas you could drive for blocks and see few signs of life except for stray dogs and, occasionally, a coyote.

But if you look more closely you can find something that most outsiders miss: a Detroit that is vibrant, creative, and optimistic. Artists, small business owners and urban farmers have flocked to the inner city to take advantage of inexpensive land and limited municipal oversight.  Evidence of this arose in early 2010 when roughly a dozen young Detroiters drafted a pledge—“The Detroit Declaration”— that made public their long-term commitment to the city and outlined principles that should guide citizens, businesspeople, and political leaders who hope to shape the city’s future. Beginning with the simple statement, “Cities are the greatest expression of civilization” the declaration calls for a “greater, healthier, more vibrant, urban and livable Detroit.”

With low cost loans from a non-profit civic organization, Torya Blanchard (pictured) opened a tiny crepe restaurant to share her love of all things French with her hometown. Serving low-cost but high quality meals Good 
Girls Go to Paris quickly became profitable and Torya turned to help a competitor open nearby. Both restaurants only employ local Detroit citizens and source from urban farmers, creating a ‘virtuous circle’, which has attracted other new urban pioneers.  “Detroit needs all of us,” explains Blanchard during a brief break in her workday at her shop. “The people who have stayed here when so many others moved out are committed,” she says. “They love the city—I mean I love the city—and there are still enough of us around that there is enough business for everyone who wants to try something.

Detroit represents an indestructible human spirit that arose in the very depths of the Great Recession in the place that was hit hardest of all. As it turns out a hard-luck city can also be a modern frontier of opportunity.

Good Girls Go To Paris is one of fifty companies interviewed for the Wall Street Journal best-seller: Spend Shift: How the Post-Crisis Values Revolution is Changing the Way We Buy, Sell and Live.

John Gerzema (@johngerzema/twitter) is president of Brandasset Consulting and Young & Rubicam’s Brandasset Valuator, the world’s largest database of consumer behavior, attitudes and values. Michael d’antonio is a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist, author and reporter.

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