New Detroiters bring pioneer spirit to 300-year-old city

Posted on October 5, 2012

Don’t tell these Detroiters about crime or troubled schools or lack of amenities and shopping.

Never mind that it can take hours for first responders to make it to emergencies, or that firefighters may have no ladder truck to reach a two-story house fire.

Tribes of nearly 800 new Detroiters, mostly college educated in their 20s and 30s with annual incomes between $30,000 and $60,000, have flocked into pockets of the city in just over a year thanks to programs that are encouraging people to live here.

They are not just helping to repopulate a city that’s been slipping into decay longer than some of them have been alive. They’re also forgoing familiar destinations like Chicago, New York and Los Angeles and filling a void in the city’s core neighborhoods.

“Now Detroit is seen across the country as kind of a cool place in many ways; it’s a place where people can come in and get very connected very quickly,” said Kurt Metzger, director of Data Driven Detroit.

The incentive programs that pay people to live here don’t hurt either.

The Live Midtown and Live Downtown initiatives that offer rent or mortgage help to participants who work for several of the city’s major employers have brought 676 people to the two neighborhoods since launching last year.

Under the Challenge Detroit program, 29 fellows began work in and moved to the city last month.

They are given a salary and stipend to live in the city. The Live Detroit Fund, administered by CommunityNEXT of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, subsidized 14 people to live in the city.

The budding interest among these young professionals is going to create a demand to improve the city’s services, which are sporadic in more desolate sections of town to the resentment of longtime Detroiters, said Craig Atkinson, a producer for the documentary “Detropia,” which recently premiered in Michigan.

“I think the city has five years to really capitalize on that population that is moving downtown, because when they want to have kids and send their kids to school, where are they going to go?” Atkinson said.

The Detroit News tagged along with several Detroiters as they maneuvered through their new surroundings. Here are their stories.

A seller’s market

Angela Stoyanovitch found her dream apartment in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood last October.

The 2,400-square-foot unit, with its 20-foot ceilings and red brick walls, offered a perfect spot to display her projection television and plenty of room for entertaining. It was the gem she had always wanted. It was nearly 10 times larger for the same price as the Upper East Harlem studio apartment she nearly moved into when her employer was considering relocating her to New York City.

Stoyanovitch, 26, a native of Warren, grew up longing to live in the big city of Detroit. As a kid, her mom, who home-schooled her, regularly took Stoyanovitch to the city to learn about art, culture and history at the Detroit Institute of Art, the Detroit Opera House and the Detroit History Museum.

She also learned along the way that her dollar goes much further in Detroit.

“I was thinking about how Detroit brings so much more to my income. … Immediately, I’m seeing dollar signs,” said Stoyanovitch, who pays $1,200 a month for her space.

But almost a year into her lease, Stoyanovitch, who works as a medical sales representative, is now learning just how tight the rental market is in Detroit. She will have to leave when her lease is up.

Though young professionals can get more bang for their buck in terms of rental costs in Detroit compared to other major U.S. cities, the cost to insure an apartment or car is “astronomical,” Stoyanovitch said.

To save money, Stoyanovitch usually just drives her company car, its insurance covered by her employer. She still pays to cover her 2008 Chevrolet Impala, though she uses her mother’s Warren address to pay $740 for a six-month policy rather than the roughly $2,000 she would pay with a Detroit address. Renters insurance costs her $1,014 a year, whereas her father pays $100-$200 for coverage of his Warren condo.

On a recent September afternoon, Stoyanovitch’s real estate agent, Matt O’Laughlin, showed her several spaces, including a 1,400-square-foot unit in Leland Lofts, a former schoolhouse converted to condos.

The place would be a downgrade in size. But the amenities — stainless steel appliances, a rooftop deck perfect for watching the fireworks at Comerica Park and a whirlpool bathtub — would make up for it.

Excited that she’d found her next perfect Detroit place, Stoyanovitch called O’Laughlin mere hours after viewing it.

Too late, he said.

Her search continues.

America’s final frontier

Zak Pashak’s notion that Detroit is America’s final frontier, ripe for young entrepreneurs like himself, was quashed when he called 911.

Pashak called the police about a month ago when he saw at least three intruders in his historic, 7,400-square-foot Boston Edison home.

“When I first called, (the dispatcher) told me I was not at the cross street I told her,” said Pashak, owner of Detroit Bikes, which will manufacture and distribute bicycles.

After a few moments of arguing that, yes, he was where he said he was, Pashak said the dispatcher went silent.

“For three minutes she didn’t talk to me,” said Pashak, 32, a native of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, who paid $475,000 for his Georgian Revival home.

Nineteen minutes later, the responding officer told him he was about a block away from his house when he got the call for service.

Pashak always had a thing for the city of Detroit. Maybe it was the 1980s classic “Beverly Hills Cop,” with Eddie Murphy playing Axel Foley, the street-smart Detroit cop, that sparked Pashak’s interest in the Motor City.

When he visited the city in 2010 and hung out at bars like Nemo’s downtown, Pashak was charmed by the friendliness of the residents.

When he decided to go into business for himself, the choice of where was clear.

The break-in, the third he’s experienced here, hasn’t changed Pashak’s love for Detroit. But it did serve as a wake-up call.

“I think for a lot of people moving here, there’s this image that this is some kind of wonderland, but there are some really serious problems here,” Pashak said.

“This is still not a fully functioning city.”

Home, at last

Detroit Fire Commissioner Don Austin never envisioned himself making Detroit his home again, much less heading the city’s beleaguered Fire Department.

When he left Detroit for Los Angeles in 1976 following a four-year stretch with the U.S. Air Force, Austin wanted only to enjoy the balmy weather, palm trees and its laid-back atmosphere.

His plan was to become a certified public accountant after graduating from California State University — Dominguez Hills. But one of his brothers was a firefighter in Detroit and an ample number of vacation days was, at the time, part of the department’s benefits.

“I thought, ‘I’m in the wrong line of work,’ ” said Austin, who joined the Los Angeles Fire Department in 1981.

Austin visited Detroit regularly.

One of the things that struck him when moving to the West Coast was the diversity. In his old Detroit neighborhood, Austin said, there was only one white person on the block.

“When I moved out there, I only knew three ways to make chicken: fried, baked and smothered,” said Austin, 58. “Then I get to L.A. and I learned about pollo mole, chicken adobo, Kung Pao chicken, chicken teriyaki. It’s kind of an analogy of the world I was exposed to out there.”

Mayor Dave Bing tapped Austin for the commissioner’s job last year, just three months before he was set to retire from the Los Angeles department. A few months earlier, Austin paid $145,000 for a 2,500-square-foot townhouse in Midtown and planned to use it as a summer home.

“My plan was to just kind of live between the East Coast and the West Coast. This really wasn’t on my radar,” he said.

Derena Maria Daniels, The Detroit News