By Max Nussenbaum, 2012 Venture for America Fellow
"So," the woman says to me. "Are you going to get a gun?"
It's April of last year, and I've just told someone's mother that I'm headed to Detroit after graduation, to work for a startup as part of Venture for America's inaugural class. Her response isn't exactly typical -- no one else suggests that I arm myself -- but it's close. One friend jokes that the only item in the New York Times' "36 Hours in Detroit" article was "Get the hell out of Detroit." Another predicts that my future is going to be like 8 Mile, but with less sex. I talk to a guy who's spending his next year volunteering in a Nigerian slum, and he asks me why I'd ever move somewhere as downtrodden as Detroit. Everyone makes the same dismayed face, asks the same incredulous question: "Why would you go... there?"
And "there" wasn't just Detroit. At Wesleyan, my alma matter -- like at most elite schools -- "there" was anywhere that wasn't a select handful of high-profile cities: the Bostons and New Yorks, the D.C.'s and L.A.'s. We were a cohort raised with tunnel vision, a graduating class who couldn't find Ohio on a map and who thought "Oklahoma City" was an oxymoron. Don't get me wrong, I was more than guilty of this myself: I heard Venture for America talk about underserved parts of the country and my first thought was Queens -- you know, since everyone was moving to Brooklyn.
But somehow I was convinced, or if I wasn't entirely convinced, I was at least impulsive enough to make the move anyway. I came to Detroit. And I knew I was in the right place.
Much has been made of the extraordinary degree of independence and responsibility that you have at a startup, even as a fresh-faced graduate with your suit still tequila-stained from that one time you wore it to a Halloween party. You can matter at a startup in a way you can't at a big company, not unless you spend years slaving your way up the PowerPoint hierarchy. But less has been said about how the same calculus applies to cities, about how in some cities it's possible to have an impact from the moment you step off the plane.
Detroit is one of those cities. Detroit craves people. And because of that, you can matter the minute you move here.
When you get to Detroit, the city screams at you to do something. It doesn't matter what -- just do something. This message is embedded in the feel of the city: in the wide, radial streets, where hipster bicyclists cross paths with 70's Pontiacs, and in the rotting buildings, post-apocalyptic in their disintegration, that cry out to be rebuilt into something amazing. And it's made even more pressing by the practical opportunities: the abandoned properties that can be bought for a month's rent and the cops who won't stop you, or even necessarily notice, if you want to make some street art of questionable legality. It's an amazing feeling to walk down the street, spot a new business opening up, and realize that -- partly thanks to the connections I've made through Venture for America and partly thanks to the entrepreneurial community's interconnectedness -- I'm only a few phone calls away from the person starting that business.
Detroit's very into the idea that it hustles hard, but in some ways "Detroit Hustles Harder" is a wholly inaccurate slogan for the city. The point is that it's easier to get your ideas off the ground here than it is in a lot of other places, that the city's rebirth is just a bunch of people's crazy ideas somehow becoming reality. Detroiters are building their city together, from the new transplants lured like I was to the former suburbanites returning from their exile to those who've been here all along, refusing to give in to the weight of the outside world's preconceptions. And it's working. In the six months I've been here I've seen ramshackle high-rises transformed into fussy coffeeshops and luxury apartments, seen the crowds at community fundraiser Detroit Soup triple and NBC swoop in with cameras and stage lights when not long ago we were all breathing into our palms in a heatless building littered with unattached toilets. (Seriously -- the organizers had borrowed a warehouse full of old plumbing fixtures.)
People from outside still look at me strangely when I tell them I moved to Detroit. "There's not much in Detroit, is there?" They say. They don't get that that's the point. I moved to Detroit because the city is full of empty spaces, just waiting for me -- for us -- to fill them up.
Max Nussenbaum works for Detroit startup "Are you a human?" and joined Venture for America's inaugural class of 40 Fellows after graduating from Wesleyan University with a degree in English in 2012. If you're interested in Venture for America's work revitalizing cities through entrepreneurship, you can get more information or support VFA by visiting ventureforamerica.org.