Thinking about moving to the Motor City? That’s great.
Detroit’s population has been on a steady decline over the last half-century, and the city needs some new residents.
It’s also got a lot going for it. Detroiters are some of the nicest city folk in the country. The music scene, both for local acts and as a destination for national ones, is superb. The food and beverage scene is starting to get props. It’s a mecca for Art Deco architecture—with plenty of other marvelous examples in other styles. And pretty much no matter where you’re moving from, Detroit is likely to be more affordable.
But it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. While Detroit has been the subject of breathless national stories about its “revitalization,” you should use that word with caution here. Poverty is still an enormous problem. Its public schools system is on a long road to recovery after mismanagement from a state takeover. While you’ll probably want to own a car, don’t ask about the roads. Public transit is also a work in progress. And we haven’t even mentioned winter yet.
There’s obviously a lot to consider if you’re thinking about living here. To help make your decision about whether to move to Detroit, here are 15 things you should know.
It’s still the Motor City.
Detroit’s ascent to become, at one point, the fourth-largest city in America was on the hood of the automobile. It’s the birthplace of the assembly line, the first mile of paved road, and the first freeway; a place where unions flourished; and home to the “Big Three” automakers.
While those companies are no longer the dominant force they once were, they definitely left their mark on the city. That’s especially evident in the area’s infrastructure, which is based largely around freeways and wide boulevards.
The vast majority of people in Detroit who can afford a car, own one.
That said, the town’s infrastructure is improving.
For all the caveats about car ownership, Detroit has been investing more in its infrastructure and public spaces. The transit situation is improving. Bus ridership is up thanks to better on-time performance, more convenient lines, and a unified payment system. (Though as recently as 2011 a local transit advocacy group gave the city’s buses an ‘F’ grade after a survey found nearly 50 percent were late.)
More bike lanes are added to the roads every year. Streetscaping projects are underway across the city to make roads more walkable and bikeable. The Joe Louis Greenway, a 31-mile non-motorized loop, is in development. A Detroit bike-share program has been steadily expanding since it launched in 2018. A streetcar started running a couple years ago (though because it only goes a few miles on a single street, it’s of limited use).
Getting around without a car gets more manageable by the day.
There are far more houses than apartments.
While most new developments are larger mixed-use structures, single-family homes are by far the most common housing type here. And the city’s long-time dependence on cars has resulted in a sprawling landscape that is ideal for people who crave space (and maybe even a garage) of their own.
But if you’re looking for dense, walkable streets with lots of high-rises, there are fewer options here.
Detroiters are unbelievably friendly.
People not from Detroit are often taken aback when they’re walking down the street—head down, earplugs in—and hear a passing stranger say “What up?” We greet folks, with a nod or word, pretty much every time we encounter someone, stranger and acquaintance alike. And we look them in the eye while doing it.
For people used to moving around anonymously, this can be jarring. But for those who enjoy human connection, it’s a pleasure. Detroiters also hold the door open, make small talk, invite you over for a barbecue, and introduce you to their whole family.
There’s a lot of struggle in Detroit, but camaraderie helps us all get through it.
Understanding Detroit’s history is highly recommended.
You can easily get by in transient towns like New York or Washington, D.C., without needing to learn a ton of their history. Not so in Detroit.
Most things that define the state of the city today—its geography, demographics, and culture—can be traced back to racist policies and trends, like housing and job discrimination, demolition of vibrant black neighborhoods for freeways, and white flight. These events have built up decades of justifiable resentment and a skepticism of outsiders, especially those with a goal of “fixing” Detroit.
If you want to move here in the present, you’d be wise to learn about the city’s past.
The city is a showcase for black excellence.
Detroit is about 80 percent African American and has been a majority black city for decades. So it’s no wonder that black culture and pride imbues almost everything.
At a public event, there’s bound to be music (probably funk, soul, or hip-hop) and dancing. Murals featuring portraits of black icons, like Coleman A. Young (Detroit’s first black mayor), Rosa Parks, and Barack Obama, are painted all over the city. The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History is one of the city’s great institutions. The Heidelberg Project and Dabls African Bead Museum, designed by black artists with black themes, are two gorgeous and profound public art installations.
Detroit is a beautiful black town.
The city is still a music mecca.
Based solely on talent per total population, few cities can match Detroit’s musical heritage.
You probably know about Aretha Franklin and the entire Motown lineup (Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, the Supremes, etc.). But this town was and is home to legendary jazz figures like Donald Byrd, Alice Coltrane, and Yusef Lateef. Seminal punk bands the Stooges and MC5 launched their careers in the area. Techno started in Detroit. Hip-hop? Yeah, we got that too—ever heard of Eminem or Danny Brown?
While the city might not be brimming with talent the way it was in the ’60s and ’70s, there’s still a strong R&B, jazz, electronic, and garage rock scene here. And you can catch musicians playing at one of the numerous venues in the city, whether it’s historic (Cliff Bells, Baker’s), new (Willis Show Bar, Marble Bar, El Club), or dive (PJ’s Lager House, Small’s).
We love coneys and Detroit-style pizza, but there are lots of other great options for food.
Square pizza, invented in Detroit, has been getting national attention of late. We’ve also got the classic coney: a hot dog with chili, onions, and mustard.
But beyond these simple comfort foods, Detroit has a solid restaurant scene that’s getting stronger all the time. You can get delicious deli, Thai, or Mexican food at affordable prices. Or you can get upscale fare at one of the many award-winning, farm-to-table, or inventive restaurants and bakeries—you may want to check out Sister Pie, Selden Standard, Saffron de Twah, and Folk. Coffee shops have also proliferated in recent years, with great options in every corner of the city. You definitely won’t be missing out on great cuisine by moving here.
Detroit is still affordable, but with caveats.
Overall, housing in Detroit is way more affordable than other major American cities. But prices have been on the rise over the last decade, especially in the urban core, where the average rent for a two-bedroom unit is around $2,000.
To get a really affordable place, you’re going to have to live away from the city center and probably own a car. Considering Detroit has some of the highest car insurance rates in the country—in part because they’re calculated by ZIP code—your cost of living is going to go up, making it less affordable than it seemed at first.
The housing market is full of fixer-uppers.
Until recently, residents had been steadily leaving Detroit for decades. But abandonment of homes escalated rapidly with the bottoming out of the real estate market after the 2008 housing crash. In Detroit, poor residents received overassessed tax bills that they couldn’t pay, and countless homeowners went into foreclosure.
That’s left the city with many thousands of vacant or abandoned homes. A tragic situation to be sure, but a potential opportunity for someone with the ability or inclination to renovate a home. It’s still possible to find a modest or even historic home that needs some love and can be bought for well below market value. It’ll take some serious labor to make it a cozy place to live, but it may also be worth it.
The school system is a work in progress.
For families with children, this is often the biggest deterrent stopping people from moving to the city.
Almost all of Detroit’s public schools have issues with building maintenance, teacher retention, or student achievement. Private schools are often prohibitively expensive. And since part of state funding for schools depends on head count, sending your child to a private or charter would directly result in disinvestment from the city’s underfunded public school system.
That’s a difficult dilemma for any parent.
The weather is a mixed bag.
As you can see, Detroit has a lot of issues. And yet somehow the weather always seems to get talked about the most.
January and February can be especially brutal. It snows, and then you get days of subzero temperatures, and then you spend 10 minutes scraping ice off your car only to get stuck in a snowbank on your drive to work.
But for as much as we hibernate in the winter, we burst out when conditions improve. Belle Isle—the largest island park in the U.S.—is teeming with people when the weather is nice. You’ll find folks sunbathing and swimming on the beach, picnicing in the sheds, meandering in the conservatory, or attending the exuberant Kite Festival. People bike, hang out at Campus Martius Park, stroll along the Riverwalk. It’s hard to beat a Detroit summer.
There isn’t as much outdoor space as other cities—but there are definitely some gems.
Detroit isn’t the greenest or most topographically interesting town. It’s incredibly flat and, because of how spread out it is, you’ll probably find yourself driving or at best biking to visit the city’s parks.
That said, there are some fantastic and varied green spaces. We do have the aforementioned Belle Isle and its 982 acres. Rouge Park, the city’s largest, has beautiful trails where you can momentarily feel as if you’re in the wilderness. There are a number of other smaller neighborhood parks that have excellent maintenance and programming, and the city has been investing in them recently.
Plus, if you’re going by car, you could always drive an extra 20 minutes to get to a huge metropark for lengthy hikes or cross-country skiing.
Living here will give you an education in pre-1950s architecture.
There was an absurd amount of wealth in pre–Depression era Detroit. Barons of automobiles (Dodge, Fisher), retail (Hudson, Kresge, Kern), publishing (Booth, Scripps), and many other industries made their fortunes here.
During the Roaring ’20s, these industrialists built towering and beautiful Art Deco skyscrapers, many of which are still around today. There’s the Fisher Building with its bold marble exterior, the Guardian Building with its distinct Aztec design, the Penobscot Building with its varied sculptural setbacks, the Fox Theatre with its lavishly decorated interior—we could go on.
Community is an essential part of life.
Detroiters have lived with little municipal support for years. In its place, they developed a strong network of block clubs, neighborhood associations, and community groups to get things done.
These groups not only provide residents with a sense of belonging, but also organize neighborhood cleanups, celebrations, patrols, gardens, development plans, housing stabilization, and much more. Often it’s easy to get involved and provide immediate support to your neighborhood thanks to these robust existing systems.