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Choosing Life

Choosing Life

Why so many soloists are leaving New York — and other cities — for Detroit.
(And Pittsburgh, and Chattanooga, and Buffalo, and Louisville…)

Detroit’s Lafayette Park Townhouses, designed by Mies van der Rohe. (Photograph by Raymond Koch)

 

One of our favorite Solo City interviewees, Bryan Boyer, recently told us that he’ll soon decamp Brooklyn for new digs.

“My girlfriend and I leave for Detroit in June,” he said. One advantage to Detroit? “We bought a townhouse designed by Mies van der Rohe for one-quarter what we’d have paid for a bare-bones condo [in New York].”
 
So off Boyer is going. He’s not alone.

“Large cities—New York, San Francisco, Boston, Washington, D.C.—have simply become too expensive for even successful independents and young entrepreneurs to carve out a modest and sustainable quality of life,” Boyer said.

By resettling in Detroit, he is adding to the tide of soloists flowing to second- and third-tier cities that not so long ago would have struggled to qualify as the magnets they’re becoming: Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Greenville, Chattanooga.

At first blush, this trend looks like a simple case of following the money—from where you need more of it to where you need less of it. But Boyer reminded us that for soloists, especially, even following the money is really about something bigger. It’s about “increasing your capacity for risk.”

 

Bryan Boyer was cofounder of Makeshift Society (above), a Brooklyn coworking space.

 

Some background: Boyer is a Renaissance soloist—an urban strategist, entrepreneur, designer, writer. Among his projects was a cherished Brooklyn coworking space called Makeshift Society that ultimately didn’t last. (Read his analytical narrative about the business’s closure; it’s superb. As is this series of pieces he wrote about the rise of independent workers and the challenges they face.)

No surprise, his decision about where to live involved a lot of variables —not just the reductive question of “where can I find a job.” Soloists, he said, “are optimizing on a whole set of concerns, not just one—it’s quality of life, where work is, where loved ones are.” Not to mention: Is there green space handy? Can I travel by foot or bike or tram? How pricey is the housing? And is there a community of my people thereabouts, whoever “my people” happen to be? In Boyer’s particular case, Detroit scored points for its architectural personality, its walkability, and its “reinvention” vibe. And, of course, for its cost of living.

 

“Large cities have simply become too expensive for even successful independents to carve out a modest and sustainable quality of life.”
— Bryan Boyer

 

“But this is never just about real-estate prices,” Boyer explained. It’s about what those lower prices get you, if you’re a soloist. Including:

  • More Freedom to Experiment and Discriminate. “A different cost profile means different career risks are possible,” Boyer explained. A comparatively lowered monthly nut enables individuals to explore work that might produce less—or less steady—income, or to turn down unappealing work. Career switching is more possible. Professional experiments of every kind are more sustainable.
     
  • More Resilience. When sinking roots requires a less onerous investment, there’s a lower cost to failure—an easier path to making corrections. “Something would really have to go wrong [in Detroit],” says Boyer, “for us not to be able to pick up and relocate in a couple years.” Less potential damage from failure equals more personal resilience.
     
  • Less Wasted Life. “When you’re an independent, everything you do is zero sum—every extra 15 minutes on the subway is 15 minutes not spent doing your work, learning a new skill, or finding new business.” That’s not true for people who work office jobs, Boyer points out; for them, all the costs of non-productive inconvenience are borne by their employer, who pays them regardless. For soloists, it really counts when a city is affordable enough that you aren’t forced into a long commute or frustrating daily logistics.

 

So, off Boyer goes to his next chapter, in Detroit. Reminding us along the way of some under-appreciated consequences that our most basic choices can have, and of the payoff we get if we can manage to design our solo lives with intentionality. We look forward to whatever Boyer writes about what he finds. We wish him luck. And we’re damn happy for him that he won’t need very much of it.

 

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