Brother and sister duo Andy Linn (’06) and Emily Linn (’00) are seventh-generation Detroiters. They grew up on the city’s east side, moved to Ann Arbor to attend U-M, then both moved back to Detroit after graduating. In November 2009, they opened City Bird, a store and art gallery in Detroit’s Midtown neighborhood that sells primarily—you guessed it—Detroit-themed merchandise, from glasses etched with Detroit city streets to candles with wicks that burn against the Detroit skyline.
“The very idea of opening a store in the city was influenced partly by wanting to create something in Detroit and add to the vibrancy and activity of the neighborhood,” says Emily. “This is a really exciting place to live.”
That might seem counterintuitive if you believe the doom-and-gloom headlines about Detroit in the mainstream media—from declining auto production to high crime rates to failing schools. But Andy and Emily are part of a new wave of educated young people redefining and reinventing the city. From 2000 to 2009, the number of college-educated 25- to 34-year-olds living within three miles of the city center rose 59 percent. Forbes just named Detroit as one of the best places for businesses, and Monster.com just posted that Detroit is the fastest-growing job market in the country.
“It’s an affordable place to live,” says Emily, “and it’s an affordable place to rent our store space.”
Where other entrepreneurs might open shop in cities with a more established retail base—Portland, Chicago, or Austin, for example—the Linns believe that the retail audience in Detroit is small but growing. “There is a lot of community support here,” says Emily, “even from other store owners.”
She points next door to The Bureau of Urban Living, which sells stationery, home décor, and art. It’s strikingly similar to City Bird and, in a different context, the two stores might be rivals. But not here.
“Claire Nelson [the owner] has been really helpful to us in terms of opening the store and getting things moving,” says Emily. “We work together all the time. We’re more like partners.”
City Bird hasn’t always been a bricks-and-mortar retailer. Andy and Emily began their line of Detroit-themed items online seven years ago through Etsy.com and their own website. “At first it was a hobby,” Andy says, “and then it started becoming more of a business.”
Andy and Emily both have part-time jobs—Andy works with a small urban planning and historic preservation firm, and Emily teaches in the art studio at the Detroit Institute of Arts—but they’re hoping that the store will become a full-time gig soon. In the meantime, their mom, Diane Linn (’70, M.F.A. ’72) helps run City Bird during business hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 11:00 A.M. to 7:00 P.M. Their brother, Robert Linn (’09, M.U.P. ’11), also takes a shift or two behind the register.
Today, the store sells the work of approximately 200 artists, 90 percent of whom are from the Great Lakes region. Of those, 40 percent of the artists are from Detroit proper. “Part of the reason we opened is because we knew so many artists we wanted to feature,” says Emily. “There aren’t a lot of retail stores in Detroit, so people tell us all the time, thank you so much for being here. It’s sort of nice to feel like you’re filling a need.”
“There’s great momentum [in Detroit] at the moment,” Andy agrees. “It’s a great place for a young person to just try something.”
Detroit might not have all its issues worked out yet, but Andy’s not worried. “We get so caught up in this 20th-century history. Great auto boom, then decline. But there is 300 years of history here, and a lot of it is very interesting. It’s a reminder that there’s a lot more to think about. There’s a lot more to come.”
Photos: Rob Hess