Like many suburban Detroit Jews, Jacob Smith's family has deep roots in city neighborhoods that once thrived with Jewish merchants, synagogues and culture.
The 23-year-old entrepreneur said he'd like to help re-establish a vibrant Jewish community in the now half-empty and mostly black city.
He is among a group of young, suburban Jewish professionals attracted to the vitality and excitement of Detroit's evolving downtown and hopes to be selected for a program that would pay $250 per month toward his rent for a year if he moves into Detroit's downtown or Midtown.
"You hear so many people complain about how Detroit can't be fixed, but they don't do anything about it," said Smith, a University of Michigan business school graduate and owner of an energy consulting business. "I think there is a group of young people doing something about it. I want to be part of that. It doesn't seem that crazy to me. I'm actually excited to be part of the revitalization of Detroit."
The rent program is small in scope and initially looking to bring only about 25 people into Detroit. It piggybacks other, higher profile efforts to bring new life into a city that has lost nearly a quarter-million people in the past 10 years and more than a million since the 1950s.
Five companies, including Quicken Loans, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan and Compuware Corp., are offering about 16,000 employees $4 million in loans and rent subsidies to move in or near downtown. The Detroit Medical Center, Henry Ford Health System and Wayne State University announced a similar program in January for the Midtown area.
Most Jews living outside Detroit don't find the idea of moving downtown appealing, said Jordan Wolfe, director of CommunityNEXT, a Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit program that's providing the rent subsidies.
The challenges of living in Detroit are many: Residents complain they receive poor and inconsistent city services, like street cleaning and park maintenance, while paying too-high taxes. The crime rate is high, and schools are among the worst in the nation.
"It's scary driving through burned down neighborhoods when you're a kid from the suburbs," said Smith, whose mother's parents once lived in Detroit. "You have to know where you are going."
But supporters of the rent program say it can be a good fit for the young and single.
"I don't try to bring the average person back. I'm looking at (those) who get a kick out of building a community," said the 28-year-old Wolfe, who has lived in Detroit about a year. "People are yearning for an urban environment, diversity, walkability, the culture."
Detroit's Jewish population has always been small, but it was once vibrant with butcher shops, grocery stores, bakeries and other businesses catering to the flourishing community. At its peak, Detroit had about 85,000 Jewish residents in 1950s when more than 1.8 million people lived in the city.
Today, about 66,000 Jews live in the Detroit area, many in the northern and northwest suburbs of Oakland County.
Only a couple thousand or so live in the city of 717,000 people. There still are two Jewish congregations in the city.
Many Jewish residents left by the 1960s as part of the white flight from the city. Most of those who remained departed after the 1967 riot, in which Jewish shops were among hundreds of buildings burned and destroyed, said Gerald Cook, an area Jewish historian.
During the 1970s, Detroit became a black city with black leaders and an agenda geared toward a mostly black populace.
"African Americans were saying `we need to do things ourselves.' So they were pushing everybody out," said Harriet Saperstein, a Detroit resident since 1963 and former educator at Wayne State University and the University of Detroit Mercy.
But many Jews from families that moved away say they still feel a strong connection to the city, despite its problems. Max Aronson, 26, who grew up in Oakland County, is helping organize a fundraiser in Los Angeles for the rent program.
"If Hollywood was in Detroit I would not have left," said Aronson, manager of Creative Affairs at Sony Pictures Television in California.
Babushka is a Detroiter and proud of it!
Although we have been through our share of tough times, this city was great once and we can make it great again. You people in Brooklyn crammed into tiny crappy apartments, move to Detroit and buy a block!