Most transplants escaped to New York City by design—fleeing humdrum suburban existences to seek out adventure (or job prospects) in the Big Apple. In the past, these neophytes often sought to distance themselves from their small-town selves, eager to claim New Yorker status the moment they left city limits. But things seem to be changing: a recent phenomena has seen the rise of organized networks of transplants who are proudly supporting their hometowns.
Diaspora groups, or national expatriate groups, facilitate the union of former residents of a given city within their adopted hometown.
Like collegiate alumni networks, expatriate groups seek to cultivate professional alliances and raise funds for their respective, often cash-strapped, cities. Such is the case of Detroit Nation, a group of expats from Detroit, Michigan and surrounding areas. Detroit Nation was founded in May 2010 by Rachel Jacobs, Erin Einhorn, Jeremy Litt, and Steve Bockneck, childhood friends from the Detroit suburbs. The organization now has 1,700 supporters, with three other chapters in Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington DC.
A Manhattan resident and consultant by trade, Jacobs moved to New York in 2000 at the age of 25. When she and the other Detroit Nation founders saw how the recession was affecting the businesses in and around their hometown, they came up with the idea to organize their manpower within New York City, using the Israeli Aliyah model as a reference. “Our role as a diaspora group is to really find ways to funnel people back, to reconnect them, and to give them a sense that there are jobs [in Detroit],” says Jacobs, who has toyed with the idea of returning to the city as well.
Jim Russell, a DC-based talent migration analyst and founder of Burgh Diaspora, studies migration patterns, and helps cities to map out strategic methods for attracting and nurturing a sustainable talent pool, eliminating the “brain drain” problem. “My fascination started out with the Pittsburgh Steelers and how there were so many fans on the road. The line in the press was that Steelers fans just travel really well. But if anyone knows anything about Pittsburgh or any of the Rust Belt Cities, that’s not the case,” he says. His research led him to conclude that ex-Pittsburghers had scattered around the nation after the collapse of the steel industry in the 1980s. “Initially, I was focused on the brain-drain side of it, saying that it’s really sad that all of these talented people leave [Pittsburgh]. I figured out that there really wasn’t a brain-drain problem. That, if anything, too few people were leaving,” he says.
Aaron Renn, an urban analyst and management consultant in Chicago and creator of Urbanophile, believes that one of the things that makes New York City great is its transient population. “New York City has greatly benefited from its human capital circulation: there’re always new ideas flowing in and out. The churn of population is very high, and that means the networks that New York has are very broad,” he explains.
Jacobs acknowledges that networking opportunities and tangible engagement, not just economic redevelopment prospects, should be an important focus for diaspora groups. For people who hope to one day return to their hometowns, social networking is essential in order to replace lost groups of hometown friends who have also left the area. Detroit Nation often organizes road trips back to Detroit where members can socialize with each other, in addition to connecting with Detroit business leaders and experience innovation initiatives first hand.
Detroit Nation isn’t the only expat group whose members currently call New York City home. Manhattanite Frits Abell founded the Buffalo Expat Network at the beginning of 2010, after 20 years in NYC. Buffalo Expat Network started out as a Facebook group but has since become an active expat network, connecting former Buffalo residents from all over the world in order to harness talent for Buffalo-based initiatives. Unlike Detroit Nation, Buffalo Expat Network engages their membership more through online communities, although in-person events have been held in New York City. “At the beginning of this year, we decided to focus much more on projects, so we have different expats leading different projects,” he says.
Renn surmises that while urban expat groups are an emerging trend, it’s not clear what overall effect they will have in the long term. However, he believes groups like these may be a saving grace for many cities in an emerging economy. “I think there’s a benefit in getting your message out. As we move to a more globalized economy, it’s going to be more important to use the human capital networks that extend beyond your city,” he says.