“Oh my god, this is so cute!”
Robin Li, an investor with the San Francisco venture capital firm GGV Capital, was standing in the lobby of the Madison building in downtown Detroit. Built in 1917 as a theater and refurbished several years ago as a tech co-working space, the Madison checks all of the aesthetic boxes of hipsterdom: reclaimed wood, exposed brick walls, pour-over coffee served by tattooed baristas.
“This is nicer than San Francisco,” Ms. Li concluded.
Last month, I accompanied Ms. Li and roughly a dozen other venture capitalists on a three-day bus trip through the Midwest, with stops in Youngstown and Akron, Ohio; Detroit and Flint, Mich.; and South Bend, Ind. The trip, which took place on a luxury bus outfitted with a supply of vegan doughnuts and coal-infused kombucha, was known as the “Comeback Cities Tour.”
It was pitched as a kind of Rust Belt safari — a chance for Silicon Valley investors to meet local officials and look for promising start-ups in overlooked areas of the country.
But a funny thing happened: By the end of the tour, the coastal elites had caught the heartland bug. Several used Zillow, the real estate app, to gawk at the availability of cheap homes in cities like Detroit and South Bend and fantasize about relocating there. They marveled at how even old-line manufacturing cities now offer a convincing simulacrum of coastal life, complete with artisanal soap stores and farmto-table restaurants.
“If it weren’t for my kids, I’d totally move,” said Cyan Banister, a partner at Founders Fund. “This could be a really powerful ecosystem.”
These investors aren’t alone. In recent months, a growing number of tech leaders have been flirting with the idea of leaving Silicon Valley. Some cite the exorbitant cost of living in San Francisco and its suburbs, where even a million-dollar salary can feel middle class. Others complain about local criticism of the tech industry and a left-wing echo chamber that stifles opposing views. And yet others feel that better innovation is happening elsewhere.