The Surprising Way Detroit Is Being Kept Alive by Writers


The city that spawned both Motown and Jack White has always had an inherent understanding of the arts amidst the urban decay and industrial floundering of the past 30 to 50 years. But when it declared bankruptcy last summer, we lost a little faith in Detroit Rock City. The move did little to boost tourism or encourage the hundreds of thousands of fleeing citizens to return, but the downfall has lead to one of the most progressive urban rehabilitation ideas this side of the New Deal.

Enter Write A House. The nonprofit, founded in 2012 by urban activists and writers, is setting out to "use vocational training to renovate vacant homes and give them to emerging writers." You read that right: They want to give houses to writers for free.

Specifically, the initiative seeks to invigorate the fallen city in three ways: home renovation, youth outreach and cultural infusion. This begins with reclaiming a few of the many vacant and dilapidated homes Detroit is plagued with. (There are so many in such disrepair that the government doesn't foreclose on most properties — a rough reality that is actually beneficial for Write A House's mission.) 

Image Credit: Flickr

Write A House has already bought two of these homes for a mere $1,000 each, and Power House Productions, a fellow artist organization, has donated a third. Write A House uses the properties to get teens out of the streets and involved in their communities, teaching them basic carpentry and building skills as the houses undergo plumbing and electrical renovations. The final step is finding writers to occupy the houses for a two-year residency during which — if they contribute to the organization's blog and help to enrich the literary community of Detroit — they are then given the deed.

The idea of the ultimate Bohemia is perhaps becoming less about the big cities, and more about the rough and tumble parts of America.

Write A House's understanding of what it takes to revive a city exceeds typical nonprofit endeavors and ventures into what could become the profound beginning of a new movement. The organization sees the opportunity and relevance of both a rooted artistic presence and an established community, two often overlooked — yet essential— elements of any thriving city.

Image Credit: Write A House Facebook

That a forsaken place like Detroit is giving art meccas like New York and Los Angeles a run for their money when it comes to supporting local artists is plain amazing. Any writer knows it's like pulling teeth to actually get paid for your work these days. And as someone who has had work solicited from me only to be mocked when I asked about compensation, I literally laughed out loud when I first read about Write A House.

In reality, the nonprofit is on to something that could shake up art communities everywhere. You don't have to be in a place like New York anymore to be a writer, because the Internet. And with places like Brooklyn — considered one of the best places to be for literati — becoming overpopulated, alienating and expensive, the idea of the ultimate Bohemia is perhaps becoming less about the big cities, and more about the rough and tumble parts of America.

Write A House co-founder and novelist Toby Barlow moved to Detroit from Brooklyn over seven years ago. He told the New Yorker, "I had just sold my first book, and was worried to be leaving what is considered the best ecosystem for writers ... But when I came to Detroit, I found that for me it was just as good, if not better. And certainly more affordable." Co-founder Sarah Cox added that when artists live with multiple roommates in tiny, expensive apartments with no hope of ever owning a home, they become "an impermanent part of where they live."

Image Credit: Write a House Facebook

Of course, this is a new plan that will take time to blossom. Writers awarded spots in the program will still have to pay insurance and taxes on their new digs, which amount to roughly $500 a month. They will also face the challenges of being part of a community on the mend (all the better to inspire you, my dear). Plus, three writers does not make a huge difference in the scope of a city.

But Write A House has already garnered attention from European writers, and there is clearly great potential for the outfit to expand. And as I sit here thumbing through fewer paychecks than bills in my mail, Barlow's words, "Detroit is affordable and fascinating, and that seems like a good combination for writers," seem like a divine prophecy.