So much has changed in the intervening months. We started as strangers, but we have become friends, welcomed into this magical, complicated city. We have a community and a life, a place that is not where we live but where we call home. Next spring, I will be publishing a book, “Detroit Hustle,” about this transformation.
Today, the New York Times published a piece about New Yorkers moving to Detroit. It captured the trend but not the essence, to my mind, of what it is to be here, to be a Detroiter. “Last Stop on the L Train: Detroit” missed what the nature of this place is in favor of presenting it simply as a haven for hipsters and creatives.
The Detroit I know is a city with a deep sense of community, a deep sense of pride. It wants people who come, as Spike Lee would say, with some “motherfucking respect.” This is a city where you need to talk less and listen more, to learn from those who have come before you, those who stayed when everyone else left. This city, this beautiful, amazing, hard city, is a place that teaches you to shape to its contours and rewards you for doing so with the deepest sense of connection and community. It is a place where your friends are black and white and Latina and Arab American, young and old, new and not-so, where you rally for those you know who are facing water shutoffs and those who are starting a new firm. It is a place where we move forward together, waving and saying hi to all who pass, because we are choosing to be here, choosing to love this city, even as others have rejected it.
Dream Hampton perhaps said it best in the Times‘ piece: “If you look around and find yourself in an all white space, you should know you are having a racially curated experience, like a Kenyan safari. But if you venture off, you will find a city that is complicated, has a rich history and some of the realest people you have ever met.”
Many of the comments on the story were about how Detroit is a shithole and should be left to rot. Who would even move there? they ask. Karl and I would. So many people we know have. And some have washed out, went back to Brooklyn. This wasn’t the place for them and that’s ok. But please remember that Detroit is so much more than you might think, different than what you have heard. So for every snarky comment people make about this place, I ask them to remember that people are living here, loving here, building their lives here.
Let me tell you about what our Detroit looks like on this Saturday in July. In the backyard of our home, one we sweated and bled over, Karl and our neighbor Nick are roasting a pig. All 65 pounds of him are laying on a grate over the fire pit they built last weekend. None of us have any idea what we’re doing, but all of our neighbors and friends are coming with advice, support and a lot of beer. And when we walk down the street tomorrow, it will take us an hour to get a few blocks to Red Hook for coffee because we will need to stop and chat, sit and stay awhile with so many in this tiny neighborhood of the West Village.
This city has struggles and is still short of city services. But that’s not why we came here. If that’s all your locking for, all that matters to you, then this is probably not your town. As my friend Mary would say, “You have to really love this city otherwise you’d go somewhere less dysfunctional.”
But we do love this city. This is our home, our people, our place. I’m proud of being here, proud of the work it takes every day to fit in here, to be more than just a newcomer, more than just a hipster looking for cheap real estate, but to be some one who finds genuine love and joy in this city and is investing in and committing to it for the long haul. This is a city of nuance and complexity and I’m ready to spend a lifetime learning them and being humbled.
As the Times’ piece said, we have spent $400,000 rehabbing this house. What it did not say was that most of that money is inside the walls, eaves, roof, foundation. There is no hot tub or granite countertops. We didn’t line our shower in Pewabic tile. It’s just that houses like this, in a historic district, are expensive to rehab because they were allowed to fall into such disrepair. Read the earlier blog posts to really understand what this house was like, but the TL;DR is that there was no plumbing, heating or electricity. We had to build a new house inside the shell of these walls. And there are no banks willing to make loans for these kinds of construction projects because the house won’t be worth the cost of construction. We had to cash out our retirement savings, borrow money from my dad — which he only had because my mom recently divorced him — ask my grandparents for help, and add in some financing from hard-money lenders. It was not easy nor was it smart in the economic sense.
But Matilda is a labor of love, a commitment to this city and our future, not just an expensive new house. When I drive by and see our Matilda, standing strong and solid, able to weather another 100 years, I am proud. We took a vacant house, the last blighted eyesore on the block, and turned it into a place we love and in doing so became a part of this community.
We had contractors, Cal and Christian Garfield, who are from Detroit and who are two fantastic men. You need them if you are embarking on a project. They made Matilda a home for us and despite the expense, they were worth every penny. Not only was their work impeccable, but they were great partners and friends. And as my dad always taught me: You don’t want cheap, you want good work at a fair price. That’s what we got.
I just want to say thank you to all the Detroiters who came before us, who stayed, who held things together. Thank you for doing that and holding on, for ensuring there was still a Detroit for people like me to find my home. Thank you to everyone who welcomed us and helped us through the process, teaching us the hard lessons along the way. Thank you because we understand that for every one of us who comes for the cheap real estate or opportunity, there was somebody who had to lose their home, their lives, to make this all so. Yes, we are rebuilding these homes, making new lives here, but I never forget, never fail to respect, all who suffered, all who lost, so that this city could become a place of opportunity for people like me and Karl.
Deep love and respect, Detroit. Thank you.