Thank you, Detroit
Two years ago this week, we started construction on Matilda, the house we bought here in Detroit for $35,000.
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.
[If you are just looking for HOUSE PICS, here is the latest update.]
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.
9 Responses to “Thank you, Detroit”
Hi Amy, So glad I got your blog in… They almost cut your story for space at the last minute. I knew you would say a lot of the stuff that I did not have room to say in the NYT. Keep it up! Just took a full-time communications job at u of M. That was my last NYT piece for the foreseeable future. Freelancing is too tough a way to make a living! Best, Jennifer Conlin
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Thanks for inlcuding me and the blog in the piece. It’s hard to write about people coming to Detroit in a way that is both honest for the city and meets outside expectations. I didn’t envy you that. I just wish there had been more room for people to understand that this is not a cheap endeavor despite most of the tone. So many people are coming and being surprised because of the meta narrative. They think it’s a certain way and then realize, as a friend said to me, there is no Seamless or Fresh Direct. Detroit isn’t quite as far along as people think it is. We seem to be in a weird in-between phase where we don’t match the image of the haters or the boosters. Detroit just being Detroit, going its own way, I guess.
I’m sorry to hear you are leaving the freelance life just as I embark on it. But I hope that you’ll be happy in your new position. I hear UM is a great place to work. So congrats on landing in good spot!
This is a wonderful story and I love what you have done with your home. I had no idea Detroit was becoming the birthplace for so many new creatives. I am so thrilled to hear this – brilliant.
Having lived in Windsor Ontario and having spent so many hours in Detroit for anything from concerts to great dinners out to of course incredible shopping. I am so pleased to hear of it’s revival.
Good for you for seeing the beauty where others may not have.
Thank you for reading, Susan.
Spent the day yesterday reading your blog in its entirety. Just wanted to say thank you for such an honest and refreshing chronicle of your house and life in Detroit. I was born and raised in the Detroit ‘burbs and have often pondered moving back someday (I’ve been on the East Coast for 10 years). Who knows, maybe or paths will cross someday at Red Hook and you can convince me! Thanks again for a fabulous read. Enjoy that hog!
Hi Amy – You had me until you mentioned the pig. Why did this sensitive smart creature have to suffer so you could feel a sense of community? I know these lovely animals suffer every day all over the world, but I turned to your website with the expectation that it would present a different perspective, not be so ordinary in its lack of compassion for creatures really not much different from you or me. As I look for signs of a planet that will ultimately redeem itself before it goes over the cliff of irremediable cruelty and total unsustainability, your website proved so disappointing and frustrating. Nevertheless, I leave you with the plea to consider veganism in your quest to make Detroit a true alternative city.
Debora: I understand and respect your perspective. As a former vegetarian, I have my own internal conflicts. But I’m not sure your comment was the way to make your point most heard. It certainly puts people on the defensive rather than setting the tone for open dialogue. And to be clear, I’m not trying to make Detroit a “true alternative city.” I moved to a place that I loved as it existed, not to try and make it over. Coming to a new place and assuming it should be made over in your image is a sign of true arrogance.
Thank you for speaking up for the Detroit I know and love. I’m a transplant to Brooklyn and I can’t count the times I’ve had to set people straight on what Detroit really is, and how they don’t need to bring their start up theater, or art gallery or whatever. What they need is to shut up and listen and join in on the hard work going on.
Thank you for sharing. You are an awesome writer. I love this. Looking forward to seeing you and Karl the house and Detroit.
Love Aunt Nette
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