“My entire childhood coincided with the demise of Detroit. I grew up watching houses and buildings fall apart and then disappear.”
Writers have always been the voices of neighborhoods, the chroniclers of the people and events that go unnoticed and unreported.
Here’s Gwendolyn Brooks, on life in Bronzeville, in Chicago’s South Side: “We real cool. We/Left school. We/Lurk late. We/Strike straight. We/Sing sin. We/Thin gin. We/Jazz June. We/Die soon.”
And Charles D’Ambrosio, on Seattle: “It was one of those nights in Seattle when the wind downtown was strong enough to blow flowerpots off the decks of high rises and the traffic signals danced a crazed tarantella over the empty intersections.”
In the case of Detroit native Eugenides, what he wrote is truer now than ever: Detroit has more than 100,000 vacant properties scattered around the bankrupt city. Who is there to tell its story now?
Detroit journalist Sarah Cox believes in words, and the power of writers to make communities stronger and more vibrant. She founded Write A House to bring more writers into her city—while also preserving neighborhoods. Write A House buys foreclosed homes, fixes them up, and gives them away to writers—for free and forever, so long as they live in Detroit for at least three years.
“Detroit can be so misunderstood in the media,” she says. “But in reality, it’s a very inspiring place to be. We’re interested in seeing this community be documented better.”
Documenting Detroit is probably not going to save it. But Cox’s program is one small way in which the citizens of a broken city are working to bring new life back into its bones. Borne of desperation—and opportunity—Write A House brings together two of the elements that make any city great: Neighborhoods and culture.
Write A House chose a neighborhood “sometimes called NoHam ‘cause it’s north of Hamtramck, sometimes called SODA ‘cause it’s south of the Davidson Freeway, sometimes called Banglatown because it is home to a strong Bangladeshi community,” Cox says. It sits north of downtown, and though once a thriving independent city, it was subsumed into Detroit and has experienced the same blight and disinvestment as many other areas neighborhoods during the foreclosure crisis. Now it is diverse, has something of an artistic population, and is on the cusp financially—not so “far gone” as to be a risky investment, not so well stabilized that homes are too expensive.
Detroit journalist Sarah Cox believes in words, and the power of writers to make communities stronger and more vibrant. She founded Write A House to bring more writers into her city—while also preserving neighborhoods.
Write A House bought its first two homes at a foreclosure auction in 2012 for $1,000 each; a third house was purchased in 2014. They hired a local contractor who employs a mix of local subcontractors, and apprentices who have recently graduated from area trade schools but lack job experience. Cox says they have also partnered with Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice, which connects them with people interested in this kind of job training. Once they move in, writers are responsible for paying taxes, water, and electric for two years. In the third year, Write a House will transfer them the deed of the home. After that, if writers decide to move, they can sell the home, but must first offer Write a House the opportunity to buy it back.
When the first house was finished in 2014, hundreds of writers from around the country applied for the opportunity to move in, and nationally-known writers like Major Jackson and Matt Bell served on the selection committee. They chose 10 finalists based on “writing excellence,” says Cox. “But after that it gets a little trickier. It’s also about finding someone who is at the right time in their life and who has the level of commitment to Detroit and to the house.”
The first winner was Casey Rocheteau, a poet previously based in Brooklyn; renovations on a second house are nearly complete and the next winner—Los Angeles-based freelance journalist Liana Aghajanianwa —was just announced on October 2nd.
“Overall, the transition from Brooklyn to Detroit has been personally revelatory for me,” Rocheteau wrote on the Write A House blog. “I find myself far less tense, moving with less urgency and having time and space to dream and create. I am also in awe of the amount of gorgeous visual art around the city, from landmarks such as the Heidelberg Project and the Detroit Institute of Art, to neighborhood murals and graffiti writing.”
Philly has the same need to find creative new ways to resuscitate moribund neighborhoods. Why not give abandoned houses to writers who bring new life—and eyes—to communities where few are looking?
Write a House was founded with a $35,000 crowdfunding campaign, and then with a $100,000 grant from the Knight Arts Foundation and funding from Hudson-Webber, a Detroit non-profit that supports revitalization projects in the city. For the first year all the organization’s staff were volunteers, but now they pay a small stable of part-time employees on a contract basis. Cox hopes to start renovations on the third house shortly, and to eventually renovate three houses a year. In addition to seeking out partnerships with redevelopment agencies, she has also launched another $35,000 Fundly crowdfunding campaign.
Could it work here? Philadelphia has two of the necessary ingredients: approximately 40,000 vacant or abandoned properties, and a thriving literary scene. Philly has not reached the desperate low point of Detroit. But it has the same need to find creative new ways to resuscitate moribund neighborhoods. Why not give abandoned houses to writers who bring new life—and eyes—to communities where few are looking?
The impulse to connect artists with communities is already evident in a few programs around Philadelphia, though none are specifically for writers. At SPACES Artist Residency at the Village of Arts and Humanities, for instance, artists in any discipline work together with community members to create socially-engaged public art projects—like Playback Musik, producer King Britt’s radio recording of the sounds of the neighborhood—while living in North Philly houses for six months. Neighborhood Time Exchange in West Philly provides artists studio space and a stipend for three months, in exchange for community service; and the 40th Street Artist in Residence offers studio space for a year. All the programs touch on what Write A House has uncovered: That both artists and the communities benefit when they move in.
Philadelphia Poet Laureate Frank Sherlock says a Philly Write A House would have lots of potential takers—though he would like to see Philly writers get first shake.
“I know firsthand that whether you’re a beginning writer or poet laureate, it’s a constant struggle for respect in Philadelphia, from the top on down,” says Philly Poet Laureate Frank Sherlock, who emphasized that initiatives like this signal that a city values creative work and helps artists develop. He also said the program would have to be adapted to fit Philly’s unique needs. “I would like to see a version specifically for writers who have deep roots in Philadelphia, those who have built vibrant literary scenes here; their efforts should be recognized and rewarded.”
What might a writer immersed in the city see here? Sherlock’s signature Philly poem, “You Can Feel Good,” offers a snapshot:
“You can feel good about dignity under the El You can feel good about half of everything & the half that seems to be missing Just feel for it
You can feel good about the most we feared has turned out to be empty & barren Drinking a Bud can
with one pinky up will make you feel pretty classy You can feel good about feeling like any day you might be a star Feel good about making out with a stranger on a day you come out in drag Some days you feel for the dead (R.I.P.) You feel good about showing your exit wounds because of what you’ve held onto Let’s feel good & meet me under the overpass because now is the time to be close”
Header photo: Michelle and Chris Gerard Photographers