New chapter begins in Detroit literary arts scene
Detroit has received several nicknames celebrating its industrial and cultural products – “Motor CIty”, “Hitsville USA” and “City of Champions” to name a few. However, many aspects of Detroit’s culture are underestimated, including the city’s literary status.
Detroit has a rich literary tradition. The poets Robert Hayden, Dudley Randall and Philip Levine, the legendary novelist and screenwriter Elmore Leonard, the seminal urban fiction writer Donald Goines and the prolific Joyce Carol Oates, to name a few, are all writers who stood out from their time inspired living and writing in Detroit. In addition, Detroit is now home to many great writers.
Yet Detroit has never seen a literary moment like the Paris of Stein, Hemingway, Joyce and Fitzgerald, or the Greenwich Village of Mailer, O’Hara, Ginsberg and Dylan.
But maybe that moment is approaching. Recently, Detroit caught the attention of the writing world – from press offices like this New Yorker and the Los Angeles Times to individual writers who already call Detroit home and to those who are thinking about it now.
Where else in the world does an organization give free houses to writers?
Write a house
The idea for Write A House was born over breakfast at the Clique Restaurant on East Jefferson Avenue.
Sarah Cox, The editor-in-chief at Curbed and founding editor of Curbed Detroit and Toby Barlow, novelist and chief creative officer at Team Detroit, came up with the idea while discussing the (im) possibility of starting a writers’ colony or retiring in Detroit.
Barlow himself grew up in the However, Blue Mountain Center, an artist colony in the Adirondack Mountains, recognized the complexities of running such a place. Rather than adopting a model from elsewhere, Barlow and Cox examined the challenges in Detroit and considered how one such challenge – tax foreclosure – could be turned into an opportunity.
What if someone could cheaply buy, repair, and sell homes to writers through Wayne County’s annual tax foreclosure auction? Think of it as a permanent type of writer’s residence.
“We thought about turning the negative of foreclosure into a positive,” says Barlow. “Detroit’s neighborhoods have been through a lot, especially because of the gimmicks of mortgage lenders. We offer creativity that helps heal neighborhoods, not tear them apart.”
In the months after their brainstorming for breakfast, Cox and Barlow gathered a group of writers and activists to officially create a nonprofit they call Write A House. They bought three homes – one through a donation and two that were bought at a tax auction for a total of $ 2,000 – and recently got off the ground Indiegogo campaign aiming to raise $ 25,000 for home renovations by February 15.
All three houses are in a neighborhood of Detroit between Davison Freeway and Carpenter Street, the enclave city of Hamtramck’s northern border with Detroit.
Some call the neighborhood Banglatown after its sizeable Bangladeshi immigrant community who in recent years has enlivened the neighborhood and northern part of Hamtramck by moving into homes, raising families, and developing businesses and restaurants. Strolling the neighborhood is likely to be greeted by the smell of delicious curries wafting through the air.
Others call it the Power House district after that Power House Productions, a non-profit arts organization led by artists Mitch Cope and Gina Reichert, dedicated to empowering the neighborhood.
Since Cope and Reichert started their work there in 2007, the neighborhood has become a destination for visual artists. Most recently, Power House Productions has gained international attention for its work Ride It Sculpture Park, a hybrid skate / art park in the northern part of the neighborhood along Davison Avenue.
Still others call this neighborhood NoHam (may we suggest Hamtroit?) And point to its proximity to Hamtramck, Michigan’s densest, most diverse city and a long-standing destination for immigrants, musicians and artists.
The opening is this October The Porous Borders Festival “will use installation, performance, spectacle and public engagement to explore the unique community boundary that spans Michigan’s most internationally diverse zip code.” The event is curated by The Hinterlands, a multidisciplinary performance company from the neighborhood. The Hamtramck Neighborhood Arts Festival is also held in October. New to the literary art mix in this area is the Good Tyme Writers Buffet, which takes place in the Public Pool – an art space in Hamtown and a cultural catalyst in the neighborhood – and is partly funded by a grant from the Knight Foundation.
Of course, Write A House would like to add three writers to this cultural mix. The diversity of the area was a major factor in the board choosing this neighborhood as the location for the first three homes it will give away. “We don’t go to the most polluted neighborhoods, but to those with dynamic energy,” says Barlow. “We want to help support the neighborhood and generate additional energy.”
Write A House is accepting applications from this spring. The application requirements are anything but stressful. Write A House residents are asked to submit three pages of writing samples, a résumé and a personal statement with two paragraphs. In addition, writer applicants must demonstrate that they are low income and creditworthy.
Once writers are given homes, those selected for this lifelong residency will be asked to contribute to a magazine and participate in community cultural events for two years. After that, they are free from fixed requirements. However, it is anticipated that they will continue to be active in Write A House’s cultural communities and in the neighborhood.
Learn more about the application requirements Here.
In the meantime one An Indiegogo campaign is currently running to raise $ 25,000 to renovate the three Write A House properties. The board members at Barlow and Write A House hope this money can be used to raise additional funds from local philanthropy.
Once enough money has been raised, Write A House will use the services of Young Detroit Builders, a group that employs Detroit city youth entrepreneurs and teaches them the building trade to renovate their homes. The group has already been involved in cleaning up the homes bought in the county’s tax foreclosure auction.
We look forward to following the progress of Write A House and the continued development of this neighborhood into one of Detroit’s cultural capitals. Regardless of what we call it, one thing is certain – three writers will simply call it “home” later this year.
Matthew Lewis is a Detroit-based freelance writer.
Neighborhood photos by Matthew Lewis and Walter Wasacz