When I asked my cab driver, a lifelong Detroiter, to take me to the Herman Kiefer Complex, he cast me look of concern and noted, in the most polite Midwestern way possible: “That place is abandoned. Are you sure you want to go there?”
AN is reporting from IDEAS CITY Detroit, an intense six day event hosted by the New Museum that brings together 40 fellows, a cross-disciplinary group of architects, planners, educators, activists, writers, artists, policymakers, and urbanists from the Detroit, the U.S., and beyond to plant a stake in the garden of possibility that flourishes in the Motor City.
Fellows live and work in a utility building in the complex, a former hospital, working in teams to generate ideas around four city sites. Throughout the week, speakers like Maurice Cox, Detroit’s planning director, Michael Stone-Richards, cultural theorist, supplement locals-led tours of the city that deliberately avoid “ruin porn” sites like Michigan Central Station. The event culminates in a public conference on April 30, where fellows share their thoughts on visioning the city.
On Wednesday, AN sat in on a presentation by Write A House, a nonprofit founded in 2012 that renovates a handful of the city’s 40,000 vacant houses and deeds them to writers for a two-year Detroit residency. Founders Toby Barlow and Sarah Cox lamented the “journalists who fly in for 48 hours without an understanding of problems affecting the city,” Barlow explained. Write A House leverages the human capacity of Detroit by renovating homes in partnership with contractors who teach building skills to under- or un-employed residents. The residents get on-the-job training in carpentry, plumbing, and electrical work: “We see vacant homes as a tremendous positive, Barlow noted. “They are an opportunity to build people’s skills.”
Write A House buy homes from the city in on-the-edge neighborhoods, districts that have problems with blight but could be nudged towards a resurgence. It costs around $70,000 to renovate each one- or two-bedroom home; the organization completed their third home last week, and is starting on their fourth soon. Interested writers can apply for a home by submitting their work to a blind panel of practitioners from all genres. Winners are given a deed to the home for two years and are responsible for insurance and taxes. Chicago–based writer Anne Elizabeth Moore is the third recipient of a “writer’s residence.” Writers keen on Detroit will have to wait for applications to open again this year.