New chapter begins in Detroit literary arts scene

Detroit has earned a few nicknames that celebrate its industrial and cultural products -- "Motor CIty," "Hitsville USA," and "City of Champions" to name a few. Yet many aspects of Detroit's culture are under-celebrated, one such being the city's literary status.

Detroit has a rich literary tradition. Poets Robert Hayden, Dudley Randall, and Philip Levine, the legendary novelist and screenwriter Elmore Leonard, the seminal urban fiction author Donald Goines, and the prolific Joyce Carol Oates, just to name a few, are all writers who drew great inspiration from their time living and writing in Detroit. Additionally, Detroit is home to many great writers today.

Yet Detroit has never enjoyed a literary moment like the Paris of Stein, Hemingway, Joyce, and Fitzgerald, or the Greenwich Village of Mailer, O'Hara, Ginsberg, and Dylan.

But perhaps that moment is approaching. Recently, Detroit has captured the attention of the writing world -- from press outlets like the New Yorker and the Los Angeles Times to individual writers who already call Detroit home and those who are now considering it.

After all, where else in the world is an organization giving away 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, editorial director at Curbed and founding editor of Curbed Detroit, and Toby Barlow, novelist and chief creative officer at Team Detroit, got the idea while discussing the (im)possibility of starting a writers colony or retreat in Detroit.

Barlow himself grew up in the Blue Mountain Center, an artists colony in the Adirondack Mountains, but he recognized the complexity of running such a place. Rather than taking a model from elsewhere, Barlow and Cox looked at the challenges found in Detroit and thought about how to turn one such challenge -- tax foreclosure -- into an opportunity.

What if someone could cheaply acquire houses through Wayne County's annual tax foreclosure auction, fix them up, and give them away to writers? Think of it as a permanent sort of writers residency.

"We were thinking about taking the negative of foreclosure and leveraging it into a positive," says Barlow. "Detroit's neighborhoods have been through a lot, especially due to the shenanigans of mortgage companies. We're offering some creativity that will help heal neighborhoods, not tear them apart."

In the months following their breakfast brainstorm, Cox and Barlow assembled a board of writers and activists to formally found a non-profit organization they call Write A House. They acquired three homes -- one through a donation and two purchased at tax auction for a total of $2,000 -- and recently launched an Indiegogo campaign that hopes to raise $25,000 towards the renovation of the houses by Feb. 15.

The Neighborhood

All three houses are located in a Detroit neighborhood situated between the Davison Freeway and Carpenter Street, the enclave city of Hamtramck's northern border with Detroit.

Some call the neighborhood Banglatown after its sizable Bangladeshi immigrant community, who have enlivened the neighborhood and the northern part of Hamtramck in recent years by moving into houses, raising families, and developing businesses and restaurants. A walk through the neighborhood is likely to be greeted by the smell of delicious curries wafting through the air.

Others call it the Power House neighborhood after Power House Productions, a non-profit arts organization spearheaded by artists Mitch Cope and Gina Reichert that is dedicated to strengthening the neighborhood.

Unassumingly, the neighborhood has become a destination for visual artists since Cope and Reichert began working there in 2007. Most recently, Power House Productions has gained international attention for its work developing Ride It Sculpture Park, a hybrid skate/art park located in the northern part of the neighborhood along Davison Avenue.

Still others call this neighborhood NoHam (may we propose Hamtroit?), referencing its proximity to Hamtramck, Michigan's densest, most diverse city and a longtime destination for immigrants, musicians, and artists alike.

This October, the inaugural Porous Borders Festival "will use installation, performance, spectacle, and public engagement to explore the unique municipal boundary cutting across Michigan’s most internationally diverse zip-code." The event is being curated by The Hinterlands, a multi-disciplinary performance company based in the neighborhood. October is also when the Hamtramck Neighborhood Arts Festival is held. A recent addition to the literary arts mix in this area is the Good Tyme Writers Buffet, held at Public Pool -- a Hamtown art space and neighborhood cultural catalyst -- and partially funded by a grant from the Knight Foundation.

Write A House, of course, is looking to add three writers to this cultural mix. The diversity of the area was a major factor in why the board chose this neighborhood as the location of the first three homes it will be giving away. "We're not going into the most distressed neighborhoods, but those with a dynamic energy," says Barlow. "We're looking to help shore up the neighborhood and bring additional energy."

Next Steps

Write A House begins accepting applications this spring. The application requirements are far from onerous. Would be Write A House residents are asked to submit three pages of worth of writing samples, a resume, and a two paragraph personal statement. Additionally, writer applicants must prove that they are low-income and creditworthy.

Once writers have been awarded homes, those selected for this lifetime residency will be asked to contribute to a journal and participate in cultural events in the community for two years, after which they are free of hard-and-fast requirements; however, it is assumed they will remain active in Write A House's and the neighborhood's cultural communities.

Learn more about the application requirements here.

In the meantime, an Indiegogo campaign is underway that aims to raise $25,000 towards the renovation of the three Write A House houses. Barlow and Write A House board members hope that this money can be used to leverage additional funding from local philanthropies.

Once enough funds are raised, Write A House will utilize the services of Young Detroit Builders, a group that employs youth contractors from the city of Detroit while teaching them the building trades, to renovate the homes. The group has already involved in the cleanup of the homes purchased through the county 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's for certain -- three writers simply will be calling it "home" later this year.

Matthew Lewis is a Detroit-based freelance writer.

Neighborhood photos by Matthew Lewis and Walter Wasacz

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Read more articles by Matthew Lewis.

Matthew Lewis is a writer and former managing editor of Model D. He's currently the communications officer for the New Economy Initiative.