Detroit House: $100. Bold New Ideas for the City: Priceless.

The phone rings again and again and again. It hardly ever stops. On Gina Reichert's desk in the Design 99 shop, in Mitch Cope's pocket as he walks around his newly-acquired properties in the just-north-of-Hamtramck neighborhood where the couple lives, the phone keeps ringing.

Who's calling? It's ABC's "20/20," National Public Radio, the Detroit News. It's researchers from the Netherlands, beekeepers from Berlin, a project collaborator from Sweden, artists from Chicago via San Francisco who will be closing on one of those properties this month.

Reichert and Cope are a sophisticated art and design couple that prefers to fly in low earth orbit, well under the glitter and glam radar of what is usually called "elite." They are defiantly Detroitish in their humility over it all, despite amassing a list of international credits and impressive contacts, not to mention having the national media spotlight on them after a recent op-ed piece about their shapeshifting Power House project in the New York Times by budding local hero Toby Barlow.

"I don't feel like a celebrity. No way," says Reichert, putting away her phone and telling the reporter from ABC that she would get back to him later on e-mail.

"How do you explain to people that the story is really about ideas?" Cope says in the kitchen of their house, a former corner grocery store which contains a working studio where a Polish deli was once filled with fresh pigs' feet, headcheese and barrels of pickled herring. "It's about making something from nothing. It's about ideas that are so simple that they have to work if you can just get people behind them. How do you turn that into celebrity?"

Powering up community

OK, call it anti-celebrity, call it the beginning of a social art project that has potential to transform and build community, call it what you want: There is a good reason the world is noticing. Amid the tiresome blah-blah-blah narrative drone of the city's decay and demise, Reichert's and Cope's thoughts and actions stand out for their restorative raw simplicity. They are idea people, oh yes, but people not afraid to get fingernails dirty or boots splattered with mud and paint.

Long before the global economic crisis and foreclosure epidemic began turning the concepts of money and real estate on their heads, Cope and Reichert were re-imagining the streets around their house as "a power neighborhood … fueled by the greenest of energy sources: wind, solar, biomass."

Written for the Metro Times last September as a kind of project statement laying out Cope and Reichert's way-beyond-the-box thinking, those words pre-dated the smackdown in the national credit and housing markets by several months. While much of the country was feeling the dread of home and job loss, perhaps for the first time, they were already converting thoughts into deeds.

Cope and Reichert purchased a boarded-up house on the block behind theirs, also gobbling up two adjacent lots that brought their property line to the corner of Moran and Lawley streets, in a neighborhood south of Davison. Their neighbors are largely African Americans and newer immigrant residents, mostly from Bangladesh (the state-designated Bangladesh Avenue, officially Conant Avenue, is the main north-south thoroughfare). The cost of the three properties? Around $5,000.

"People say we might have overpaid, but we got them before values started sliding by the end of the year," Reichert says.

And when prices dropped even more, Cope says he scooped up a house on Lawley, just west of Klinger St., for $100. It's boarded up and charred in spots due to fire damage, but it was a perfect fit for his Chicago-based friends, nationally renowned artists Jon Brumit and Sarah Wagner, who will seal the deal this Friday.

Renovation as art piece

On a recent sunny late morning, Cope and Reichert lead the way through Power House number one, up into the attic through a door in the bathroom (a feature of many houses in this neighborhood), and over to a single solar-powered battery that has already started the alternative energy ball rolling. When asked who will finish the clean up and reconditioning of the attic and the rest of the house, Cope shrugs, smiles and says, "me." But he also says he welcomes neighbors to take part in this real life, do-it-yourself experiment in sustainable living.

In their Power House manifesto, Cope and Reichert said in developing the project to include more structures they would emphasize "the multicultural aspect of our neighborhood ... the opening-up of the design and construction process would be seen as public performances." How cool is that? They also said that boarded-up houses waiting for windows to be installed "would become a temporary sculptural element doubling as a security feature. Or if a vacant lot or house simply needed to make itself known as not vacant, thousands of solar garden lights could be installed all over the lots, creating a solar star field, or all over the house, creating a star house." Even cooler.
How Cope and Reichert managed to find time to fire up the public imagination with a ground game so beautifully plotted is quite another story. They own and operate Design 99, architect Reichert does design consultations and Cope, a fine artist, has projects like the Detroit Tree of Heaven Woodshop, which has him traveling to exhibitions in North America and Europe. Incidentally, his project partner Ingo Vetter, a German conceptual sculptor who worked with Cope on the Berlin-based Shrinking Cities show, is looking to swap his current academic posting in Sweden for one in Detroit. Cope and Reichert are scouting out potential properties for him and beekeeping Berliners Erika Mayr and Stéphane Orsolini.

"We have a really cool spot we're looking at (for the bee farm) on Davison," Cope says. "For selfish reasons, I'd like to see them right up the block in our neighborhood."

Last fall, Cope and Reichert found a foreclosed house right next door -- this one for $500 -- that they sold to Zeb Smith, the exhibitions coordinator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD), and artist Corine Vermeulen-Smith. He's from San Fransisco and she's from the Netherlands. Welcome to NoHam, you guys. May the power be with you.

Cope and Reichert say they want to keep the action going, one artful, community-building, muddy step at a time, until solar star fields spread across the neighborhood, throughout the city, cultivating a practical new urbanism by bringing people together in a location because they really want to be there.

"We're rooted here now," Reichert says. "We have the mobility to travel and go other places, but we want to make it happen where we are."
"Our list of ideas is getting longer, people are contributing other ideas, the project is growing, the work is starting," Cope says. "This is just the beginning. There's more to come."

Stay tuned.

Walter Wasacz is Model D editor-at-large, FilterD editor and an internationally renowned powerhouse. He lives in Hamtramck. Send feedback here.

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Read more articles by Walter Wasacz.

Walter Wasacz is a writer and the former managing editor of Model D. You can find more of his writings here.