Detroit, I love you, so we’re selling the house

What’s the best way to become part of a transforming city that has captured your heart?

burning heart

If you answered “buy a hundred year old house with three flats in it and throw yourselves at the renovation, then take on a part time job running an Airbnb from 400 miles away,” you win. The prize? Sleepless nights worrying about a house you want to take care of but aren’t physically in most of the time, and a whole lot of time inside four walls working when you are there. What don’t you get? Very much time in the city that captivated you to begin with.

It’s obvious in hindsight, as things are, that the care and feeding of a big old house precludes much in the way of adventure and exploration other than scouting the clearance endcaps at Home Depot. (Google Now helpfully told me every morning that I awoke in the Detroit house how long the drive would take to Home Depot was because that’s where most days ended up.)

We went to Detroit out of a fiery need to be part of what was happening, out of a tremendous respect for the people making those things happen. We wanted to be those people. But I could never give everything to it as long as I called Louisville home. And Detroit is not a part time city. I often warned people who came to me for advice on making the move that buying a house in Detroit — that Detroit itself — is not for the faint of heart. It’s also not for the heart divided. As sad as it makes me to think of what could have been, I had to acknowledge: I could love Detroit with a consuming passion, but unless I could give up my first and always home of Kentucky I could never truly belong.

It was tempting. On the never-frequent-enough occasions that we could escape the never-ending work of the house to venture into the city, it reminded me why we were here and my passion reignited. It was never about the house itself, after all; it was about Detroit. I landed some assignments that gave me an excuse to get out of the house:  The Best Up-and-Coming Bourbon Scene Isn’t in Kentucky for, Detroit’s unexpected — and unexpectedly moving — outdoor art scene for the Washington Post, and I remembered why we were here.  I could maybe even see us living here. But I couldn’t see myself leaving home. And I couldn’t have it both ways.

detroit skyline

Then we fell in love with a house in Louisville, and knew this was where we’d stay. We could still keep the Detroit house, we thought briefly. We could keep renting one flat, keep running the Airbnb, which in terms of income was a success, but the love of hosting strangers who broke things (nothing was sacred: door knob, record player, a lamp stuffed in a closet like I wouldn’t notice), and complained about things like having no bread knife (seriously,  wtf?) outweighed the thrill of seeing the calendar book up. And the really bad ones overshadowed the fun of the best guests, the wanderers and adventurers and creators also drawn to Detroit.  Too, my days and nights were consumed with answering inquiries, walking the line of setting clear expectations and not scaring people off, learning how to glean from correspondence and past reviews who would be freaked out by the empty houses and give us a bad score for location (half the eventual guests), and who would find the ‘realness’ of the neighborhood part of the draw.  So no more Airbnb. It would be easier just to lease it the old fashioned way, so why not just rent the whole thing? We could, sure, but why bother? This was never an ‘investment.’ We didn’t buy the house to be long distance landlords. We didn’t even want to be landlords, it’s just that we couldn’t let the house sit empty.

In the end a roof made the decision for us. The roof of our new 1890 home in Louisville. It seems that replacing the roof — as it direly needs — costs roughly what we could walk away from the Detroit house with. (Commentary on *that* bizarre fact will have to come later.) Sleep, too. It’s hard to sleep with one big old house to worry about. Two houses with a combined age of 223 years — especially for a person with a lot of imagination and not a lot of self-control when it comes to worry — provide endless material for ‘what if’ scenarios in the wee hours. (Even still it’s the things that you can’t imagine that eventually go wrong: who would think that a guest would turn off several of the radiators, leaving the others spraying water — a boiler is a giant pressure cooker system basically — resulting in a thousand dollar repair bill?) So the house is for sale.


Our Detroit house saw a lot of celebrations, including an anniversary when we got to change out of work clothes and go out for dinner.

Ironically, it’s by stepping away from the house that we can engage with the city again. We can go to restaurants and shops, galleries and events, maybe make it to the DIA when there’s a show we want to see, explore to our heart’s content … perhaps from someone else’s Airbnb, where the worry isn’t ours. We can dig into bowls of ramen at Johnny Noodle King over talk of something besides insurance bills and ceiling repair. We can still shop at Honey Bee for chips and pico to bring home, and get chicken and waffles at New Center Eatery, and maybe finally have time to while away an afternoon at John K King books, a place I haven’t set foot inside since our very first trip to Detroit. I can hit the dollar Salvation Army way out Michigan Ave. for things for the Louisville house, and pop into Architectural Salvage to see what Oscar is refinishing in his shop this time. I don’t have to have a house in Detroit to do those things. Not having a house in Detroit will let me do those things. We won’t have an address in Detroit,  but we’ll have the moments that made it the best thing we’ve done. Yes there were endless hours of work, but there were interludes — a night at the drive-in, our discovery of Telway, the chance encounters with the people who make Detroit what it is. There were long drives across the city on snow-dark nights, countless sliders at Green Dot, a Valentine’s dinner of a pot pie made by the guy at the hardware store. There was the 40th birthday party with lights strung across the back yard and Rodriguez on the sound system. A million other moments like this are the magic of our lives in Detroit and we don’t have to have a physical presence there for Detroit to still live within us.

There are no regrets. We took on what — in retrospect — was a wildly improbable and difficult undertaking, and we made it work. We came out on the other side of a massive renovation project and even a legal battle with a contractor not only still married, but stronger together. We learned so, so much in the last almost-three years  — about ourselves, our abilities and limitations, about potential and disappointment, about how people can destroy and can change a city. We made amazing new friends and spent long nights around the fire in the backyard reveling in this other life of ours; we introduced family and old friends to this city and watched them, too, come to love it. We faced hard truths and had long talks on drives home about our privilege and hopefully brought new eyes to ongoing struggles across the country. We ran the gamut of emotions, feeling hope and frustration, pride and despair, fury and glee.

But mostly we feel grateful to have had this experience, to have been in our own small way part of this great American city. This chapter is ending, but our time in Detroit is not, and I can hardly wait to see what the future holds.


The best birthday party ever. 
Photo by Tim Galloway

If this is 40, what was I waiting for?

The best birthday party ever.  Photo by Tim Galloway

The best birthday party ever.
Photo by Tim Galloway

The Great Fortieth Birthday Party – a house party at our home in Detroit – did not start auspiciously. En
route from Louisville I received a text from a Detroit neighbor: “We are having a blackout until 11:30 p.m.
Friday.” With an acceptance I wouldn’t have had 10 years ago I sent a message to our friends heading up
for the event: “Bring flashlights and candles. The power is out but the party’s still on.”
Upon arriving at the house, a century-old brick behemoth we’d spent months rehabbing, we found the plumber had disconnected the water before leaving for the weekend. I’d told my friends to expect urban camping, as we didn’t have a stick of furniture, but no water and no electric? That’s a bit much for anyone, even my intrepid band of friends.

It gets better: Keep reading my story for Her Scene magazine, If this is 40, what was I waiting for?

Photograph by Tim Galloway


Many hands, light work, full heart


It’s so much easier to smile when people like Angela and Amy are around

Pardon me while I get a little maudlin. I can blame it on the new year and all that, right?

This house has been an all-consuming project since last summer when we pulled up the first piece of carpet. Six months later not an inch of carpet remains. (Almost) every last carpet nail and staple is gone. Nearly every millimeter of surface area has been cleaned, painted, sanded, or otherwise refurbished. Untold hours of work have gone into the house, with the requisite blood, sweat and tears (more than I’d like of the latter). We have become accidental landlords, renting out the first floor, and are nearly ready to rent the third floor. The second floor is two refinished floors, a reconstructed bathroom, and a few pieces of furniture from being airbnb ready. There’s still some systems work to be done; for reasons passing understanding the electrician installed panels that don’t provide enough electric for a three household structure, for one. But we can actually see a finish line in the distance.

The ongoing problem with the contractor we bought the house from lurks constantly, killing joy that comes with finishing tasks like gutting the bathroom and getting the third coat of very red paint on in the kitchen. Worries over the situation squash the happy moments, plague my sleep, and torment my waking hours. In the new year, I’ve realized, I need to focus on the good. A Detroit friend reminded me last week that we’ll never get these moments back. Good, bad, crazy, whatever, they are all part of this once in a lifetime experience.  And I want them to count.


Work is so much fun when Holly’s around!

The piece of all this that overwhelms and humbles me is the incredible support family and friends have showered on us. This is our house, our folly if that’s what it is, our problem, our investment, and it’s natural that we sport the bruises and aches and pains and weariness that come with renovating three homes in one hundred-year-old package. But our family and our Kentucky and Detroit friends have pitched in with work, moral support, gifts, tool loans, knowledge, shoulders to cry on and their very presence with such generosity beyond what we could possibly deserve that I can never begin to adequately thank them. I’d like to tell you about just a sampling.

Thank goodness for friends with trucks!

Thank goodness for friends with trucks!

How many people do you think would take off work for a week to go do physical labor on someone else’s house four hours away just because they want to help? Meet Holly, who did that not once, but twice. This girl can do anything, and inspired me to get my own nail gun and stop assuming that I should leave the hand tools to my husband (I know but I’ve never thought I was handy or skilled at things like that). She also sings while she works, makes me laugh when I want to cry, and can unearth treasures at thrift stores like no other.  The icing on the cake? Her truck, which we’ve used to haul everything from a $25 armchair scored at the Salvation Army to a dining room table and chairs to all the things at Home Depot.

 We've gotten to see Angela more in the last year than in all the time I've been part of the family, which is a fantastic benefit!

We’ve gotten to see Angela more in the last year than in all the time I’ve been part of the family, which is a fantastic benefit!

I never had a sister, but my Michigan sister-in-law makes up in spades for what I imagine I missed growing up the only daughter.  Angela and her friend Amy are strong, smart, crazy creative, love bourbon as much as  I do, and have worked their arses off on this house. From fixing the #@$%ing deadbolt that was giving me fits to ripping out the bathroom walls, to painting ceilings and pulling carpet, they have poured energy and love into this house. They were with us from the very beginning, the day we sat at Slow’s Barbecue and said “we should buy a house in Detroit” and have been there by phone, text and in person for every defeat and victory along the way. (And I’ll always owe Amy for convincing me to not give up on getting the built-in kitchen cabinets back to their bare wood — not to mention the hours she’s put into stripping them.)

After a long days' work popcorn around the firepit in the back yard with Norman and Sophie is a just reward.

After a long days’ work popcorn around the firepit in the back yard with Norman and Sophie is a just reward.

Our nephews have lent their strong backs and can-do attitudes, our parents have gifted us with goodies like hand tools and a shop vac, and Louisville friends cleaning house think of us when they have an awesome light fixture or a microwave to give away. Then there’s our fellow rehabbers down the street in Detroit who share their wisdom and workers, and have been there for us countless times in a pinch, whether it’s carrying something heavy up the stairs or whipping up a restorative cocktail on a day when it just all seemed too much. Also, it’s just fitting that after giving up on a dream of moving to Paris for a year to buy this house, we have Sophie for a friend … Sophie from Paris who comes bearing foie gras and wine when they come over.

So when I look around and see SO much work still to be done, and the wind is whipping and it’s dark and cold out and I wonder again what we’ve gotten ourselves into, I will think of all these people and more who have given so much along the way and count my blessings. And then I’ll get back to work.



When this is all said and done only a few people will truly know what went into this house. The best part is that it’s their love and energy that are making it what it is.




Using my imagination to picture these cabinets clean, with a coat of fresh, Paris Grey paint

Déjà vu all over again

It’s one thing to walk into something with no freaking idea what lies in store, with only a notion you’ve dreamed up of what it might be like. It’s something altogether different to walk into a scene you know well, painfully aware of what’s ahead.

Sitting at the little table in our third floor garret apartment last weekend over Thanksgiving leftovers and beer, I was was suddenly overcome with wry amusement at how little we knew what we were getting into.  “Six bedrooms, two kitchens, two baths, two dining rooms, two living rooms, a basement, a back yard — and a full attic apartment,” I said to Brian, shaking my head at how ludicrous it sounds for two people with no renovation experience to have undertaken a rehab of a 4,000 square foot, nearly 100 year old home. “We had NO idea what we were getting into!”

The saying goes better the devil you know than the one you don’t, but whoever coined that phrase never renovated a multi-flat building. We went into the work wide eyed and excited this summer, blissfully ignorant. On the other side of that work, first floor finished and rented, third floor ready for Airbnb, basement gutted, we were no longer ignorant — or blissful.  And the time to get to work on the second floor came quickly — too quickly — on the heels of driving away at the end of September, the house “done” for the time.

When the second floor renter — on a month to month lease —  moved out mid-October, I wanted to be excited at the prospect of fixing up that floor for our own use. I’d fallen in love with the original built-in kitchen cabinets, the huge living room and balcony, the high ceilings (or the promise of them, anyway). But still reeling with exhaustion from the summer of work and contractor stress I wanted to sit down and cry at the thought of picking up a paint brush or tool or cleaning rag.

We didn’t make it up to the house until early in Thanksgiving week (Brian having earned and burned all his vacation time this summer), and walked in on gray, frigid day. We used the front stairs — in what we like to call the vestibule when we’re pretending to be fancy — for the first time, and managed to unlock the door with the second of our ridiculous, jangling collection of unmarked keys. And stepped into the ghost of years of indoor, windows-closed smoking. The stale, smothering odor was so bad we almost didn’t notice the temperature. Every radiator was stone cold. We stood amidst the rubbish and discarded televisions looking at each other in the stingy, grey light of late afternoon in a Michigan winter. After 17 years of marriage and the first round of work on the house, we could say a lot with a look.

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In a stark contrast to our excited, nervous skipping through the house in June, this we paced  through each room, eyeing the filthy windows and brown-stained blinds, the peeling ceilings and exposed wood lath that a drop ceiling had hidden until recently, the stained carpet and walls, the bathroom that begged nothing more than to close the door and never look at it again. Garbage littered the floors — broken egg shells, a package of unidentifiable meat, lottery tickets, empty Kool menthol packets. Our shoes stuck to the caked-on grease on the kitchen floor, coming up with a sort of velcro sound as we stepped around the abandoned air conditioning unit in the middle of the room. Those built-in cabinets still had promise, but breathing shallowly to not take in the stale smoke, and fingers numb with cold, it was hard to see it under the nicotine stains and embedded dirt. There was nothing to do but get to work.

We went to the car to retrieve the dogs. Alba lunged ahead up the back stairs, splaying onto the steps repeatedly in her frantic attempts to scale them. As we stood in the third floor kitchen — oh, so blissfully clean — debating what to do about the radiators, Truffle christened the rug in the living room with a vile-smelling pile that told us in no uncertain terms what he thought about being back here. Brian cleaned it up while I headed back to 2 (we refer to the floors as if it’s a big commercial building to save time in conversation — there’s too much work to be done to take the time to say ‘the second floor’ when 2 will do).

Over the weekend I was sore and stiff and my knees and back screamed, and parting words from my trainer (a barter arrangement — I build her website, she works disaster clean-up to rehab my body from the punishment I’ve subjected it to in pursuit of extreme fitness) haunted me: “You’re going down if you keep going.” And always in the back of my mind where I try to keep it closeted, worries of our ongoing issue with the contractor plagued me. But despite all this, I actually, really, truly enjoyed the work. I scrubbed and painted and threw out garbage and pried up tack strip, and ate pizza and drank beer, and we got the radiators working and we made the decision to use most of what remains in our bank account to hire out the ceiling work (a marriage saver, Brian called it) to a guy I met in line at the Home Depot on 7 Mile. We hired a young woman from the neighborhood who worked her butt off alongside us, and Brian’s parents visited to see the house for the first time, and we took a break for Thanksgiving. And by Sunday noon when we left, we had made measurable progress.

We talked on the way home about all the projects to be done, and though we’re worried about the money side of it, we’re excited again. But this time it’s a different excitement. On round 2 we know what’s ahead of us (work-wise anyway) and we relish the challenge, because this time, though we know how hard it is, we also know the feeling that comes with seeing your work come together. And when I get frustrated, as I’m sure to do, I’ll let that thought sustain me. We took on this huge project that we truly had no business doing, and have somehow made it through this far. We can keep going.

Showing Detroit some love (in the Washington Post)

One of my favorite things to do when friends or family come to town is show them only-in-Detroit places like Hamtramck Disneyland, or my favorite installation down the boulevard at MBAD’s, or any of the other thought-provoking, puzzling, inspiring, or fantastical outdoor art pieces overflowing the city.

I was beyond thrilled, then to have the chance to share some of those things with Washington Post readers in their Sunday travel section recently. Have a look!

Outdoor art feature for the Post

Dark Times in Detroit? Not in its outdoor arts / By Dana McMahan for the Washington Post

Bring back that loving feeling

I dread going to our Detroit house.

Thinking about the house twists my stomach in knots.

When people ask how things are coming they get a grimace and a “don’t ask.”

The contractor, let’s just go ahead and call him Glen, is the looming dark force behind all of this. Remember dementors from the Harry Potter stories? He’s that. The havoc he’s wreaked and resulting stress has sucked all but the barest glimmer of joy from my soul when it comes to our Detroit house. When nightmares about the house aren’t plaguing me, I’m awake trying to think of anything but the problems with Glen.

The long story short is we’re yoked to him because he financed part of the house purchase price as well as the cost to renovate. Not only has he not done the promised work on time, properly, or completely, leaving us with who knows what resulting problems and cost to redo the wok, he’s tacked on an egregious bill that nearly doubles the sum he quoted for electrical and plumbing work. There’s more, a lot, but I’m not inclined to go into the whole tale just now. We have an attorney working for us now, a very kind gentleman with a telecopier number on his letterhead because he’s of another generation, and even though we can’t afford him, we can’t afford to not have him. Glen won’t respond to the attorney’s letters (and has long since stopped responding to us) so we’re going to have to escalate things. Meanwhile, our second floor is unexpectedly and suddenly empty, and even though I’m barely over the reeling exhaustion of rehabbing the first and third floors, and Brian has no more vacation time, it’s time to start work on it now. And it needs redoing from the ceilings to the floors and every inch in between down to and including the two dozen window blinds (caked as they are in five years of nicotine). We didn’t budget for this any more than we’d budgeted for an attorney. So. Lots of stress, lots of worry. Not a lot of those loving feelings I came to Detroit with.

And that is what makes me angriest of all — that one person can strip me of the boundless enthusiasm that brought me to Detroit. But you know, you can always go back to wisdom from mom, and my mom has always taught me that other people can’t make me feel anything. I’m in charge of that. So, while I am utterly helpless when it comes to this cheap, lying, no-good, rotten, four-flushing, low-life, snake-licking, dirt-eating, inbred, overstuffed, ignorant, blood-sucking, dog-kissing, brainless, dickless, hopeless, heartless, fat-assed, bug-eyed, stiff-legged, spotty-lipped, worm-headed, sack of monkey shit (Hallelujah! Holy shit! Where’s the Tylenol?), I am the only one in control of how I respond.

I’m sitting in the Louisville coffeeshop where I work, and out of the slew of vinyl they have on hand here, somebody decided to put Rodriguez on the record player. “Sugarman” brings back memories of the summer of work, of friends, of challenges overcome, of nights in the back yard by the firepit, of the frisson of excitement that attends coming up over the rise to the Detroit skyline. Over our party weekend we drove friends around our Detroit, Rodriguez on the stereo as we showed them the city we loved, and they fell in love, too.

So next week we go back to Detroit, to our house. And here’s what I’ll remember. It’s our house, the house that lets us be part of Detroit, which is all we ever wanted, anyway. There will be work, and struggles, and likely a horrible showdown with Glen on this trip or at some point, but in the end, it will still be our house and our dream, and I’m not letting someone steal that loving feeling.


The rest of the story

Detroit State of Mind on The Morning news

Photo in the story courtesy of Niitram242

Since embarking on this project I’ve struggled to explain why we bought our Detroit house. Despite writing for a living, I’ve yet to arrive at the right combination of words that will explain to others (and myself) why we did this. The editors at The Morning News were kind enough to allow me more than 4,000 words to attempt to explain. In the end the story became about the fact that I’m still at a loss for words, and a very public attempt to process my feelings on it all – the good, the bad, and the awful.

It begins

I can’t explain to people why we bought a house in Detroit.

I can’t explain it to myself when I’m sitting on the floor of our attic apartment, trying to keep my sobbing quiet so our tenants don’t hear me asking my husband what we have done.

Anyone who knows me and my husband, Brian, even a little bit knows about our yearlong scavenger hunt for a house in Detroit, and saw the triumphant moment when we finally got the keys to our behemoth. They’ve since seen the work on Facebook and Instagram—if they haven’t grown bored and un-followed me—photos of painting and floor sanding and power-washing, gripes about the contractor. And they all wonder, as I do: What the hell am I doing with a house in Detroit when I live in Louisville, Kentucky?

You can have a look at the rest here.

And stay tuned as the real life story unfolds.


[Part 2 of the most awesome birthday party or weekend ever]

The night is a happy blur of smiling, laughing, dancing, drinking bourbon (and moonshine), cooking hot dogs, scarfing down cheesy-poofs (because you only turn 40 once), hugging, taking pictures and smiling more. I can’t do it justice, so I won’t even try. But here are some photos that capture some of the best moments.

We knew we had to take a picture before festivities got underway. I was thrilled to see my friend Alise who’s been traveling, and it shows in the ear to ear grin.

My birthday present from Brian was brilliant – an instant camera that prints pictures you can hold in your hand!

I never liked hot dogs, but Kogels (made in Michigan) made me a believer. I knew I had to have Kogels at the party. (Photo by Alise/Alise's Amazing Adventure)

I never liked hot dogs, but Kogels (made in Michigan) made me a believer. I knew I had to have Kogels at the party. (Photo by Alise/Alise’s Amazing Adventure)

I was adamant there be no cheesy 40 theme, but I dug the clever ForD. (Thanks Amy!)

I LOVE the bourbon bar built from a trunk

Holly arrived late but grabbed a beer to catch up!

What is in that jar, you ask? Well it *was* moonshine, but it didn’t last long.

It’s not a party without paparazzi (just kidding — I’m writing a story about celebrating 40 in our Detroit house)

I realized there was no birthday cake and righteously demanded one. I got a tray of deviled eggs filled with candles. Perfect!

We got a little silly as the night went on (moonshine much?)

And here’s the guy behind it all, who kept things together when there was no plumbing or power, and who let me totally eclipse his own birthday the day before. Happy birthday to Brian, too!

A Couple of Days in The D

Some thoughts from my friend Alise, who visited the D as part of her amazing adventure.

Alise's Amazing Adventure

detroit 2My friend Dana helped me set up my blog. Later that evening, over a beautiful dinner and spectacular bourbon, Dana and her husband Brian shared how they had bought and were renovating a house in Detroit. Dana said that I MUST visit them there along the way. While I was in Ann Arbor, I messaged her with not much hope, since I would be leaving Ann Arbor over the Labor Day weekend and didn’t expect that she’d be up in Michigan at that time. Imagine my surprise when she said yes, absolutely, and in fact she was turning 40 and was having a celebration that weekend in Detroit. Perfect timing!

I’d made the drive to Ann Arbor to Detroit many times in the years that I’d lived in Ann Arbor – playing in the Michigan Opera Theater orchestra. I’d never spent any real time there though. Detroit is quite a…

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That’s the night that the lights went out in Motown

We headed up to Michigan Thursday night, bound for the party we’ve been planning for six months, the one with all the friends coming in from out of town. In a rare moment of T-Mobile service en route, I got a message from my friend Bryan who lives a couple blocks away.

We are having a blackout until 11:30 p.m. Friday.

Yep. Here I’d been fretting about the electricians and plumber getting their work done and in the end it was the city of Detroit that shut off the power. A(nother) huge storm had struck the city, and DTE had to turn power off in order to make repairs. I went to my Facebook event page. “Guys, bring flashlights and candles. The power is out but the party’s still on.” Then I had a swig from my emergency whiskey flask.

We spent the night with Brian’s parents and headed down to Detroit in the morning, where another surprise was in store for us. After turning on the water in the kitchen sink, the electrician popped up from the basement to inform me that Lonnie the Plumber had disconnected the drain pipes. I was pouring water straight into the basement. Bathroom sink and tub — same deal. Our third floor was entirely disconnected from plumbing. I’ll spare you the exchange I had with Brian (who was on a beer run for the party) regarding my opinion of the contractor and the plumber, and the increasingly dismayed state I worked up as the day went on, wondering how to tell the five overnight guests they couldn’t shower. But the work went on as I cleaned and prepared the house for the party.

A bright spot throughout the day was Brian’s sister and partner at work on a mystery project in the back yard. Angela and I took her truck to Architectural Salvage Warehouse nearby to pick up a used fridge, and on total impulse because we had no seating in the back yard, I bought a weathered outdoor furniture set and a firepit. Total cost: $200. I love this place. Once home, they unloaded the goodies and set about their work. I had no idea what they were doing — all I could see from inside was a white tent they’d set up, and I was forbidden from stepping back there. At my grimmest moments throughout the day, wondering what they had in store for me brought a smile.

I went about my business, tried with no luck to assemble the bed frame, painted the 3rd floor hallway with my homemade chalkboard paint (1 part unsanded grout, 8 parts flat paint I had left over from a project at our Louisville house) and wrote on it with chalk pen: Say Nice Things About Detroit. The lights came on mid-day, the electrician’s helpers carried the fridge in from the truck, bless them, and lo about 2 p.m. Lonnie showed up to make a racket in the basement and allow me to wash my hands at the sink instead of in the buckets we’d filled at the outside faucet. At about 4, Brian deemed it time I see the back yard. He led me through the back gate with a bandana over my eyes, then told me to look.

And my janky little back yard was gone. Instead, I had a fairytale party setting. A big white tent enclosed much of the yard, with a billow coming to a point just at the garage awning. White lights were intertwined throughout the tent ceiling, through plants, draped across the tree — everywhere. The desolate area we’d scraped clean of bales of pine needles a couple weeks ago was now mulched, with glass vases of wildflowers and jars with candles scattered about. Big rocks were artfully arranged around trimmed-down shrubbery, cool hollowed out tree stumps adding more interest, and some rough furniture — now adorned with flowers and candles — that I’d overlooked in the basement now made for a rustic setting on the patio under the awning. Best of all: the bourbon bar. A steamer trunk from the basement flipped on its end and opened up bore my bottles of bourbon plus cool glasses also scavenged from the basement; a rough chair stood next to it. It was perfect.

Birthday bourbon time!

It felt like I’d walked onto a set of some kind of home and garden television show. Add the fresh coat of paint that we hired our renter, K, to put on the power-washed garage, and here was a dream of a place to have a party. The metal washtub that two weeks ago overflowed with pine needles and stagnant water now (after a power washing) became a beer cooler. The back corner was at last free of the kitchen sink and debris we’d been badgering the contractor to haul away for weeks, so we had a place for the DJ (our across the street neighbor). I couldn’t wait for it to get dark to see it all lit up. In the meantime, a bourbon was in order all around. I ran in to get the bottle I’d stashed away on our last trip; my all-time favorite whiskey, an Old Forester 2012 Birthday Bourbon (a bottle I spent a year hunting for). We sat down and toasted Detroit.

The reveal turned my day around. I’ve had so many frustrations in this process (mostly due to my inability to get people to do what I want them to do), but here was a shining moment. People who could have done a million other things with their Friday on a holiday weekend, with nothing to gain whatsoever devoted their entire day to making our back yard magical for the party. It was enough to melt my grinchy renovation-weary heart.

And from there, the day just kept getting better.

(You know there’s more to come!)

Thank you Amy and Angela!