The $500 question

We’re starting at the top and working our way down (while a crew starts in the basement)

“I’ve heard you can get houses there for like $500,” people will say when they learn my husband Brian and I bought a house in Detroit. This figure has a staying power in the collective imagination as much as if it were an urban legend. But, like many things in Detroit that you find hard to believe, this is true. But our house, in fact, was not $500. Its $17,000 sales price is still so ludicrous, though, as to make me shake my head when divulging it.

“Oh, that’s why you bought it?” comes next, the puzzle solved.

This, too, makes me shake my head. “Why we bought it?” No. A buyer could nag a clearance house in parts of Louisville just a few miles from our home. Though I’m an inveterate bargain hunter, I didn’t buy the house for its price tag.

“That’s how we bought it, not why,” I reply. And it’s not semantics.

Though $17,000 is an absurd selling price for a three-story brick house with two fireplaces and all 50 windows new, it’s still a scary lot of money to us, and needed renovations will easily double the price. The house was intact, unlike many price-slashed houses on the market in Detroit, but at 95 years of age its snarled electric needs a total overhaul, the plumbing needs updating, the basement has to be more or less gutted, and we need a lot more insulation to protect against the brutal winters (we’ve heard the horror stories of the $700 heating bills). That’s even before we do the fun stuff like refinish the ruined hardwood floors, paint everything, and rebuild the basement bar.

So no, we weren’t out looking for a cheap house to throw money at. And now that we’ve done it we find ourselves in the curious place of explaining ourselves to people both inside and outside the city. To those outside I feel – and probably come off — a little defiant. I have lots to say about Detroit. We’ve spent a fair amount of time there in the last year, and have read and read about the city’s past and present. I love challenging people’s assumptions of the city (people sure are free with their descriptors – ‘shithole’ for one) and I want everyone we know to come visit and experience the Detroit we love.

When it comes to what I say to an audience inside Detroit though, I’m hesitant indeed. Who am I to breeze into their city, take advantage of the situation that lets us buy a house we could never dream of affording in our own city, then spout off about the spirit, the gritty determination, the fascinating transformation of their town? I’ve read enough essays and blogs from people who call Detroit home to have a pretty good idea what many think about ‘Johnny come latelys’ and hipsters and white people with savior complexes. While I certainly am not among the two latter groups, there’s no denying I’ve come lately. Even with my in-laws living an hour from the city, in all our trips to Michigan we never ventured into Detroit – not until I read a stack of Hour Detroit magazines and found a city that sounded nothing like what I’d heard about, and decided to go see for myself.

As new homeowners in Detroit we’re a few things that folks don’t love. Add to ‘Johnny come lately,’ the tag of ‘absentee landlord.’ We realized fairly soon into our house hunt that we would not be able to leave a house sitting empty between stays. En route to meet a realtor (one of the few who would take the time to show us the $10,000-ish houses) we got a text. “Never mind, I’m here and it burned down.” We talked a bit about timed lights and security systems and such, but knew it would be folly to have an unoccupied house in Detroit. That meant a two-family home. We ended up with a three-flat house, so we’ll have two rentals besides our little apartment in the attic. We have a local property manager, but we’re never going to earn boots on the street cred by mowing the lawn and shoveling the sidewalk; instead we’ll have to pay people to do that.

I know how my it raises my hackles when outsiders roll into Louisville and proclaim the culinary scene “up and coming” or some such nonsense before ticking off the same tired checklist of places that every other visiting writer praises. I’ve lived here 10 years and I’ve written about the food scene for nearly half that time so I can easily put myself in the shoes of the Detroit journalist last summer who critiqued my first write-up of his city. He was, however, very gracious when I reached out to him, and updated his story.

Maybe it would be different if we were moving there full time. But we’re not. Though as a freelance writer my work can be done from anywhere in the world, Brian has a much more traditional job that binds him to a desk in a building every day. And you know, we still love Louisville. We’re just polyamorous when it comes to cities (we’d have a place in Paris, too, in a minute, if the monthly payment wouldn’t be as much as our entire Detroit house). Even knowing we couldn’t spend all our time there, after falling in love with the D we knew we had to find a way to be there as much as possible.

I’m going into this with eyes wide open and don’t expect to be welcomed with open arms by everyone. As a writer it’s a scary thing sometimes to put myself out there. We could have just quietly bought the house and kept to ourselves and avoided any commentary. But that’s not in my nature. There may well be people who – with every right – have something to say about us joining the influx to Detroit. When that happens I’ll do my best to remember why we wanted to be there in the first place. And I’ll be thankful for the welcome we’ve already received. I’m happy to start with the next door neighbor who was genuinely warm and receptive, who kept our fluffy little dog safe in his back yard when Truffle made an escape out the back door, and the lady around the corner who wants us to bring both dogs to visit her. And there are a few people already who’ve welcomed us, invited us over, offered to help with the house.

The especially nice thing about those people? I get to skip the $500 question.

Home in Detroit

Then there was the time we said ‘let’s buy a house in Detroit’ and we did it.

I haven’t written anything since we finally — a year from the day I first set foot in Detroit — signed the papers on our house, partly because we left for Mexico three days later, but partly because I don’t know where to start. Never has any life change ignited such a maelstrom of feeling and fear and exhilaration. But I have to start somewhere, even if it makes no sense to anyone but us, so here goes.

The dogs are ever so curious about this place where they're spending time now!

The dogs are ever so curious about this place where they’re spending time now!

We all say “we should _____” a few times in our life.  Almost all the time it’s talk, idle daydreams. But sometimes we say we should do something, and even though it’s a giant gamble, terrifying, logistically challenging, and the subject of a good bit of derision and disapproval (and support that warms our cockles), we do it.

We did it. A year ago I spent a week in Detroit, curious about what was really happening there – as opposed to what I was seeing in national media at the time.  After a few days with the Visit Detroit folks, and a weekend of independent exploring with my husband Brian (we wanted to see *all* sides of the city), we sat down over plates of barbecue at Slow’s and found ourselves saying “we should buy a house in Detroit.”

We are not ‘buy a second house’ kind of people. We still have 21 years on our mortgage of our very modest little house in Louisville. I’m a freelance writer without a regular paycheck. But from that moment, and through all the frustrations and ups and downs since, we were driven to become part of what’s happening in Detroit.  No place we’ve been  in travels around the globe has felt like Detroit and the spirit there. Anything seems possible.

Hamtramck Disneyland.

When we drive down from Brian’s parents’ north of the city and cross 8 Mile, I get a feeling like nowhere else, of anticipation, of wonder. It’s kind of like the adrenaline charge I get landing in Manhattan meets the I-just-can’t-stay-away sensation of Paris. When we’re not there I scour the news out of Detroit, prowling my Detroit lists on Facebook and Twitter, reading the Free Press more than I do the paper in my own city where I am a writer. I feel a little thrill of pride when big publications run stories about the change underway in the city. It’s not my city of birth, and I won’t even be living there full-time, but I’m adopting it in my globetrekker’s heart as one of my homes in this world (along with Louisville and Paris – where I haven’t lost hope of one day having a place to call my own). I want to say I told you so to all the editors who last year turned down my story pitches on Shinola and the Downtown Boxing Gym (c’mon, if it’s good enough for Madonna, why won’t you let me tell the story for your readers?). When Bourdain’s episode there comes up I have to interject that I went there first, as if that matters to anyone but me. I drive my friends and family quite crazy, I’m sure, with my breathless tales of Detroit.

I get frustrated trying to describe what draws us there because there are so many factors that sound simplistic when I recite them, and for each one there’s a counter. The history and ongoing situation are fascinating and at the same time full of heartbreak and horror for too many people. I constantly edit myself;  I don’t like raving about how inexpensive our house was when I know that the absurd price is a result of economic devastation. I never want to come across like I think it’s a playground or an experiment even while I’m excited about the myriad creative things other people are doing and I want to add my own to the mix.

The evolving story of Detroit is made up of the stories of thousands of human beings, and I don’t want to swoop in like a rubbernecking spectator; we bought a house because we want to be there. But I feel like we have to tread carefully, always conscious of perceptions people may be forming of us. When we’re cleaning the front porch and windows at our house, what is the message? That we want the house we bought to shine, to be lovely (our intent)? Or that it wasn’t good enough the way we found it, and by association neither is the neighborhood? If we mow the urban prairie in the lot behind our house are we contributing to neighborhood improvement or (here comes the dread word) starting down the path of gentrification? We’re outsiders in many ways. Our next door neighbor, G., welcomed us with much friendliness and enthusiasm. I only hope we meet with the same reaction up and down the street.

Brian says the pink tub is growing on him. If it’s one less thing to do, I say keep it!

I wonder when we’ll feel at home in our house. The house, by the way, ought maybe to be called a building. It’s three stories, with a three-bedroom flat on each of the first two floors and a sweet attic studio apartment. Plus a full basement with a bar and a pool table(!) and a teeny back yard with a garage. All in all I guess it’s around 4000 square feet (our Louisville home is less than a thousand feet).  There’s a couple living in one of the flats; they’re looking to buy their own house and won’t be there for a lot longer. Right now I feel like I’m invading their space, and like the ghosts of the past owners’ family are still in the belongings they left behind. As I wash the china we found encrusted with grime in the basement, I imagine the family using them, the little teacups after church some Sunday afternoon. Despite spending part of the day Friday, and all day Saturday cleaning and beginning our renovation work, when we went in Sunday I still felt the need to tiptoe. “How can this be OUR house?” I marveled to Brian as we cleaned one of the 21 windows on the first floor. It still doesn’t feel real. I hope that when we spend our first night there — which won’t happen until after the electrician and plumber and demo crew and insulation team have done their work and will they hurry up and get started already! — and wake up in the morning to the sounds we don’t hear in our quiet Louisville neighborhood, that it will feel like our house. And if not then, maybe when we have friends and family  — from Detroit and Louisville and elsewhere — come celebrate with us next month for a joint birthday and we-bought-a-house party, and we serve food and drink (including Kentucky bourbon and Michigan beer!) maybe then it will feel real.

But really, the house isn’t the point. It’s a means to an end. I might get sidetracked with renovations and furnishings, but the house is just the vessel that lets us be part of Detroit. I want to enjoy (to the extent that I can, such an expensive and already frustrating process) the work on the house, but I look really forward to the day it’s done, and we can decide any old time to jump in the car with the dogs and head to our home in Detroit. Home in Detroit. I like that.

Home in Detroit

Home in Detroit