“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.