What’s the best way to become part of a transforming city that has captured your 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 CNTraveler.com, 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.
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.
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.