If we could transport ourselves back to Detroit at its prime, we might barely recognize the city: The streets bustled with a population of nearly two million, lights shone in the storefronts, and the neighborhoods were full.
Here how Detroit looked in the 1920s:
Today, the story is well known.
Detroit’s population is a little more than 700,000 people; there are more than 70,000 abandoned structures and almost as many vacant lots. People have been steadily streaming out of the city for decades, leaving in their wake vacant homes and sparsely populated neighborhoods. These empty neighborhoods can attract all kinds of crime.
So what can a city do with thousands upon thousands of abandoned homes and not enough people to fill them?
The answer is complicated, but there are programs trying to tackle the problem on a small scale. One program hopes to renovate and give away houses to writers.
Write A House – where creativity meets vacancy
Writer Toby Barlow and Sarah Cox, editor of Curbed Detroit, came up with the idea for Write A House. The program's aim is to renovate houses with the help of non-profit Young Detroit Builders, and then give these houses to low-income writers for free.
In its seminal year, Write A House has taken on three houses in a neighborhood near Hamtramck, Michigan. They call the houses The Apple, The Blossom, and The Peach. The group says within the first three weeks of the project’s debut, more than 2,500 people contacted them to learn more.
The group raised 8% of a fundraising goal for one of their houses through a recent crowdsourcing campaign.
They say they'll take applications from interested writers this spring. In the meantime, Write A House and Young Detroit Builders hope to make the homes habitable by the fall so writers can begin moving in.
Why would writers be interested in the program?
Write A House board member Anna Clark describes the nightmare of many writers: working a dead-end job to pay a too-high rent in the big city, with little or no time to sit down and write. Write A House hopes to solve this problem by offering a free house in the big city near other writers and innovators and artists. A renaissance, of sorts, that is only possible because of Detroit’s vacancy problems.
“Folks have been hearing about Detroit and getting the sense that there are a lot of exciting things happening here," Clark said. "Not just in literary arts, but visual arts, music, urban agriculture, biking, and all the different aspects of our community that are really on fire right now.”
Other programs working to rebuild Detroit
To some artists in Detroit, vacancy isn’t an eyesore, it’s a blank canvas.
Renowned artist Tyree Guyton was among the first to use this canvas. He's praised for taking his old abandoned neighborhood, Heidelberg Street, and turning it into an outdoor art project that has become a mecca for art lovers around the world. In some places, street art covers walls – an attempt to beautify crumbling buildings. And community gardens have taken over some abandoned lots and turned them into urban farms.
And today there are other programs going a step farther. They're trying to revitalize neighborhoods by targeting vacancy.
Power House Productions (PHP) takes abandoned houses and converts them to meet the varying needs of the community. Play House is a community performing arts center, Skate House backs up to the Ride It Sculpture Park, and Yellow House is, well, yellow.
PHP was actually the catalyst to the creation of Write A House.
They had another house in their developing neighborhood, referred to as No Ham, north of Hamtramck, and they were looking for another solution to solving vacancy.
The bigger picture for Write A House and other programs
Write A House and other programs like it certainly capture people’s attention, but is putting a writer in a vacant house enough to begin to turn the tides of the city?
John Mogk is a professor of law at Wayne State University. He teaches courses about basic property law, land use planning and development, and urban and community development. He is an expert in stabilizing declining urban cities, and Detroit officials have consulted with him about the future of the city.
His sentiment on programs like Write A House is simple: It’s a small contribution to a very large problem, but every little bit counts.
Between 2001 and 2010, Detroit lost inhabitants at a rate of 2,000 people per month, accumulating to 24,000 every year. Comparatively, this statistic dwarfs Write A House bringing in three writers per year.
“If you want to help stabilize a block of housing, you have to do more than three a year to stabilize that area,” Mogk said. “You need to do more like a dozen a year.”
Even if housing rehabilitation programs upped their numbers to a dozen a year, Mogk says putting bodies in houses isn’t enough to guarantee the comeback of a city block. He says community involvement is key to the successful and complete revitalization of an urban area.
“If a writer is going to closet himself or herself in the house and be writing and that’s all the writer does, then it’s not going to be a great contribution to the immediate vicinity,” Mogk said. “If the writer, however wants to engage with the neighbors and other leaders in the community to improve community life, to collectively address the issues on the block, which we know exist because it’s a distressed area … then that makes a difference for that community.”
Clark is aware of the limited scope of Write A House, however she hopes the program might spark other programs to try out their offbeat ideas to bring people back to Detroit.
The program is building, no matter how slowly, a future that Clark and other creative-minded people hope to see in Detroit. Clark says every little bit counts, and eventually that spark might catch fire and return the city to a newer version of its former glory.
“Detroit’s pinnacle was in the mid 1950s,” Mogk said. “Most of the city was populated fully and there weren’t too many vacant homes. It’s been essentially 50 years, going on almost 60 years now, since city was fully occupied. It’ll take another 60 years to stabilize the city and return it to a population that is living a good quality of life.”
– Paige Pfleger, Michigan Radio Newsroom