If I am being honest with myself, I don’t know that much about Detroit. I know that it was a great city not very long ago, a hub of industry and filled with much of the country’s elite. I’ve seen pictures of turn-of-the-century Detroit, and it was gorgeous. Women with parasols oversaw their playing children in sprawling public parks, just down the street from some of the country’s finest architecture. And, though it’s hard to follow the precise downward spiral of the city, we all have a vague idea of how it happened. The industry left, the people left, and suddenly we were seeing pictures from the interior of abandoned libraries and hospitals. Rich art deco design is rusted over and covered with garbage, like moss covering a once-great tree.
And for many of us, the solution has been to look away. I admit that, in my ignorance, I have wanted to forget about the problem and think of more pleasant things. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the problems, to feel like there is very little you can do personally, or that their struggles are too deep and interwoven to be solved in our generation. But, even in my blissful unawareness, I know that there are people who are actually trying to do something.
There has been a huge range of initiatives, from those looking to restore industry to those looking to rebuild entire neighborhoods. And some of the projects have been focusing, above all else, on the artistic and cultural life of the city. To them, one of the most important things you can do to restore a city’s joy and appeal is to fill it with the kind of creative work that draws the world’s eye to it. Given the incredible history of music and art in Detroit, it seems utterly natural.
One of the groups blending creative rebirth and practical rebuilding is Write A House, a new initiative looking to foster a burgeoning arts neighborhood by giving houses to young writers. Now, this doesn’t entail simply handing over the keys to anyone with more than 2,000 followers on their Tumblr; it’s a long-term project that takes writing students, enlists them to help in rebuilding an abandoned house, and — at the end of this process — giving them the house for life. Young writers get a place to live, and something to build on financially, and the city gets newly renovated houses and a neighborhood filled with artists who also happen to know their way around carpentry.
It isn’t for everyone, of course. There are people who will always hold a negative stereotype about Detroit in their mind, who would pass up the opportunity for a free home in a city making its comeback because they’d rather not live somewhere they believe is dangerous. And this project isn’t for them. It demands a certain level of bravery, a pioneering spirit that writers often tackle in their work but don’t always live in their day-to-day. Write A House has looked at the problem and, in their specific way, is actually doing something about it. And as much as we allow our preconceived notions about Detroit to dissuade us from even thinking about it, so do many people when it comes to young writers. In this economy, what are they doing? What are they contributing? What are they building, to leave to the people who come after them?
Well, this is something that writers are doing. This is something that they will leave behind.