One House at a Time

Detroit’s Mayor Bing might learn something from the urban homesteaders descending on his city.

It was one of the oddest conversations that I’ve ever had with a young, up-and-coming architect. Catie Newell teaches at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, but her built work—if that’s what you can call it—is mainly in Detroit. “Anything that’s new construction, particularly in this urban landscape, looks entirely out of place here,” she said to me. “Maybe that’s where the offensive part comes in.” She was saying that new construction—in Detroit, where so many old buildings stand empty—was not only a bad idea but an offensive one. This, from an architect?

Our conversation took place several months after I’d stumbled onto one of her works during my first trip to Detroit, and shortly after she was named one of the winners of the Architectural League Prize for Young Architects and Designers. I’d suggested that what she does, transforming abandoned houses into aesthetic objects, is a form of adaptive reuse. Newell wasn’t so sure. She says the empty, unwanted houses are like someone saying to her, “‘Here’s the opportunity. Here are the volumes. Here are the materials…’ I use it as a chance to experiment.”

Detroit is full of uninhabited houses. More than a fifth of the city’s housing stock stands vacant. The population topped out at nearly two million in the 1950s, but as of the 2010 census, it was down to 713,777—that’s a 25 percent decrease since 2000, a pace of decline second only to New Orleans’s. Meanwhile, creative activists have been rescuing the abandoned houses by turning them into artworks or architectural sculptures. Most famously, there is the Heidelberg Project, the two-block, open-air fantasia of painted houses and detritus-turned-sculpture that the artist Tyree Guyton has been working on for 25 years.

The peculiar thing about Detroit these days is that turning abandoned houses into art qualifies as an act of pragmatism. Despite recently announced grants to purchase residences for some 70 police officers and civil servants, and to fund exterior renovations for another hundred-plus houses, the inventory of unoccupied homes seems likely to increase. The city’s leading renewal project—with the unintentionally ironic name Detroit Works—is essentially a triage program, intended to shrink the footprint of the city to a manageable size by jettisoning failed neighborhoods and focusing services on those neighborhoods that still have a heartbeat.

Pretty much everything you read about Detroit Works carries the whiff of stale bureaucratese. An August 12 story from the Detroit News is fairly typical: “Two weeks ago, [Mayor Dave] Bing announced the opening salvo of the effort would divide Detroit neighborhoods into three categories—steady, transitional and distressed. Services would be concentrated accordingly, for example, with increases in building demolitions in distressed and transitional areas and code enforcement and cleanups in steady neighborhoods. But some services could be reduced. Distressed neighborhoods would see fewer streetlight fixes and less tree trimming.”

It’s all quite logical, unless you happen to live in a neighborhood that’s designated as “distressed”. Despite everything I thought I knew about Detroit, the scale of abandonment there shocked me. It was like entering ancient Rome after the barbarians had come and gone. But more than the boarded-up commercial buildings off Michigan Avenue, or the burned-out houses along Woodward Avenue (the city’s main north–south artery), I was unnerved by the city’s unmatched collection of failed urban renewal projects. I was completely flummoxed by Renaissance Center, the infamous John Portman–designed hotel and office complex initially developed by Ford in the late 1970s and now owned by General Motors. It’s visible from all over downtown, a cluster of tall glass tubes looming over largely empty city streets. Like Portman projects everywhere, it was intended to shut out a decaying city and replace it with a sparkling substitute. It still functions that way. Just outside the RenCen’s big atrium is the newly landscaped but conspicuously underpopulated riverfront. On a sunny morning run, I noticed one other runner and maybe five pedestrians. All the gainfully employed people who are missing from the downtown streets are inside the RenCen, striding purposefully along the complex’s circular walkways, going round and round.

There’s the People Mover, a 2.9-mile theme-park ride in search of a theme and a park, which circles downtown Detroit in a clockwise loop. A product of the 1970s, the elevated train was supposed to be a feeder for a larger mass transit system that was never built. And then there’s the Cobo Center, the early 1960s conference facility and arena. My traveling companions had tickets for a Pistons game that night. I had assumed that they’d be walking to Cobo, down the street from our hotel, but the basketball team left in the late 1970s and now plays in Auburn Hills, a suburb more than 30 miles away.

Today, no one is interested in urban renewal on that scale, which is probably for the best. Instead, they’re trying to tackle the house problem. Houses, so prized in more affluent areas, are treated in many Detroit neighborhoods as a form of scrap: vandalized, trashed, and burned. The Detroit boosters I know insisted that I check out a particular cluster of homes that have been turned into artworks. In 2009, Gina Reichert, a trained architect, and her husband, Mitch Cope, an artist, began Power House Productions as an attempt to stabilize their neighborhood. The center of their turf is Moran Street, just north of the little municipality of Hamtramck, an independent city of 22,500 people that’s completely encircled by Detroit.

What I found there was a funky construction site where Reichert and volunteers were transforming an abandoned house, repainted with candy stripes, into Power House central, an architecturally adventurous home and work space for visiting artists and architects, topped with a wind turbine and photovoltaics. According to the Web site, the name Power House “implies a kind of taking control of one’s own community by becoming an example of self-reliance, sustainability and creative problem solving.” This brand of taking control was evident everywhere in the immediate vicinity. At the corner, they’d built a skating rink, and on the surrounding blocks, artists from all over the world had come to paint, sculpt, or otherwise reshape houses, yards, and fences. The idea, Reichert told us, was to animate these blocks with at least one point of activity: an exhibition, a workshop, a residence. The Power House mission is simple: stave off abandonment one house at a time.

Despite all this decay—or maybe because of it—Detroit has in recent years become a magnet for young urban homesteaders, educated twenty- and thirtysomethings attracted by the city’s low rents an, its urban environment, a wide-open postindustrial free-for-all. Indeed, the entrepreneurs who founded the new generation of local dining establishments, like Slows Bar BQ and Supino Pizzeria, appear to be doing as well as their counterparts in hipster Brooklyn. Small-scale entrepreneurship is thriving.

I came across Catie Newell’s work Weatherizing in back of a burnt-out, city-owned house on Moran Street. She had drilled a pattern of holes in the wall of the garage. “I had glass tubes,” she later told me, “and I just shoved them on through. It was so dark on the inside and so bright on the outside. The tubes just glowed.” The effect of this simple exercise in breaking the barrier between inside and outside was surprisingly ethereal. And the technique—an aesthetically pleasing, secure way to bring in daylight—seemed like one that could actually be practical in Detroit.

When I last checked, Newell was scouring the city for her next project, a building she can buy, reshape, and occupy. “All the pictures on my cell phone are either of my dog or these abandoned houses,” she says. “I’ll drive by something and I’ll be like, ‘Oh, it’s a project!’ ” As wide-eyed as Newell may be, her enthusiasm is exactly what’s missing from the government’s approach. If the city could harness the funding levels of Detroit Works to the entrepreneurial imagination of its new settlers, if they could somehow institutionalize the ability to see the potential in what others have abandoned, this lost city might have a future. Detroit needs to work—no argument—but maybe the mayor’s program would be more powerful if it could reposition itself as Detroit Dreams.

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