Rebuilding a House, Rebuilding a City: A Writer Reflects on Detroit

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Author Amy Haimerl reflects on rebuilding a home as a metaphor for rebuilding Detroit

detroithustlecover2-e1454954746708 copyOnce a great city that was the heart of the American automobile industry, Detroit suffered from decades of job losses and economic woes that drove down the population and forced the city to file for bankruptcy. Now in the midst of a rebirth, Detroit is filled with stories of people trying to do their part, whether it’s establishing businesses or revitalizing neighborhoods. Amy Haimerl, a freelance journalist and Michigan State University adjunct professor, is one of those people. She and her husband left New York City, moved to Detroit and bought a dilapidated house for $35,000. With hard work, they rebuilt it into a beautiful home — a metaphor for what is taking place in the city. Haimerl joined the Knowledge@Wharton Show on Sirius XM channel 111 to talk about her new book, Detroit Hustle: A Memoir of Love, Life & Home.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Knowledge@Wharton: Why did you move from Brooklyn to Detroit?

Amy Haimerl: I got a Knight-Wallace Fellowship to study for a year at the University of Michigan, and my husband and I decided to take that opportunity. At the end of it, we had to think a lot about where we wanted our lives to be. We were feeling very priced out of Brooklyn. We lived in a neighborhood that we were incredibly ingrained in, a very tight-knit community that we loved. But Hurricane Sandy had recently hit the East coast and devastated it, so we started thinking about where to make our lives. We fell in love with the people of Detroit and decided this felt like the community for us.

Knowledge@Wharton: Detroit has been struggling for a while now. You wrote about the bankruptcy for Crain’s Detroit Business.

Haimerl: After the fellowship, I got a job at Crain’s Detroit Business. Not too long after that, the city declared bankruptcy. I’m a business and economics journalist by trade, so it was a natural fit for me to report on that. Very few people find municipal bankruptcy interesting, but one of the things I love to do is figure out a way to de-complicate tough topics and make them accessible to everyday people so they can understand what’s happening in their world. It was a great chance to do that.

“How do we make sure that the recovery is for everybody, not just newcomers like myself and my husband, who can come here with good middle-class jobs?”

Knowledge@Wharton: How is Detroit right now?

Haimerl: I think Detroit’s recovery is strong. It’s nascent, and you’ll hear people who have lived here most of their lives or several generations who’ll say they’ve heard this before. So, they’re cautiously waiting. At the same time, we are seeing huge amounts of investment come back. We are seeing construction cranes flying in the downtown and midtown areas, which means there are jobs for people. That’s exciting. We are seeing service improvement. We are seeing the response time for police and ambulance dropping precipitously.

What we’re trying to do now is say, okay, we’ve done the low-hanging fruit, like get garbage trucks back on the street and get the street lights back on. How do we think about this city for the future and figure out how to address 40% poverty? How do we address the school system? How do we make sure that the recovery is for everybody, not just newcomers like myself and my husband, who can come here with good middle-class jobs? What are we doing out in the neighborhoods and beyond what I call the golden bubble of the greater downtown area? My book talks a lot about that.

Knowledge@Wharton: When you and your husband moved to Detroit, was the house one of the first things you did?

Haimerl: We bought the house before we even lived in Detroit. We bought the house before we even really understood Detroit yet. When I got the job at Crain’s, we decided we were going to relocate permanently to Detroit. But we were still living in Ann Arbor, and the house just sort of fell in our laps. That really started our love affair and time in Detroit, starting with this house and the West Village where we live, and making our home here.

When we first walked into it, we couldn’t see anything because there were no windows. It was all boarded up. There was no plumbing, no heating, no electrical. There wasn’t a bathtub or a sink. There were no light fixtures. The whole thing had basically been scrapped, everything taken out of it. There were walls, but even a lot of the trim was missing. People had burned it for heat, different things. To say the house was pretty rough is an understatement.

But we felt the powerful lure of this house. There was something very special about it. We did not expect to take on this kind of a renovation. We were looking for something that was more about changing the paint color and maybe doing a kitchen upgrade, not a full rehab like this. My husband will say that he fell in love with this house and knew it was the one in the same way he knew I was the one. Sometimes the heart just speaks. He’s a great man, and his patience has gotten us through this process, certainly.

Knowledge@Wharton: What was the time frame in terms of building this house out? Even though it’s a single-family home, it almost has the feel of a brownstone inside of a city.

“My husband will say that he fell in love with this house and knew it was the one in the same way he knew I was the one.”

Haimerl: Absolutely. The West Village is on the east side of Detroit. It’s called the West Village, despite its location, because it’s just west of Indian Village, which was one of the mansion districts where all of the auto barons lived. Ours was the more middle-class cousin next door. In the city that built the middle class, a 3,000 square-foot, single-family brick home was the middle class. But we also have apartment buildings, so it was mixed racially, it was mixed economically.

We started thinking about what we were doing here and what we wanted to build. But we didn’t know that when we first bought the house in early 2013. This all unfolded and turned out to be serendipitous, like so much of our experience in Detroit. We buy the house in June, construction starts in July 2013, just after Detroit declares bankruptcy. The book is very tied to that, because the time allows me to both use the house as sort of a microcosm of the bigger economic issues Detroit’s facing.

It takes us about two, two and a half years to do the renovation. We did not live in the house for the first six months while we were getting things like plumbing and water. One of the interesting things that my book talks about is early on in the decision-making process, we don’t have enough money. We’re facing choosing between windows or water. Which do you put in? Detroit itself was also facing, do we keep the art at the Detroit Institute of Art or do we figure out a way to pay pensions? Pensions or art? It was sort of an interesting conversation to be having. Luckily, we were able to figure out how to have both. Initially, we did choose windows because we figured it was important to rebuild the structure first and get it secured from the elements, and we can do the internal stuff later. But it became a big puzzle, and everything sort of had to happen simultaneously.

Knowledge@Wharton: How much did you and your husband do, and how much did you have to contract out?

Haimerl: When we went into the project, we thought we were going to DIY this and do this ourselves. That’s a funny dream. I grew up in rural Colorado, very blue-collar. I was the first one in my family to go to college. My dad’s an excavator, and he would like to tell you that he doesn’t understand how he sent me to college only to come out with less skills than I went in with. He’s like, “Daughter, you cannot rehab this house yourself. You’re going to need contractors.”

Knowledge@Wharton: How has your neighborhood turned around in the time since you’ve redone the house?

Haimerl: You don’t know what you don’t know when you start with something. When we first saw the neighborhood, it felt rougher than it was in actuality because we didn’t know Detroit well enough yet. We learned quickly that this was one of Detroit’s more stable neighborhoods, partly because it’s on the National Register of Historic Places. That means people are committed to it and love it. Even while things are falling apart around this neighborhood, people are mowing their lawns. They’re mowing the abandoned house next door, just like ours. The neighbors were keeping it boarded up, keeping the lawns mowed. They were making sure that the neighborhood did not fall into disrepair even as the ravages of time and the foreclosure crisis did start to encroach. But as we’ve been here three years now, the change is remarkable — people buying homes, home prices increasing, which can speak to gentrification. But also for our neighbors, who have been here since the 1960s, the ’70s, the ’80s, the ’90s, suddenly they’re like, “Our houses are worth something. We’re no longer underwater. This is an asset to us. We can afford to send our mother to live in an assisted living facility or put our kids in college.”

When we moved in, there was not a restaurant. There was no coffee shop. There wasn’t anything that you might assume as traditional amenities of a city. Now, one entire street that had been empty has Detroit Vegan Soul, Craft Work, Red Hook Coffee, Sister Pie. All these small businesses have been able to open up.

In other cities, pop-up stores are kind of silly or fun. Here in Detroit, pop-ups, small businesses, restaurants, bookstores, retail popping up somewhere is about testing the economic waters. It’s about proving to the haters that there is actually demand. The city of Detroit in 2012 had worked on a project that put pop-ups in this neighborhood, and it proved that there was really intense demand. Since then, it has given the proof to the banks. It has given proof to investors that can help these small businesses get open, which is one of the economic development stories I love.

Knowledge@Wharton: What’s the percentage of businesses that have come in and still could come in to the city?

Haimerl: We’ve had a lot of new businesses open up, not just in this neighborhood but in the downtown/midtown/Corktown areas. That’s the challenge in Detroit — all of the reinvestment is happening in what I call the golden bubble, where you can look and see all of this great investment and new things happening. What are we doing about expanding it out? We’re 139 square miles. Are we making sure we’re taking care of all 139?

We are starting to see that come out to what was called the “Avenue of Fashion,” a farther-out neighborhood in the city. It used to be high-end shops. Furriers were there back in the 1950s and 1960s. Very elegant. It went through some hard times, emptied out, and now is starting to see reinvestment. New restaurants open, new stores.

“Even while things are falling apart around this neighborhood, people are mowing their lawns.”

One other thing I love most about that area and the West Village is that a lot of the owners who are opening small businesses also live in the neighborhood. Either they’re from there, or they’ve moved to the neighborhood. It’s a whole commitment. Hugh Yaro owned a great sushi place out in the suburbs of Detroit. He sold off his interest in that, moved into the West Village to open Craft Work, his restaurant, and lives above it. He is not just a business owner in this neighborhood, he’s a resident. So, he is very committed to the whole picture of what it means to own and live here.

Knowledge@Wharton: There’s a paragraph toward the end of the book where you describe the front door of your house. You take it down to the detail about what your husband did, what the contractors did. That’s a very important part of the understanding of rebuilding a house and, in some respects, rebuilding a neighborhood.

Haimerl:  Absolutely. There’s another section of the book that always stuck with me that I didn’t expect. When I was living back in Denver, my ex-husband was a contractor. We’d be working, and we’d drive by these houses at night and see these people living inside their homes and looking inside their windows and imagining what their lives might be like. I recognize that my husband and I now are the family inside that house. People look at our front door, they look at this house and imagine what our lives might be like. It’s really important to us, this intersection between us and the neighborhood and the community, all of our other neighbors and their front doors, and what they do. We don’t just hide in our backyard.

This is a neighborhood where you sit out on your front porch. We sit on each other’s stoops, we go around the corner. This is a neighborhood of people who don’t wish to be anonymous. Some people wish to live a life of anonymity. For us, it was about being a part of this community. The front door was a signal to this community that we were here and we loved it. We weren’t putting up security gates. We weren’t trying to keep people out. Just like the rest of our neighbors, we were having a front door we were proud of.

Knowledge@Wharton: Now that you’ve written this book, is there anything that really encompasses this whole process for you?

Haimerl:  I love the section at the end where the contractors have finally left and it feels lonely because we’re so used to them as family in our home. I’m looking out the window and can see the Detroit River sparkling in the distance. Belle Isle, this amazing park, is right there. But the thing that sits in my window is the liquor store sign. There’s trees shading it, but it’s “beer, liquor, wine” in these neon colors, and I can’t say why it made me feel secure and good. I was here in this very beautiful environment but still a part of a city. And the river right there, there was something about that connectivity. Then hearing my husband start to mow the lawn, and the kids in the backyard next door laughing, it was just this moment of knowing that I was in the right place at the right time.

When I actually pitched this book, it was more of a nonfiction story of where Detroit was. It was not a memoir. The editor who bought it said, “We want a memoir, because we need to understand who does this. Who moves to the murder capital of America to build a life?” I decided to start writing and figuring out what that was and let those connections come.

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