A North End Neighborhood Is Transforming a House Into an Artist Haven

A group of close-knit residents is showing Detroit what it means to be ”professional neighbors”
north end artist house
Work in Progress: When renovated, the little house at 999 King St. in North End will serve as an artists residence, fulfilling the shared vision of its neighbors.

The 2014 passing of a vibrant, longtime North End resident named Dorothy Cohen sent her yellow and white colonial on a long descent into disrepair. After years of illicit drug sales, neglectful owners, and intermittent vacancy, the sunny house at the end of the block became overgrown with vegetation. Its paint chipped, its siding came loose, and its grounds were littered with fallen tree limbs and discarded materials.

Until recently, the story of 999 King St. was not unlike that of many dilapidated homes scattered across the city. But there’s one thing King Street has that most neighborhoods don’t — “professional neighbors.”

Gabrielle Knox, a poet and builder who has lived in the house adjacent to 999 for five years, coined the phrase a few years ago. “Being a professional neighbor means bringing all of yourself, your talents, and your knowledge as a gift to the people and to the space,” she says. The expression caught on quickly among King Street locals, including writer and eight-year resident Reshounn Foster, who has worked as an organizer for several local artists’ networks. “We really embraced it because we’re serious about being neighbors with each other,” she says.

And they’re more than just words to the people of King Street, who grow gardens of flowers, trees, and vegetables in collectively purchased lots. They watch each other’s dogs, throw rent parties — social fundraising gatherings to help community members pay their bills — and cook communal meals together. Those who work in construction fix their neighbors’ houses, while the bureaucratically savvy help with applying for loans, and others procure goods from the local food pantry to disperse among the households. “Every home — almost — on this block has, in some way, contributed to this collective energy,” Knox says. It’s this same approach that upset the paradigm for 999 King St.

After the house had been cleared of drug dealers and returned to a state of vacancy, many of King Street’s inhabitants took it upon themselves to watch over the place. “The whole block was making sure it wasn’t vandalized, making sure the grass was cut, and becoming caretakers of the house itself,” Foster says. Originally, they tidied the yard, set rodent traps, and took steps to stave off further deterioration, but they stopped short of investing much financially into a house that could shift hands again at any time.

It soon became clear to a core group of artsy North End neighbors, who cared so deeply for their little community and for “Miss Dorothy’s” home, that they themselves were the most fitting owners. Foster, Knox, and six others formed King Street Block LLC and began hunting down the house’s then-owner. In March, after months of pleading with the owner and realty company, as well as other potential buyers, for dibs on the property, the organization finally bought it for $11,000. After scraping together what they could from their own pockets, King Street Block’s proprietors secured the rest via a successful crowd-funding campaign on ioby.org.

For a group composed entirely of community-minded artists, the decision to turn the house into an artists’ residency came naturally. The space will provide free lodging for traveling artists, allowing them to practice their crafts without shouldering an often untenable financial burden. “We’ve all had artists live with us individually. For us, it’s an artist residency, but it’s also the way we live. And that dates back to the great migration,” Foster says, referencing the resulting development of close communities of African Americans who leaned on each other to survive Detroit’s housing crisis during the early and mid-1900s.

north end onyx ashanti 1
Onyx Ashanti creates his wearable systems while keeping watch over the house at 999 King St. in the North End neighborhood.

Because the house needs extensive updating, including the installation of central heat and running water, she says, it could be two years before the space is fully operational.

But despite its still crude interior and lack of amenities, the house is already serving its purpose as an artist residency. Onyx Ashanti is staying in the home — or, more accurately, staying in a tent inside the home. “No need to keep a whole house warm when I can keep a large tent very cozy until spring,” he says. Ashanti, a King Street Block co-proprietor, is using the space as a lab in which to fashion his wearable systems — operational accessories designed as much to perform technological functions as to please aesthetically.

He imagines the house as a site of innovation where creatives can churn out practical sustainability and efficiency projects, such as automated gardening and new rainfall collection and solar technologies, that will benefit the community as a whole. But the house at 999 King St. will be an amalgamation of its founders’ visions. Knox, for instance, hopes the introduction of numerous creators will benefit the neighborhood through their art, their ideas, and their engagement in the community.

But they all hope 999 King St. will demonstrate the potential of professional neighbors. “It’s a way of thinking about who you’re living around. Just saying the words ‘professional neighbor’ imparts a sense of responsibility to those people,” Ashanti says.

“We’re a diverse block of residents. We’re in our mid-20s up to retirement age. We are legacy Detroiters and newcomers. We are people of African heritage and Polish heritage and Jewish heritage,” Foster says. “I’m hoping we show the rest of the city that we need to put our complexities aside and let our commonalities fuel us.”