The Write Idea

A literary nonprofit supports authors and tackles a blighted Detroit neighborhood one house at a time

For writers, the old saying goes, “Write what you know.”

So when Toby Barlow and Sarah Cox wanted to help stabilize a neighborhood in their adopted city, they came up with the concept of establishing a “literary colony” in Detroit.

The two writers saw a need to help low-income authors. And the way they saw doing that was to offer free homes for scribes. But how would that work?

Barlow and Cox, who write fiction and nonfiction respectively, moved to Detroit from New York (separately). In separate pieces they wrote about the creative community’s potential.

“The city offers a much greater attraction for artists than $100 houses. Detroit right now is just this vast, enormous canvas where anything imaginable can be accomplished,” Barlow wrote in a 2009 op-ed for The New York Times.

A couple of years later, Cox wrote in a piece for the online Model D magazine: “In Detroit, you can afford to do what you really want and will likely find a community of support rooting for you to succeed instead. This has been the case with the many visual artists and designers I’ve met and I am hoping to translate this into the writing field.”

When Cox wrote that piece, she and Barlow had had initial conversations but still didn’t have a clear picture of how it would shape up. “It was just a cool idea in a long list of ideas,” Cox says.

They met with advisers (“Can we make this crazy idea work?”) and made some changes along the way, but the main concept stayed the same: free houses for writers.

Now in its second year, the nonprofit Write a House is set to announce another winner on Oct. 2. The organization’s goal is to invest in and stabilize a neighborhood, educating the underemployed on carpentry and building skills at the same time.

They’re leveraging those skills to renovate Detroit homes and then awarding those homes to writers. The goal is to support low-income writers by eventually awarding at least three homes a year, and Cox says that could happen by next year.

So far they’ve bought three houses, two at auction and one through the Detroit Land Bank Authority. They were close to “destroyed,” Cox says. Having gone through foreclosure, the homes sat vacant for years and were vulnerable to thieves pilfering HVAC — as well as a couple of winters’ worth of snow dumped on the roofs.

The homes required complete rebuilds. The renovations have been challenging and, Cox says, will continue to be difficult until officials find a way to get houses back into residents’ hands more quickly — or even better, to not kick them out.

The neighborhood they’ve targeted has a family-friendly feel despite its struggles. Depending on whom you ask, this extremely walkable area is either known as Banglatown or NorHam (north of Hamtramck). The area is home to a sizable Asian population, many of Bangladeshi descent. According to the nonprofit Global Detroit, nearly 2,500 Bangladeshi residents (more than 50 percent foreign-born) call the area home. The poverty rate is 60 percent, and about 27 percent of the neighborhood’s housing stock is vacant.

Here, there’s a microcosm of some revitalization efforts occurring around the city: community gardens, homes being fixed up, and spaces for artists. On a recent sunny day, the streets are full of people: A young woman pushing a girl, lollipop in hand, in a stroller; boys playing basketball in the street; people doing repairs on their houses.

It’s the people that Casey Rocheteau, the winner of the first house who moved here from New York, loves most about the neighborhood.

Write a House isn’t the first arts-based group to put down roots here. Power House Productions has been working toward a similar vision of parlaying the power of art to address blight and pump energy into the neighborhood.

In 2008, founders Gina Reichert and Mitch Cope wrote in the Metro Times about starting a power network by “purchasing several foreclosed homes around our house and turning them into mini power stations.”

At the time, they had one under construction, starting a garden on the lots and painting and installing windows found for free on Craigslist.

“This scenario could be easily repeated and, in some cases, for even cheaper prices,” they wrote. “This is why … if relatively small amounts were granted our way, these ‘power houses’ could easily grow into a ‘power network’ and then a ‘power neighborhood.’ ”

Today, Power House Productions is an artist-run neighborhood nonprofit that creates artist live-work houses and project spaces. Their colorful houses are dotted around the neighborhood, such as the pink Squash House — dedicated to both the sport and the vegetable.

One project is the Carpenter Exchange, in which four arts organizations work together to bolster cultural centers, artists, and businesses. On Davison, there’s the Ride it Sculpture Park, which got a big boost from the Tony Hawk Foundation.

The visual artist community, among other factors, made the neighborhood “a good place to land someone new where they would be well received,” Cox says.

Rocheteau has gotten to know the neighborhood and knows many of her neighbors by name. She’s also gotten involved in the community, such as participating in the Porous Borders Festival, a free public art event held in the spring, along the Hamtramck-Detroit border.

With all of the attention Write a House has garnered, Rocheteau has become an ambassador of sorts because everyone is interested in her opinion of the city. That may seem like a lot of pressure, but she says the pressure she feels is “about doing right by Detroiters and not doing or saying things that reinforces negative portrayals of the city,” she says.

“I think the attention WaH gets is interesting. I know in part it’s because it’s such a wild idea, giving houses away to writers,” she says. “If the attention can get non-Detroiters to pay attention to and support the literary community that’s already here, that’s fantastic.”

Write a House has already fostered a love of reading for some in the neighborhood. In front of Rocheteau’s house is a Little Free Library where anyone can come and borrow books. And some of the most loyal patrons are neighborhood boys who come by and ask: “Do you have anything new?”