Paige Pfleger: Write A House helps writers, builders, vacancy in Detroit

By Paige Pfleger, Daily Detroit Arts Columnist
Published January 26, 2014

Over half of the homes in Detroit once housed autoworkers and their families. Today, over half the dwellings in most Detroit-area communities are vacant — housing crime and decay rather than people. But three such houses in a neighborhood just north of Hamtramck will be vacant no longer thanks to Write A House, a non-profit that renovates abandoned houses and gives them to writers, creating a writing community and providing an invaluable resource for up and coming artists: a home.

“In a lot of ways, writers are suffering just as much as Detroit is,” said Toby Barlow, a founding board member. “Detroit has been the poster child for industrial decline and writers have been having a pretty hard time of it, too. It seemed like a great idea to combine the two.”

Write A House’s mission statement is to enliven the literary arts in Detroit by renovating vacant homes and giving them to journalists, authors, poets and more. Consider it a writer’s residency program, however the residency lasts forever, creating a writer’s colony and revitalizing Detroit areas through the arts. The project doesn’t only benefit the writers and the houses; it gives an opportunity to neighborhood youth to learn carpentry and building skills through its partnership with non-profit Young Detroit Builders.

Barlow has worked in advertising around the country, and landed in Detroit to work on rebuilding Ford’s image about seven years ago. Recently, he joined forces with Sarah Cox, the editorial director of the Detroit real estate website, Curbed, to start Write A House. Write A House bought houses near to neighboring Power House Productions, another arts-based community project. Write A House differs from PHP in its specific emphasis on written work as opposed to visual arts.

“We were aware that music and visual arts groups in the city are doing well,” Write A House board member Anna Clark said. “But the literary group is a bit stifled.”

Clark, a University of Michigan alum, moved to Detroit in 2007. As a freelance journalist, she has published pieces with The Guardian, The Nation, NBC News and more. She got her start as a Michigan Daily reporter covering the University’s administration, and like many students in Ann Arbor, had only visited Detroit for sporting events. A few years after moving to the city she founded Literary Detroit, a reader-centric program that brings attention to or creates events to draw interest to literacy in Detroit. She also serves as a writer in residence at Detroit High Schools through the InsideOut Literary Arts Project. When conversations about Write A House began, Clark was on board.

“You couldn’t logistically do this anywhere else,” Clark said. “I’ve only been here for six years, and it’s amazing to see how the energy has changed over time. It’s a place where the creative community is very engaged, and writers want to be around that strong creative force.”

Many other cities, as Clark points out, are too expensive for writers to truly be able to concentrate on their work, and not only that — most cities don’t have the attitude of Detroit, nor the inspirational creative community.

“We think it’s a really positive project,” Barlow said. “On the one hand, you’re helping the individual writer, and in a greater way you’re bringing a lot of attention to Detroit as a place that supports creativity and the arts.”

But who are the writers that receive one of these free and newly renovated homes? The answer is quite simple — any kind of writer, from a poet to a journalist and anywhere in between. Skill is prized over experience and willingness to engage in a community of writers and the greater Detroit community at large is important for the unification goals of Write A House.

“When we got the other two houses we got them in the same vicinity, to help build a community feeling,” Clark said. “We want people to have healthy relationships with the people they live around. People want neighbors, they don’t want to live next to vacant houses. And at this point, there is room for all.”

Writers fill out applications and send them in the spring to be reviewed by members of Write A House’s board — made up of National Poet Laureate Billy Collins, the ghostwriter of Jay-Z’s memoir “Decoded”, dream hampton (left in lower case mimicking the style of author bell hooks) along with author and Michael Stone Richard, a professor at the College of Creative Studies.

This year’s three chosen writers will move into their new house with their neighbors, and get to work at writing and contributing to their community. Write A House aims to snatch up and renovate at least three houses every year, repeating the process in hopes of decreasing vacancy and creating a better Detroit.