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Personal Essays

Photograph courtesy of Niitram242.

Detroit State of Mind

What I end up saying when I try to explain to people, and myself, why I bought a vacation house in Detroit.

I can’t explain to people why we bought a house in Detroit.

I can’t explain it to myself when I’m sitting on the floor of our attic apartment, trying to keep my sobbing quiet so our tenants don’t hear me asking my husband what we have done.

Anyone who knows me and my husband, Brian, even a little bit knows about our yearlong scavenger hunt for a house in Detroit, and saw the triumphant moment when we finally got the keys to our behemoth. They’ve since seen the work on Facebook and Instagram—if they haven’t grown bored and un-followed me—photos of painting and floor sanding and power-washing, gripes about the contractor. And they all wonder, as I do: What the hell am I doing with a house in Detroit when I live in Louisville, Kentucky?

But still, it’s the first question I get when I run into people I know or make new acquaintances: “Why did you buy a house in Detroit?”

The short answer is I went to write a travel story and fell in love with the city. The Detroit I found upturned all the notions implanted in me by the national media. Here was a woman building a hotel out of shipping containers; a company making luxury watches by hand (using the hands of former auto workers); a boxing coach dedicated to his young athletes’ success at school; a man making art from the detritus of Detroit’s collapse; and everywhere people so freaking friendly I felt like I’d stumbled into a stage set. I toured the city first with the tourism office, and then on my own with Brian, determined to see all the city, not just its shiny bits. I met with an intensely private photographer/fixer of sorts, John, who filled in some back story on the city and marked up a map of Detroit, scrawling X’s where he said I should not venture. I went from craft cocktails in hip Corktown to a jazz lounge off 8 Mile where our server told us Detroit just needs a little love (the lede to my travel story). The love it needed I found brimming in my globe trekker’s heart.

We weren’t sitting around wondering how best to invest the last of my severance pay from a layoff and the rinky funds that were doing pretty well, thank you, in a 403(b.) No.

The whimsical “we should buy a house here” conversation Brian and I had on the six-hour drive home turned into scouring the web for listings turned into trips north to look at houses turned into doing it.

As for the long answer? Well, words are my living, but I haven’t found the right combination of them to explain just why we put everything we have into this endeavor. People usually think it’s for the bargain. And indeed, houses sell for absurd prices in Detroit. It sounds like urban legend, but $500 houses are all too real. The boarded-up house kitty-corner from ours just auctioned for $1,200. Our house cost $17,000.

“Oh, that’s why you bought it,” some people say when I tell them what it cost, relief flitting across their face as they solve the puzzle. Maybe their friend isn’t crazy after all.

“No,” I shake my head. “That’s not why. That’s how.” Even at that price tag we had no business buying a second house. Twenty years remain on the mortgage of our extremely modest Louisville home. My freelance income is, how shall we say, irregular. And we went in knowing we’d have to replace the knob and tube wiring and bring plumbing up to code, and get insulation—not to mention buy appliances, replace ceilings, and paint, sand, clean, repair, and otherwise touch every square inch of the place. We weren’t sitting around wondering how best to invest the last of my severance pay from a layoff and the rinky funds that were doing pretty well, thank you, in a 403(b.) No. We hope in a few years to clear a bit of income from the two rental units and maybe Airbnb our third-floor studio apartment in between our own trips to the D, but first we have to pony up for a frightful amount of work. And the speed at which we’re draining our bank accounts leaves me awake at night, heart hammering as I try not to wonder what we’d do in a crisis—because if there’s one thing Detroit has aplenty, it’s crises.

It feels impossible to explain the philosophical reasons behind this seemingly mad decision. For many people, I don’t try. How do you explain to someone who lives comfortably in a city where streetlights work and the police come when you call and there aren’t signs posted down the street requesting that one does not have sex in cars why on Earth you’d go on purpose to such a place? A place that I’ve heard people call a shithole, America’s ghetto. A Louisville publication ran a story about our city’s chief information officer departing to take that role in Detroit with the first line: “We wouldn’t wish this on anyone.”

Try telling someone you bought a vacation house in Detroit if you want to have fun watching a response. The words I fling, reinvention and transformation, creativity and spirit, grit and determination—all ideals that I crave for myself though they’re clichés I hesitate to use in Detroit—ripple across the surface of their comprehension but leave no wake. Even my closest friends didn’t understand until they experienced Detroit for themselves during a house-party weekend for my 40th birthday, and my mom worried until I brought her up for a visit; she’s now a cheerleader for the city, too. 

And when it comes to explaining to long-term residents of Detroit what I love so much about their hometown, I flail helplessly for the right words. Could I have sounded any more thoughtless when I blathered to the previous owner of our house, an 80-something woman who’d watched her city entropy, about how exciting Detroit is? Her glaucoma-shrouded eyes widened as I prattled on about how much I liked the house and the city. I’m painfully aware of how I can come across—a johnny-come-lately, a carpetbagger swooping in to snatch up a clearance house in a broken city. But Detroit is exciting. To us, and to the droves of people flocking to the city, drawn by the promise of opportunity, by the allure of a once-in-a-lifetime chance to be part of a great American city emerging from ashes. During the house-hunt, as I’d prowl the internet from home, reading headlines from the city, I’d pound my fist. I wanted to be there, be part of it, not watch from the sidelines.

The year of searching led us through a parade of century-old houses scattered across the city. Except for the tiny artist’s cottage we adored on the fringes of the city—almost in the suburbs—all our prospects were big, rambling two-family brick behemoths in densely packed neighborhoods in the city limits south of 8 Mile, the literal and symbolic northern edge of the city. Traipsing through the cold houses lit only by streams of pale winter sun, peering at ancient boilers, trying to envision the homes without the drifts of peeling paint and the ratty carpet, imagining fireplaces blazing, I felt like I was in a recurring dream I have of finding rooms I didn’t know existed in my house. The potential was dizzying.

Profound problems that erupted over decades don’t disappear when a hipster clicks his heels three times.

But every futile trip to look at houses—here getting a text en route from a realtor that never mind, the house had burned, there rolling past one we’d liked online once we saw the street was too bad to even contemplate—left me more frustrated. Some broke my heart: the soft-spoken woman living in squalor who hoped someone “with money” would buy her place and fix it up, the kids running around in the house full of dog crap, with tires as furniture. Some made me laugh in spite of it all: the woman living next to the cottage—who owned a pit bull named Showtime and ran what looked to be an unlicensed group home—assured my husband that she had a gun, no need to worry about me staying in the house alone (leading to long conversations in the car about whether I—for the first time—should have a gun).

At last the searching led us to a married realtor-contractor team to whom we initially fibbed, telling them we were interested in looking at a house they had for rent when really we were scoping out the rental prices on a street with a $6,000 stunner we loved. When we learned they were buying that house to add to the collection they were amassing in the Virginia Park neighborhood, we fessed up to our subterfuge. I can’t imagine this happening in any other city, but they ultimately offered to front us the money to rehab a house with the idea that we’d hire the wife to be our property manager. They had a $5,000 burned-out shell down the street they’d accidentally bought that we thought we’d go for, until estimates for the work came in at more than $60,000.

Then we found the tall, red brick home standing just off a grand, tree-lined avenue, a house with (53!) new windows, a newish roof, and all the inner workings spared by the roving bands of scrappers that plague the city. We jumped. It had been on the market for a year and a half at $22,000. We got it for $17,000—three flats’ worth clocking in at some 4,000 square feet, with two fireplaces and a garage to boot. The bar and jukebox and pool table in the basement hinted at a past as a speakeasy, and the icebox delivery door in the back landing charmed me, as did the original built-in cabinets. Hardwood floors waited under the carpet, and a park grill set in concrete in the back yard under a pine tree promised cook-outs under the stars. Updating the plumbing and electric would just take a couple weeks, the contractor said.

We signed a land contract—like a private mortgage held by the duo—in mid-June (it sounded shady even to me but banks aren’t exactly lining up to lend money for houses in Detroit, and we made sure to have an attorney review it). After notarizing the agreement at a check-cashing shop on Woodward, my roiling stomach settled, a bit. Suddenly we were part of what I had watched from outside. And yes, it’s exciting. But I’m reminded every day that this isn’t—as I’ve seen it dubbed in a blog—”the playground of the inspired and energetic.”

Profound problems that erupted over decades don’t disappear when a hipster clicks his heels three times. Yes, huge steps are under way. The city is hammering out its bankruptcy as I write. Blight is under attack; one week when I am in Detroit a boarded-up nightmare of a house in my neighborhood is standing—the next weekend I find an empty lot in its place. Streetlights are coming back on; police response times are improving. But crime is still rampant. A friend a few blocks away asked if we heard the AK-47 gunshots from the crack dealer’s house across the street from him. Assholes keep setting fires; at a bar that firefighters frequent we heard that 47 houses burned the night of my birthday. Peril looms in every empty house, every overgrown lot—we roll through stop signs and lights rather than idle next to 10-foot scrub brush where anything could lurk. Some parts of town are getting a makeover thanks to truckloads of investment money, while the guy on my street who runs the block club and mows the vacant lots only gets dues from five of the 30-some households. The renter living in our second-floor flat (I’ll call him Charles) found people having sex behind our garage (and the “no sex in cars” sign wouldn’t have helped—they were on the grass). To add insult to injury, storms have torn through Detroit repeatedly this summer, taking out power in huge swaths of the city. Headed into town for my big party I got a text from a neighbor friend that there was a blackout—the power company expected to have the lights back on by 11:30 the next night. “Bring your candles,” I messaged my friends. “The power’s out, but the party is still on.”

Some of my friends tell me that what we’re doing is an inspiration, that it’s an adventure they’d love to have. I don’t mean to be rude, but I want to snort when I hear that. They see the before and after pictures on Facebook, the tiny details I choose to crystallize on Instagram. They don’t see me lying on the floor with my back in spasms, yelling that the contractor needs to get his fucking guys back to the house to finish the fucking job we’re paying them to do. They don’t get the kick in the gut that is finding out that the plumber—who’s already six weeks behind schedule—has disconnected the water and left for the holiday weekend the very day of my party with five of the guests planning to spend the night. They don’t wonder if they should sell their car to pay for insulation for a 95-year-old house in Michigan with winter coming. I find it hard to keep smiling and nodding as they praise us for taking this chance. That said, I love them dearly for their support, especially those who have helped us with the physical labor. We don’t get that support from everyone, and I need every shred I can get.

I try to keep the fear at bay, the wonder at what we’ve gotten ourselves into. We’re yoked to a contractor who’s congenitally incapable of keeping commitments. We inherited a tenant whose rent just barely covers the property taxes and insurance (but I’m sure as hell not coming in and kicking people out). Things were looking up when we found a fantastic tenant for the first floor just as we wrapped up work. A chef at one of my favorite restaurants and his girlfriend signed the lease, I showed them how to work the five locks it takes to get into the front door, and we all went to lunch. I left a bottle of wine and welcome note on the stove (a great buy from the nearby Architectural Salvage Warehouse, where I’d done much of my shopping for the house). Two days later, they called to tell us they wanted out of the lease. Evidently the chef’s girlfriend was so distraught at the thought of moving in she was in tears and refused to talk.

If we don’t find someone to move in and start paying market rent and we have to pay the heating bill this winter, we could be broke by spring. (I told you we had no business doing this.) When I let myself linger on these fears, I think I might throw up. I can push them aside in the daylight, but at night sometimes I jolt awake, feeling like I’m falling off a cliff.

The guy from the appliance store in Dearborn was exceedingly concerned when he delivered our washer and dryer. “Why are you here?” he asked. “Please be careful, please.”

Yet I know it’s all relative. Charles works three jobs. He takes care of his wife who has health problems, doesn’t work, and can’t communicate verbally. He wanted to buy the house but the owner wouldn’t sell to him. He could easily hate us—breezing in with our fluffy dogs and our out-of-state plates, polishing the front door that he doesn’t have time to tend to. The thing about buying a house in Detroit is that it’s so much more than purchasing a structure. You’re walking into peoples’ lives. Your actions speak.

I wonder what my actions say, and I worry about what people think of us. We hired Charles to help us with some of the renovations, and I worked my arse off by his side, hoping to show him—well, I’m not sure what exactly. That our intentions are good. That we have strong work ethic. That we respect him. That I don’t think I’m too good to put in a 10-hour day crawling around the floor pulling staples, scrubbing, and cleaning, doing the hard work. I’m strong—I used to be a competitive powerlifter—so I made a point to do some heavy lifting with him (Brian threw his back out the second day of a nine-day work trip there and so was on non-physical duty), unloading plywood, moving appliances, but he doesn’t bat an eye. Then I see the woman the contractor brought in to clear the debris out of our gutted basement, and I realize being a strong, hard-working woman is just the norm here.

And this takes more than physical strength (though my body is fast giving out; a string of injuries from my lifting days means I hurt in myriad places and each work trip my ability to work through the pain grows less). The challenges mount at every turn.

How do we pay for the growing list of things we need to do? How do I juggle my freelance work with spending at least half my time working on the house? We’re accidental landlords—we only bought a multi-family house because you can’t leave a house standing empty in Detroit—so how do we deal with being responsible for someone else’s wellbeing? We don’t have kids, so we’ve never been responsible for anyone else, and we’re not the best at behaving like adults. How do we handle the contractor who lies with every breath about when the work will be done, whose guys rummage through stuff in the basement, stealing who-knows-what?

How do we run an Airbnb when we don’t live on site? How do we explain to Charles and his wife that a stream of tourists may be clattering up the back stairs to our attic apartment, and how do we balance explaining the potential risks of staying in “real” Detroit to travelers without scaring them away? The Uber driver who brought my friend from her own Airbnb for our party didn’t want to come to our neighborhood. I turned down our first inquiry from visiting tourists because it was the couple’s first trip to Detroit and first Airbnb experience, and I didn’t know how they’d react to our street. I’m so used to the handful of boarded-up houses that they don’t register anymore. The guy pushing the shopping cart, the “no-dumping” emblazoned plywood in the corner empty lot, the graffiti on the garages, the overgrown alley—it’s all become the new norm when we’re in the Detroit house, and as much part of the landscape as the great, spreading shade tree in front of our house.

How do we be a married couple in love with one another and not just business partners wrangling with the logistics of rehabbing an out-of-state house and running rental property?

How do we integrate into the neighborhood as not only the sole white faces, but part-time residents at best and absentee landlords at worst? Here, at least, I’ve found I may have worried more than I needed. On the first day of working on the house—July 4—music from the house across the street reverberated for blocks. We pulled carpet out of the third floor to a soundtrack of “Back That Azz Up.” Before we left for the day to head to my in-laws’ house an hour away, we walked over to introduce ourselves and found a friendly—if surprised—teenage boy running a massive sound system in his back yard. “Do you DJ parties?” I asked. I was in luck. He and his step-dad are part-time DJs, and we later booked them for our party. Another neighbor, one who has lived since 1985 in a sprawling brick home around the corner, has given us the rundown on the neighborhood, standing and chatting in our front yard as he tells us where Aretha Franklin and Marvin Gaye used to live. The block club organizer gave us the scoop on the stray dog I’d seen darting around. It looks like a pit bull, he told me, but she’s just a friendly—and easily frightened —mutt named Tiger who lives in the house on the corner with the caved-in garage. Dogs are the great connector, and our own Pomeranian and Samoyed have drawn the neighborhood kids who giggle and squeal over our pets. Likewise I squeal over the big-pawed black puppy, Princess, who belongs to a family a few doors down, and I try to shoo a little white poodle back home down the street when it wanders into our yard. Some of our best evenings have been spent sitting out on the front stoop drinking our post-work beer and talking with Charles or whoever happens to stroll by. A chorus of “welcome to the neighborhoods” greeted us the first few times we did this. Nobody in Louisville ever welcomed us to our neighborhood, I couldn’t help but reflect.

Truth be told, it’s not for everyone. My dad knows that and refuses to visit. “Who will you rent it to, prostitutes?”

Despite these glimmers of contentment, some days it all seems so overwhelming I’m too sick to eat. But other days I remember that we did this thing, that we took this chance, and it’s just time and money that we would fritter away on something else if we didn’t spend it on this. And something good happens: A fellow rehabber offers to swap attic insulation for the pool table in our gutted basement and I think I see a light at the end of the rehab tunnel. The thought of not doing it and wishing we had is far worse than the fear I’m experiencing in the midst of it. And when I remember that I grow defiant at the people who sneer, who make comments about bullet-proof vests.

“When was the last time you were in Detroit?” I ask. “Oh, never? Why don’t you come stay at our place?” I say, knowing most of them will never do it. It’s the people in Detroit that I don’t know how to respond to. The guy from the appliance store in Dearborn was exceedingly concerned when they delivered our washer and dryer. “Why are you here?” he asked. “Please be careful, please,” he beseeched in a low voice, looking around to see if anyone was watching as the guys lugged in my cheap used appliances. “I have a dog,” I said, trying to placate him, but he shot worried glances over his shoulder as he left me locking my gate. The thing is, I’m not that worried. I’m worried enough to obsessively check the locks and send the dog ahead of me to check the house when returning, but I don’t actively fear for my safety.

But truth be told, it’s not for everyone. My dad knows that and refuses to visit. “Who will you rent it to, prostitutes?” he responded when I told him our plans. I want to argue with him, defend my decision, but how can I when Brian was propositioned a few blocks from our house? For five bucks, a woman would show him her breasts. I wanted to hold a grudge against my dad. How could he not want to see what his firstborn is so passionate about, what I’m doing with my own hands? But I had to swallow my pride when I needed advice. The insulation salesman quoted $10,999 for the job and it may as well have been ten times that. My dad’s knows the housing industry inside and out. I called him and told him about the quote. Half an hour later I was armed with the information I need to do some of it myself and hire the trickier parts out at (hopefully) half the cost.

And I have faith we can do it. Though I was sheltered from physical work my whole life, with a contractor dad and a handy-with-tools husband, I’ve had to learn to do any number of things I’d never have imagined attempting. Brian is out of vacation time and more or less out of commission with a back problem, so I’ve worked on refinishing the floors, installing trim, replastering holes in the wall, installing the washing machine, and a slew of other tasks large and small. The bursts of pride and satisfaction I get from completing a job are a new sensation. In my real job I put words on screens and on paper and don’t see a physical result. Making the washing machine work left me giddy with accomplishment.

But then I come back to Earth. Charles calls Brian to tell him the radiators aren’t working and the plumber hasn’t been in to work in days. Our car needs a new clutch and starter. The only even slightly significant invoice I have out is late despite my weekly inquiries as to when I can expect to be paid. A potential tenant sends a text that says, “The neighborhood would be too great a transition for my kids.” I wonder if this whole thing will be too great a transition for me.

A while ago I found the map of Detroit that John marked up for me that day last summer when Detroit was all new to me and a marvel, a few days before the idea of buying a house here was a dream. Circling areas I should be safe and X-ing others, “There are parts of the city you shouldn’t go,” he advised me quietly, raising chills. Feeling daring, Brian and I drove out past the areas he circled and saw a body being pulled out of an abandoned building on a stretcher.

I unfolded the map, tucked among Tigers tickets and restaurant menus, and located my neighborhood. An X was slashed across it.

Dana McMahan lives in Louisville and sometimes Detroit with her husband and their two dogs. Her work has appeared in Elle magazine, NBCNews.com, and the Chicago Tribune. More by Dana McMahan