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October 2, 2014updated 19 Jul 2021 2:53pm

A Detroit charity is giving writers free houses to improve city life

By Barbara Speed

Things in Detroit haven’t been going so well lately. The city’s bankrupt. The water company’s shut off supplies to thousands of home. Abandoned houses are so plentiful that they’re being auctioned off for as little as $1,000. And the place’s biggest cultural contribution in years has been the concept of “ruin porn”: pictures of abandoned buildings so horrible they’re almost beautiful.

Measures intended to pull Detroit out of its trough have ranged from bulldozing a fifth of the city to crowdsourcing money for residents’ water bills. But now, a charity has come up with a longer-term strategy: buy up abandoned houses, do them up, and give them to writers for free. As the mission statement on the Write a House website succinctly puts it: “It’s like a writer-in-residence program, only in this case we’re actually giving the writer the residence, forever.”

The charity’s main aim is to kick-start the city’s literary and cultural scene by introducing writers from around the world. But the process of renovating the houses aims to involve the Detroit community, too.

Take the Peach House, the first Write A House residence in the city’s NoHam neighbourhood. It was bought at a foreclosure auction for $1,000, and then renovated in part by local young people who learned carpentry and building skills on the job. Money for the auction and restoration were raised through donations and an Indiegogo appeal, which exceeded its fundraising goal of $25,000 by over $5,000.

Volunteers clear the Peach House in 2013. Image: Write a House/Andrew Kopietz.

Though it’s designed to help the city as much as the writers, the residency is awarded on literary merit. The first writer-in-residence, selected from a field of 350 applicants, will be the Brooklyn-based poet Casey Rocheteau, who moves into the Peach House in November. The poetry she submitted focussed on race; Billy Collins, a member of the judging panel and former US poetry laureate, has described her pieces as “witty but deeply serious”.

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Rocheteau has no particular attachment to Detroit: she visited for the awards ceremony on 19 September, but before that had only been to the city once. She does, however, know the area’s literary heritage, and says via email that she applied partly because “there are a lot of writers who I admire in and around Detroit”.

Another draw was, well, the fact that you get a free house:

“As someone who has been working class their whole life, the idea that someone would just give houses to low income writers is really phenomenal. I never thought I’d be a homeowner in my entire life.”

With the pressures of rent removed, Rocheteau will be able to work as a writer full-time writer – something she couldn’t have afforded in Brooklyn.

Image: courtesy of Casey Rocheteau.

A new round of applications opens in 2015, and the charity aims to award at least three homes a year from now on. According to its website, Write A House’s “long, long term goal” is to “build a literary colony in Detroit”.

As the founder of this colony, Rocheteau’s aware that the pressure is on: “I know that eyes are on me to present a portrait of Detroit to the broader world at large.” Let’s hope that portrait goes some way towards overwriting all that ruin porn.

Write a House isn’t the only left-field writing residency going in the US at the moment. Amtrak (yes, the train operator), just announced the first 24 winners of its writers’ residency program, in which they get the chance to write on a free long-distance train ride. Maybe it’s just us, but it sounds like the Write A House guys get a slightly better deal. 

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