The New Yorker: We're Not In New York Anymore

In 1985, the novelist Elmore Leonard, in an introduction to a book of photographs by Balthazar Korab, offered this analysis of his home city of Detroit:

There are cities that get by on their good looks, offer climate and scenery, views of mountains or oceans, rockbound or with palm trees; and there are cities like Detroit that have to work for a living…. It’s never been the kind of city people visit and fall in love with because of its charm or think, gee, wouldn't this be a nice place to live.

At that time, Detroit had lost seven hundred thousand residents from its population peak of about 1.8 million, in the nineteen-fifties. The city was not merely diminished—it was also in the process of diminishing further. In the nearly thirty years since, more than five hundred thousand more people have left. You know all the grim headlines: soaring crime, industrial decay, city services stretched dangerously thin, abandoned blocks, “urban prairies,” forced downsizing. This summer, the city filed for bankruptcy, and its remaining residents have been portrayed as hostages unable to make an escape. After years of bad news and bad press, Detroit seems more unlikely than ever to be a place about which anyone would say, “Gee, wouldn't this be a nice place to live.”

But what if someone offered you a free house? In a contemporary, literary twist on old homesteading incentives, a new nonprofit organization called Write a House is refurbishing three two-bedroom houses in Detroit and accepting applications this spring for writers to move in, rent free. Poets, journalists, novelists, and anyone who falls somewhere in between are encouraged to apply. If the writers stay for the required two years and fulfill other obligations, such as engaging with the city’s literary community and contributing to the program’s blog, they’ll even get the deed to the place. As the group’s mission puts it, “It’s like a writer-in-residence program, only in this case we’re actually giving the writer the residence, forever.”

Two of the houses were bought for a thousand dollars each, and the third was donated by Power House Productions, a local community organization run by artists. All are within walking distance of each other, in a racially diverse neighborhood north of the city center. Write a House is currently in the early stages of raising thirty-five thousand dollars for each location in order to fund major renovations, like electrical and plumbing. The houses have cheerful names (Apple, Blossom, and Peach), but they still need a lot of work. Writers who are selected will have to put the finishing touches on their houses, and they will have to pay insurance and taxes on the property (estimated at about five hundred dollars a month). The group plans to expand to more properties in the future if this first round works out.

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