This week I want to try to be of some use to all those of you considering applying to Write A House. Applications open today, and I have no real idea how that process works. Check out the WAH Facebook page, where they have been posting application tips every Monday for the past few weeks. Being as I won the first house and was given the task of writing for the blog because Toby didn’t want to, I thought I’d give some additional tips culled from my personal experiences. 2-6 also double as advice for anyone who wants to move to Detroit in general—also, dear strangers and acquaintances, please stop asking me if it’s a good idea for you to move here. From now on, anyone who asks me and doesn't already have my phone number is just getting a link to this post. All of this is to say: feel free to take these tips with a grain of salt because unless you know me, I’m just another person giving unsolicited advice on the internet.
Tip #1: If you are from or already live in Detroit—apply! You already know what the city is like and you probably love it, otherwise you wouldn’t consider applying for Write A House. That’s really all.
[tips for non-Detroiters]
Tip #2: If you don’t live in Detroit, and haven’t spent an extensive amount of time here: disabuse yourself of the notion that you know what Detroit is like. You don’t. That’s true anywhere, but especially here. I came into Detroit as an outsider, and I’d heard all manner of things about the city from other outsiders and paid attention to roughly none of them. A decade from now, I’m still going to be a “new” Detroiter and I have no qualms about that. You should definitely try to visit. I didn’t, and that’s because I couldn’t afford to and also didn’t think I’d win, but then I did and still feel incredibly sheepish about not having spent more time here before. You can crash on my couch if you need to.
Tip #3: If you’re considering applying and you’re thinking to yourself “I want to, but it’s in Detroit”—don’t apply. If you don’t want to live in Detroit, or Detroit’s reputation scares you, don’t apply to win a house in Detroit. It’s pretty simple. If you’re not prepared to embrace Detroit for everything it is, you’re going to have a hard time being here.
Tip #4: Readabook. Seriously, readuponDetroit’shistory. You can read 50 different articles about arts and revitalization in Detroit that never mention how the city got to a place where some people no longer considered it to be vital. You can also read 200 different articles about bankruptcy and blight that ignore all the good work being done here, and also avoid digging deep into the history of the city. Detroit’s story is so much bigger and more complex than Motown and the auto industry, blight or regeneration. As an historian, Detroit might be one of the most fascinating places in the country, and I love reading about it and hearing about it from old school Detroiters.
Tip #5: Detroit is not “the New Brooklyn”. You will not Christopher Columbus your way into a new home in some blank slate of a city because no such place exists. Also, Brooklyn was never a blank slate, New Brooklyn is not the Old Brooklyn, and yes Virginia, gentrification is real. I was recently alerted to the fact that both bridge graffiti and ads have gone up in Brooklyn and Manhattan encouraging New Yorkers to move to Detroit. The boutique billboard company responsible for the ads has done work for local Detroit companies such as Verizon Fios, Beats by Dre and Jet Blue…oh, wait. All I can really say about that is: think hard about what that means. While plenty of long time Detroiters welcome newcomers of all sorts, how welcome you are anywhere depends on you, your behavior and your intentions. I’m not writing this to be condescending. I learned quickly that Detroiters are fiercely loyal to and protective of Detroit, and not for nothing. This city has seen vast changes, voyeurism and criticism from outside for a long time. I’ve met a number of people who live here now and moved from Brooklyn or Los Angeles or New Orleans or Mexico or Honduras or Bangladesh and that's great, but it's not at all the same as being born and raised here or moving here anytime before 1990. It’s a false (and stupid) analogy that Detroit is “the new” anywhere else or that anywhere is “the new Brooklyn”.
Detroit is Detroit, and it’s a city currently undergoing the process of the largest tax foreclosure in the nation's history—a move that could kick up to 1/7 of the city’s population out of their homes. While Write A House has ethical standards about the homes they purchase and are invested in vocational training for Detroiters, not everyone involved in the “revitalization” process are civic-minded or give a second thought to displacing current residents. I’ll point you to the latter half of an interview I did with Aneb Kgositsile a few months ago, she put it much better than I can.
If this is the city that you’re considering moving to, try to understand the context for both its past and present. Gentrification and displacement are issues facing every American city I’ve been in over the last 10 years, but Detroit has a lot of complex and singular challenges. I don’t know what will become of trying to balance retention of long-time residents with drastic population decline, but all signs point to things being complicated at best. The city is both placing a huge burden on its poorest residents with water shut offs and foreclosures while also starting new lending programs to assist residents with mortgages and home repairs with no credit requirements and with zero interest. These are the contradictions that come out of American capitalism’s chaos-brain. Detroit is, in many ways, at the epicenter of several issues facing the country, but you’d be hard pressed to find another city with this particular set of issues.
Take it from someone who knows: you moving here will be the subject of contention, regardless of who you are. You have to be ready to have open and honest conversations about race and class especially. You can’t run from them here, and if you duck those issues, it won’t go unnoticed, that’s part of what I love about living here. I am fully aware of the how ridiculous it is to win a house in a city where so many people are in danger of losing their homes, and if you’re applying, you should be too. It is a cool and wild idea to have a permanent residency for writers anywhere, but especially here. Knowing what it means to be granted a residence in Detroit won’t solve any of the bigger issues, but I think it’s crucial for anyone considering embarking upon such an endeavor.
Tip #6: Be a good neighbor. This one is a little self-serving on my part, because you’re going to be my neighbor, but it’s something to consider. Maybe you already are, and if so, fantastic. If you’re not sure, or still can’t remember your next door neighbor’s name after a year, read this essay by Marsha Music on how to get a very basic start. I know Detroit is a very large city in terms of physical size, but in a lot of ways it’s like a small town. It’s definitely the friendliest place I’ve lived in terms of people’s comfort with striking up conversations with strangers, but I also come from Massachusetts. This doesn’t mean you should try to hug the dude who’s ice grilling you on the street, but if you want to live in a place where you’re totally anonymous and don’t have to interact with strangers, this might not be the place for you. However, if you are that kind of person, winter in Detroit will be your favorite season.
[tips for all applicants]
Tip #7: Don’t try to tailor your application so that it aligns with what you think judges in your genre would like. Send your most honest work, the work that best represents your voice. If I had tried to send in some meticulous balance of poems that I thought Major Jackson and Billy Collins could both agree on, I would never have submitted the writing sample I did. I would have also probably driven myself mad attempting to figure out what that combination would look like.
Tip #8: Read Detroitauthors, not just in the genre that you’re applying to. Get a feel for the literary scene here. Therearesome straightupliteraryballersinandfromDetroit, and anyone would be lucky to be amongst them.
Tip #9: Decide whether or not you are ready for home ownership before you apply. While I did not at all expect to have my own house a year ago, I wanted to and assumed it wouldn’t be possible. I don’t entirely know what went into my being chosen, but I do know that a huge contributing factor was that I was ready and eager to make the move. I wanted to take anchor here, and I’ve never thought of it as a short term adventure.