To channel Virginia Woolf, one needs “a room of one’s own.”
Want to move to the United States’ fastest shrinking city? Write A House is a new writer-in-residence program giving away Detroit houses to writers. The move to Motown has recently been touted as a way for millenials to make lives for themselves in a low-rent city as more typical destinations become prohibitively expensive. The people who stay and try to make Detroit a more livable and successful city are featured on Vice and CityLab (formerly The Atlantic Cities). Now Write A House wants to add the literary arts to Detroit’s continuing success with music, burgers, and online mortgages by granting successful applicants the deed to a newly-renovated house.
While Write A House is open to people already living in Detroit proper and the surrounding metro, the primary goal seems to be resettling literary artists in Detroit, a city that’s seen its population decline from 1.8 million to 700,00 in the last 64 years. Due to rampant arson and crime in Detroit’s abandoned properties, the city has demolished many empty houses and may continue to do so. Write A House is a rehabilitative alternative to demolition that both preserves housing and encourages artistic endeavours in a struggling city.
Write a House requires that applicants fall under certain income brackets. A single writer must earn less than $40,000 annually to qualify, and less than $65,000 if said writer has a family of six. Despite these regulations, Write a House’s concept is persistently touting an “urban pioneering” drive. The feeling may come more from the talk about Detroit than Write A House’s unorthodox residency program. From ruin porn to Patti Smith telling the young to move somewhere cheap like Detroit, the public discourse around Detroit has made it out to be the last urban frontier.
The urban frontier is the rhetorical transformation of economically-depressed downtowns into the wild west. Downtowns become places to tame and make fortunes. The urban frontier trope is a way to claim a right to a city where there was none before. While the right to the city is constitutionally enshrined in Brazil, it exists more as an entitlement in the United States and Canada. A citizen’s relationship to the city centre depends on wealth, not constitutions. Consider Patti Smith’s elegiac words about youth in New York, taken from the same statement that encouraged artists to move to Detroit: “New York has closed itself off to the young and struggling … New York City has been taken away from you.”
Smith’s belief that New York City inherently belongs to the young and struggling, and that a booming real estate market has unfairly dispossessed thousands of kids with a dream of running away and starting a band (or a magazine), is indicative of a growing cultural problem in the U.S. Why should a city belong to anyone who does not yet live there, unless everyone should have a right to the city?
Renovations on a Write A House project-in-process
More than any other residency program, Write A House encourages the winning writers to become permanent citizens of Detroit and actively engage in the city’s literary community over a lifetime, rather than visit for a year and disappear. Write A House is phrased as an invitation from within to join a community, not the project of creating a new community where one already exists.
Write A House is a great civic project, but I doubt the influence it will have on Detroit’s literary scene. Arts scenes consist of more than the geographic proximity of artists. As easy as it is to mail or email manuscripts, local book publishers still tend to favour events and social opportunities that bring writers and other literary types together. Bookstores, university creative writing programs, and a lively magazine culture are essential to producing and selling writing. These are the things that draw writers to a place en masse, and Detroit doesn’t seem to have them in abundance—at least not at the moment. Whether cheap rent incentives and the promise of Edenic growth will be enough to lure writers into the garden remains to be seen.