A Detroit neighborhood is sprouting a small, but growing, artists' colony. Among the first wave are artists Mitch Cope, left, Gina Reichert and Zeb Smith in front of the "Power House," which Cope is renovating into a solar-powered art center. So far, Cope notes he has one solar panel. (Ricardo Thomas / The Detroit News)
At first glance, the hardscrabble neighborhood north of Hamtramck might seem an unlikely spot for an artists' colony.
Typically, such communities favor bucolic settings or ocean views, like California's Carmel-by-the-Sea, a famous artists' retreat before it was overrun by tourists.
But then, northeast Detroit has virtues Carmel never had -- among them $100 houses, one of which is being purchased by two Chicago artists, Jon Brumit and Sarah Wagner.
Their plan is to move to this budding community near Klinger Street and the Davison, to live in a tiny bungalow with a fire hole in the roof.
Against all odds, Detroit's downsides -- foreclosures and a collapsing manufacturing base -- suddenly look like assets, at least for starving artists, and even successful ones, in search of space and cheap digs.
It's an appealing prospect for people like Brumit and Wagner, or German artist Ingo Vetter, who says by e-mail from Stockholm that he hopes to move to America's grittiest city as soon as he can.
Beyond the property deals are the harder-to-quantify attractions of a city now almost as fabled worldwide as New York or San Francisco -- albeit in a slightly different vein.
"Detroit wins because it's Detroit," says Toby Barlow, a novelist who moved here from Brooklyn, N.Y., a few years ago. He wrote an affectionate essay on the city and its appeal to artists in Sunday's New York Times.
"Detroit wins because it has the reputation for being the worst place on Earth. You're not going to sound cutting-edge," he adds with a laugh, "by starting an artists' community in Cleveland."
The real-estate blitz in northeast Detroit went like this: Three years ago, artist Mitch Cope and his wife, architect Gina Reichert, bought a house in a neat-but-shabby neighborhood populated by Bangladeshis, Bosnians and African Americans.
As real-estate prices tanked with the economy, they picked up another house for $1,900, and two empty lots for $3,000.
A $500 house fell into their laps, which they promptly sold to friends Corine Vermeulen-Smith and her husband Zeb, a photographer and sculptor, respectively. Cope and Reichert charged them $550 -- netting a tidy $50 profit.
And it was Cope who called Brumit this winter to say that if he acted fast, he could snag a house -- only slightly fire-damaged -- for $100.
Locals seem relieved that someone is buying abandoned properties. Of Cope and Reichert, who have made a point of getting to know families nearby, longtime resident Mohammed Mehid says, "They're good neighbors. One-hundred percent!"
Beyond cost and Detroit's unique aesthetic, however, there are practical advantages that wow visitors from glitzier cities.
"Friends are always struck by how much freedom and time we have," Reichert says, compared to friends in L.A. or New York who spend most of their time hustling to earn a living to support their art.
Newcomers see an unusual receptiveness in Detroit as well.
"There are so many interesting things going on here that you couldn't do in New York," says Barlow, "both because of cost and crowding, and the fact that everyone's overseeing everything. Whereas in Detroit, it's like, 'You're trying to do that? Neat.' "
Cope's budding community is not the only artistic node taking root within the city limits. Motor City Blight Busters, which has revived much of the area around Grand River and Lahser on the west side, now has five artists in residence at its Artists Village next to the Redford Theatre.
For their part, once Brumit and Smith renovate their new homes, three artist-couples will reside within shouting distance of one another -- a cozy little community.
And more may be on the way. In April, 10 grad students from the Dutch Art Institute will arrive for a work residency that Cope arranged.
As Vetter says, "Detroit is a perfect place for artistic production -- plenty of space, amazing people with knowledge about techniques and materials, and an open-minded spirit. To be part of this place is exciting."