Francis Grunow is a member of Write A House, which is renovating three vacants near Hamtramck as prizes in the contest.(Caption Information) Francis Grunow, of Write-A-House, examines one of the organization's homes located at 3346 Meade Street in Detroit. (The Detroit News/ Max Ortiz) (Max Ortiz / The Detroit News)
You know your grassroots effort may be Detroit’s next Big Thing when an Istanbul street vendor says she has heard of the idea, the New Yorker magazine story about the project gets shared 7,600 times on Facebook, and more than 2,500 people have emailed inquiries.
All this since a mid-December kickoff that cost virtually nothing.
Write A House is a program to renovate three vacant, trashed-out Detroit houses near a border of Hamtramck and give them to writers — free.
“We should never underestimate how fascinating Detroit is to the world,” project co-founder Toby Barlow said in an email to The News. Barlow was told by a Turkish merchant the idea had made local news.
Write A House has been featured in the Madrid literary website papelenblanco.com, the Los Angeles Times, Forbes, Wonkette and Publishers Weekly. National Public Radio interviewed former U.S Poet Laureate Billy Collins about the program. Collins will be one of the judges who determines which writer will get a house this spring.
“In some strange way, we’re a part of the global imagination, its collective unconscious, and because of that our ups and downs are interesting to a surprisingly broad number of people,” Barlow said in the email. “If we had launched this idea in Cleveland or St. Louis, I don’t think it would have had nearly the same resonance.”
That, and maybe because it’s a unique, innovative idea. And maybe because Barlow has major literary and media chops. He is chief creative officer of Dearborn-based Team Detroit — a conglomerate of five international advertising agencies that handles Ford Motor Co. He also is the author of two acclaimed novels, “Sharp Teeth,” and last year’s “Babayaga.” He is an eloquent promoter of Detroit, writing praise for the city in a number of national publications.
Barlow credits the social media network of his board members, who include local writer dream Hampton, and co-founder Sarah Cox, founding editor of Curbed Detroit.
The basic idea: Three homes are being renovated and will be given to “low-income” writers. Writers of all stripes are eligible, including novelists, poets, playwrights and journalists. The group will begin accepting applications in the spring. Metro Detroit writers can also apply.
“If you write and can prove it, you have a chance,” said Anna Clark, local freelance journalist and a board member.
Writers who are selected will get a house that’s about 1,000 square feet with two bedrooms. The roof and plumbing will function. Writers should be ready to paint and help with other finishing touches.
They’ll have plenty of time. Writers selected must promise to stay for two years, and after that they may be given the deed. In the meantime, they’ll be introduced to the Metro Detroit literary community, asked to contribute to a literary journal and participate in the occasional reading. Writers will be responsible for covering insurance and taxes, which organizers estimate will average less than $500 a month.
Two of the houses were purchased for $1,000 each in a foreclosure auction, and the third was donated by Power House Productions, a community organization run by artists.
Write A House is hoping to raise $35,000 on crowdfunding site Indiegogo to restore the first of the homes. Young Detroit Builders, a nonprofit that teaches building skills to young people, will help get the houses back into shape.
“One of the houses had a squatter and another looked like maybe a family was just thrown out with no warning,” said Francis Grunow, a board member. “We found pictures and clothes left behind.” The houses are within walking distance of each other.
The group plans to expand to more properties in the future if the first round works out.