Writer with Armenian roots creates home in Detroit

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

An oil painting of a snow-capped mountain hangs in the middle of the wall in Liana Aghajanian’s living room, just one of many pieces that connects the writer to her Armenian roots.

The mountain, Mount Ararat, is in Turkey but for Armenians, it is an essential component to a long and complicated history.

“That’s a common picture you’d find in an Armenian home,” says Aghajanian, 31, a freelance journalist.

No wonder why it figures so prominently in Aghajanian’s decor. Born in Tehran but raised in Los Angeles, the Armenian writer now calls Detroit home after arriving here in one of the most unusual ways: She won a house through a program called Write A House, a writing-residency that gives homes in Detroit to low-income writers.

Aghajanian beat out roughly 220 writers in 2015 to win her small one-bedroom, one-bath bungalow in what’s known as Detroit’s Banglatown neighborhood (named after its large Bangladeshi community) near Hamtramck. After two years in the house, the deed will be officially transferred to her.

Write A House, a nonprofit started in 2013 to help rebuild Detroit while also boosting the arts and teaching job skills, recently awarded its third house to writer Anne Elizabeth Moore and plans to give a fourth to Detroit poet Nandi Comer (see box for details) when her house in the city’s North End is finished. Each house has been bought and renovated through more than $200,000 donations.

Since arriving in Detroit in February of 2016, Aghajanian has been busy on a range of fronts: writing, exploring Detroit and turning her 1,100-square-foot house into a home. Near the oil painting in the living room is a picture of a famous Armenian wrestler, a Soviet propaganda poster and a custom painting from Armenia of one of Metro Detroit’s most famous, if not notorious, Armenians: Dr. Jack Kevorkian.

“He’s Detroit and with my background, it was the perfect combination,” says Aghajanian, whose home also will be featured in a new book “Detroit: The Dream is Now” (Abrams, $40) about unique homes and businesses in the city due out April 11.

When Aghajanian applied for Write A House, she’d never been to Detroit. Still, she was intrigued by the city.

“I had read things and I knew instinctively that there was more to it than I was reading about,” says Aghajanian, who has traveled all over the world for writing assignments. “In my mind I always thought, ‘I really need to go to Detroit, I really want to go to Detroit to see what’s going on there.’ I don’t think I would’ve applied had it been in another city maybe.”

Her fun, eclectic decor — which includes everything from old beaded coasters to the poster of the wrestler — reflects years of sifting through her favorite flea markets.

“I’ve lived overseas, I had an apartment in L.A., (but) this is the first time I’ve had this many possessions and the ability to do this stuff,” says Aghajanian. “It’s great. (In the past) I’d buy something at a flea market and not have a place to put it. It’d be in storage.”

Aghajanian says the decision to weave her Armenian ancestry throughout her decor is, in its own way, a way of exploring that past, including the Armenian genocide a century ago.

For decades, Armenians were displaced and “because of all that displacement, there’s so much in our history that we just don’t know,” Aghajanian says. “It was a physical genocide but in a lot of ways it was cultural, too. That’s why you see a lot of things in here that have to do with it because my process has been to find my way back to that or explore that because I don’t know enough.”

Still, the decor isn’t heavy. The small house was completely gutted and a wall was torn down between the living room and kitchen to make it more open. Unique lights selected by Detroit interior designer Patrick Thompson, who served as a consultant on the project, light up the entire space.

Aghajanian works at a large IKEA desk just beyond her living room that looks into her kitchen. Nearby, on a set of nesting coffee tables, also from IKEA, sit three ceramic cacti, which pay homage to her California roots.

“Growing up in southern California, the environment is different and you don’t realize how much that impacts you until you leave,” says Aghajanian. “I’ve been craving going to the desert so I’m hoping I can incorporate some of that” in the decor.

Throughout the house are fun, whimsical accents: A Soviet-era taxi sign, a paper sun lantern from Berlin and a textile with a map of Detroit from Belle Isle. The house came with some furniture when she arrived, but it wasn’t really Aghajanian’s style.

“I honestly didn’t know what look I was going for until I got here,” she says. “I collected things as I went along. It wasn’t immediate. It was every weekend or whenever I got a chance. It’s only felt this complete recently. It’s been a yearlong process of doing it slowly.”

Outside, she fenced her backyard and hopes to do some gardening this year when the weather warms up.

“I’ve never had that chance to garden,” she says.

Finding her place in Detroit, meanwhile, is an ongoing process. She’s found some Detroit landmarks she loves, including Sister Pie and Eastern Market.

When she moved to the city last winter, Aghajanian admits it was an adjustment. From seeing Detroit’s abandoned buildings to experiencing the terrain — so different from California — she says in some ways the city reminded her of places she’s covered during her career, places “in transition.”

“It’s a very complicated city. Detroit is like the story of America in so many ways in one city,” she says. “As a writer, it’s the perfect place because there are so many stories. There is always something new to discover.”


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Write A House

When it launched in 2013, Write A House’s unique mission — creating a writing residency that awarded free houses to low-income writers willing to relocate to Detroit — sparked media attention across the globe. Hundreds of applications poured in.

Since then, the nonprofit has raised more than $200,000. It’s bought five homes – two from the Wayne County foreclosure auction and three from Detroit Land Bank Authority – and awarded three to writers. It’s now fundraising to restore its fourth house which will be given to a local writer, Detroit poet Nandi Comer.

Director Sarah Cox, co-founder along with advertising executive Toby Barlow, says the core mission of Write A Mission has always been three-pronged: to support writers, community development and job creation.

“I think that matters,” Cox says. “To really have an artists’ community, you can’t just give writers money and say, ‘Go make art.’ You can, but if you want community development, you need a community to revitalize and to come back. And for that to happen, you need jobs, and you need houses, and you need the arts.”

But Write A House continues to evolve. In September, the nonprofit’s board announced that starting with its 2017 application cycle, which hasn’t started yet, it would still give houses to writers to live in rent-free, but they would no longer transfer the deed at the end of the two-year residency.

Cox says the narrative that no one wants to live in Detroit has changed in the last five years.

Now, “we’re fighting a narrative of real estate speculation, house flipping, gentrification, and fear that artists may be priced out,” wrote Cox in her email.

“We want people to stay and be invested,” said Cox in a phone interview this week.

Starting with the next winner, “once a writer decides to leave or passes away, we will fill it with a new writer and Write A House will not give up ownership of the home,” said Cox in an email to Write A House supporters.

To learn more about Write A House, go to http://www.writeahouse.com/.