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Always look on the bright side of blight
March 12, 2009 3:45 PM   Subscribe

"Ah, the mythical $100 home. We hear about these low-priced “opportunities” in down-on-their-luck cities like Detroit, Baltimore and Cleveland, but we never meet anyone who has taken the plunge. Understandable really, for if they were actually worth anything then they would cost real money, right? Who would do such a preposterous thing?" Amongst others, artists who have hope for the future and money to invest.

A local couple, Mitch Cope and Gina Reichert, began this artistic trend. An artist and an architect, they recently became the proud owners of a one-bedroom house in East Detroit for just $1,900. The fact that it was stripped of appliances and wiring wasn't a deterrent, it was room for improvement, because they now had the opportunity to renovate it with solar heating, solar electricity and low-cost, high-efficiency appliances.

They bought a few more houses for even less, and put in some work with friends and local youngsters to improve the properties and added a garden. Their efforts were noticed by people at a Dutch museum, who stated that the "collapse of house prices allows for a new way of shaping the urban environment with relatively modest resources."

But it's not just about an influx of artist with big ideas. The Heidelberg Project was started in 1986 by area resident Tyree Guyton, who worked with his former wife, Karen Guyton, now-deceased Sam (Grandpa) Mackey, and neighborhood kids. They collected trash from empty lots and vacant homes, and made empty spaces into "lots of art." (wiki link) Some of these links were gleaned from Mark Maynard's blog.
posted by filthy light thief (35 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite

 
shooting of hipster &/or robbery at gunpoint in 3, 2, ...
posted by leotrotsky at 3:52 PM on March 12, 2009 [3 favorites]


(For whatever it's worth, the Op-Ed contributor's book is reviewed here among other locations - it's about werewolves, not suburban redevelopment in any way that I could see)
posted by filthy light thief at 3:55 PM on March 12, 2009


And here's what happened to the former residents' shit.
posted by gman at 4:00 PM on March 12, 2009 [4 favorites]


This sounds great-- but minus a freelancing or telecommuting position, or independent wealth, not a reality for most. Most folks--even the creatives, the risk takers--need to be reasonably close to where jobs are.
posted by availablelight at 4:06 PM on March 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


Availablelight: Believe it our not, there actually ARE jobs in the Detroit area (population 3.9M, 9th largest metro area in US), Baltimore (population 2.6M, 20th largest metro area in US), and Cleveland (population 2.9M, 14th largest metro area in US).
posted by leotrotsky at 4:14 PM on March 12, 2009 [3 favorites]


See, this is irony! For $100 a house the city of Detroit will see more investment in communities than neighbourhoods selling at 1,000 times that. It's reminiscent of the various and wonderful squats which proliferated in Europe during the 1970s. Perhaps one day the people > money thing will be understood.

but minus a freelancing or telecommuting position, or independent wealth, not a reality for most

I don't know. I acknowledge that people have to earn money somehow, but take away housing costs, grow a bit of your own food, sink a little capital into microgeneration, and suddenly your budget is quite a bit smaller. Add into that communities which work and provide their own leisure and entertainment, and you might only need a fraction of the money you think you do. I suppose it only makes sense if people are willing to choose new lifestyles maybe?
posted by Sova at 4:17 PM on March 12, 2009


Although after having my closing tomorrow called off and restored like three times today, I can see the lure of saying "fuck it" and paying a few grand for a sweet, blissful death in Detroit.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 4:19 PM on March 12, 2009 [3 favorites]


I want to go to there.
posted by tristeza at 4:19 PM on March 12, 2009 [2 favorites]


I have relatives in Milwaukee who bought their home for a dollar and the lot next door for 99 cents.

The condition was make the home livable in 6 months, they did and have lived there for over 20 years, the neighborhood got better too.
posted by Max Power at 4:26 PM on March 12, 2009


And here's what happened to the former residents' shit.

gman, those links are worth their own FPP.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 4:35 PM on March 12, 2009


How much are property taxes in detroit? Any chance the city will agree not to spike the taxes if you purchase a house? It seems detroit is cheaper than farmland in the midwest right now.
posted by ShadowCrash at 5:14 PM on March 12, 2009


A great collection of photos of Detroit's "Beautiful, Horrible Decline" here.
posted by turgid dahlia at 5:15 PM on March 12, 2009


There's plenty of real estate jewels to be found in this town (i.e., Detroit). If you're really interested, let me know as I've links-a-plenty. Also, thank you OP for a relatively non-editorialized post regarding a topic that seems to bring out the bougie worst from this crew.

Also, ShadowCrash, not only is it arguably cheaper to buy land here than, say, midwest farmland, there's also a growing contingent (no pun intended) of urban farmers using Detroit as their base. It's not all 8 Mile and Gran Torino, luckily.
posted by joe lisboa at 6:06 PM on March 12, 2009


Thanks for the post. As a non-American I can't really imagine a city where houses in the centre cost $1900 - it seems like a no-brainer that artists would move in, and it'd gradually regenerate. Fingers crossed for Detroit.
posted by dydecker at 6:23 PM on March 12, 2009


gman, those links are worth their own FPP.

They already were.
posted by exogenous at 6:27 PM on March 12, 2009


My wife's from the Detroit metro area and believe me, it's sorely tempting to take her back to all her friends and family for a pittance. Hell, for what I'm looking at for apartments here in New York, I could have a 5+ bedroom, circa 1920 mansion with a actual carriage house in a historic district.
posted by JaredSeth at 7:08 PM on March 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


Ok, the Heidelburg project looks like it's straight out of my nightmares. Gah. I don't know much about the economy, but I think a totem pole topped with a likeness of Garfield is definitely a sign of the apocalypse.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 7:13 PM on March 12, 2009


Availablelight: Believe it our not, there actually ARE jobs in the Detroit area (population 3.9M, 9th largest metro area in US), Baltimore (population 2.6M, 20th largest metro area in US), and Cleveland (population 2.9M, 14th largest metro area in US).

I'm quite familiar with the size of these cities...and that the fact that unemployment rates of 7-11% aren't because people already there don't want to work.
posted by availablelight at 7:26 PM on March 12, 2009


They already were.
posted by exogenous


Kinda. That was posted months before the video I was highlighting was even made. So yes, I suppose if one went back to that post to check for updates, it was indeed linked to previously.
posted by gman at 8:00 PM on March 12, 2009


Indianapolis has similarly affordable neighborhoods but without the scale of urban blight that Detroit or Baltimore are facing. Lots of $5,000 houses, most still with the aluminum siding and copper pipes. The city is also planning a series of surplus property sales this summer featuring more than 2,000 properties that were seized for back taxes but then failed to sell at the regular tax sales. $400 minimum bid. I put together a Google Earth KML mashup of the properties that might go up for auction.
posted by ChrisHartley at 8:23 PM on March 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


There was a recent AskMe on the topic of dirt-cheap houses.
posted by orange swan at 8:37 PM on March 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


That trashout link from gman was fascinating. I recently read Twopence to Cross the Mersey, a memoir by a woman whose parents went bankrupt during the depression, when she was about 12. She talks in there about how much harder things were than they had to be because her parents, not really understanding about bankruptcy and foreclosure, thought they weren't entitled to keep anything. They walked out of the house with five children, one a baby in diapers, with only the clothes on their backs and a couple of blankets. Not even spare diapers for the baby.

It's fascinating to see that happening here, too. These people couldn't pack a suitcase? Load their trunk? Rent a U-Haul? I'm curious about the psychology of it. Helen Forester thought ignorance and general impractical uselessness accounted for it with her parents, but what's driving these people to walk out of a house leaving behind their clothes, items like computers and small appliances that it will cost a lot to replace, and so on?
posted by not that girl at 10:05 PM on March 12, 2009


i'm not sure how to make sense of the inclusion of the heidelberg project on a post that is mostly about outsider fantasies, but if i were to try, i would look at more images and video of heidelberg.

Ok, the Heidelburg project looks like it's straight out of my nightmares.

not yours alone. there's a lot of sadness and anger in it.
posted by ioesf at 10:23 PM on March 12, 2009


To me it looks like a successful attempt to bring art, community, and tourists to a part of town that needed some positive attention.
posted by aniola at 10:55 PM on March 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


ioesf - the Heidelberg Project was referenced by the initial article I read (the Op-Ed linked at the end of the first paragraph, which was also the source of that first paragraph of text). From my understanding, that article was focusing on the chance for artistic people of some small means to create a real change in the community. The Heidelberg Project was mentioned in passing, and I thought it was interesting enough to elaborate upon.

Thanks for the video and images link - from what I understand, it's an attempt to reclaim abandoned areas through art, utilizing what was found around (plus paint and some new materials).

As for the "outsider fantasies" - it seems that some of the artistic folk buying up homes were locals themselves. The author of the article was a more recent transplant who paid $100,000 for a townhome designed by Mies van der Rohe, so they're not in the same category of folk who pay a few thousand dollars to repair a really run down place. The difference between these folks who are buying homes with the intent to improve their new neighborhoods and outsiders who have ideas of how to fix Detroit is that these artists and architects are actually doing something now. As someone who went to school to plan cities and communities, the fact that you can actually reshape Detroit yourself, with not a lot of capital investment, is unique and exciting. Where else could you redevelop a whole neighborhood without major corporate backing? I came out of school with the assumption that city and regional planning was long-term planning, studying trends and making projections for future expansion and internal redevelopment. That, or you start a new city, which means starting everything from scratch. Capital improvements are a huge cost, and one reason why it's so hard to create a new town from completely undeveloped land.

joe lisboa - thanks for the tip on urban farmers in Detroit. Another interesting topic to read up on.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:05 PM on March 12, 2009


Great idea. Hell, $100 is less than the cost of a decent tent, and a lot less than the cost of a place to pitch it.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 11:44 PM on March 12, 2009


an attempt to reclaim abandoned areas through art, utilizing what was found around (plus paint and some new materials).

Tyree Guyton is doing much more than simply reclaim abandoned areas. He is struggling with Detroit's undeniably violent and racist history - working to transform a literal heap of sorrow and loss into a glimmer of hope. Guyton's "OJ House", referencing the trial of OJ Simpson, is a good example of this.

the fact that you can actually reshape Detroit yourself, with not a lot of capital investment, is unique and exciting. Where else could you redevelop a whole neighborhood without major corporate backing?

Um, Detroit is not a tabula rasa - it has a population of almost one million people. Though there is a lot of empty space, there are still plenty of Detroiters living in every neighborhood.

The lovely thing about articles like this NYT one: they remind people that Detroit is a place where people can live and thrive. The disturbing thing: they suggest that the city is a veritable eden, an empty, quiet wonderland awaiting the arrival of new settlers. This is a perfect recipe for careless gentrification.
posted by marlys at 1:07 AM on March 13, 2009 [2 favorites]


what's driving these people to walk out of a house leaving behind their clothes, items like computers and small appliances that it will cost a lot to replace, and so on

Consumer goods have very little resale value, particularly clothes and small appliances. Plus there's the practical considerations: where do you stage a yard sale when you haven't got a yard? What's the sense in paying good money to store things you aren't even using when you can't even afford to keep a roof over your own head? If you can't connect these people with buyers, then their "stuff" isn't potential money, it's just more crap to cart around.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 1:22 AM on March 13, 2009


These people couldn't pack a suitcase? Load their trunk? Rent a U-Haul? I'm curious about the psychology of it. Helen Forester thought ignorance and general impractical uselessness accounted for it with her parents, but what's driving these people to walk out of a house leaving behind their clothes, items like computers and small appliances that it will cost a lot to replace, and so on?

You're assuming they didn't pack suitcases. They probably did. As for loading their trunks or renting a U-Haul, it's quite possible that the previous occupants didn't have cars or any money or credit to rent a U-Haul. If you can't afford movers or moving van rental, if you have no vehicle and no friends or family who are willing and able to loan you theirs, you're pretty much reduced to just taking what you can carry on public transit. And some people really are that poor. Also there's a good chance those computers and small appliances you see in the pictures didn't work properly, and therefore weren't worth carting away. Or, alternatively, if you're suffering from some debilitating emotional or physical condition, you perhaps simply don't have the capacity to make arrangements to move your things from A to B.

The house I currently own had a lot of crappy furniture in it when I bought it. The previous owner, Lei, left it behind, but I don't think it originally belonged to her, either. Before Lei bought the house it was chopped up into three horrible apartments, and the renters who stayed in those apartments were likely very poor, with a lot of the attendant problems that both causes and effects of poverty. I found a letter concerning disability benefits jammed between a bed frame and mattress. I suppose the furniture accumulated over the years as tenants came and went, each leaving some items behind, or taking others. I got rid of most of it, taking some things to a thrift shop or giving others away to someone I knew who wanted it, or just putting other pieces out on the curb so passersby could help themselves. Some items I kept. Painted and fixed up they'll be attractive, useful pieces. But I can easily imagine that in a different context they'd be nothing but items I didn't need because I was moving to a furnished place, or a smaller one, or in with a friend, or just had no way of transporting it.

I'm very attracted by this whole idea of saving a neighbourhood. I'm definitely all about restoring and transforming and recreating. I can't pass a sad old piece of furniture on someone's curb without thinking about what can be done to fix it up and make it useful and attractive again, and I usually have to firmly tell myself that NO, I may not take it home with me and give it TLC because I have no need of that particular item. I often give old, rundown houses mental makeovers. The idea of descending on entire neighbourhoods with a group of friends and making a thriving community out of it really makes me salivate. But then, since I'm very practical, I start thinking about the obstaces facing people without many resources who do so (many of which were pointed out in the AskMe thread about dirt-cheap houses that I linked to).

This is something that the city government should get into — programs to facilitate the renewal of targeted neighbourhoods by making it easier for people to buy homes there as long as they commit to fixing them up and living in them. I know I'd love to work on such a project.
posted by orange swan at 6:49 AM on March 13, 2009


Well its a good thing that all the black people were given the shitty motgages so that the hipsters can even more easily gentrify! All part of the Plan.
posted by Pollomacho at 7:07 AM on March 13, 2009 [2 favorites]


marlys, my view is definitely optimistic, and not as informed as it could be. And I agree with you - the Op Ed is of the same vein. But this is not house-flipping, it's something I support (given the details at hand). Instead of slapping in the cheapest improvements to make a quick buck, it sounds like some people are making these homes less environmentally taxing (and less costly in the long run). Maybe they only did that for their own home, maybe not. But at least they moved into one of these places, with the intent of improving the neighborhood. But the Op Ed is not a full investigative story, so the story might not be that great underneath the cover of Artist and Architect Do Good in Detroit.

orange swan - with the costs of houses in Detroit and similar situations elsewhere, the efforts don't need to be government-based. A small group of entrepreneurs or philanthropists could do real good for very little money. People still have money to spend for tax write-offs, or maybe want to donate to a good cause in this economic down-turn. I could see a non-profit starting up with this goal and doing something great.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:21 AM on March 13, 2009


Good friends of mine, artists, bought one of the original dollar houses in Baltimore; they're still there, about 30 years later. That was when Baltimore was really bad; the three story rowhouse they bought is right in Mt. Vernon and gorgeous.

Oh and availablelight, I lived and worked in downtown Baltimore for years. Lots of my friends still do. I even sent my son up there to live and work as an apprentice carpenter this spring, so, yes, it is quite possible to live and work in the center city.
posted by mygothlaundry at 9:33 AM on March 13, 2009


I love my new cottage /shack in Baltimore on a wooded hillside near the Zoo. Bought in Nov 08. In the City.
Not $1 but
$57,000 aint bad. And the neighbors are all nice so far. I'm the second white guy on the street. I dont get involved with drugs. Life is good.
posted by celerystick at 9:39 AM on March 13, 2009


You now have to register now to read this NYT article on Cleveland's foreclosure crisis, but I found it fascinating. It gave me some sense of why one wouldn't want to snatch up those practically free properties. For one thing, the people squatting in the property next door may decide to strip your place when you're at work.
posted by bonecrusher at 11:30 AM on March 13, 2009


Wow. The Heidelberg Project is amazing. Thanks for this post.

A few fellow artists and myself have already had a loose discussion about purchasing a particular dirt-cheap property in Miami and setting up a sort of collaborative timeshare/installation/artist residency but it's a tough thing to commit to fully not knowing if we'll still be living paycheck to paycheck (which is suddenly pretty wonderful) or not have any paychecks coming in at all when the taxes on it come due. I recently watched Robert Neurwirth's Ted talk on Shadow Cities , and the phenomenon of these loose artists communities springing up organically in abandoned areas makes me think of his book.
posted by stagewhisper at 1:35 PM on March 13, 2009


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