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Let Them Eat Art


“Will it work?”

We talk gingerly about Detroit’s nascent revival — like we’ve lit the last match in the box and are holding our collective breath, hoping it won’t go out before the kindling ignites. Over drinks at Green Dot Stables, sandwiches at Slow’s, amongst the produce filled sheds of Eastern Market and the art covered walls at Red Bull House of Art, we ask each other, “Will it work?”

Instead of “Will it work?” the better question is, “Are we working towards the right thing?” While the development of downtown Detroit led by a vanguard of artists who create welcoming spaces for professionals to move in behind them will bring prosperity to some, it will also ignore a century’s worth of deep racial wounds, and social and economic inequality.

It doesn’t have to be like this. There is an opportunity to develop Detroit in a new way afforded, in part, by The Wayne County Tax Foreclosure auction, where more than 20,000 properties – 5% of the city – will go on sale for $500 opening bids on October 19th. It is an extraordinary opportunity to exert influence over the future of the city.

City-wide action should be coordinated to purchase and protect the land available in the auction. Tools like Why Don’t We Own This? can empower neighborhood organizations and residents to determine the best course for the properties purchased. Money can be raised through crowdfunding and used to dismantle dangerous structures, or develop neighborhood centers, providing residents the goods and services they require, giving Detroiters jobs and reasons to stay and invest in where they live.

Detroit has the opportunity to reinvent the way a city redevelops.


Last weekend, in the city that birthed the assembly line, mass-produced the automobile, and built enough armaments to win World War II and earn the name “The Arsenal of Democracy,” the Detroit Design Festival advertised the potential for the “creative, entrepreneurial community to encourage social-economic change in the city of Detroit.”

Detroit now expects its “creative, entrepreneurial community” to stimulate growth. Setting aside the bizarreness of that formula for social change and economic progress, consider what happens if our artists fail. Are we to blame Detroit’s creatives for not being creative enough? Our painters for not painting well enough? Our chefs for overcooking the veal?

It’s a low risk prospect for corporations: If the artists colonize the land, professionals will move in behind them attracted by the trappings of the creative class. Companies will capitalize on cheap real estate and a city desperate to cozy up to business. If the artists fail and the downtown reverts to a crime-ridden wasteland, then, oh well, you only spent money on a few gallery openings anyway, and the artists will be ok because they didn’t have far to fall.

New York City was able to tame its wild neighborhoods on the backs of a huge police force and artists who pushed farther and farther out in search of cheap rent and “authentic” areas, but gentrification displaced crime rather than eradicated it. Wealth whitewashed over social inequality rather than confronting it. New York warehoused its crime in prisons, and exported it to decimated Hudson Valley towns hollowed out by deindustrialization, not unlike Detroit.

Here it could be Flint, Plymouth? That new jail on Gratiot? Or maybe a reverse migration to the suburbs as the wealthy classes that fled the city and decides to return downtown once it’s been re-settled. The only remnants of Detroit’s unfortunate era of depopulation will be a few houses maintained as a nostalgic reminder of how things were, and fetishistic artifacts of the city’s perdition sold at a healthy markup — blight chic for the urban pioneer.


Detroit did not become the most important industrial site of the 20th century by following another city’s lead, by copying another city’s model. Detroit invented the model. To become a cargo cult now, building icons and doing rain dances to bring the gods of capital to our city, is to admit that we have run out of ideas of our own.

It doesn’t have to be that way. We have the opportunity to invent a new model, to set precedent, to lift ourselves and our neighbors. We should seize it.

Anyone interested in joining this conversation – discussing the tools and options available in the 2012 Wayne County Tax Foreclosure Auction – is invited to PJ’s Lager House every night this week from 6pm – 7:30pm to learn and plan with the the Why Don’t We Own This? crew.

Occupied Houses

A post in collaboration with Why Don’t We Own This?

It’s worth noting, as the Wayne County Tax Foreclosure Auction begins today, that of the 22,000 properties up for sale, approximately 8,400 of them, as reported in this Detroit News article, are occupied. Photos of the charred shells of houses and blighted property seem de rigueur when reporting on the auction, but not all are abandoned.

One such situation made the news yesterday. Kelly Parker is a single mother on Detroit’s west side. Recently diagnosed with terminal cancer, her house is in the foreclosure auction. In an attempt to dissuade potential buyers, Parker spray painted her house – “MINE,” “We Will Not be Moved,” etc. – and received a good deal of press coverage.

“The city decided that they were putting it up on auction,” said Parker to Deadline Detroit, “so I made it to the point where nobody would want… to buy it.” Worth noting is that the city does not run the foreclosure auction; it is administered by the county.

While Ms. Parker may receive enough publicity and assistance from sympathetic citizens to pull her house from the auction, thousands in Detroit won’t receive any coverage. Resources available to Detroiters facing foreclosure include the Michigan Foreclosure Prevention Project and United Community Housing Coalition.

Ted Phillips, executive director of the UCHC, told the World Socialist Web Site in 2010, before that year’s auction, “Most people owe between $500 and $2,000, but many owe less,” Phillips said. “The majority of these houses do not have mortgages, but people have fallen behind in their taxes because of poverty.” The majority of the cases are of people who owe taxes for at least three years. “If you haven’t paid your taxes since 2007 you could lose your house.”

“For several years, Phillips has helped owners use a legal loophole to wipe away debt by buying back their properties in October when minimum prices plummet. Phillips said he expects to help 600 owners do the same this year.”

From The Detroit News:

Throughout the 2012 Wayne County Tax Foreclosure Auction, System D will be covering auction related stories in collaboration with Why Don’t We Own This? — a platform that makes it easy to visualize, interact, and coordinate action around vacant and investable properties in Detroit. Visit Why Don’t We Own This? and set up an account in order to gain a fuller understanding of the scope and implications of the foreclosure auction.




Friday, September 14 – Thursday, September 20

Do you have a vision for the city? Do you think you can take a vacant plot of land and turn it into a sustainable asset for Detroit? Or maybe you want to rennovate an old Detroit home? This is your chance to bid on the land that you have always wanted! Check out Why Don’t We Own This for auction proceedings, more info and alerts!


Thursday, September 13–11am-2pm

Where to vote: Grand Trunk Pub or anytime from Your Computer

Show your support and vote for your favorite business from the 2012 Top Ten Semi-Finalists Comerica Hatch Detroit Contest. The contest aims to encourage and support independent Detroit retail businesses.

Check out the event for more info:


Saturday, September 15–10am-3pm

Belle Isle Aquarium

Celebrate the Grand Re-Opening of one Detroit’s most missed gems–the Belle Isle Aquarium. Admission is free, parking is free and you get to see the fish…does it get any better? Bring all the drinks and snacks you want–there are no concessions but outside food is allowed. Be sure to check out the other Belle Isle attractions while your over that way too.

Freelance writer and Wayne State English major, Nicole Hayden is a city-lover, dorky dancer and cupcake connoisseur. She has interned (aka nervously sweated) at Real Detroit Weekly, writes for I am Young Detroit, spreads the power of writing at The Children’s Center, and toils away at her office-assistant desk at WSU School of Medicine.

1807 Leverette Street

Update: According to the Why Don’t We Own This? comment feed, this property has been withdrawn from the auction. It seems like someone is living there, so hopefully if they were stuck in a bad situation, they’ve figured out a way out of losing their house in the auction.

Edit: Paul made me aware that the house I had in the post is actually 1801, not 1807, as Google Maps has the address slightly off. I’ll get a better image of 1807 up later.

A single family home represents the sole residence in Corktown available in the Wayne County Tax Foreclosure Auction. While it appears occupied, I took notice of it and figured it would attract interest given its location. I posted a mention of it on the Why Don’t We Own This message boards. Today, I noticed someone replied to my posting:

Mr. Szewczyk runs a blog called Corktown History which presents meticulously researched pasts of Corktown buildings. Recent posts include the future home of the Detroit Institute of Bagels, The Imagination Station, Roosevelt Park, and – what I can only imagine must be comprehensive – a 10-step guide to Researching Your Own Corktown Home.

In addition to providing incredibly thorough and thoughtful histories of Corktown buildings, his writing is dispassionate yet compelling, which is refreshing for a Detroit blog. I strongly suggest leaving this hovel of a site for the far greener and more thought provoking pastures of Corktown History.


Who’d Want to Own This?


The Wayne County Foreclosed Property Auction is approaching, and with it comes the opportunity to own several thousand homes in Detroit for a few million dollars. LOVELAND Technologies has mapped and researched Detroit foreclosures and established a preliminary number of 34,300 pieces of property to be put on the block this fall.

At a $500 minimum bid, one could purchase 3,000 Detroit properties — the number left over from the last auction — for $1.5 million dollars, or, the cost of a broom closet in Aspen. With the city’s finances more toxic than Zug Island, the City of Detroit is looking to relieve as much stress and liability as possible.*

Detroit has a few items at the top of its Situation Critical, Must Do This Now, To-Do List, but here’s another deserving of a spot: A group of – in broad terms – benevolent, smart, forward-thinking Detroiters need to band together and crowdfund enough money to buy as many of these properties as possible, before someone less interested in the fate of Detroit does.

Detroit’s land, no matter how blighted, is not valueless. Goldman Sachs has already proved it knows that. Last year it was reported that Goldman Sachs was hoarding more than one quarter of the world’s aluminum supply in Detroit warehouses, creating an artificial bottleneck in the global aluminum trade that drove the cost of the metal up to record levels and allowed Goldman to make millions on metal exchange investments due to its own price manipulation.

Meanwhile, wealthy investors, firms, and companies animating from the muck and mire of the mortgage crisis have realized the millions of foreclosed upon American homes of the last few years are an investment opportunity. These investors purchase tens of thousands of homes at a steep discount, make renovations on the cheap, and then rent them back to what I can only imagine are many of the same people who used to own them.

While these companies aren’t thrilled about houses that need the amount of work that many Detroit homes require, one large hurdle that Detroit removes from their equation is geography — three thousand homes (or thirty thousand…) in one tight geographical cluster are far easier to manage than a thousand homes in San Diego, a thousand in Orlando, and a thousand in Buffalo.

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I can imagine the anxiety and displeasure that might ensue from a small group of Detroiters starting a crowdfunding campaign and accepting wads of outsider money towards the end of buying thousands of Detroit houses. But I hope we don’t lose sight of the forest for the trees, because it could be much worse.

*Perhaps one instance of this fire sale mentality is the city entertaining the Parade Company offer to purchase the old Tiger Stadium lot and convert it from a useless, idyllic park steeped in baseball history and personal memories, into a parking lot for parade floats, and the definitely not happening sale of Belle Isle to the State.