Amy Haimerl on Old Houses, Growing Pains and Detroit Hustle

"Matilda," the house at the center of Amy Haimerl's new book, Detroit Hustle.EXPAND
"Matilda," the house at the center of Amy Haimerl's new book, Detroit Hustle.
Amy Haimerl

When author (and former Westword associate editor) Amy Haimerl and her husband decided not to return to Brooklyn after a stint in Michigan and to take root in Detroit instead, they purchased a historic 1914 home for $35,000. Then the couple went to work on renovations – and found that they were dealing with so much more than just bad plumbing and structural issues.

In her book Detroit Hustle: A Memoir of Love, Life & Home, Haimerl discusses the trials and tribulations of home remodeling — but also goes deep into what it means to be a part of a city’s transformation, the changing demographics of a neighborhood, and where these things intersect with race and class. In advance of Haimerl's visit to the Tattered Cover LoDo this Wednesday, June 15, Westword caught up with the fifth-generation Coloradan to talk about the book and the concurrent growing pains of Detroit and Denver.

Westword: As a reader of Detroit Hustle living in Denver, I aligned with your feelings, experiences and observations about living in a recovering city like Detroit; it shares some similar characteristics of a growing city like Denver. In the book, you examine several cities across the U.S. that you might have moved to once you decided to leave Brooklyn, weighing the pros and cons of each municipality's opportunities and deterrents. Did you ever look at the political climate in Detroit before deciding to make a home there?

Amy Haimerl: Not really. Detroit is different from Denver in that sense; Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was already up for indictment and was on trial. We had Mayor Dave Bing at the time, and everyone knew that was temporary. An emergency manager was getting ready to probably be named for the city and had been by the time we made that choice, so the city's political state and political leadership seemed very much in flux and uncertain. I decided that that was going to be something that would shift and change over time, but wouldn't fundamentally change the place that Detroit was, or the people in Detroit.

You've lived in many cities, including Fruita and Denver in Colorado, the area of Red Hook in Brooklyn and Jackson, Mississippi. In the book, you talk a lot about becoming a part of a community. What did you feel or learn was the truest way to actually join a community?

Finding out whatever your "third" place is. For me, it's typically the local bar. For other people, it might be a church, it might be a coffee shop — whatever sort of is the thing that puts you in the community in a way where you can be interacting with people and just be there and listen and be there frequently and sort of mold into the community, rather than coming in and trying to be in a leadership role first and foremost, like showing up and being like, "Now I'm going to lead the neighborhood association." Part of it is, you have excitement and enthusiasm and you want to contribute. That's all well and good, but I always find for me that it works best if I hold back and listen and learn a lot first.

When I moved to Red Hook, one of the first things I was involved with — because I didn't necessarily understand — was bringing an off-leash dog park to that part of Brooklyn. There wasn't anything nearby, and it was going to be the first park like that in many years. I didn't do it right — I did the outreach to part of the neighborhood but not all of the neighborhood. We're at the public hearings, and the woman who ran the public housing right there (near the park area) was very angry, as she should have been. I didn't reach out to her.

Later, the park would get approved and she would support it — part of the reason she told me she supported it then was because at that first hearing, I said, "Oh, my gosh, you're right. I didn't do this right — let's start the process all over again. Let me come and talk to your organization. Give us a six-month trial period where you have my cell-phone number and you can call me directly if there are any problems, and I will personally put my name on the line. I did this wrong, and I own that, and now I'm going to ask you to help me." And I apologized.

She told me that the fact that someone was willing to just acknowledge that I hadn't done the work properly and hadn't engaged the entire community and I pretended that part of the community was invisible — she then respected me later. I learned from that to sort of go in and try.

I grew up in a small town [Fruita], so it was very community-oriented. Small towns don't like outsiders or newcomers. You practically have to be second-generation before you're a local. That's sort of in my blood to know what it takes to earn your way in, but Colorado and the West are also very friendly and welcoming to people. My DNA is always playing with two sides of it. 

Your description of this dog-park scenario epitomizes a lot of what is happening in Denver right now in terms of people feeling that they have invested in the city for a long time and now all of a sudden new people are coming in and changing things without their input.

Right. Now imagine being Detroit, a city that is 80 percent African-American, and to have that happen with primarily white newcomers like myself. So you add race on top of that: You're dealing with structural racism, structural imbalance, invisibility and federal policy over decades that made you invisible, made you not have the same opportunities. You've stayed in Detroit — you've invested and you stayed when you didn't have to and everyone else was leaving, and nobody is talking about you. Everyone is talking about my husband and I. Part of Detroit Hustle is facing that and looking at that issue. In Denver, you have that same thing, even if it is a little bit less of the racial overtones.

In the book, you talk about the blight of Detroit not being "ruin porn"-worthy. It made me think: How did you face your awareness of your own presence as what could be seen as a "gentrifier" or a white optimist and/or opportunist?

I don't know that I have. Writing the book, I certainly wasn't expecting all of these things to be part of the book. One of the things about writing memoirs is that you're supposed to learn something through it, and so is the reader. I hope I was able to do that. Certainly, when I started, I wasn't expecting to be tackling gentrification; I wasn't expecting to be looking at race and class — but it became evident that I couldn't help but do it, considering my background and what my own family has gone through. Those emotions were all just right there at the surface.

I was lucky that my neighbors all welcomed us with open arms. The neighbors on our block and the blocks around us were all incredibly supportive and warm and drew us into the fold immediately. In some ways, the bigger challenge and discussion about us being those newcomers was about investing, but also wanting to be members of this community long-term. What I was told was that people understood pretty quickly that we weren't coming to Detroit to invest; we weren't coming to Detroit to flip the house; we were coming to Detroit to live and make a life there. That's a very different perception and made us not seem opportunistic. We were committed, and this wasn't some lark — we weren't just trying Detroit and planning on leaving in a couple of years if we didn't like it.

Before-and-after photos from Matilda's renovation.EXPAND
Before-and-after photos from Matilda's renovation.
Amy Haimerl

Because we're putting in this kind of money — which seemed odd to some people, in a place with 40 percent poverty and people can't afford to pay their water bills. But this is the cost of change and the cost of fixing something that was allowed to be so broken. If we are willing to put that kind of money in, it speaks to our commitment to the city long-term. We're as bought-in and invested as we can be. There's no turning back.  

Did you ever look at this house project and subsequent turning point in your life and think that you may be investing time, energy and hundreds of thousands of dollars in a city that you wouldn't live to see thrive again? Cities change over decades; it's not like buying a house and then magically in a year the whole city will be doing better.

No. Part of it is, we bought before Detroit had declared bankruptcy. We decided to do this because we liked Detroit and the people and the way it was. We didn't buy in hopes of it someday being worth something. We bought because we believed in it the way it was. Certainly, the way it was, it was broken — we had to figure out streetlights. It doesn't mean we didn't want to be a part of fixing public infrastructure, but it wasn't a worry about the house never being worth what other people think it should be worth. It was like, this is our home and community.

I can say that when you are talking about your home and you invest in that and build that for a lifetime, as long as your cash flow is good and you can make your bills — I can say that for us, our cash flow improved. Compared to Brooklyn, we are paying less for housing and have better housing and a better community and a better place. From the get-go, we were net-positive.

From that perspective — one of being a person moving from a now-expensive city like Brooklyn to somewhere like Detroit — I can see that very much mirroring Denver's experience right now. There are people moving here with much more money than large swaths of our already-here population. With those newcomers comes a hike in price for things in a city that used to be more affordable. Being an "inexpensive" city to some can translate to becoming an expensive city for others.

I lived in Denver, too. I'm fifth-generation native to Colorado. I went to college in Denver; I've lived in Denver twice in my life. I had friends visit me there and say, "Oh, my God, this house is only $300,000? It's so cheap here." And I would say, "That house is so far outside the price range of anyone from Colorado to afford right now; don't forget our wages are way lower." There's just a lot of that no matter where you're coming from and where you're going.... How do you be respectful when you are used to properties going for half a million or a million dollars and that's the norm?

Yet, as a native in Denver at the time, I would say, "Shut up. I'm glad $300,000 is so cheap to you. [I'm] working at Westword and making less than fifty grand a year. If I were in New York, I'd be making at least twice that." Getting people to understand that, and that going somewhere new doesn't mean it's necessarily going to be what you had in another city,  just cheaper. That's the thing: moving somewhere cheaper because you like the cheap part but then think it's supposed to be just like wherever you came from, rather than loving it for what it is and accepting that and integrating into that community.

Growing up in rural Colorado, my dad would always complain [about newcomers]; being from Colorado, you're taught to hate the Texans and Californians coming into our rural towns and the mountains and expecting it to be like wherever they came from culturally. But then there's the flip side — how does a city or town grow and change and evolve or adapt to evolving times? You can't be stuck in amber, either. 

I think that is exactly what Denver is facing at this very moment — a feeling of some newcomers not having a respect or understanding for how we do things or what our culture is as a city. We seem to maybe be this dusty cowtown, but we're really a vibrant, diverse city that wasn't waiting to be "discovered" or changed.

Right. It's great that people are wanting to come there, and it's great that they want to be in the city, but Denver always has had a really strong culture. It was sort of iconoclastic; it was more Western libertarian, not just in straight-up voting politics, but in its self-identity. It's one of those things that is particularly interesting — thinking about the communes that were started, like Libre or Drop City in rural Colorado with the back-to-the-land movement in the ’70s. That was an entirely different way of thinking coming in. Those who stayed had to integrate with a much more conservative rural culture. How those two things merged over the last fifty years in some ways shows us how it can be done. It can be difficult, but it can be done.

Before-and-after photos from Matilda's renovation.EXPAND
Before-and-after photos from Matilda's renovation.
Amy Haimerl

Denver and Detroit are both in a time of transformation and change, which is always really uncomfortable. Who is going to be the winner? When I talk about Detroit, I say, who had to lose for me to win now? Somebody had to have lost. This terrible tragedy of what happened to the city, for me to come in now and say, "Oh, it is so cheap!" and I have these opportunities — Denver's not quite like that, but there still is a perception of, like, don't forget. Don't forget there is a winner of these scenarios. Who has the right to ownership as prices increase? What public-policy levers are we pulling? What politicians are we electing? Are the right conversations being had?

I just had a friend go to Denver from Detroit a couple of weeks ago, and he came back and said, "Yeah, public transportation is amazing — but the new construction in Denver is atrocious, and thank God we're Detroit and not Denver." I've seen that new construction, and it is all built to dissolve in two decades. This will be an infrastructure nightmare in twenty years. But you need mass housing, and they are throwing it up quickly and it's cheap — yet they are charging high prices for it, so I also think it becomes a problem where people don't want to pay for quality. Quality is expensive.

So, should zoning talk more about architecture? I was very active when we did the rezoning of Colfax, making it form-based zoning, which I really believe in. I think it allows us to get over issues of use and really think more about issues of architecture and integration with streets — where we put our density and how we're dealing with transportation, and how we do more of that while embracing architectural standards. How do we allow cities to evolve and grow like that? Again, we can't trap them in amber, so how do we not expect developers to do shoddy versions of what was done in the past? How do we allow great, bold, new, modern experimentation in these neighborhoods as well?

What I appreciated about your book is that you show how each person's story is really specific to the individual. We can't just look at "newcomers" to a city and assume, because they may appear a certain way, that they are all the same. You grew up in a working-class, rural town, and your family experienced bouts of near-poverty as they worked hard to keep your lives afloat — something not visible when you're, say, applying to add a dog park to a neighborhood in Brooklyn. It seems that we so often divide ourselves into categories like "local" and "transplant" without even knowing each others' stories.

One of the things I've been talking about a lot since the book came out.... People who have read the book have one perception of me, and people who have read certain articles about the book have a different perception — not because any of those articles are bad or wrong, but because they could only tackle a little bit and not put me in the full context. If you don't know that I grew up poor in Colorado, if you don't know I came from rural America, if you don't know that my family is being gentrified out of their home, too, you have a very different perception of who I am as I've embarked on this.

Yes, to check our own privilege is critical, but so is checking our assumptions. Where is the empathy to try to understand where other people are coming from and be surprised about what their backstory may be that maybe they don't let on? I've got a very good friend who is a high-powered foundation officer here in Detroit, and you would never know that he is also the first one in his family to go to college or some of the family stuff he deals with, because he doesn't talk about it. People then perceive him one way. I'm like, no. He knows what you're going through and what the experiences are firsthand. When people realize that, all of a sudden they see him in a different light and his decisions in a different light, and they're willing to work with him. So how do we check our assumptions about each other? 

Yes! And how do we make sure to learn that about each other before we start in on the assumptions that create divisions?

Here in Detroit, it's "new" Detroit versus "old" Detroit — which just sort of separates us all and is more dangerous than it is useful, even though the stereotypes are there for a reason, as they always are. But those labels really keep us from understanding the newcomers and why they are coming in, or newcomers being able to figure out what natives are looking for and why there's this really strong conflict. Sometimes people don't come with open hearts and open minds. Some people are great people and want to be a part of a community; some people are just trying to live their lives in anonymity and don't care about community, and that is also a conflict.

When it comes to the old-versus-new issue, something I notice in conversations with strangers I meet in line at a coffee shop or something is that they ask me, "Are you from here?" When I say yes, their tone changes like I've said the secret word allowing me into some club where they can now talk frankly about Denver — and the city is what everyone wants to talk about right now. 

Before and after photos from Matilda's renovation.EXPAND
Before and after photos from Matilda's renovation.
Amy Haimerl

I'm still friends with a lot of friends on Facebook, and I watch the dialogues and the fights. I'm good friends with Lauri Lynxxe Murphy [who writes the Mayday Experiment column for Westword] and she's definitely on the forefront of a lot of those conversations. Also, watching people interact with that whole conversation — newcomers wondering why Denverites are able to count how many generations back they go, and why does it matter? They're like, "I just came here to live my life, why do I have to be this person who is attentive to all of your damn needs?" Again, that goes back to checking your privilege and checking your assumptions. All of us have some level of that that we bring to the table — it's hard, I get that.

Those newcomers are thinking about how they might bring up the economy. How can that be bad? And they're right — how can it be bad? Yet, when you were there before and suddenly feel invisible, it's really easy to start feeling left out and feeling hurt. When we're hurt and scared, we get angry. We put the chip on our shoulder and react from the anger.

What about Detroit has changed since you moved there?

Yeah. When we moved to Detroit, it could be an hour for emergency medical response to arrive, or the police. Now we're down to about eight to ten minutes, which is the national average. Half of our streetlights didn't work; now the city is pretty much lit up. We have trash pick-up again, we have recycling — these are all things that sound like nothing to most cities, because they're givens. But in Detroit, it has been years since citizens have been able to enjoy that.

There's a lot of development and new construction, new housing being built in downtown. It's the first time in years anything new is being built. It's sort of what I call the Golden Bubble of Greater Downtown — it's a 7.2-mile circle of beauty, and new things happening just as you would expect. But we have 130 other square miles that it has to start working its way out into. People can be very impatient for that to come — as they should be — but at the same time, there is so much infill that needs to be done that this will be a long-term project. I think it should be a long-term project, because if we try to rush it too much, you get shoddy work, cheap construction and corruption.

Let's think about the fact that we are reinvesting and rebuilding an entire infrastructure, and take that very seriously. We want to do it quickly and to the point where the city isn't sitting here abandoned and vacant for decades upon decades again, just because we can't make a decision about what to do. The seriousness it requires, rebuilding a system for generations to come — like the lighting. You don't often rebuild a city's lighting grid, so when you do it, you want to do it quickly, because we just want lights on, but you also want to do it right and do it for the next hundred years. That's where I think Detroit is right now.

I think Denver could take a cue from that notion of doing it right and planning for the next hundred years instead of whatever we're currently doing.

I don't know if Detroit is doing it well, but we’re trying. We're figuring it out. 

Amy Haimerl returns to Denver this Wednesday, June 15, for a book signing and discussion led by Westword editor Patricia Calhoun. Join them from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Tattered Cover LoDo; the event is free, and books will be available. For more information or to purchase a signed copy of Detroit Hustle, visit the bookstore's website. To follow Haimerl's past and current renovation adventures with her Detroit house, Matilda, go to her site.

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