As the former organizer of the summer film series, Red Hook Ficks, Amy Haimerl’s name often popped up in our inbox with word of the latest lineup. Her emails quietly stopped a few years ago, and then a few weeks ago we got another one from Amy about her new memoir, Detroit Hustle, which details her move with her husband to the Motor City, and their rehab of a 1914 Georgian Revival home in its West Village neighborhood. (Curbed Detroit recently featured all the pretty “after” photos.)
As any normal New Yorker with an overactive imagination about what life must be like in Detroit, I devoured her book–and was reminded often of Brooklyn. Putting down roots in a city with such disparate economic classes is a familiar story here, too, as couples and families make a home for themselves in gentrifying neighborhoods of Brooklyn alongside longtimers who can’t afford to do the same.
Obviously, things are much different in Detroit. The level of blight and poverty in the Motor City is unlike anything most New Yorkers have ever experienced. Nearly 40% live below the poverty line, and the median income is under $30,000 a year (compared to roughly $50,000 in NYC, which is closer to the national average). In one visit back to Red Hook, Haimerl and her husband are amazed at how much copper wiring, sheet metal, and shopping carts they see in plain sight, considering these things are so thoroughly scrapped from homes, neighborhoods and streetlamps in Detroit.
It is pretty unimaginable to think that half of Detroit’s streetlights do not work because of scrapping and a lack of resources to replace them. But this state of affairs has also lent the city a phoenix-from-the-ashes appeal that we’re constantly reading about. We’ve all seen the Style section pieces about Detroit becoming a haven for artists, ex-Brooklynites and small business owners. Haimerl reveals this side of Detroit not as an onlooker, but as someone who’s become a part of its community. She also dispels a lot of its myths, starting with the fact that the dream of buying a home in Detroit on the cheap is just that–they’re incredibly expensive to repair and good luck getting a mortgage.
Haimerl also spends a good deal of time delving into the thorny issues of gentrification, too, particularly as a woman who grew up poor and worked her way to the middle class. Not the “middle class” of Brooklyn that can afford a million dollar brownstone and another $500,000 in renovations. But the middle class of Detroit, where you are lucky to have a well-paying job.
The questions are ultimately the same, though, in both scenarios. How do you become a part of a community when some members view you as a gentrifier? How do you make peace with the fact that you have the means to invest in a home when many around you cannot?
One of the pleasures of the book is the way Haimerl weighs these questions in her honest, compassionate voice. We asked her a few more questions about Detroit Hustle, below. You can also hear her tomorrow night in Red Hook, in a conversation with journalist Laura Holson. (more…)