When I tell my ESL students that I’m from Detroit, it doesn’t matter where they’re from in the world, they almost always tell me about what they’ve seen in the news about the city (with the notable exception of an Italian hockey fan who blurted out “RED WINGS!” as soon as I said ‘Detroit’). Almost without fail, they say they’ve seen pictures of gutted houses and ask me if that’s the reality in Detroit. And the answer is: Well, yes and no.
As a part of the rebuilding program after Detroit’s bankruptcy case – locals call it taking the city back – empty houses are being either sold cheap or knocked down, and the lots sold off cheap. That means that there’s a lot of affordable real estate in the city. And there are people taking advantage of the situation.
I always mention the arts and crafts movement in Detroit while talking to my students, and how artists, chefs, and entrepreneurs are moving to Detroit to capitalize on the opportunities that come along with a city redefining itself. Recently, I found out that the movement extends to architects and interior designers as well.
Luckily for all of us, there’s a way to enjoy all that new architecture. The Weird Homes Tour is a nation-wide organization that puts together – you guessed it – tours of weird and unique homes all across the country. It works like this: Participants buy a ticket to the event and receive a wristband when they show up at the first location they visit on the tour. That wristband allows entry to all the homes on the tour. The whole thing is self-guided, so tour-ees drive themselves to the locations, and the homes can be visited in any order. Part of the proceeds from the ticket sales go to local charities. The proceeds from the Weird Homes Tour in Detroit went to the United Housing Coalition, which provides housing assistance to people with low incomes.
So it was both an excuse to get out of the house on a Saturday afternoon and a charity event. What’s not to love? (Also, Detroiters love things like this – we take great pride in our city, and we relish every opportunity to see and support the cool things being done by our neighbors.)
When we did the tour, the first place we stopped was listed as the Fortress of Fun on the tour map. From the outside, it didn’t look like much – we even wondered if we were at the right address. The owners had clearly taken advantage of the cheap real estate and custom-built their house from the ground up.
If the outside was not what we had expected, the inside totally made up for it. The foyer was essentially an art gallery, with several installations of modern art, including some pieces that poked fun at the whole modern art movement.
The living area was amazing. The statement fireplace, cozy furniture, and bright contrasts made the inside simultaneously modern and comfortable. I was jealous of the comfy-looking reading nook in the corner by the fireplace, but my mother was covetous of the 12-seater dining room table.
They even utilized the outside of the building, turning the roof into an urban retreat, hot tub and all. And another huge dining table.
To me, the Fortress of Fun is a great little microcosm of what’s going on in the greater Detroit area. The neighborhood wasn’t great, and there were several empty lots right behind it, but this house was trying to do something cool. We spoke with one of the homeowners while we were there, and she said that it was a labor of love between her and her husband: He’s an architect, and she’s an interior designer, so the term seemed especially appropriate. But that’s how Detroit is going about things right now. We’re doing cool things, creating beauty where we can, utility where we should, and using what we’ve got, one cheap lot at a time.