'Detroit Hustle': the story of a couple who put their faith in urban renewal

Author Amy Haimerl and her new husband, Karl, buy the battered shell of a house in Detroit for $35,000. The costs prove greater than they could have imagined.

Compelling memoirs don’t just recount an author’s travails and successes; instead, they enable a reader to more deeply experience another person’s life in narrative that makes one wiser for having ridden shotgun.

By this measure, there is a lot to like about Detroit Hustle. And a lot to learn about how banking policies can undermine struggling US cities.
Most of all, “Hustle” inspires by detailing how author Amy Haimerl audaciously does something many of us would cringe to contemplate: She and her new husband, Karl, buy the battered shell of a house in Detroit for $35,000, intending to rebuild it and make it their home.

Matilda, the name they give their 1914 brick Georgian revival, is rotting and has been gutted by scrappers – people who break into a property and rip out everything that can be sold. Early on, Haimerl makes an assessment: “There is essentially nothing left inside the walls. Every pipe, every radiator, every wire is stripped. Every door is missing.... What we have is a pile of bricks with character.”

Then, in July 2013, just five weeks after buying Matilda, the picture gets darker. Detroit, having been financially on the ropes for years, declares bankruptcy.

Here’s where we learn about dedication to a dream – Haimerl’s dream of helping “creat[e] a sustainable community” – and about swimming against the financial tide. The couple can’t get a loan – even a Federal Housing Administration 203(k) “rehab loan.” They end up “bust[ing] open” their 401(k)s and borrowing money from relatives.

“This city has no hope of recovering,” Haimerl complains, “if middle-class couples ... can’t get a mortgage or a loan to buy and rehab properties.” Meanwhile, among other extraordinary expenses, they receive a giant tax bill of $55,000 triggered by having cashed out their retirement plans.
So do they succeed?

The author sets the stage for answering this question by sharing her own poignant back story. She calls herself “a girl from a trailer in Colorado”– her father’s employment struggles introduce her early on to poverty – but she manages to get an education and make a career for herself writing and editing business journals and other publications. She comments: “Rural Colorado seeped into my very being; the people’s resilience and determination, their sheer force of will to make something out of nothing....” In other words, she learned to hustle to survive, just as they do in Detroit.

Along her windy path to Detroit, she moves to New York, where she meets Karl. The two of them enthusiastically weave themselves and their dogs into the edgy but colorful Red Hook neighborhood in Brooklyn.

Then Haimerl gets a Knight-Wallace Fellowship at the University of Michigan. They rent a home in gentrified Ann Arbor but miss living in a place that is gritty and big-city urban – like Red Hook.

Karl announces he wants to set down roots in Detroit. He wants to be “part of rebuilding Detroit.” Amy “imagine[s] Detroit as Red Hook writ large.” But initially, she “was not prepared for the devastation and poverty....”

They find Matilda in the historic West Village neighborhood – a place where the community has remained relatively strong and where there are signs of revival, unlike areas that are “full-on Chernobyl.” Soon it “feels like a homecoming.” “Detroit has identity and soul,” Haimerl says. “It shapes you, evolves you, challenges you, moves you.”

Haimerl provides an absorbing account of how Matilda is reanimated as she and Karl integrate themselves into their new community, building a network of friends and hangouts. A big first step: They find a dedicated contractor who becomes their friend and adviser.

Bit by bit, all the while scraping money together to keep the project going, they replace the roof, the windows, the plumbing – virtually everything but the walls. Ultimately they invest more than $400,000 and secure a loan for a portion of this amount.

Finally, Matilda is done as Detroit emerges out of bankruptcy. “How different the West Village is in just two years.... [T]here are new businesses open and thriving....”

But as Haimerl points out, West Village has seen earlier turnarounds – hints of potential to reverse the long slide to where “Detroit” is shorthand for a failed city. City finances could implode again.

Readers will root for Haimerl, who has written such an arresting memoir, and for Detroit to succeed – and for her to write a progress report in a few years on her intrepid home and “community building” endeavor.

David Hugh Smith frequently reviews books for The Christian Science Monitor.

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