Home

Home, boy / Home, boy / Everybody needs a home.
– Iggy Pop

I.

The very rich may differ from the non-rich, as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in a short story, and not just because they have more money, as Ernest Hemingway wrote in a story of his own. The very poor differ from the non-poor, and not just because they have less money. Degrees of wealth and property ownership largely determine how lives are lived. 

Perhaps some places prompt reflections on such matters more than others. In Detroit Hustle, Amy Haimerl describes her experiences of becoming a homeowner in a city going through bankruptcy proceedings. A white person from elsewhere who’s able to marshal hundreds of thousands of dollars to renovate an old house in a very poor, predominately black city is, as she acknowledges, unusual. Her memoir chronicles her and her husband’s efforts to create a home for themselves while being respectful of their neighbors and conscious of the very different circumstances of most of their adopted city’s fellow residents. 

My experiences of buying and fixing up a house in Detroit differed in many respects from Haimerl’s but also caused me to contemplate the ways financial resources (among other things) shaped my interactions with my surroundings. Unlike Haimerl, I grew up in Detroit (though, like her, I did spend several years in Brooklyn); when I bought a house I was returning to my hometown, not navigating new territory. When my wife and I first saw it, the house practically announced a personal connection, decorated as it was with memorabilia from the nearby university where my uncle played basketball in the 1960s under the coach who had lived in the place that became ours. Unlike Haimerl’s, our house had not sat vacant for years or been stripped. The coach’s widow had lived in it for half a century, and after we bought it following her death, her daughter found a photograph of her father and my uncle in the arena a few blocks away. If the animal-loving Haimerl felt she’d found the house to buy when she saw a cat walk across its roof, I thought I’d found the right house when I discovered this family association. (I later learned that my uncle had visited his coach’s house decades earlier.) Unlike Haimerl’s, our house was inhabitable; it had plumbing, electricity, a boiler, radiators, and a water heater. It did need a lot of work, though, and for some of the big jobs (a new roof, a new driveway, new windows) we turned to professionals. According to Detroit Hustle, Haimerl relied on contractors for all renovations and repairs. My wife and I, in contrast, did as much as we could – removing wallpaper, repairing plaster, and painting as well as minor electrical work and some plumbing – ourselves (with much help from my handy father).

Despite all these dissimilarities, however, Haimerl and I did have this much in common: we could both afford to buy and renovate an old building. Even if Detroit houses at the time had seemingly low purchase prices, as anyone who owns an old house can attest, remodeling and maintenance are not cheap, especially if the building had been basically abandoned, like Haimerl’s, or somewhat neglected, like ours. (The previous occupant of the house we bought was ninety and bed-ridden when she died in it; it’s understandable that she might not have been fully on top of the place’s upkeep.) As Haimerl describes in her book, it would have been essentially impossible to get a mortgage loan at the time we bought houses in Detroit; all deals were cash deals. My wife and I were able to draw on our savings, as were Haimerl and her husband, but they also needed loans to pay for their (much more extensive) reconstruction effort. Neither she nor I bought a house that had been foreclosed. (Hers had been previously purchased by a couple who had wanted to move into it but ended up being taken elsewhere by their jobs.) Even if we didn’t directly benefit from someone else’s financial misfortune, we did belong to a somewhat small group. While perhaps not the very rich (an even smaller group in Detroit), we were certainly not the very poor (a rather large group in Detroit). We had incomes and willingness to spend large amounts of money to transform old buildings. We chose to put more money into our houses than we’d be able to get out of them if we chose to sell anytime soon. We were different. 

Not so different that we could spend all the money we wanted to immediately and painlessly, as mogul Dan Gilbert apparently can when snapping up downtown skyscrapers, but different nevertheless. Our resources were not unlimited – Haimerl had to borrow money from family and then pay it back upon finally securing a bank loan after the appraised value of her rehabbed house increased, while my wife and I spread our various projects over the course of a few years instead of making all the changes we wanted at once – but they were considerable, at least in comparison to most other Detroiters. We could afford to make choices that might not be financially prudent simply because we decided to live in a city where houses were simultaneously extremely cheap and outrageously expensive. Haimerl’s $35,000 house ended up costing her about $400,000, no small sum in a city where, when she bought in 2013, the median sales price for a house was less than $20,000. 

II.

Whatever characteristics might set me apart from my neighbors, I’ve never felt at home in any of the other cities I’ve lived the way I have in Detroit. Familiarity is surely part of the reason. We bought a house not far from the one where I grew up and where my parents still lived (and not all that far from my uncle’s). The living room of my parents’ house was where my wife and I got married, in a ceremony performed by a judge who still lived down the street when we moved back to the city. Despite a long absence, I still had friends in the area – some who, like me, had departed and returned and others who never left. I still knew my way around the streets where I learned to drive decades earlier. All of the schools I’d attended in the city were still open, and although I’ve never been an exemplar of school spirit, I know other Detroiters witnessed all the schools they’d attended disappear, which they found disorienting and sad. (One of my former schools did close soon after I returned to town.) 

Familiar faces and landmarks alone do not make a place feel like home, however. I did live long enough in another city to make friends, establish routines, learn how to navigate its streets (and subway tunnels and bridges) and become more or less settled. We never owned property there, but we did consider buying. Yet plenty of people feel at home without ever buying a house or apartment; a deed does not make a home. Being a native doesn’t do it either: lots of other people in that other city grew up elsewhere, and they belonged there as much as anyone else. Though we didn’t know our residency there would be temporary (if lengthy), I’m not sure it ever really felt permanent either, and I was not sorry to leave. 

In many ways, the city we moved back to was very different than the one we’d left: far fewer people lived in it than once had, resulting in neighborhoods with many vacant homes, even as certain parts of the city were hugely transformed by new development. Not too long before we left, my wife and I lived in an area without a lot of options with regards to restaurants, so we were thrilled when a place opened just a block or so from our apartment. In addition to offering food and drinks, this café would regularly display the work of local artists, and the first piece of art we’d ever purchased came from a show there. When we came back, that area had become rather trendy and was filled with restaurants and shops. Not far away, a building that previously housed a bare-bones art gallery and an unlicensed after-hours joint (a “blind pig,” in local parlance) now boasted a popular bakery and boutiques that not only served the neighborhood but attracted patrons from the suburbs – folks not likely to have been seen in that part of town years earlier. Yet that place where we ate, drank, and purchased a photograph long before was still there, and still mounted art exhibits, and we again became regulars. Even with all the changes, much that was recognizable remained.

The restaurant’s patrons and employees always have been a diverse lot, as should be the case in Detroit: inside it looks like the city in which it’s situated. This might seem like an unremarkable thing to anyone unfamiliar with the city, but Detroit inculcates an awareness of race in all but the most oblivious (whom some might quip tend to live in the mainly white suburbs surrounding the mainly black city). If all or most people in a place in Detroit are white – something I don’t remember happening much when I was a child but discovered did sometimes happen after I moved back – it’s immediately noticeable. When I remarked after having dined at a new restaurant where everyone – both the customers and the workers (except perhaps for the dishwasher or others out of sight) – was white, that it just felt wrong, a (white) acquaintance replied that, as long at the establishment made no overt effort to exclude black people, then he saw no problem. To me, though, there is a problem. I can’t help wonder what makes a restaurant in city with Detroit’s demographic make-up draw (and hire) absolutely no black people. What about such a business makes members of the city’s black population feel unwelcome? I know it made me feel like I was in some outpost from another city; that is, I didn’t feel like home to me. And something about the place must signal to black residents that it is not intended for them – because what are the odds in a city where more than eight out of every ten residents are black that no black person would be visible? It certainly doesn’t feel accidental. And it definitely doesn’t feel right. 

It’s not just a matter of economics. Sure, Detroit’s poverty level is no joke, but to suggest that all black Detroiters are poor – too poor to patronize an upscale eatery, which would thus need to attract a suburban (i.e. white) clientele – would be absurd. I’ve been to equally pricey restaurants where my wife and I might have been the only white people on the premises (which makes sense, statistically). Even if they put no “Whites Only” sign hanging above the door, the owners’ decision to have an all-white staff sends a message about who they are comfortable with – and who they’re not. 

After living in Brooklyn, I lived in Portland, Oregon, for a few years, and if I wanted to be exclusively in the presence of white people I would have stayed there. 

III.

If home is where one has roots, then there’s nothing like deracination to make one appreciate those roots. It can take leaving your hometown to actually see and appreciate it. Moving to country where you’re far from fluent in the main language and where, when you arrived, you knew no one can be an overwhelmingly positive personal experience – as it was for me when I did it for a period in my twenties – but a profound sense of disconnection is likely to accompany it. For me, relying on English-language news sources meant I might have been informed about major stories of the day but knew little about what was happening locally. Even if I had been more aware of what was happening politically in the city where I lived, I would have little input regarding it, since I couldn’t vote there. Even after I figured out the transportation system and could find my way around town, virtually every turn of a corner yielded a new discovery rather than the reassuring familiarity of home. 

From such an experience, you recognize that home’s not merely a shelter (for I had that), or where you have family (for my wife was with me), or the place for which you carry a map in your mind (because you can develop more than one of those), or where you speak the language (because you can, theoretically anyway, learn a language anywhere with enough time). That’s not to say it’s some indescribable abstraction. 

If you’re lucky, as I have been, then home is nothing more (or less) than where you want to be. (And it makes all the difference if you can afford it.) 

John G. Rodwan, Jr., is the author of the essay collections Holidays & Other Disasters (Humanist Press) and Fighters & Writers (Mongrel Empire Press) and the co-author of Detroit Is: An Essay in Photographs (KMW Studio). His nonfiction and poems have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies. He lives in Detroit.