My first year in Detroit

A lot happened over the last year. A lot of great, exciting things. Today marks one year from the day that I moved into my new home, the city of Detroit.

I started out in a 270 sq/ft studio apartment in a very eccentric building downtown called The Leland. I was severely overweight. I had no job and I was struggling to get by on unemployment. I did what I had to do to hustle and get by, while I volunteered my time trying to help a start-up get off the ground. My opportunities started to wear thin, and things were looking really grim. My car died and I had to rely only on my bike and our antiquated public transit system to get around. Then, I realized that my unemployment benefits were coming to an end.

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A week in Detroit

I’ve been living in Detroit for a week now. In that time I have:

  • Eaten in Mexicantown twice
  • Shopped at Eastern Market
  • Walked my dog around the neighborhood every day
  • Walked to Midtown
  • Gone to the “Dlectricity” special event in Midtown
  • Rescued a neighbor’s dog
  • Met 3 new neighbors
  • Been awoken by a midnight street party next door
  • Watched as the only favorably-viewed city official, Police Chief Godbee, resigns amid scandal

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Rescuing Tallulah

The view from our back porch towards the two privacy fences separating us.

It was Monday morning and I was working in the office at the Sullivan House. I heard a very bad noise – something like high-pitched yelling mixed with dog screeching. I walked out on the back porch where I found Brian and Nicole looking with concern toward our neighbor’s house two doors down. Joe was in his yard next door looking in the same direction and asked loudly, “Do you need help?” The reply was a mixture of more horrible noises but I caught the word ‘help’ in there.

Brian, Nicole, and Joe all started a fast walk to the front of the houses. I looked at the two privacy fences separating us and thought, “Sure why not,” and off I went. I jumped from the porch onto the first fence, eyeing Joe’s large dog Misty. “Hope she’s as friendly as I think!” I thought as I jumped into Joe’s yard and ran across it. Misty just watched. I jumped and grabbed the top of the next privacy fence and vaulted over the top. As I hit the top, I saw a woman restraining a pit bull to keep it away from a small beagle. She was frantic and yelling barely coherently. “Well, hope I don’t get mauled!” I thought without pausing and into the yard I plunged.

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The Unpackening

We moved into Detroit on Saturday, the 29th of September, 2012. I forced the issue by scheduling the moving van because the dual-house utility bill situation was untenable. We made two trips with the moving van and got nearly everything. As of today, there’s still a car load or two of things in the Warren garage plus a few electrical fixtures we need to retrieve. It was an exhausting, 12-hour day that was only possible because of the help of our awesome friends.

Our first mission was the kitchen. That’s the one room in the house that, as of last night, was basically finished. Everything is where it goes, and oh man, what a great room. There is tremendous amounts of storage space, plenty of counter room, and the coffee / microwave table from the Warren house has been repurposed as an island. It came with casters and side pot-hanging racks that I’d just stored in the basement the last four years. Well, they’re attached now, and what a transformation. It’s probably the most fantastic repurposing of a piece of furniture I’ve ever seen.

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Time to get into Detroit

The city inspection was… enlightening. After all my panicking over details, the inspector was completely relaxed and complimented the work we’d done. “A lot of these places are terrifying. This is a lot better than I expected,” he said after we’d completed the first floor.

When I asked about the criteria for passing, he basically indicated we weren’t anywhere near passing, saying, “Man, everyone fails. New buildings fail. They think they have paint on the walls but it’s just primer,” and so on. He probably checked even more boxes than the first inspection. Some of them weren’t even accurate, but it seems a moot point for now based on the rest of our conversation.

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Pulling the trigger

It was difficult to pick up the phone. It was time to deal with the thing that’s been weighing on me for nine months and it felt like the edge of the high dive. In the end, I had to drive downtown anyway to fill out the form to get a new city inspection. My destination was the Wayne County Building, the site of my closing day existential crisis. But this time, everything was different.

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The cold returns

Tuesday was the first day of autumn in Detroit. Technically the Autumnal Equinox is Saturday, but Tuesday was the day the weather changed from shorts to pants. It was the day that hot tea mid-afternoon became a brilliant idea to ward off the chill. Down at the Sullivan House, the warmth coming from the now-functional back loop (half) of the radiator system felt wonderful on my cold hands.

With the cold came a powerful recollection of the numbness of last winter when we were focusing on bare necessities and worried for our safety. It’s amazing the difference that light, heat, and solid doors make on your perception of a place.

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Gently sways the carriage house

When I got to the house Saturday morning, I was ready to start tearing the roof off the carriage house. Our friend Ryan drove into town from Wisconsin to help, and a dumpster had been delivered for depositing the carnage. But you know the day is going to have a twist when Andy, our contractor, greets you with “You want the good news or the bad news? The good news is it’s a sunny day.”

When Andy had climbed the ladder to the carriage house roof, the entire building shifted. Further review of the structure inside made him believe the entire building was listing to one side and might possibly be ready to tip over. Our plans for the day were immediately scrapped and reorganized, and we made some calls to get a second opinion on the carriage house’s condition. I did my best to remain calm.

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Unwinding to refocus

I’ve been a massive ball of stress lately. We don’t know when eviction might come at the Warren house, and we don’t know how much notice we’ll get. The uncertainty creates massive anxiety for all of us, because there are a lot of steps to be taken before we can safely move in to the Sullivan House.

I didn’t really see how tightly I was wound though until I left town for the fourth annual Icrontic Rennfaire event in Maryland. Despite having no time to relax, the Rennfaire is, to me, non-optional. It’s the only time I get to visit my awesome friends Anne & Eli in Alexandria, VA each year, and I’ve never missed one. So, off I went. And when I came back, everything was different.

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On hipsters in Detroit

Hipsters take over Detroit

“Hipsters go home” was the comment on Reddit in /r/Detroit in response to an article on Huffington Post entitled “Detroit: From Ruin Porn to Cool Again“.

This is a common theme in discussions on Reddit and in other online forums. A few times a month, someone comes in to the Detroit subreddit asking about the city (I’m moving to Detroit, what’s good?) and living there (Is Detroit really as bad as they say?). Almost inevitably, there will be someone mentioning the “hipsters” and how they’re bad/good/awesome/terrible for the city.

There seems to be an undercurrent of loathing for these hipsters that are somehow ruining everything that was ever cool about Detroit. I can’t tell if it’s bitterness that suburban kids who used to party in the city couldn’t make a go of it, or if it’s somehow racially motivated (there are black hipsters too!), or if it’s just the general attitude that comes with any revival or change movement. There’s a lot of resentment, regardless. Some of it takes the flavor of “We’re doing just fine without you, stay out” while others seem to be of the mindset that hipsters are only here for the short-term, and once they realize how gritty the city actually is, they’ll bail to fairer shores.

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My morning commute

We’ve been working our tails off to get moved into the Sullivan House by the end of the month. It’s a breakneck pace, and it’s wearing us down pretty fast. I arrived at the house before 8am today to have the kitchen floor measured. Today was special because several key things came together.

First, we now have wifi. Internet means I can do my job (for Vanilla Forums) from the house. Second, we have a water filter installed and a microwave. That means… hot tea!

I sat out on the porch for the first half of my day, the morning summer sun rising. Joggers, deliverymen, neighbors walking dogs, flier hangers, and the postwoman all passed by. A neighbor moved in. I waved to a lot of people. And worked. It was a perfect peaceful morning and I got a ton done.

As I sipped on my tea to keep warm, it hit me: this is my new morning commute. After all this moving crap is done… I get to sit on the porch of our new castle to do what I love while the neighborhood hums quietly around me.

Glorious. Onward.

Fever pitch

It’s a downhill boulder now. Boxes are packed up at our old house, we’ve moved several things already, and contractors are at the house almost every day working on getting things ready. Oven delivery

Today we accepted delivery of a new stove, and a masonry contractor came out to give us a quote on chimney repairs. The Soley guys are just about finished installing the ultra high-tech condensing boiler system that makes our basement look even more like a mad scientist laboratory. They’ve also re-plumbed the hot water line in the house, replacing a bunch of useless old galvanized pipe, and removed the old water tank.

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Zero hour

It’s getting down to the wire. Renovations are ramping up to a fever pitch. As of this moment, we have calls out to Comcast, a plumber, a scaffolding contractor, a masonry repair contractor, and a roofer. The new boiler system is halfway installed, and the majority of the interior has been primed with at least one coat of primer.

Boiler

Boiler!

The problems we had with primer peeling off in massive sheets are gone, as oil-based primer has solved the issue. The last “frighteningly high-up” surfaces have been covered with primer, and the kitchen is nearing completion (paint is done, sink is installed, light fixtures are up, and fan is installed). Continue reading

Roller coaster

I got sucker punched, so I snapped right back. I got together a mess o’ gear, donned goggles & mask, and tore into that mold-infested space with a crowbar and a huge bucket of bleach water.

Terror building as I prepare to enter the void.

I took out two big bags of shattered drywall and found… nothing. Well sure, there was some white and yellow mold, and there was indeed a strip of black mold by the opening. But that strip quickly fell to my spray bottle, and its expected siblings were nowhere to be found. The darkness and stench had fooled us.

Actually... it kinda looks OK. Huh.

Suddenly, I had a manageable project again.

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Sucker punch

Last week was a setback. Today, it was a sucker punch.

Andy and I were investigating why the walls in the rear stairwell were always damp. I’d previously determined the walls outside weren’t leaking, but we went outside and had another look anyway. Nope, still fine. But the walls were definitely abnormally damp, even after repeated priming and spackling. Then Andy said those fateful words: “It can’t be coming up from the ground, can it?”

He asked if it was wet under the stairs. I said “You can’t get under the stairs, it’s sealed off,” and my stomach dropped a little as I could see where this was going.

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HDC spanks Ohio man for pillaging Detroit historic mansion

Mike Mallet of Ohio picked up a helluva deal when he bought the former Van Dyke Place restaurant for $115,000. Curbed Detroit did some sleuthing and found that Mr. Mallett is already building a home in Port Clinton. So why would he want the restaurant? Maybe to steal all its architectural details and ship them up north? Hard to say.

Well, unfortunately for the Ohioan buzzard, the Historic District Commission had something to say about that. The former Van Dyke Place restaurant is located in East Indian Village, which, like Boston Edison, is protected by a local historic district. That makes looting its architectural treasures illegal. Mallett now has until August 8th to present plans to restore the property.

Enjoy fixing up your Detroit treasure, Mr. Mallett. You’ve earned it.

Setback

For the last week or so, we’ve been sanding, prepping, spackling, and priming the front foyer and front main hallway of the house.

It took four days and nine coats of primer to turn the formerly pink plaster walls white:

Primer on walls in Sullivan house

White walls!

It was exciting. The walls were old plaster, dyed pink from some previous wallpaper (most likely), and a bunch of us put a ton of work into patching, sanding, and priming them. It took nine coats of primer (two of PVA primer and seven of Killz) to get to these smooth white masterpieces, ready for painting.

The hallway complete, we started sanding and priming the round tower room in the front of the house yesterday. Perry and Kyle helped prime and we got one coat on the entire room.

Today Lincoln, Nicole, and I returned to continue priming. I poured the primer and got ready to apply a second coat to the foyer.

That’s when I noticed the blister.

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Raise the roof

Today I made a decision on the carriage house roof. We’ll be removing the old roofing materials ourselves and building the subroof. Then a professional roofing company will install a metal imitation shake shingle roof. It will be the second truly major expense of this project, on par with the boiler and heating system repairs. And, we’ll be doing it in the next month.

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Preserving the Sullivan House: A request for help with wooden trim

The Sullivan House has matching, original handcrafted wood trim around every door and window in the entire house. The wood is gorgeous, and it’s a very bold and wide trim. In fact, I’m resolved to removing the paint from every inch of it in the entire house because it’s a crime for it to be covered.

In the renovated kitchen and bathroom, we need new trim to replace pieces that were lost, broken, or no longer cut correctly from before the renovation. We have sources for trim, of course, but it will be a poor substitute for the original. In the kitchen, especially, it will stick out like a sore thumb against the originally-trimmed windows. Getting it professionally custom cut seems prohibitively expensive.

Does anyone out there have the ability to either produce custom cut trim or produce router bits for custom patterns? Of course, if someone has the actual rotary tool for producing custom trim (I’m forgetting the name presently) that would be amazing. Additionally, if anyone has skill at identifying and matching wood types, I’d appreciate help with that as well.

The Force is strong in the Sullian House

I met our contractor Andy at the house this morning and we talked strategies and solutions for a lot of issues throughout the house. Smoothing walls, minor electrical fixes, appliance and cabinet installation, and door placements were some of the many things that came up. I notice a water leak in the upstairs near the rear chimney, and a litany of smaller issues.

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Roofing estimates

I had an agent from American Metal Roofs come out and check out the Sullivan House. I’ve been interested in metal roofs for a while now. My uncle originally mentioned them to me after discussing them with my cousin, who’s an architect. They are essentially permanent insofar as they’ll never need to be replaced again in my lifetime, and they absorb far less heat. You can also get them in various styles, like vintage shake shingles to match the original style of my house, and they look damn good.

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Gotta go fast

There’s an undercurrent of panic in my actions.

We have five weeks until eviction from our home in Warren will be looming over our heads. We have no firm date, only the knowledge that August is when our six months of foreclosure grace is ending.

The kitchen and bathroom are so close to completion, but so far away. We have dozens of gallons of paint in our immediate future. There are some major undertakings left, including siding and gutter repairs. The City of Detroit inspectors could conceivably stop me from occupying the house until every single thing is complete. I don’t see how it’s possible to reconcile that with our deadline.

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Turning a house into a home

As the months drone on, with some weekends bringing big improvements and some none at all, we find ourselves in a rut. “Going to the house” becomes something of a chore. It’s just a thing we do, as the passions fade and the work never seems to end.

Some days, we go to the house and do almost nothing at all except walk around looking for something to do. The most miniscule things derail us: Oh, a wire didn’t get run, oh a tool was lost, oh we didn’t buy a tool we needed, oh we’re waiting for this… or that… or this…

Since this project began, one thing has been consistent: The times we really got a ton of work done were the times we were motivated and kickstarted by friends and family; when people show up to help, things really move quickly.

The rut manifested as the house becoming a job, or a “project”, in our minds. Other than ploddingly slow progress on the bathroom and kitchen, it still hasn’t felt like much more than a big job site. The things we do are things that don’t accelerate the move-in date. We repair walls. We move stuff from one room to another in a large-scale game of musical chairs. We do landscaping. We run network cables. We’re not contractors, and our expertise isn’t in things like HVAC systems and electrical.

What we needed was a morale boost.

What we needed was a party. Continue reading

Turbo mode

Some friends showed up for the weekend, our contractor Andy returned from his trip to the motherland, and suddenly we’re back to ludicrous speed at the Sullivan House. We’re aiming to have the kitchen and bathroom functional by Memorial Day weekend, and we’re well on our way. Check out the renovation log for what we’ve done the last couple weeks.

The last of the “junk” left by the previous owner exited the house yesterday, which felt like a big milestone. We’re getting ready to put up the kitchen ceiling, and the bathroom is almost ready for that magical moment we install a working toilet in the house. My current project is clearing the main room and office to prep for painting. As usual, we’re figuring it out as we go.

Two rooms have sold in the second & final round of sponsorships, but there’s still quite a few spaces available if you want your name to forever grace the halls of our new community headquarters.

A tale of two houses

My uncle visited again last week. It was his first time in the house since just before I bought it, and he was duly impressed with the improvements that had been made. It made me remember what things were like that day back in January, and it made me feel a little better about our progress. We’ve really done a lot in three months, but it never feels like enough when considering how much is left to do.

These days, a lot of things are moving between the two houses. Outdoor furniture and supplies head downtown, and left-behind junk for our impending yard sale heads to the suburbs. We typically only get to work on the house on the weekend, but it’s usually for 4-8 hour stretches when we do.

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The Detroit Egg debut tasting party

Detroit Eggs, after baking and before coating and frying

Detroit Eggs, after baking and before coating and frying

A couple of weeks ago I got a strange invite on Facebook to an event called “Detroit Egg tasting party at my house”. That’s a weird one, right?

The invite was from Norm “DJ Meph” Witte III, one of our very own contributors. The Detroit Egg was his baby, and he was ready to unleash it upon the city.

Here’s how the story goes:
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