–By Marie Taylor
My latest read, Detroit Hustle: A Memoir of Love, Life & Home by Amy Haimerl (published in 2016 by Running Press) has been the perfect way to begin this new year. Besides tackling hard-hitting issues that are near and dear to my heart, the author humorously mixes stories from her past with present adventures (and misadventures) about renovating an old house in Detroit, Michigan.
Amy Haimerl didn’t set out to become a homeowner in Detroit. Growing up in a blue-collared area of Colorado and later moving to Denver and New York City, the author did not originally envision herself moving into one of the most dangerous and economically depressed cities in the U.S. It was while she was entrenched in a journalism fellowship at the University of Michigan that she and her husband Karl fell in love with the struggling city. After the fellowship ended, Haimerl and her husband wanted a city to set down their roots in, so they decided to buy a charming-but-gutted house located in a working-class area of Detroit.
While working on this house (cheekily named “Matilda”), the couple throw themselves into becoming Detroiters while supporting the local businesses and community projects. The author and her husband go through the pitfalls and triumphs of loving a troubled city like Detroit. Haimerl also takes us through her working-class childhood in Colorado and through her personal experiences renovating spaces in Denver and later the trendy area of Red Hook in Brooklyn, New York. As the author moves us through the renovation of Matilda, we get a glimpse into her past as well as the current issues that plague Detroit.
I loved this book, and not just because the author focuses on my hometown of Detroit. I loved the way the author describes the city, the way she captures that love/hate relationship that those of us from rough urban areas in the Midwest feel for our cities. Legacy cities like Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, and Memphis don’t always get the credit they deserve. However, it’s these cities that have the greatest potential for change in the coming years.
I connected with this story as a person who understands and believes in the power of Detroit. But even I recognize that the problems and uncertainty that come with the city can be overwhelming. Looking at this from the author’s perspective, which is that of someone who does not necessarily have to love a city like Detroit, I am very impressed at the author’s willingness to deep-dive into a gritty and sometimes unwelcome culture.
This book is a relatively simple and quick read, but do not mistake its simplicity for superficiality. The author still explores issues such as racial disparity, gentrification effects, and other ongoing urban problems that cities like Detroit are having to deal with. The author doesn’t hold back about these issues, and it is refreshing for an author in her predicament to take an honest look at her privilege and understand how existing communities in Detroit may find it hard to identify with many outsiders moving in to “fix” the city.
While I have the floor as a native Detroiter, I’m going to let you in on some true points from the memoir about the city of Detroit and its people. First, Detroit is still an awesome and inspiring city. There is crime, racial tension, and an exceedingly high number of abandoned structures, but there is also hope. Detroit maintains a thriving food culture, a distinct musical past, enormous amount of up-and-coming businesses, and the potential for significant social change within a city setting.
Second, Detroiters are used to being the butt of people’s jokes, but we generally have the last laugh when we think about how other cities are not doing too much better. We love the Red Wings, the Tigers, and the Pistons, and we put on our Lions jerseys during football season because that is what you do, no matter how much it hurts. Oh, and we freaking LOVE Coney dogs! Detroiters hustle, even when there are obstacles as large as Joe Louis’ fists in the way.
To be honest, I was ready to be extremely critical of this book and of an author trying to summarize such a complex place like Detroit. My Detroit history aside, I wasn’t ready to hear another hipster preach (sorry hipster friends) about how affordable and easy it is to buy a dilapidated house in Detroit (gentrifying the area). Then claim that this is a movement to bring “culture” back into the city. For those that think me cynical for saying it, I would argue that this tends to be people’s motives for moving to a place like Detroit. Forget that culture can’t technically be brought back, because it never left. The author understands this point and does her best to address this and other issues, all while still acknowledging her own unique point of view. All-in-all, I came away impressed by this author and her willingness to tackle a tough subject in a humorous and personal way.