Detroit Hustle

A Memoir of Life, Love, and Home


By Amy Haimerl

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Journalist Amy Haimerl and her husband had been priced out of their Brooklyn neighborhood. Seeing this as a great opportunity to start over again, they decide to cash in their savings and buy an abandoned house for 35,000 in Detroit, the largest city in the United States to declare bankruptcy.

As she and her husband restore the 1914 Georgian Revival, a stately brick house with no plumbing, no heat, and no electricity, Amy finds a community of Detroiters who, like herself, aren’t afraid of a little hard work or things that are a little rough around the edges. Filled with amusing and touching anecdotes about navigating a real-estate market that is rife with scams, finding a contractor who is a lover of C.S. Lewis and willing to quote him liberally, and neighbors who either get teary-eyed at the sight of newcomers or urge Amy and her husband to get out while they can, Amy writes evocatively about the charms and challenges of finding her footing in a city whose future is in question. Detroit Hustle is a memoir that is both a meditation on what it takes to make a house a home, and a love letter to a much-derided city.


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Library of Congress Control Number: 2015959979

E-book ISBN 978-0-7624-5744-1

Typography: Apollo MT, Trump Gothic, Thunderhouse

Philadelphia, PA 19103-4371

To my mother . . . who loved me first

To my father . . . who loves me regardless

To my brother . . . who loves me anyway

To my husband . . . who loves me always

"There are cities that get by on their good looks, offer climate and scenery, views of mountains or oceans, rockbound or with palm trees. And there are cities like Detroit that have to work for a living."

—Elmore Leonard

i stare the house squarely in the eye. It stares back at me, unblinking, through its boarded-up windows.

Now, I say to it, now is the time. If you want us to build our lives here, you need to tell me now. This is your chance.

And I don't mean I say that in my mind. No, I am standing here in the early spring bluster, speaking out loud to a 1914 Georgian Revival that hasn't seen a better day in many, many days. The neighbors must think I am crazy or, more likely, just another New Yorker scoping cheap houses in the Motor City.

I impatiently tap my foot, daring the house to answer. My husband, Karl, looks on skeptically. And then, two signs: first, a giant white tomcat walks across the roof and stares at us, and second, as dusk settles over the city, a streetlight comes on. In a town known for its lack of working streetlights—and nearly every other city service—a puddle of gold is forming right outside what could be our window.

Karl and I look at each other expectantly, silently hoping the other one is going to do or say the sensible thing. Like walk away.

The house is a three-thousand-square-foot box of fuckedupedness. It has no plumbing. No electricity. No heat. And I don't mean it's just missing a toilet or a boiler—there is essentially nothing left inside the walls. Every pipe, every radiator, every wire is stripped. Every door is missing. Every light fixture is long gone. There is no water heater, no furnace. There are no kitchen cabinets or sink. No stove, no refrigerator. What we have is a pile of bricks with character. Let's be honest: the house could be used as a set for Falling Skies or any other postapocalyptic show.

Still, we are inexplicably smitten. We can already imagine our lives inside these walls, despite the peeling Pepto-Bismol pink paint, sagging ceilings, mold-speckled surfaces, and sunroom that is shedding its stucco and letting the wind and rain inside. Karl mentally places his Baldwin grand piano in that room and imagines it bathed in late-summer twilight. I hear him playing the jazz standards and rolling blues he's partial to as I cook dinner using tomatoes and basil grown from an imaginary garden right outside his floor-to-ceiling windows. For now, though, it is just that: imagination. Every window is boarded over, the entire place shrouded in musty darkness punctuated only by the occasional crack of light, dust motes dancing in the stream. We use the glow of our iPhones to inspect the damage, a little trepidatious to walk through the house. We don't even want to step into Karl's future music room because we fear the water-logged floorboards might collapse under our weight.

We venture up the staircase, which has the appearance of bad dental work thanks to all the missing and cracked balusters. We're cautious on the first few steps, testing them gingerly to see whether they hold. They do. Rocks and glass litter the cracked linoleum steps. As we walk past the stairwell window, we see tiny holes in the glass, evidence of how the debris came to be.

On the second floor the windows are mostly intact and unboarded, so we can actually see what lies before us. To our left are two bedrooms, one of which seems to be in decent condition. Although that's a lot like saying Velveeta is better than government cheese; there's only the finest line of difference. The better room has a hole in the center of the floor and features layers of peeling plaster and wallpaper. My favorite is a tiny 1940s-era floral print that peeps through in places.

This, I think, has potential. We could live in this room while we're renovating. I know the rule: take one room and make it your own. Frances Mayes taught me that lesson years ago when I read her book Under the Tuscan Sun. And again when I watched the movie, cheering on Diane Lane as she lovingly scoured a medallion of the Virgin Mary on her bed frame. I suddenly see myself in that movie, this house as my own Tuscan villa. How hard can it be? I think. Frances did it. (In my head we are on a first-name basis. I met her at a book signing once, so it's not totally crazy-town.)

Across the hall is the master bedroom and bathroom. Well, at least we think it is. This space is baffling: it is a warren of rooms that appear to have once housed a bedroom, a bathroom, and maybe a kitchen. There is a hole busted through the wall separating the bathroom and the "kitchen"—all the better to pass martinis and snacks to the person in the bath, perhaps? Where a tub once stood is now just a gaping maw. The sunporch is even more mold infested and rickety looking than Karl's piano room directly below.

"Maybe someone had tenants up here at one point?" Karl suggests. "It would explain that weird staircase coming up the back side of the house."

Regardless, it all has to go.

We walk upstairs to the attic, which is a completely raw space, bare down to the studs. The floorboards are rough and you can see where they were once encased in linoleum. But on each side of the house is a dormer with windows opening up onto the Detroit skyline. To the south I can see the Detroit River through the trees. I wonder whether, in the winter, I'll be able to watch the barges and freighters slip by. I just know if I strain my ears, I'll be able to hear the sounds of buoy bells and the forlorn call of a foghorn. I imagine a library up here in the eaves, an overstuffed chair tucked into one of the dormers so I can while away the afternoon, novels tugging me into imaginary worlds. This, I think, is my favorite room.

Karl and I make our way back downstairs, slowly descending into the darkness in search of the kitchen. We finally identify it only because there is nowhere else a kitchen could be. The space is actually a nest of rooms all connected to one another through random doorways, each so tight and cramped it feels like a prairie dog town. The walls are painted the color of lemon meringue pie, and neither of us can figure out where a refrigerator might have gone or how anyone actually cooked in here. There is a tiny vestibule that you could call a mudroom except that "room" is too generous a description; I'm not sure you could have two humans in it at once. I see many dog-human-coffee-leash fiascos happening here. Right now it is home to one rolling office chair and two Pepsi bottles filled with urine, signs of a former—or possibly current—squatter.

I try the back door and discover that it is nailed shut from the outside. It wouldn't have mattered: the house lacks a set of stairs to the ground. For now it is a door to nowhere.

Karl comes up from the basement to inform me that he found a toilet but is certain I don't want to see it. There is also a small brick room that would be a perfect cellar, its cool, dry environment useful for storing cases of wine as well as the pints of tomatoes, peaches, pickles, and jams I am already dreaming of canning each summer.

We walk outside to discover a long, lush backyard dotted with original gas lamps. Small purple globes of clover peek up through the grass. Maple trees and box elders line the yard on one side, shading a picturesque, ivy-covered carriage house. The remnants of a once-tended flower garden are evident, with spring bulbs sprouting and the heads of early daffodils bobbing in the wind. At the back of the long lot stands a three-car garage, its roof punctured by tree branches, that appears to be sinking into itself. Still, we look at each other in awe. We are not yet contemplating the maintenance and upkeep this yard will require; we are imagining the sparkling parties we could host.

The house is certainly nothing like what we imagined back home in Brooklyn. It's only been eight months since we left, but it feels like a lifetime ago. Back then Karl and I would often dream of a more sustainable life where we could try to open a business or work on a creative project without going bankrupt. We loved our neighborhood of Red Hook and couldn't imagine leaving, but we also couldn't imagine staying. Our rent was topping $3,500 a month, and we were working just to keep our middle-class life afloat. We'd be deep into the evening, after a third nightcap or so, and we'd pull up Google Maps and talk about where we'd go. I wanted New Orleans, but the South is too hot for my Tennessee-born spouse. We talked about the West, but I wasn't ready to return home to Denver. Most of California was out. Cleveland? Detroit without the cache. Philly? Maybe. Portland or Seattle? Hell, no. No tourist towns, with their happy lattes and endless bike lanes. Yes, those things are lovely and we enjoy them, but we wanted a place that was forging its future, not relaxing on its accomplishments. We wanted a working-class town with an entrepreneurial spirit.

Inevitably we would land on Detroit and the powerful lure of its cheap real estate. We fantasized about buying something small and quaint, fixing it up, and then enjoying a comfortable life with two salaries and no mortgage. We fancied ourselves economic refugees crashing on the shores of the Detroit River, coming to buy our freedom and future. But it was always just an idea, a possibility tucked safe within our minds. We were talking about Detroit in the dreamy way that New Yorkers always discuss other, less expensive locales and how much better it must be there. It's an idea, a game. You never actually do it.

Until you do. And then you find yourself standing in a city you barely know, in a neighborhood you can't pinpoint on a map, talking to a house that's most recent tenant was a raccoon.

We must be crazy. We have no family here, no ties to Detroit. Who moves to the murder capital of America to make a home and build a life?

A man walks across the street toward us, waving.

"Hi," he says. "I'm Jim Boyle."

Jim has lived across the street from this house for the past fifteen years, and it has been his nemesis for many of those years. He and the other neighbors have had to deal with boarding it up, mowing the grass, and doing their best to arrest the decay. They are desperate for someone to bring this house back to life and end the cycle of vandalism and squatting taking place on one of the best blocks in the city.

The house stands as an aging sentry on this quiet, leafy block on Detroit's east side. It is the last empty house to be found on Van Dyke Place in the historic West Village neighborhood, so named because it sits just to the west of the ritzier, more glamorous Indian Village. That neighborhood is known for its extravagant mansions with carriage houses and ballrooms that were once home to the likes of Edsel Ford and Henry Leland, the founders of Lincoln and Cadillac. Meanwhile, the West Village is the more middle-class sibling—though one with its own listing on the National Register of Historic Places. Both factory workers and the former secretary of the Navy have called these blocks home, dwelling in gracious Queen Annes, Victorian townhomes, and modest duplexes all tucked beneath a canopy of trees. Even the apartment buildings boast three-story Ionic porticos and intricate stone carving on the façades, hinting to an era when the city was flush with cash and had a penchant for the ornate.

Still, even here there are signs of the struggles that have beset Detroit. The sidewalks are buckled and cracked. Abandoned homes sit open and exposed, their tender underbellies ravaged by the weather and human desperation. Even occupied homes seem to be starving for attention and maintenance. Gutters sigh heavy in the wind, and melted vinyl siding provides lasting evidence of the frequent fires. The nearest retail establishment is a party store (Michigan-speak for a bodega or off-brand 7-Eleven) or the gas station two blocks away that serves up bait and tackle along with diesel and unleaded. Vacant, weed-infested lots spread like a virus around the edges of the West Village, and the main approach to the area is cloaked in darkness because there isn't a single working streetlight for blocks.

But we can also see the love just below the surface. Lawns are cut. Porches swept. Gardens planted. The empty lot next door to the house is maintained as the neighbors fight Detroit's tall prairie grasses, which can absorb a place as quickly as the kudzu of the South.

"What are your plans?" Jim Boyle asks. "Are you going to live in the house?"

His tone makes it clear that there is only one correct answer.

"Yes?" we reply, looking at each other and wondering what we have just committed to.

"You'll be fine. You can do this," Jim says. "My wife and I did ours, like, fifteen years ago. It'll be great."

detroit smells like home.

The warm sweetness of prairie grasses baking in the summer sun transports me back to the fields behind my grandparents' house. The almost licentious smell of the earth after an evening rainstorm is that of freshly irrigated crops. The intoxicating scent of honeysuckle vines climbing up chain-link fences and corrugated metal walls recalls the construction sites and scrap yards of my childhood. Rich wood smoke, curling through Detroit's sharp winter skies, is the smell of safety, of my mother. Grease, dirt, and sweat mix together to create the same musky scent of work that was always caught in my dad's Carhartts. The smells of my past mingle with my future, overlapping and intertwining like a jazz riff so that Detroit seems inevitable now, as if I'd been searching for this place since before I knew I was looking.

My hometown of Fruita, Colorado, is a place that feels like it's a thousand miles from nowhere. It sits almost at the Utah border, nestled in the Grand Valley, boxed in by gray shale cliffs to the north and red rock canyons to the south. The snow-capped Rocky Mountains rise in the distant eastern sky as the great Utah desert encroaches from the west. My mother describes it as the "lunar landscape"—when she's being generous—but there is great beauty in its harshness. Fruita, like Detroit, is not an easy or obvious place to love. They do not inspire poetry and serenades on first meeting. They are places that unfold slowly and whisper their secrets. It is the way the moonlight catches a rock face of the Bookcliffs or the majesty of a pheasant taking flight at dawn, with Detroit's art deco skyline in the distance. There is hardship writ everywhere in both of my spiritual homes, and they are connected, for me, across space and time by scent and the sound of the meadowlark's song on the wind.

How my truck-driver father convinced my middle-class mother to move from Denver and into his single-wide trailer in Fruita is as much a mystery now as me being drawn to Detroit. It seems implausible on the surface, but they were living on love. I was just four when we moved in with him, and the trailer was so tiny that I slept on the living room couch, lulled to sleep by the sound of train whistles calling across the night and their headlights dancing across the walls.

The mythology of the area is that the Ute Indians cursed the valley after being forced off their land and onto Utah reservations. It certainly felt cursed at times. In the summer the heat shimmered off the pavement by 10 a.m., so my mother and I always left early to run errands. If we didn't beat the heat, we'd be peeling our legs off the bench seat of Dad's 1973 Ford Highboy. The winter was equally brutal. I rode my bike to school each day, wearing a Union Bay fleece, head tucked into the funnel neck to protect my face from the biting wind. Riding blind, I ran my red Schwinn ten-speed into the back of so many parked cars that I bent the fork. After the fifty-eleventh time fixing that bike, my father threatened to take it away if I couldn't be more careful. The next time I crashed, careening into a ditch, I learned to ride with a wobble rather than admit what had happened. I couldn't lose that bike; it was my prized possession. I'd spent all summer hunting cans roadside, crushing them, and recycling the metal to afford an upgrade from the Huffy boy's bike that my dad scavenged from the desert behind my grandparents' place.

My life plan was to marry the neighbor boy and live in his chicken coop. I don't remember what kind of wedding I thought we would have—I was never that kind of girl, the one who dreams of dresses, flowers, and first-dance songs—but I thought Travis was kind, thoughtful, and funny. Or maybe I just liked his chickens. Either way, marriage was all that was expected of girls like me, living on the far western edge of Colorado in single-wide trailers, not even well-to-do enough to boast of double-wides. Husband. Babies. Cashier at the City Market. That would have been my future if Dick Haimerl had been a different kind of man.

But he told me I could be anything, do anything. I learned to read sitting next to him in the red Kenworth truck, hauling heavy loads across the West. His boss, Old Man Hall, didn't allow kids in his rigs, but Dad would occasionally sneak me along. I would crouch on the floorboards, and he would toss a blanket over my head until we passed the gates. Then it was him and I and the open road. Willie Nelson, C. W. McCall, and Crystal Gayle were the soundtrack to my childhood. I would sit next to him for hours, piecing together words out of local newspapers picked up in truck stops along the way. My dad's constant encouragement—despite what he told me later could be tedious and painful hours—became the foundation of our relationship and his way of helping a daughter grow beyond what he could imagine. After all, nobody in his family had gone to college, and women in particular weren't encouraged in that direction.

From the very beginning I was a daddy's girl. That Dick wasn't legally mine didn't matter to either of us. My mother has always said that if I were given the choice, I would love her but choose him. I was happier out of doors with Dad, sorting nuts and bolts or fetching tools, than inside with my mother. One summer he and I built a flat-bed trailer together, from the axles up.

"Hey, squirt," he'd say at the end of each day, inspecting our work-in-progress. "Go grab us a couple of Pepsis from your mom."

We would sit there together in the shade of the elm, legs dangling from atop the steel frame we'd erected.

Those were the good years, a brief period of bounty before the tough times hit. And when they hit, they hit hard and fast. One day Exxon was planning a huge investment in the area, touting the Grand Valley's shale cliffs as America's way of becoming energy independent. The next day Exxon was gone. It pulled out overnight, having decided the oil was too expensive to extract. The company took a hit on its quarterly earnings, a tiny blip in its stock price, but in the valley May 2, 1982 was Black Sunday. More than two thousand people had no job to report to on Monday morning. By the end of the summer more than 10 percent of the county's population had fled.

It was a recession that old-timers said rivaled the Great Depression. Exxon's decision rippled out across the economy, causing suppliers, retail businesses, restaurants—everything—to close their doors and board their windows. Maco, the company my father worked for, went out of business too, and he got the first pink slip of many to come. But Maco gave my family a parting gift: close down the shop, they told my father, and we'll sell you the scraps, whatever you want, cheap. Hell, they said, you can take most of it for free. He sorted through the remains of the business, collecting things that, to anyone else's eye, looked like junk: pipe, scrap metal, fittings, bolts, screws, even an office chair. He brought it all home to the tiny house my parents had purchased just before the bust and squirreled it all away for some unseen future. He didn't know what use he would have for the parts and pieces, but he knew you never turn down opportunity.

"You have to hustle, kid," he said. "Always hustle harder than anyone else."

His advice seems fitting now, living in a city where the unofficial motto is "Detroit hustles harder" and everybody has a main hustle, a side hustle, a creative hustle—whatever it takes to get by.

As everyone else around us fled the valley, we stayed. For five jobless years Dad made the weekly drive into Grand Junction, the nearest city, where he would fill out the unemployment forms, humiliated and dejected when he returned home. Seeing this proud man, one of the last stoic sons of the West, brought low was painful to watch, even as a kid.

Occasionally he would luck into work, but we always knew it was temporary. On those mornings I'd wave to him as he pulled the Ford out onto the county road and wonder where he was headed. Sometimes it was deep into the Rocky Mountains to fight coal fires. When that happened, he'd be away for weeks at a time while Mom and I got used to him being more of a ghost than a real person. Other times he was lucky enough to find work at the nearby refinery. The stench of that place—rotten eggs, ammonia, and burnt matches—came home in his clothes and in his borrowed work truck, which we nicknamed the Stinkmobile. No matter how many times Mom and I washed and Windexed it, we could never get the smell out. Today, when I drive past the refinery in Detroit, sometimes I can pick up the smell, and it makes me think of him.

We heated the house with wood we cut during the summers. My mother would wake in the early light to start the fire and get our house warm enough for me to dress for school. In spring and summer she grew a garden, filling the earth with corn, tomatoes, carrots, peas, beans, pumpkins. She fretted over her few extravagances: a lilac bush and finicky fuchsias. Each morning I sat on my swing set, the one Dad welded together out of scrap pipe from Maco, watching her work the rows as the dew burned off the grass. Our three-legged cocker spaniel, Bear, followed behind her, his long ears dragging in the dirt, patient and obedient until he hit the onion patch. He never could resist digging up the onions. By fall the metal pantry shelves were packed with quarts of glistening orbs—peaches, tomatoes, apricots—and jewel-like pints of jams and pickles. She learned all of the homesteading skills that had served families on this land for generations, skills she had never expected to learn but came to love and hoped to pass on to me.

Mom began buying two-pound boxes of Saltine crackers because, for one, they made a cheap dessert slathered with butter and jam. But more importantly, they were her talisman against the bad times. The first time she bought the big box—an accident—Dad didn't come home on Friday with a pink slip. When you're on the edge, you find signs anywhere you can.

I learned not to ask for anything because I didn't want to see the heartbreak in my mother's eyes. Arby's, to this day, is one of my guilty pleasures because Mom took me there for lunch on the rare occasions we had extra money for Super Roast Beefs—with Arby's Sauce, of course—and potato cakes. That was the year Mom gave me a library card for Christmas, a gift I used so frequently the town librarian soon had to order books from Denver for me to devour. Dad and I gave Mom a tiny wishing well he whittled out of a tree branch: wishing for better times.

In the depths of this poverty Dick Haimerl chose to make me legally his. He forgave my biological father's back child support—$7,000 and change—in exchange for the right to adopt me. Dad likes to say he bought me. He also likes to think he is funny.

"You were a damned good bargain, kid," he says.

Because that's him: hide the depth of your emotions under humor, deflect. Make something big seem smaller and less important, even when it is one of the most monumental things that will happen in either of your lives.


  • “A love song sung to a house and a city, but it's also a money memoir, one marked by ignorance at the outset and a triumph of feelings over financial facts.”
    –The New York Times

    This memoir of home renovation in Detroit delves into much more, including the importance of place, the meaning of urban revival and the building of lives and loves.
    –Shelf awareness

    "An engaging and cautiously optimistic memoir of making a new life."
    –Kirkus Reviews

    “With humor and incisiveness, Haimerl shares the journey of turning a house into a home …. As a financial journalist, she adeptly reports on the city's financial situation and its newest entrepreneurial efforts…This book is about more than the blight of Detroit; it is also about making a new home and community in a rapidly changing city.”
    –Publishers Weekly

    “Surprisingly full of practical advice and always entertaining.”
    –Library Journal

  • "The amazing charm of Detroit Hustle by Amy Haimerl is its brilliant use of concurrent narratives - one quite personal, one about a down-on-its-luck city trying to get up off its knees - to show how perseverance, community and love are so essential to both stories. Each chapter has you rooting for the city, but also cheering for the writer and her husband, their neighbors and family, and the expansive house renovation project whose journey, hiccups and all, makes them into Detroiters."
    –Stephen Henderson, Pulitzer Prize-winning Detroit Free Press editorial page editor

    "Detroit Hustle is much more than a book about restoring a house. It's about a city and its people abandoned to the churn of change, about fitting in and standing out, about decades of decay and wispy hopes of revival. It's America's story. Amy Haimerl's memoir is as gritty and gripping as Detroit itself."
    –Ron Fournier, columnist, The Atlantic, and author of Love That Boy: What Two Presidents, Eight Road Trips, and My Son Taught Me About a Parent's Expectations

On Sale
May 3, 2016
Page Count
256 pages
Running Press

Amy Haimerl

About the Author

Amy Haimerl is a professor of journalism at Michigan State University and covers small business and urban policy for Fortune, Reuters, and the New York Times. She was the entrepreneurship editor at Crain’s Detroit Business, where she covered the city’s historic bankruptcy trial. She is an alum of Fortune Small Business, CNNMoney, and USAA Magazine, as well as a former Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan. She lives in Detroit with her husband, Karl; two pitbulls, Maddie and Beaubien; and stray cat, Jack, who is the boss of everyone.

Learn more about this author