In Detroit, Artists Look For Renewal In Foreclosures

Mitch and Gina Cope i i

Mitch and Gina Cope hope that the prospect of inexpensive housing will help lure other artists to their Detroit neighborhood. Jennifer Guerra hide caption

itoggle caption Jennifer Guerra
Mitch and Gina Cope

Mitch and Gina Cope hope that the prospect of inexpensive housing will help lure other artists to their Detroit neighborhood.

Jennifer Guerra
Detroit house i i

Mitch Cope hopes to turn the "Power House" into a neighborhood art center. Jennifer Guerra hide caption

itoggle caption Jennifer Guerra
Detroit house

Mitch Cope hopes to turn the "Power House" into a neighborhood art center.

Jennifer Guerra

Amid the crumbling auto industry, mounting job losses and thousands of foreclosures, there's not a whole lot of good news coming out of Detroit these days. But Mitch Cope and his wife, Gina, are trying to change things — one house at a time.

The Copes, who bought a home on Detroit's north side four years ago, have been recruiting artists from around the world to buy the foreclosed houses in the neighborhood and rebuild.

The Copes' 1920s brick house used to be a Polish deli — the garage still looks like a deli storefront — and it's only about a mile away from the design store they own. The neighborhood has a mix of Polish and Ukrainian families, recent Bangladeshi immigrants — and quite a few drug dealers.

"People who have been in the neighborhood for a long time talk about how great the neighborhood used to be; you didn't have to lock your doors," says Mitch Cope. "OK, so it's gotten worse. ... But now what? Let's do something. Let's have fun."

The Copes decided to start small: They were sick of looking at the graying wood fence across the street, so they painted it bubblegum pink. They even got some of the neighbors to help.

Then they set their sights on the foreclosed house down the street — a working class, wood frame, single family house that was listed for sale for $1,900. The house had been trashed by scrappers who stole everything, including the copper plumbing, radiators and electrical lines. Still, they decided to buy it and turn it into what Cope calls the "Power House Project."

"Our idea — instead of putting it all back and connecting to the grid, we wanted to keep it off the grid and get enough solar and wind turbines and batteries to power this house and power the next-door house," Cope says.

He thinks he can make the whole place operate "off the grid" for around $60,000, a cost he hopes to help cover with grants. And, since the whole point of the project is to better the neighborhood, Cope wants to turn the first floor of the Power House into a neighborhood art center. The second floor will be a bedroom for visiting artists; Cope believes that if he can just get artists to visit the neighborhood, they'll want to stay. And he hopes the cheap real estate will lure them there.

Neighbor Greg Profota, who has lived in the neighborhood all his life, has his doubts. His family and friends moved out years ago — and now he wants out, too. Still, Profota admires Cope's gumption.

"Well, I gotta give him credit because he's on a new frontier, and the neighborhood is so worn down, it's gonna take a miracle to bring it back," he says.

Profota's house has been broken into three times, his garage six times. Same goes for pretty much every house on his block.

"You gotta have an alarm system on your houses, a dog and a gun, because the neighborhood is terrible," he says. "I got all three."

Cope admits that the Power House has already been broken into several times and that he has been threatened. But he has still managed to convince about a dozen working artists to move into the neighborhood. They're from all over — the Netherlands, Germany, Brooklyn.

Jon Brumit is an artist in Chicago whose work has been featured in The New York Times and on the Today Show and NPR. He and his wife just bought a house in Cope's neighborhood for $100. That's right: an entire house for the price of dinner at a nice restaurant for a family of four. Sure, the place needs a ton of work and it['s not that safe, but Brumit says it's worth it just to help bring back the neighborhood.

"Coming into a place and trying to re-engineer some things in whatever way — I guess I just see that as a great way to engage people," Brumit says.

Jennifer Guerra reports from Michigan Radio.

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