Young Writer Wins Free House And Finds Creative Haven In Detroit

By Patricia Montemurri
Detroit Free Press.


As winter’s ice begins to melt, Detroit is unveiling itself to transplanted poet Casey Rocheteau.

The 29-year-old, first from Cape Cod, Mass., Boston, Providence, R.I., and, most recently, Brooklyn, N.Y., moved to Detroit in November because she won a house, beating out about 350 literary artists in the first Write A House competition designed to address what bedevils the city and to showcase the creativity that may rejuvenate it.

“Overall, the transition from Brooklyn to Detroit has been personally revelatory for me,” she wrote in her Write A House blog. “I find myself far less tense, moving with less urgency and having time and space to dream and create. I am also in awe of the amount of gorgeous visual art around the city, from landmarks such as the Heidelberg Project and the Detroit Institute of Art, to neighborhood murals and graffiti writing.”

She is, she wrote, “constantly enchanted.”

For one thing, there’s grass under the snow in her backyard, a lawn of one’s own is often a rarity in high-priced New York City. There are kindred spirits nearby, locals and newcomers who thrive as wordsmiths, painters, sculptors and performance artists. There’s a glorious array of fruits, foods and spices at the neighborhood markets operated by Bangladeshi and Yemeni immigrants, and the local Polish pierogi are the best she has ever had.
There’s even the possibility of Detroit-made maple syrup.

“Do you mind if I tap into your maple tree?” asked Jeffrey Thomas, 31, who’s rehabbing the house across the street from Rocheteau. Thomas is collecting sap from neighborhood trees to boil down into syrup.

“Sure,” said Rocheteau, who, when she moved into the house in November, didn’t know the leafless tree out front was maple, let alone conceiving it as a source of syrup. “Didn’t think of that.”

The encounter exemplifies the “literally untapped potential,” of the Write A House effort and its goals for stabilizing and revitalizing this pocket of Detroit on the northern edge of Hamtramck, a township on Detroits outskirts, said Sarah Cox, the nonprofit’s director and cofounder.

Rocheteau has a two-year lease that began Nov. 1, 2014. The rent is just the taxes. If she decides to stay past two years, she will own the house outright, her name on the deed.

The creators of Write A House see Rocheteau’s relocation here as just one antidote to Detroit’s omnipresent image of a deteriorated, demolished and vacated city. And she also embodies its new buzz as a hip, affordable haven for artists.

She said she initially thought it was kind of crazy to apply, but not so crazy in the practical grown-up way of trying to make a living as a poet. Even poets have a bottom line.

“Please get me out of Brooklyn. I’m ready to go. It was so expensive,” said Rocheteau, explaining one of her motivations for applying to the contest last year. She repeated out loud what she thought to herself in a Brooklyn apartment: “I can’t own anything here. You guys (Detroiters) got stuff on the cheap, and I want it.”

Of mixed-race parentage, Rocheteau was intrigued with living in a majority African-American city, with Detroit’s history as a music incubator (and not just Motown), and with its future post-bankruptcy.

One of the reasons she nailed the win, organizers said, is because she showed no reluctance to uproot to Detroit. She had visited the city briefly in 2007 while attending a college poetry slam competition in Ann Arbor and can’t even describe all of what she saw that one day.

The Write A House neighborhood, near I-75 and Davison, was once predominantly Polish and eastern European, as well as African American. Beginning around 2000, a large community of immigrants from Bangladesh resettled there. Like Rocheteau, they moved from New York City because of the low cost of housing.

The neighborhood also has become a beacon for artists from around the world, in part because of its affordable prices and access to the commercial strips of Hamtramck. Its recent nicknames include NoHam (for north of Hamtramck) and Banglatown (for the heavy concentration of Bangladeshi Americans).

Artists have used neighborhood bungalows as their palettes here before. A few years ago, University of Michigan students transformed bungalows into edgy artworks. In 2010, a San Francisco art magazine, Juxtapoz, raised about $200,000 to pay artists to make eye-catching statements out of empty homes on nearby Moran Street.

Write A House’s goal is to complement the community and make a visible difference.

“I’ve seen these houses that were just complete disasters, on the verge of being on the teardown list,” said Write A House’s Cox. “The journey has been seeing this completely unlivable piece of architecture become somebody’s house … and see blocks where no one is living become more fully occupied.”

Write A House has purchased two other houses near Rocheteau’s. Applications open April 27 to find another wordsmith, who will move into a house across the street from Rocheteau’s place, which she calls “The Brave New Home.”

To those pondering a Write A House entry to become her neighbor, Rocheteau’s blog and poems portray the many facets of Detroit. The motivation for her poem “Friday Morning in Detroit,” was an encounter with a man hauling a dented water heater down an alley, while she’s being interviewed on video by a news crew. She names him Tiresias, after the blind prophet of Greek mythology.

“He told me it was his, and slid through the alley
“as if we were not both lying,” reads the poem.
The poem concludes seemingly with more revelations about Detroit ahead.
“I am here now, I tell myself, already home.
“What question would I ask of an oracle
“that time itself won’t answer promptly?”

Rocheteau is trained as a historian, with a master’s degree in history from the New School in New York City, and may pursue a doctorate. She has worked in the past as a counselor for young adults under 21 who were wards of the State of Massachusetts. In Detroit, she’s teaching one day a week at Western International High School and at the Detroit International Academy for Young Women, at what was once Northern High School. Her work in the schools is through the InsideOut Literary Arts Projects, a nonprofit that places poets in schools.

She enjoys most working with young teens, “honest and transparent,” she said, “and very charming.”

In the classroom, she engages them in creative conversation “about why language is important, and why what words you choose or how you construct them is important.” She brings them to slam poetry contests, a squad from the Young Women’s academy recently took second place at a competition at the University of Michigan.

She relishes finding and refining raw talent. At the competition, one teenage girl wrote a poem the same day and, in a hallway, coach Rocheteau helped her student parse a parting statement.
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“This kid is so good, geez, Louise,” said Rocheteau. “I take no credit for their winning.”

From her students, Rocheteau also gains impressions and images of Detroit.

“Certain areas, particularly commercial areas, often make you feel as though you are driving through both space and time,” Rocheteau wrote in a blog post recently. “One of the most endearing things I have found about Detroit thus far is the constant reference to the past in a way that makes it feel as though there is a living history here.

“Even the young people that I work with in two Detroit high schools can map out their neighborhood and point to the people who moved away or the stores that are no longer there,” she wrote. “I won’t name what this is for them, but I know in my own life when this kind of lacking or loss or desire for what once was to remain, I feel a strong sense of grief.”

There have been signs that Rocheteau now belongs in Detroit.

Her penchant for poetry was reinforced when an 11th-grade teacher at Barnstable High School in Massachusetts showed Rocheteau’s poems to acclaimed novelist poet Marge Piercy. Piercy, a University of Michigan graduate, defined her career with writings and reflections attributed to her roots in blue-collar Detroit.

“Marge thinks your poems are good,” Rocheteau recalled her teacher telling her.

After she learned she won Write A House in September, Rocheteau arrived in Detroit for the announcement and then flew to Sicily, the airfare raised in an online Indiegogo campaign, to participate in a workshop sponsored by Bread Loaf, the prestigious writers’ conference.

Deprived of sleep over the hectic days, she said her dreams were filled with conversations about living in Detroit.

When she arrived at the conference, she met the guest of honor, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Philip Levine, best known for his poems about growing up in Detroit and reflecting its assembly line grit. They talked craft as well as places to eat in Hamtramck. Levine died Feb. 14 at age 87.

So now Rocheteau’s voice is in Detroit and inspired by the city.

“I’m really curious about the struggles here,” said Rocheteau, of the city’s water department shutoffs, and about its dearth of public transportation.

Rocheteau’s work can’t help but explore Detroit’s history and present, says Airea Matthews, a poet and English Department lecturer at the University of Michigan.

“She’s bringing an immediate urgent sense of what’s happening now and seeing it through fresh eyes,” said Matthews. “Not being from here helps you contextualize the richness and brutality of Detroit.”

Rocheteau doesn’t drive, and is waiting for winter’s passing before she takes lessons. In the meantime, she relies on Uber rides and city buses. While walking to and waiting for buses, she has noticed a welcome Detroit character trait.

“I should also note that when I tell students that I work with in the city about how friendly I find Detroiters,” she wrote in a blog post, “their response is ubiquitously surprise and disbelief. I typically tell them about how I would often try to say hello or smile at people in New York or Boston only to be met with a brick wall of disinterest.”

In New York City, she said, harassing sexual catcalls were pervasive and daily events.

“I think I’ve gotten hollered at once here,” she said. Some guy yelled ‘Hey there, mama, you like Star Trek?'”

In a few weeks, she’s releasing a book called “The Dozens,” which she describes as a political, playful and vicious telling of “yo’ mama jokes about drone strikes.”

While Rocheteau finds good in the city, she doesn’t want to romanticize Detroit: Her house had been broken into twice during its renovation. She has seen a neighborhood home aflame and other houses have been broken into. She has security bars on her windows. She also has a Little Library lending post on her front lawn.

“People keep asking me to write about Detroit. That, to me, is complicated. I’m not particularly interested in being the voice (of Detroit),” said Rocheteau. “I defer to someone who has been here longer.”

Because she also trained as a historian, she expects to stay here to see the city make history.

“My expectation,” she said, “is that I will be here much longer than two years.”

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