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The building's exterior is beset by a gaggle of tattooed twentysomethings in cutoffs, holding beers and sticky rollers. They're helping Andrew Beer paint the outside of his place a phosphoric shade called "green energy." All concerned have a shared vision for Detroit's Woodbridge community, the channel for which is this old carriage house Beer purchased three years ago on Merrick and Trumbull, across from what is now the Woodbridge Pub.
From a basic abandonment (and cashed-in life savings), Beer's place has grown into a transformative community space and urban garden, giving impetus to young people taking responsibility for their neighborhood.
It's an open house of sorts; streams of neighbors and friends, and friends of friends, come by to borrow, share, make things, use the space for their band; it's a place for gatherings, art projects, shows and other events people would want to host there.
The 1,700-square-foot space is known as "the Shack," a fitting title considering its condition when Beer took hold of the century-old structure — no running water, nor heat or insulation, a leaky roof and huge holes in the wall.
Beer and boyhood pal Robbie Budai moved in immediately after purchase and have been living in a state of constant transition amidst massive renovation. In the three years they've resided here, in fact, the Shack has never known a shower. ("Walking down the street in the winter to shower at a friend's and having your beard freeze on the way back, you really appreciate things," Budai says.) The pair spent almost an entire winter without heat, peeing in a hole in the ground. They laid their heads to scurrying sound of rats in the walls. Beer reminisces about bringing a lady friend home and trying to talk over the noise of rodents so she wouldn't notice them.
Beer, whose surname isn't some cheeky party alias, is strong and lean, has a calm demeanor, and a torso covered in ink. He hocked his car for the home's down payment, but was nearly drained of cash before renovation began. Actual dumpster-dive finds helped defray material costs and credit cards aided with expenses.
The twentysomething's flat expression says everything about his debt: "I maxed out four cards and a Home Depot card and stopped paying 'em."
It's to the point now that Beer and Budai can reminisce about overcoming certain construction obstacles ("We're kind of amateurs"), such as replacing the roof — a $7,000, four-month undertaking — with nary a clue how.
"We just bought a book," Beer says. "We didn't really know what we were getting into."
With a space heater but no real insulation, Beer and Budai's first winter was epic. They stuffed pillows in the holes and slept wearing hats and down jackets. Beer remembers waking up early one morning and seeing Budai's visible breath. A heater installation soon took priority over other luxuries, such as plumbing. (Budai admits he's never smelled anything worse than stagnant pee.) Elsewhere, the semblance of a kitchen is a hot plate and secondhand fridge but no sink, stove or oven. Ladders provide the only access to the second floor bedrooms — feels like tree house bower meets urban squat.
The guys have discredited the very idea of DIY as hipster idiom; for Beer and Budai, theirs is lifestyle, not fashion. The house is as much a creation (of ideas, community, art and music) as it is a renovation. From its earliest incarnations, the Shack has risen on the effort of many. Armies of neighbor friends, for example, helped rip out the second floor and build two bedroom loft spaces on either end of the building. People Beer had never met appeared to help haul four feet of rubble that filled two Dumpsters. Talk about community.
And then there are the songs: Beer and Budai started an acoustic-led punk band called Noman with drummer Shayne O'Keefe. Then the addition of a toilet and running water (albeit fed from a hose) marked Shack history because it then became a viable space for shows and parties. It now hosts a few concerts a month, many being West Coast bands Noman met while touring and then invited home.
And while the Shack has seen its fair share of bacchanalia, the fruits of Beer's labor merit notice: They launched Woodbridge Records — based out of the Shack — a label dedicated to sharing resources by providing local bands with distribution, promotion, art work, and record sales. The Shack's also a place of dialogue and activism; Mike Gravel, a 79-year-old Alaskan Democrat, gave a campaign speech here when he ran in the '08 presidential election. And Beer was inspired by his late father, a local community activist who believed in changing what he could with his own hands.
In 2007, core Shack constituency (friends, neighbors, believers) held a 50-person potluck — the proceeds went to the purchase of three oak trees planted along Merrick. As art student Alyssa Mullen put it, "I realized then that it was much more than a hang-out-and-get-wasted spot ... It's proof that we can take whatever stake we want in this city."
And the community vegetable garden thriving on the once overgrown lot next door was a natural addendum. Beer and Budai cleared the land and built raised beds that are tended collectively with neighbor Alison Heeres in conjunction with the Garden Resource Program, a local group who offers assistance to budding Detroit gardeners.
Last year's opening of the Woodbridge Pub, across the street from the Shack, has brought more life to the neighborhood. Pub owner and fellow do-it-yourselfer Jim Geary hired Beer and Budai to work at the bar, and has collaborated with the Shack from the start. Show nights guarantee steady stream of foot traffic between the Pub and the Shack, especially since Geary has given open access to the Pub john.
The Shack, with the Pub and the community garden, give neighborhood folk a place to hang out in Woodbridge besides their front porches, and it gives people who don't live there a reason to come down. The neighborhood has more foot traffic, neighbors on that block know each other in a way they didn't a few years ago, and folks are more accountable for the neighborhood. The trio of the pub, Shack and garden promote neighborhood renovation in tangible ways — property values have gone up, more homes are occupied and the once derelict block is brightly lit and safer at night.
Beer talks of the Shack's future, both internally and for the community. Last month, friends Mike MacKool and Ernie Guerra held a Tour Detroit dance party there to raise funds for a finished bathroom. Beginning this fall, the Shack will house an art gallery run by MacKool and Guerra, both previously of the 323East gallery. And Noman's tour kickoff party at the Shack is this week. (Heed warning — a bluegrass/punk show earlier this summer culminated in frenzied musicians performing atop a school bus parked on the Shack lawn.)
In short, and with emphasis on the optimistic, the Shack's a kind of microcosm for what's possible in Detroit. It shows us how it's possible to buy a place and pour yourself into it, share resources, and restore a neighborhood. And this rattled city of abandoned structures and empty lots is ripe with the credence of people building something bigger than themselves. As one overheard person at the Shack says, "People are doing these things all around Detroit. We can do it here. We need this in the city."
Writer Laurie Smolenski leaves for Spain this month to intern at the U.S. embassy there. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.