Pages from a Popular History of Grand Rapids

"Caring is contagious"

Urban Grace:

Saving A House In Grand Rapids

New River Free Press, August 1975/Reprint

NRFP Interviews Don Heinzelman

He cares for a house

ready for demolition

& saves it!                      


  • This is the story of how and why a technical illiterate, Don Heinzelman, making between $2,500 and $5,000 annually, shaped and formed his own space by rehabing a building that was up for demolition.

Don Heinzelman likes to give value to people and things, a very humane value.

"Once upon a time," he says, "I taught high school English in an upper middle class commuter community in Highland Park, Ill . . .

"I stopped teaching, disenchanted by the possibility of [successfully] educating students towards some humanistic values. Where I taught, the people were caught up in a consuming life style which had very little center other than consuming, and discarding what was left, without putting value to anything. And I was interested in an education that put values in people and a value on some thing."

Don is 32. The same age I am. I first sought him in 1973 on learning of his efforts at rehabilitating an inner city house that was up for demolition.

His story has been an inspiration to me. I have often asked him to write about the house that no one else would touch. But, Don is a reluctant writer. So, finally this interview . . .

He loves to see things grow--there are a multitude of plants in the nine-room brick and stucco house, and in the back a garden.

A satisfied vegetarian, he is also a complete environmentalist, recycling everything organic or inorganic that he has found a way to recycle.

He loves to set gentle examples, those are the seeds he sows best . . .

Giving value to people and things, Don gives value . . .

NRFP   Had you ever been involved in housing rehabilitation before doing this house?
DH       No, I had never been involved in anything like that (previously).

NRFP    Had you thought of it?
DH        I thought of it in as much as I look on things and see what can and should be preserved . . . and enhanced. And a result of living as a poor person for the years subsequent to my teaching, houses that come into disuse have been one of the centers of my interest--they seemed a phenomenal waste of our environment, especially when you consider many of those buildings could be made usable.

Shortly after arriving in G. R., a friend and I bought a house on Charles Street (where a food coop, one of the first in G.  R., flourished for a year and a half). Except for five layers of wall paper and a loose board here and there, it was in more usable condition.

NRFP    Did you seek this house out?
DH        A friend of mine who is a real estate agent discovered this house and wanted to know whether I would be interested in taking it on as a project. I'd really become aware of the amount of money people spend and how much time it takes out of their lives to buy property, and I decided to do the house and have friends live in it for paying the taxes, the insurance, and the utilities. I assumed all of the cost and the majority of the labor in renovating the house. In this way, the folks lived in the house, an opportunity to live inexpensively in order to come to terms with their own lives.

NRFP    What did you feel when you first saw the property?
DH        The first thing that impressed me were the boards across the doors and windows, the broken glass, and the snow, and the back door left ajar, inside were truckloads of stone, glass, debris left by the last owners and the vandals. The challenge was seen through the debris--finding oak floors which could once again be handsome, walls which after scrubbing and painting could be handsome, a whole environment which could be made not only livable but handsome. Specifically, I saw much work, but also much promise.

NRFP     You have described yourself as a technical illiterate, what madness gripped you that you could see through all the debris something of promise?
DH         Two things come to mind immediately. First, are the natural elements of the stone and the wood which are handsome in their own right; the next thing would be the encounters I have had with folks who have done handymen kinds of things and my realization that if they could do it I could do it also. It's that sense of possibility of seeing oneself as mover (moving with your own energy) that set me off on a 1,000 mile bicycle ride from Ashville, N. C., to Littleton, N. H., to help some friends homestead an A frame house. (They decided not to build so I came to G. R.)

NRFP    What do you see in houses?
DH        I see the natural elements that make them up . . .  I see the workmanship that went into construction and I see the possibilities for use. In this country and perhaps in Western Civilization today, houses are seen as objects, as something usable, it seems to me that the character of the natural elements, that the spirit of workmanship, and that the possibilities for human habitation aren't taken into account . . . putting in a walnut library, not because of the elements or the craftsmanship, but just to have a walnut library . . . that's an extension of one's arrogance.

NRFP    How do you perceive habitable space?
DH        A friend of mine used to say home is where I am, that statement has been a source of much contemplation. There can be the natural elements I talked about and there can be the craftmanship, but finally there is putting oneself in one space and seeing oneself committed there (in a way) that gives things values.

NRFP    How about this particular space you're living in--in the inner city?
DH        I have lived in the inner cities of other cities and I find them not very different from other space, we may change some trappings, but city life is city life.

NRFP    What made you commit the time and energy to rehabilitating this house?
DH         I just wasn't willing to spend the next 20 or 30 years of my life on some contract filling someone's pockets. It doesn't relate to the workman, or the elements involved--it's only a money-making proposition--another reason is that it was here . . .

NRFP    What are the steps you went through to own and rehabilitate this house?
DH         First of all, the house was a VA (Veterans Administration) repossession that was about to be demolished and through the realtor friend the property was purchased for a little over $100. The building was bought in winter. We began by chipping the glass out in order to put in a layer of windows.

Once a layer of glass was put in, a heating contractor began work on installation of a new forced air gas furnace, and a new electric board was installed. These things along with some plumbing work were done in a period less than a month in order to have new occupants living here, which would prevent further vandalism.

Once the essential work was done, there came the task of just a whole relay of minor repairs and of massive redecoration.

Walls were patched, sanded, and painted, and in one case a whole new wall was installed because of water damage. The floors were sanded, stained, and refinished. In some cases, new ceilings were installed. What now can be said in a few sentences has taken two years.

The exterior trim, although in good condition, needed repainting. One roof needed major repair and the stucco at the back had to be replaced.

The lawn which had become a neighborhood garbage can had to be raked and cut and bushels of glass needed to be picked up. We are still picking it up two years later, but we also have (now) a garden, grass, trees, and shrubs.

NRFP    Could you give me a breakdown of the costs upto today?
DH        Electric work (contracted)                      $365
             Plumbing (including labor)                     $600
             Furnace (contracted, new)                     $900
             Window glass (occupants)                     $400
             New aluminum storms & screen doors    $900
             Exterior paint & repairs (self)                 $250
             Interior paint & repairs (self)                 $500

NRFP    How did you finance this expenditure?
DH        I borrowed from an aunt $2,500 to do the initial work and after that I just paid for things out of my pocket as I went along.

NRFP    How much were you earning at that time?
DH        When I bought the house I was earning $2,500 per year as a part-time hospital orderly. Six months after buying the house I worked full time, but at no time in the last several years have I made more than $5,000. (Don doesn't have any dependents.)

NRFP     Did you have to scrimp?
DH         I live simply. (He laughs.) People who lived in the house have put in work, but I have done the majority by personal choice.

NRFP      Have you found your efforts having an effect on the neighborhood?
DH          Oh, definitely. I don't want this to sound that this is the single element that had an effect, but caring is contagious, I think. And I have seen a lot of caring in the last two years. Last week, two houses within the same block were being painted, and the man across has repainted the ceiling of his porch, and yards are neat and trim--countless little things that make a difference.

NRFP       From your experience in this house and this neighborhood what do you think is needed to reverse housing blight and neighborhood deterioration?
DH           One thing I've really observed is that those folks who own their own houses are those that do the most, absentee landlords are exactly that--absent. I think it's important that if someone moves into an area that they are there to commit themselves to not only renovation of the house but to enlivening community spirit. A sense of isolation can often lead to an atmosphere where vandalism and robbery can take place. A sense of camaraderie and caring, things which can't be bought, have proven a worthy investment for everyone concerned.

NRFP       What are your future plans?
DH           I'd like to become involved in a farm experiment. I'd like to live simply, without electricity or flush john, with kerosene lamps, a wood stove, and an outhouse. I'd like to attempt self-sufficiency . . . not an arrogant self-sufficiency, but coming to terms with the basics of my needs.

(Don had told me a long time ago he was more of a country person than a city person.)

NRFP       What will happen to this house?
DH           The people who are living with me will continue to live here. If the house is sold, it'll be sold for the cost of the materials spent in rehabing it . . .  It is my hope that the people living here will have the same concern I have. It seems that's all we have to go on--personal example.

MCD is the NRFP editor.

New River Free Press, August 1975/Reprint

New River Free Press:

Your Friendly Guide To Urban Survival & Improvement

From 1973 to 1977 Grand Rapids' Independent Voice

This community newspaper was lovingly hand-crafted on an
IBM Selectric. All of its Bookman headlines were produced by
individually hand-pressing transfer lettering.

--Michael Chacko Daniels, Editor & Publisher

Reprinted as part of a new, continuing
Grand Rapids, Michigan,
Popular History Project

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Posted on Sunday, April 17, 2005 at 07:51AM by Registered CommenterMichael Chacko Daniels | CommentsPost a Comment | References1 Reference