In 2009, at age 23, a skinny white kid named Drew Philp bought a decrepit house in inner-city Detroit for $500. Philp came from a long line of working men (“I’m the oldest male member of my family with all of my fingers intact,” he says), and despite Detroit’s poverty, abandoned homes and lack of city services, he felt more himself there than he did in rich Ann Arbor, where he had gone to college.
In “A $500 House in Detroit,” Philp writes about the six years he spent rehabbing his house, getting to know his neighbors and becoming part of an unusual community. It is a fascinating inside look at a city that was so bombed out, so thoroughly abandoned by white flight, that police and fire didn’t always bother to respond to calls. Overgrown vacant lots on the edge of downtown had become home to coyotes and deer.
But it was also a city with steadfast, entrepreneurial citizens — primarily African-Americans — who had lived there for decades, as well as hippies and punks such as Philp who showed up to make a difference.
Philp’s Queen Anne house needed just about everything fixed — the plumbing, the roof, the walls, the floors, the windows, the electrical, the foundation. It had no furnace, no running water. The ductwork had been ripped out and stolen. The yard was full of trash and broken glass. The place next door was a boarded-up crack house, and Philp constantly feared fire. Across the street lived a black family who (until he made the effort to meet them) seemed to eye him warily.
“I was stepping into an existing community I didn’t know or necessarily understand,” he writes. “That was the scariest and most depressing part.”
Philp’s book is more than an inner-city “A Year in Provence.” He writes about the rehab, yes, but he also writes about the people who are “rebuilding this broken city,” resourceful, self-sufficient characters who scrounge and scrap and work hard.
Early in the book, an idealistic Philp imagines life in his Queen Anne: “I’d spend my free time woodworking and inventing little contraptions to make life easier,” he says. “I’d read books by soft desk-light and go to work and come home honest and tired. I’d eat a lot of peaches, ones that I grew myself.”
The reality, of course, was very different: hard work, frustration and never enough money.
Over time, things changed: Detroit became cool in certain hipster circles. Europeans came to sketch the ruins, and tours of gawkers motored through looking for “ruin porn.”
As Detroit’s turnaround continued, the worst thing happened: The city started to pay attention again. Some of Philp’s friends lost their rehabbed homes through eminent domain; the black family across the street nearly lost the house they’d lived in for 30 years to speculators. A progressive school for pregnant women — a funky, hippie school that kept a horse and chickens and grew its own food — was shut down.
Plans were made for art galleries and restaurants.
“The rich men always called it progress,” Philp writes bitterly. “But it was their progress. It never seemed to benefit anyone except them.”
At times overwrought, this book might not be the best written thing you read all year (among other things, Philp needs to learn that a person is not a “that,” but a “who”), but it might be the most inspiring. It is a passionate read, one to stir you up. Philp writes with exuberance and sincerity. “What I’ve gained nobody can take away from me and money cannot buy,” he writes. “No fire or billionaire can crush it into the ground.”
Yeah! you say. Plant those peach trees!
Laurie Hertzel is the senior editor for books at the Star Tribune. On Facebook: facebook.com/startribunebooks
A $500 House in Detroit
By: Drew Philp.
Publisher: Scribner, 289 pages, $26.