In 2009, at age 23, Drew Philp bought a house at auction in Detroit for $500. An idealistic white kid from working-class, rural Michigan, he’d moved to the predominantly African-American city a year earlier with no friends, no money and no job.
The Detroit he came to know was riddled with crime, poverty and blight. He received near-daily offers of drugs, and his neighborhood, the historic Poletown, resembled an urban prairie. Yet he had grand plans to rehab his dilapidated Queen Anne from the ground up — and save a little piece of the declining Motor City in the process.
It took Philp about a month to clear tons upon tons of garbage — including, bizarrely, the better part of a sawed-up Dodge minivan — from his house with a pitchfork and snow shovel. Throughout the grueling restoration process, he sought to make meaning and community from the ashes of a failed metropolis.
Adapted from a 2014 Buzzfeed essay that captured the imagination of millions of readers, "A $500 House in Detroit: Rebuilding an Abandoned Home and an American City" was released by Scribner on April 11. Philp will give a reading at Scratch Brewing Company in Ava at 7 p.m. May 4.
A condensed and edited transcription of Scene618's interview with Philp follows.
Scene618: In the book, you write, “Detroit was just America with the volume turned all the way up.” Can you sum up what you mean by that?
Drew Philp: Well, I think that both the problems and the wonderful things about the United States are present here to a greater degree than maybe anywhere else in the United States. For example, the Detroit metro area is the most racially segregated metro area in the United States. It also has this kind of wonderful spirit of hard work and discovery that is absolutely essential, and I think those things mirror the U.S. as a whole, and also are just so much louder here, because this is the kind of crucible of America, in some ways.
618: What do you think intrigues people about your story of rebuilding a home in a mostly deserted city that’s full of blighted houses and wild animals? Do you think your readers find the concept romantic?
Philp: I think there is a certain kind of realness to what’s going on that some people might not have the opportunity to experience, if they work a very comfortable 9-to-5 and live in a very comfortable house and are curious kind of how the other half lives, maybe. So I think that’s one part.
But I also think Detroit is the kind of spiritual center of the U.S. and the Rust Belt in general, and I think people are very curious to see what actually happened. I think the old notions of what happened here aren’t sufficient, and aren’t quite true, and I think people understand that on some fundamental level, and there is a lot of unfinished business in Detroit, too. As I said, we’re the most segregated metro area in the United States. We also were one of the best places to live in the world just 50 years ago, 60 years ago, and the schools were perhaps the best in the United States and the world. We had the highest rate of homeownership in the nation. Really nice place to live, despite the problems. And to go from that to one of the worst places to live in the United States, in terms of these kind of classic metrics, is I think (something) that needs understanding. Because the thinking goes, if it can happen IN America, it can happen TO America as well.
618: I know you cleared a month’s worth of junk and garbage out of your house to make it livable. Was there anything you kept?
Philp: I did keep little things. A lot of places like this have little treasures in them. There weren’t a whole lot in mine. But for example, this beam that I wrote about a little bit for the BuzzFeed story that features heavily in the book that’s holding my entire house up was cut out of this wildly abandoned building just down the street. The building looked like it had been in the bombing of Dresden, and it was no longer a building, just a pile of rubble. There were huge beams that were once holding up the roof, so some of my friends and I took one of those beams and used it to hold up my house, frankly. It sticks out of the drywall in the ceiling and serves as a reminder, as we kind of clear the quote-unquote trash out, and the city changes, I think it’s important to be aware, still, of what we came from.
Another example is my countertops. They’re from the floors of an abandoned soda pop factory. My kitchen cabinets came from a high school that the city tore down, with all these cabinets in there that I was able to reuse. … I do have quite a few mementos from around the neighborhood and the city, certainly.
618: How has the city of Detroit changed since you first moved there and bought your house?
Philp: It’s almost a different city than I moved into. Things are moving very, very rapidly right now. There is lots and lots of money pouring into the city. I think largely, America had forgotten about Detroit or didn’t want to think about Detroit, rather, and there was this idea that Detroit is an apocalyptic hellhole. I don’t think that was true, number one, but until very recently, that’s been the only way people view Detroit — they call it “ruin porn.” Right now, Detroit’s being kind of rebranded as the comeback city, and that involves lots and lots of money. And I think there’s a tension between that money and kind of what was developed in Detroit when people weren’t looking, which I think was, frankly, a new way of treating other human beings and living in the United States that involved less economics and more community. So I think there is a kind of death match between this enormous amount of money coming to the city and these alternative values that people had begun to tangibly explore in Detroit.
618: Can you elaborate on that a little bit? What do you think communities across the country can learn from your story and from what Detroit experienced when it was down?
Philp: I think that we had to reassess what our values were as Americans, because Detroit put the world on wheels, and then everybody drove away in the cars that we barely made anymore. So we had to take a really clear look at what we value in the United States, and I think those values have come up quite different than what they were originally, what we hoped them to be. For example, we talk about the United States as this land of opportunity and the best country in the world, but what does it say when we are shutting off water to a tenth of city, to one out of ten people in the city? What does it say when we are foreclosing on one in every four homes in Detroit? What does that say about us as a people, that we can’t even house and provide the most basic services to our neighbors? At that level, when it’s a city the size of Buffalo, New York, that is losing their homes, what does that say about Christian values that we profess that we hold? We had to look at these things deeply, and I think in Detroit and places like it, people have had to evolve, and understand in a new way how to do things, but also in a very old way — how to treat one’s neighbor again in the biblical sense that doesn’t just involve monetary profit.
618: What about your neighborhood, Poletown? How has it changed?
Philp: My neighborhood is getting ready to change very rapidly. There are far, far fewer abandoned houses than when I moved in. When I moved on my block, including my own house, there were five abandoned houses — now there’s only one. They’re really clearing up the neighborhood — a handful of young white kids like me are moving in and fixing up houses in the same neighborhood, but the neighborhood is getting ready to transform in a big way. We’re very close to downtown, we’re very close to Eastern Market, which is I believe the largest open-air market in the United States, and they’re not going to let it stay this way for long. However, there is a really strong community that’s been here for generations, in some cases, that doesn’t want to go and wants to be part of whatever’s going to happen next, and the issue right now — or the fight right now — is making sure everybody who wants to stay and has stuck it out for the last number of decades is able to.