A $500 House in Detroit
Rebuilding an Abandoned Home and an American City
By Drew Philp
Scribner. 289 pp. $26
Reviewed by Laurie Hertzel
In 2009, a skinny white kid named Drew Philp bought a decrepit house in inner-city Detroit for $500. He came from a long line of workingmen ("I'm the oldest male member of my family with all of my fingers intact," he says), and despite Detroit's poverty, abandoned houses, 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 personnel didn't always bother to respond to calls. Vacant lots were 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. No furnace, no running water. The ductwork had been ripped out and stolen. The yard was full of trash and broken glass. Next door was a boarded-up crack house. Across the street lived a black family who (until he made the effort to meet them) seemed wary.
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 scrape and work hard.
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." The worst happened: The city started to pay attention again. Some of Philp's friends lost their rehabbed houses through eminent domain; the black family across the street nearly lost to speculators the house they'd lived in for 30 years.
"The rich men always called it progress," Philp writes bitterly. "But it was their progress. It never seemed to benefit anyone except them."
This book might not be the best-written thing you read all year, but it might be the most inspiring. "What I've gained nobody can take away from me and money cannot buy," Philp writes. "No fire or billionaire can crush it into the ground."
This review originally appeared in the
Minneapolis Star Tribune.