JULY 3, 2017
THE FIRST TIME Drew Philp slept in his house, he tied a rope to a stud in the upstairs bathroom — a cheap life insurance policy, should his home catch fire and a quick escape out the second-floor window was necessary. His house was a vacant shell, a two-story Queen Anne in East Detroit, built in 1903 and abandoned for a decade. In October 2009, at the age of 23, Philp decided to buy that house for $500, a king’s ransom for him, at a public auction.
On the first morning he woke up inside of it, he beheld his investment: a decrepit house strewn on both levels with used needles, piles of human waste, and mounds of trash left by squatters. One wonders whether some things are better left to turn to ash.
That’s the backdrop to Philp’s new book, A $500 House in Detroit: Rebuilding an Abandoned Home and an American City. But it’s no written version of your favorite home-flipping show on HGTV. You won’t learn about flooring, or custom cabinetry, or concrete kitchen countertops. Instead, the book is part memoir, part social anthropology, tracing Philp’s five-year journey of renovating a house and integrating himself into a new community.
The rehabbed house isn’t so much the endpoint as it is the way Philp relates a story about discovering his adopted city — and, in the process, himself. Philp, the 23-year-old, recent college graduate, begins with a carcass, and over time constructs a house that becomes the prism through which he determines not only his place in the world, but also what he wants out of life. A reader can’t help but finish the book and begin asking themselves the same questions.
Philp’s name is perhaps familiar to regular readers of BuzzFeed: an essay he wrote for the online publication in 2014, one he says was read by more than two million people, chronicled a piece of the larger rehabilitation story he recounts in this book. While he doesn’t purchase his vacant house until fall 2009, Philp arrives in Detroit two summers before, a 21-year-old white kid on the verge of graduating from the University of Michigan.
The mere mention of Detroit conjures an image of rusted American Exceptionalism. By the time Philp moved there — with “no friends, no job, no money,” and into a $300-a-month walkup apartment with no kitchen sink — Detroit, already a beaten-down city, had only been beaten down some more. Once the poster child of a stable middle-class livelihood, courtesy of the US car industry, the Detroit he encountered is a place where one quarter of residents can’t afford a car. It’s a place where 67,000 houses went into foreclosure the two years before the US housing market collapsed. It’s a place with an estimated 40 square miles of vacant land, roughly enough room to fit the city of San Francisco.
It’s also a place where more than 80 percent of the residents are black, a demographic makeup created by a 20th-century legacy of racial discrimination. As southern blacks moved to Detroit looking for work and a friendlier social climate during the Great Migration, northern whites moved out of Detroit to segregated suburban enclaves where black families were denied homeownership, either because of restrictive covenants or redlining practices that prohibited black families from securing home loans.
Initially what Philp is doing in Detroit is hardly discernible, even to him. Early on in the book he refers to the tony town of Ann Arbor, where the university is located, as “stifling.” He’s looking for “a clean break from the past,” a reference to Philp feeling self-conscious about being a white man in a city white folks had fled. He thinks there’s a way to marry his “general knowledge of repairing things” — learned during childhood when he helped his father, a former machinist, fix the plumbing or reroof the garage — with his college education to “fix the biggest project, the ailing city that had loomed over my childhood.” But he’s still unsure. At one point he tells readers he thought he would spend just one summer in Detroit.
What remains mystifying for at least a portion of the book is why Philp is even bothering. His contention that he wants to “fix” an “ailing city” by fixing up a house rings hollow, as well as self-righteous. He seems to get nearer to the point when he tells us he wants a “house nobody wanted, a house that was impossible […] I wanted to prove one man could take a house and make it into a home without someone subsidizing it.” Even then, we’re left to wonder why Philp thinks he needs to prove himself.
The real launching point for both Philp and the book is when he attends a local art show and eventually falls in with a group of kaleidoscopic residents on Forestdale, a lively, verdant block within the larger neighborhood of Poletown. Friends like Will and Andy and Kinga, who are either working on fixing up or have fixed up vacant homes on their own, reinforce Philp’s desire to do the same. The Queen Anne he finds is still in Poletown, albeit in a section of the neighborhood where black residents clearly outnumber white ones. When he buys it, he also purchases two adjacent, vacant lots bookending his property for an additional $1,000. It appears that with space for a sizable yard and a new, if crummy, house, he’s intent on making this neighborhood his home.
It’s a difficult process since Philp has to renovate and reside. He hauls out five tons worth of trash, which turns out to be the easy part. For much of his first winter, he endures without electricity, hot water, or heat, burning logs to keep warm. Philp likens it to living on the “lowest, coldest rung of hell,” and yet explains that he went through with it because he “thought it was important to experience what a large part of my new community was experiencing.” When his family chips in to purchase him a furnace for Christmas, he reluctantly accepts the gift.
These are the moments in A $500 House when one wants to grab Philp by the shoulders, violently shake him, and ask him what the hell is his problem. After all, throughout his renovations, Philp occasionally enlists the help of his father, the help of friends from Forestdale, and even the help of his grandfather, a man who built his own home and assists his grandson by drawing up plans for a set of outside steps.
But it’s in Philp’s reluctance to take outside cash for his personal housing project that some of the book’s earlier pronouncements begin to make more sense, as well as make Philp seem far less self-righteous than the reader originally thinks.
What Philp sees in Detroit — and especially in his Poletown neighborhood, where many of his neighbors don’t have college degrees or come from privileged backgrounds — is a city that was abandoned, only to be rediscovered by people who now view it either as a bohemian playground or haute investment opportunity. Philp desperately doesn’t want to be that type of Detroit transplant; he wants a shared experience, to “slowly and respectfully add my voice to the chorus of what was an already functioning community.”
Gradually this happens, as Philp spends more time in the neighborhood, working on his house, and as more of his new neighbors see him around. When Mrs. Smith down the street returns home one day to find her front window smashed after a robbery, Philp cuts a sheet of plywood to cover the break, and then paints it white to match the front of her house. Another neighbor, Woods, lends Philp a special tool he needs to fix the brakes on his truck. King cuts his grass for him one day. Mrs. Terry invites him to a family barbecue.
“Maybe I had stepped into a real community, one tied together with memory and friendships, history, shared experience and relationships, something that could only be built from years and trust and mutual understanding,” Philp writes.
In a world where so many people are connected electronically, and yet drifting further apart, the notion of neighbors banding together might seem quaint. Maybe Philp would have eventually found purpose elsewhere, but it’s eminently clear that working to rebuild a house wasn’t simultaneously an effort to rebuild a community, let alone a city. It was, in fact, a way to rebuild his identity — perhaps, even, to finally understand the type of person he is and wants to be.
“Like a lot of people in my generation, I was searching for community,” writes Philp. “Building my house and my community had given my life meaning.”
At the book’s end, Philp embarks on a small mission. He and Woods find out that Mr. and Mrs. Terry, the elderly couple who invited Philp to his first neighborhood party, are behind on their house payments, and that their house is going up for auction. The two concoct a plan to buy the house, and then sign it back over to the Terrys so they can remain there. They figure it’ll cost $250 each.
On auction day, Philp ends up in an online bidding war with an unknown buyer, but they manage to buy the house — for $2,300. Philp’s share, he tells readers, was paid out of the advance he received for writing A $500 House in Detroit. Then, being refreshingly self-aware, he chides himself for ending his book with the story about the Terrys’ house; he thinks it makes him look like the stereotypical white savior.
Philp is wrong, however. He’s not a white savior. He’s a neighbor and a friend. “What I learned […] was that my goal wasn’t to build a house,” writes Philp after recounting the tale of the first winter spent in his new Poletown home. “It was to transform myself by building a house.”
This, of course, is the crux of it all. It’s the very community that the outside observer might view as broken or insufficient — might view as in need of saving — that ends up being the missing piece to Philp’s personal story.
Andrew Zaleski is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in numerous publications, including The Washington Post Magazine, Wired, The Atlantic, Popular Science, Newsweek, Politico, and Backchannel.