“A $500 House in Detroit: Rebuilding an Abandoned Home and an American City,” by Drew Philp, is the story of Philp’s exploration for significance and purpose, and an expansive assessment of life in urban America. Drew Philp frames his odyssey in the City of Detroit, Michigan with a series of history lessons meant to give the reader some insight into Philp’s ethical code. The result is a sprawling narrative that is ambitious and heartfelt.
Philp descends upon Detroit as a principled college student, looking to make a meaningful connection with an unfamiliar city. Philp writes, “I naively thought, with all the zeal of a well-read twenty-one-year-old white kid, that I could marry my education with the general knowledge of repairing things and fix the biggest project, the ailing city that had loomed over my childhood as if it were a sink or a roof.” Guided by his moral compass, Philp immerses himself into the landscape of recession-era Detroit, forging connections with like-minded idealists and using a $1,500 real estate investment to embark upon his campaign to ingratiate himself into his community.
The novel follows Philp as he goes from being a University of Michigan student with a blue-collar family to a fresh member of Detroit’s emerging artist community, then a full-fledged property owner with a major restoration project on his hands. At every step, Philp takes great pains to explain the thought process that went into making each of his critical decisions. This process is dictated by an evolving doctrine that Philp attempts to explain via a sequence of lessons on a variety of topics, including local politics, public safety, discriminatory real estate policies, urban renewal, and sustainability. Combined with Philp’s personal experiences, this information helps rationalize his philosophical approach to his newfound life in Detroit.
Philp is often confronted with two vastly different images of Detroit. The first is that of a romanticized, yet flawed utopia in which he can pursue his lofty aspirations. Philp captures this sentiment when he states that, “Detroit was the most interesting city on the planet because when you scratched the surface you found only a mirror.” Here, we see Philp’s penchant for flowery language, not surprising as he is a self-professed poet, a style that surfaces time and time again when Philp describes the landscape of his Detroit community. He has the utmost faith in his perception of Detroit as a place that will grant him all that he seeks as long as his search is pure and sincere. Says Philp, “Living in Detroit wasn’t exactly easy, but it seemed more noble somehow, and honest.” This sentiment fuels Philp’s drive to make a meaningful existence for himself by any means necessary, often funded through countless hours of hard work all meant to get him closer to a “noble” existence.
The second image of Detroit that Philp is forced to grasp is that of a major urban area that is rampant with many of the issues that are typical in major urban areas – inequality, crime, and areas of disrepair to name a few. From the genesis of his mission, Philp encounters stark reminders that he is inhabiting a struggling community that existed long before him. He tells tales of daily encounters with people struggling to get by with their day-to-day lives, often aided by narcotics or other small escapes. At one point, Philp drives a new friend and his girlfriend to a hospital for what turns out to be a funeral service for the couple’s stillborn child. To this, Philp says, “But I was there. I saw it. And I cannot unsee it, and I don’t know what it means, if anything. Now it’s yours too.” It is during these events where we see Philp struggle to categorize some of the more extreme images that he is faced with, those that conflict with his generally optimistic outlook. Regardless, Philp always soldiers on, choosing not to let such events deter him from his life’s work.
Philp often spends time writing about the perception of his endeavor, a topic that appears to be of great importance to him. At the beginning of the novel, Philp recaps the reaction that his friends had to his plans: “Nearly anyone I told that I was moving to the city thought it was a terrible idea; that I was throwing my life away.” This reaction seems to embolden Philp, reinforcing the importance of his grand idea. Furthermore, Philp discusses his contempt he has for life at the University of Michigan, disillusioned with the education system in general and growing increasingly distant from his fellow students and professors as his trek into Detroit continued. He speaks of his classmates’ post-graduation pursuit of careers as a betrayal of American ideals and an affront to his personal ethos. However, Philp often discusses concerns and fears that he has about his plan – fear of the police, fear of home intruders, even fear of encountering packs of wild dogs. These fears turn out to be warranted as they manifest themselves in one form or another over the course of his story. Philp distinguishes his fear and concerns from that of his friends and fellow students by painting his worries as the byproduct of survival while those of his colleagues are primarily born out of prejudices.
As the novel continues, Philp spends time discussing his thoughts on what his parents and grandparents think of his plan, positing that they probably spend many late nights worrying about him. At the same time, Philp mentions that his quest is something that his father has great respect for, “My father was excited that I wanted to do something befitting a man.” His father makes several appearances throughout this novel, ostensibly content to assist his son in any way possible to help make his dream a reality. The approval of his family is important to Philp, who often mentions his family’s blue-collar background, especially as it relates to home repair. Philp has an innate desire to prove himself worthy of this family tradition, a desire that sometimes causes a strain on his relationship with his father. This is aptly illustrated in a passage in the novel in which Philp and his father are hard at work completing a key renovation project. After a long day of work, Philp’s father expresses a desire to attend a Detroit Tigers baseball game with his son. Much to the dismay of his father, Philp declines the offer, intent on seeing the project through to completion that day. In Philp’s mind, to not finish the project that day would be unfaithful to the type of person he is attempting to be, the type of person he wishes his father to see him as. Philp later regrets this decision, understanding that he may have over thought the situation; understanding that sometimes attending a baseball game with your father is just that, not a test of your resolve or a challenge to your personal journey. Philp says, “I had made a mistake. I should have just gone to the ball game with him, instead of getting the work done and feeling like shit anyway. He was having just as a hard time as I was, working with what he had, doing what he thought was right.”
Philp is also very invested in the perception that the people in his community have towards his presence amongst them. Philp goes to considerable lengths to get in good favor with the band of artists that have taken up residence in his Detroit community. Philp is dedicated to proving himself worthy of their respect as he sees them as a representation of everything he is striving for. As such, Philp internalizes their advice, often using it to further develop his own ethical code. He takes every opportunity to further ingrain himself into their established community. Alternately, when it comes time for Philp to develop a house of his own, he takes a much more cautious approach to engaging his new community. Afraid of alienating his neighbors before they even get to know him, and therefore losing his chance to feel a true sense of community, a feeling that is clearly very important to Philp, he keeps his distance for a long while.
Philp takes note of the activities of those in the community, often projecting his thoughts and desires onto them, imagining how they must perceive his presence. He longs for their acceptance but believes that he must prove his worth through hard work and dedication to his personal cause. The distance he keeps sometimes drives him to concoct stories that border on delusion, at one point postulating that a neighbor hired a man to keep an eye on his day-to-day activities, parked across the street from his house, taking notes to report back on. This perception serves the positive purpose of driving Philp to work that much harder on completing his home. Philp’s desire for inclusion in his neighborhood eventually drives him to perform several admirable actions (performing maintenance on some of the older residents’ homes, providing monetary support, and more) to earn their respect.
Another theme that Philp must constantly confront is that of compromise. By nature, Philp appears to be a man of conviction, one that is driven by a sense of purpose and of pride. His sense of purpose is propelled by a philosophy that Philp has manufactured over the course of his life. Philp’s philosophy is extremely dear to him, constantly used to justify the decisions that he makes over the course of his Detroit journey. However, as the complexity of Philp’s affairs increases, he learns that there are many holes in his way of thinking. Consequently, Philp finds that his philosophy must constantly evolve with each new piece of information that he receives.
One of the most significant compromises that Philp must make in the novel is in regard to the house that he eventually purchases. Philp wants his foray into Detroit’s culture to be an authentic one, not fraught with evidence of privileges not befitting a typical community resident. Philp has a number of stipulations for purchasing a home. He does not want governmental or financial assistance – he feels like accepting grants or loans would be using his white privilege to get a foothold in a community where residences could not receive similar types of assistance. He does not want to purchase a home in an established neighborhood, feeling like that would rob him of an authentic experience. Philp has opportunities to purchase a home in foreclosure in a wealthier Detroit neighborhood but does not want to take advantage of the misery of others. Philp could also purchase a home near his newfound artist friends, but does not want to piggyback off of their success any further than he already had.
Additionally, Philp states, “I had three goals: I wanted a big kitchen, a chimney for a wood-burning stove like the Kemps, and a large front porch. Having some land around the house for a garden and to insulate myself from any trouble would be essential.” While Philp wants to become an authentic Detroit community member, his experiences in Detroit have instilled a need to somewhat insulate himself from the neighborhood he seeks to inhabit. He winds up purchasing 3 adjacent lots for $500 each – an empty lot on either side of an existing home. The investment checks most of the boxes on the checklist that Philp has created for himself, while also providing him some sense of safety from the unknowns of the neighborhood he has thrown himself into. Philp seems unaware of the fact that while the home he is purchasing may not be newly abandoned, it was possibly inhabited at one point by a family that fell on hard times, another compromise to the system he had established. In fact, while renovating the home, Philp finds evidence of previous inhabitants, “On the inside of the closet door in the first-floor bedroom, someone had scrawled ‘Colby’s Closet’ in childlike lettering. This made me sad.” Revelations like these lead Philp’s to perhaps one of his more poignant revelations. While lamenting the fact that he could not escape the grasp of consumerism and politics in his efforts to renovate his home, Philp states, “Try as I might to be pure, I was complicit in the system. I was trying to be better but nevertheless made choices of expediency versus ethics.”
More than anything, the core of this novel is a struggle with the much broader topics of personal identity and gentrification. Throughout his story, Philp must continuously wrestle with difficult questions regarding his place in the city he wishes to call home. Early on in his story, Philp ponders, “Is it right to live in an opulent house and have nice things among so much poverty?” He constantly labors with the approach that he takes to build his new life, adapting this method as he continues to add to his life experiences. In the end, Philp must make a series of compromises that allows him to inch closer to his ultimate goal of establishing himself as a genuine member of his newfound community.
Ultimately, “A $500 House in Detroit: Rebuilding an Abandoned Home and an American City” appears to be a truly sincere portrayal of Philp’s pursuit; an all-encompassing pursuit of significance, kinship, and justice. By all accounts, this seems to be a pursuit that will have no end for the author. In Philp’s own words, “Right at this moment I might be banging on this old house, cursing and sweating and bandaged, hoping I can make my corner of this earth a little kinder, a little warmer and a little more cheery. I have no idea if I’ve made any difference at all. Maybe I’ve made things worse. But I tried.”
Have you ever been involved in a community revitalization effort? Should urban renewal be included in Detroit's strategy to rebound from the recession? Share your thoughts and your city's stories in the comments area below.
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