Drew Philips bought a house in the Poletown neighborhood of Detroit seven or eight years ago for $500. Poletown, a long standing working class, African American neighborhood, is about as far away from Downtown/Midtown Detroit as any white, well educated (he’d just graduated from the University of Michigan in Journalism) then 23-year-old millennial could live. And the house, an abandoned, falling down, filthy, squatter’s disaster filled with trash, dead rodents and a sawed off car, is about as different from a Midtown Detroit, floor to ceiling glass and concrete, newly constructed residential unit now going for +$1 million can be.
So, what was this all about? He’d lived in Poletown (a native of Adrian, MI) while attending UM and wanted to stay. “UM has this sort of tag line, ‘the leaders of best,’ and while all my friends were leaving the state to go live and work other places…” Philips wanted to use his education in his home state and his newly adopted neighborhood with and for his family and friends.
The house? It was coming up for auction (the owner was long deceased), truly was a disaster but, “It had good bones. I thought it was pretty…” said Philips. “And, the house had some space around it so I could let my dog run and build a shed…kind of like the homesteading thing…and the neighborhood was great…especially kind and friendly people. They had these beautiful, nice, well-kept homes. And this home was – it just seemed like a good spot.”
Philips went to work on the house by himself. No contractors, no skilled subs. He took a pitchfork and shovel to remove the sawed off car and years of debris. There was no water or heat the first two years because he couldn’t afford them with the odd jobs, mostly in construction as the only white man working for an African American outfit, he was able to drum up for himself. And, he started to write about the house, Poletown, Detroit, what he was doing.
Slowly, slowly, the house is almost finished. The story about the house, first told in an article for Buzzfeed, is a just released memoir titled A $500 House in Detroit.
So, what are this memoir and this now mid millennial man all about? After the first cold winter without heat, Philip realized his goal wasn’t to build a new house. He’d seen and he talks about in the memoir “…the decimation of the city, the loss of its democracy to state appointed administrators, the draining of wealth from black residents to white bankers and I wanted to be part of a solution…a seed of something brand new and revolutionary for urban areas…(the goal) was to transform myself/ourselves by building a new city…”
Is this just another white savior story of a young, white, well educated kid coming in to save the city? Philips says, “Yeah, I question my own motives…all the time. I’m not 100% sure what I’m doing is right or the best thing for the city…the people…I certainly don’t have all those answers…that’s something that weighs on me continuously…but, I think …the cultural pendulum is swinging back from kind of irony and snark to people wanting things that are honest and wholesome. And what I say to people is that, it’s Detroit. We’re never going to die. We put the world on wheels.”
Read Philips’ A $500 House in Detroit and find out for yourself.