Why A 'White Guy' Bought A House In Detroit For $500

When Drew Philp bought a house in Detroit for $500, he thought it would take a lot of work to make it livable. But as he was fixing it up, he learned a lot about Detroit and rebuilding a city. He tells guest host Celeste Headlee about the experience.

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CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

Some people may dream of buying their own home for only 500 bucks, but they might not be prepared for the work required to make that house livable. Drew Philp bought a house in Detroit for $500 and in the process of making it his home, he learned a lot about - of course - building and construction, but also about the kind of resiliency that folks in Detroit have, and the kind of work it takes to make Detroit a great American city again.

He wrote about his experience in a piece published by BuzzFeed, "Why I Bought A House In Detroit For $500." And he joined me from Detroit. Drew, welcome.

DREW PHILP: Hello, Celeste. How are you?

HEADLEE: So let's start from the beginning. You're from - not even a suburb of Detroit. Adrian, Mich., is quite a distance away. What brought you to the Motor City?

PHILP: Well, I was going to school at the University of Michigan. And our kind of tagline there is "the leaders in best.' And after - at that time, after school, it seemed like all of my friends and contemporaneous people I had worked with were leaving the state. And I didn't want that to be me. I wanted to - I got this special chance to have this wonderful education, and I wanted to use it here to help my family and my people, in my own state.

HEADLEE: But this began with you working in a construction company where you were the only white guy, right?

PHILP: That's correct. I was hired because it was an all-black construction company, as my boss told me; and I was hired because it was difficult for him to sell his jobs in the suburbs, which were mostly white. And he needed a, quote, "a clean-cut, white boy" to help sell his jobs out in the suburbs because he couldn't do it. So I worked alongside everyone else, sanding floors for - I think - $8.50 an hour. And then I also....

HEADLEE: I've got to stop you 'cause what was that like for you? This is not an experience that many Caucasians have. You were basically - and pardon the phrase - but you were basically the token white in that company. How did that make you feel?

PHILP: In a sense, the people there made me feel very welcome. It was different because I was living in the city; I wasn't living in the suburbs. I lived near the people I worked with. So, you know, there were times when, you know, people would razz me a little bit, and they'd say, you know, cut it out. He lives right around the corner.

HEADLEE: Hmm. All right. So let's go to this house that you bought. You know, it's funny because in your piece, you describe how you were kind of looking for a house to buy. And you settled on this one. And I have to ask why because looking at the pictures, it's a disaster - it was a disaster when you bought it.

PHILP: It certainly was a disaster. It had good bones. I thought it was pretty. I also liked the neighborhood. I had been living in the neighborhood - Poletown, in Detroit - for a couple years. And this house had some space around it so I could, you know, let my dog run and build a shed and those things that I kind of would need to kind of do this homesteading thing. But the neighbors were great. The neighbors were especially kind, friendly. They had these beautiful, nice, well-kept homes. And this home was - it just seemed like a good spot.

HEADLEE: OK. But again, let me go back to how terrible the condition the house was in. I mean, there were car parts inside the house, right?

PHILP: There was a better part of a Dodge Caravan inside, that had been - it looked like it had been cut apart with a Sawzall, and deposited in my house. It took me quite a long time to clean the house up. And I did it with...

HEADLEE: Just to remove the garbage.

PHILP: Just to remove the garbage. I mean, I did it with a pitchfork and a snow shovel.

HEADLEE: So - and yet again, you have put yourself in a neighborhood, which is predominantly black; and you are one of the few white faces on your block. What was that like?

PHILP: You know, it's still interesting. There are other white folks there because it is Poletown. So it is a mixed and diverse neighborhood. The reason kind of my neighbors at first thought I was crazy was because I was the only one moving in. Detroit is still hemorrhaging people, black and white. We're starting to talk about middle-class flight now, instead of white flight. So that was kind of more striking to people - that I was moving in when everyone else was still moving out and to some extent, is still moving out.

So that was kind of where it was. But, you know, eventually I think people saw me cutting my grass and outside banging on my house. And it - you know, it got to the point where people would bring me lemonade; or one of my neighbors last summer cut my lawn and refused payment, when my lawn mower was broken.

So we've been able to help each other out, too. You know, we had that large snowstorm here. And I maybe dug a half-dozen cars out of the streets because they just don't plow them in my neighborhood. So I think that helps a lot, in terms of people seeing this community and working together.

HEADLEE: You know, you were talking about the flight out of Detroit. It's not 100 percent accurate because, in fact, there are a couple neighborhoods - notably downtown, especially - where a large number of young people and older, and retirees are buying very expensive lofts. In fact, most of them are full. I think what makes it different is your decision to move into this very rundown house, rebuild it in a poor neighborhood. I mean, there's no other way to describe Poletown, is there?

PHILP: I don't think so. It's certainly a neighborhood with a long history. But it's also always been a working-class neighborhood.

HEADLEE: Yeah.

PHILP: You know, my house is a clapboard house. It's not a brick house or anything. And in the story, I kind of talk about these kind of two emerging Detroits. There's this Detroit of bankruptcy, obviously. I think everybody's heard about that, which is kind of the rest of the city. And there's also this core that's going on in the middle - in Downtown and Midtown. So we're starting to see a split where a lot of young, white, educated people, like myself, are moving in. But then there's also this rest of the city - the city of bankruptcy and the emergency financial management.

HEADLEE: When you mention young, often highly educated, often from at least middle class if not of affluent backgrounds, white people, that often brings in the specter of gentrification; that there's going to be this white savior that comes in and idealistically, thinks that he or she is going to save the brown people of this urban neighborhood.

That has become such an urban legend, and with some fact behind it; that there's a certain derogatory - that there's a negative aspect to a young, highly educated, white person moving in and rehabbing a house in a poor neighborhood. Were you ever concerned about - that people might question your motives?

PHILP: Oh, absolutely. I mean, I think that people are totally right to question my motives. I question my own motives. And I'm not 100 percent sure what I'm doing is right or the best thing for the city and the people. You know, it's such a difficult, hard issue. And, you know, I'm not sure I've solved all those problems. I certainly don't have all those answers. So I can't say that, you know, 100 percent, what I'm doing is great. That's something that weighs on me continually.

HEADLEE: So when you say "what I'm doing," what do you feel like you're doing? Is it just the renovation of this house?

PHILP: I mean, I've written this story for BuzzFeed as well.

HEADLEE: Right.

PHILP: So I'm kind of beginning to...

HEADLEE: Which has gotten a huge number of views and reads.

PHILP: So there's that. So I'm also telling this story as well, which I think is an important story to tell. I'm also looking at who my audience is and trying to speak to some of these young, white people and say, there's probably space in Detroit for all of us, but we need to do this respectfully. One of the things I was thinking about, in terms of the story is that, you know, there are a lot of these like, white savior narratives.

And that's - I hope I'm trying to kind of break that mold a little bit and say, look, there's a long history here with people who have been here for a long time; who are very, very intelligent and very good at doing what they're doing. We need to learn from them and listen from them. We don't really want to change the culture of the city because the culture of the city is wonderful. And the people here are just incredible.

HEADLEE: So give me your elevator pitch before we go. You must get people - some of them may have been family members - who say, what are you thinking? Detroit is a dying city. That city is a hot mess, right? I'm sure you've heard this a million times. Stay as far away from Detroit as you possibly can. Follow your classmates to another state. What reasons do you give them on why that narrative about Detroit is not fully accurate?

PHILP: Well, I think the kind of cultural pendulum is swinging back from kind of irony and snark to people want things that are honest and wholesome. And what I say to those people is that, it's Detroit. We're never going to die. We put the world on wheels.

HEADLEE: Drew Philp wrote about his experience of buying and rehabbing a home in Detroit. He wrote about it in BuzzFeed, in a piece called "Why I Bought A House In Detroit For $500." And he joined us from WDET in Detroit. Drew, thank you so much.

PHILP: You're welcome.

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