Sunday, April 9, 2017

Building a New World Order: A $500 House in Detroit

I wanted to read Drew Philp's book A $500 House in Detroit  because he, like so many other young people, have returned to the city to make it home, to help establish a new city, a better city. Like the young man at my hair salon who bought a house in Brightmoor, who, starting from scratch, is making a new kind of house for a new generation.

Philp came from a rural area of Michigan, from generations of people who worked with their hands. He attended University of Michigan but was repulsed by the values and life style of wealth. He wanted something different, more authentic. Instead of taking a high salary job he wanted to find a life with meaning. He moved to Detroit and worked sanding floors, a 'token white' for an African American company, becoming their public face when selling in the suburbs.

When Philp bought his Poletown house at auction for $500 it was an empty shell--well, empty but for piles of human waste and the sawed off front end of a car.  Philp worked all day and restored his house all night. When he moved in he had no heat; it was a brutal winter without even hot water. It nearly broke his spirit and his health.

When we saw 'gentrification' in Philly, when people were moving in and restoring grand old homes, or factories being put to new use as housing, the city was not as far gone as Detroit. It seems like this is something new--Neighborhoods literally turned into 'urban prairie' with a few houses here and there, cut off from city services and protection. And kids like a twenty-three-year-old Philp deciding to move in and start from scratch.

And that 'scratch' includes community. Philp's heart-warming stories of acceptance and integration into the existing community is enviable. For few of us in the 'burbs know our neighbors anymore. The block parties of my youth and the mothers all looking out for the kids are things of the past.

Philp's book was eye opening on so many levels, including his history of Detroit's fall, the politics of corruption, the inequity that began long ago with 'urban renewal', and the value system of consumerism and business profit is well presented.

I communicated with Philp and he graciously answered some questions I posed.

Nancy: Few people have the will to live an authentic life based on values that are in tension with social expectations. I was wondering if you would talk about that.

Philp: I think much of my generation wants to live authentically, and in fact, I think it's the defining trait of the millennials. What I don't think we understand yet is how to do so. I was lucky. I had a background where I learned how to build physical things from an early age, and stumbled upon a community that could help encourage and transform those skills. For me, living an authentic life meant building a house. For others it's likely different.

But the underlying principle is we're looking to build a better world, one free from all kinds of coercion, that recognizes the interconnection of all different kinds of people and issues. You can see inklings of experiments like this in movements such as Occupy Wall Street and the camps at Standing Rock--they've been maligned for not having a dedicated plan, but I think that isn't the point. The point is to build community, a real one, and a new world, a better one. The kids at Occupy were doing it right there in the park, in practice, rather than begging a wealthy, disconnected politician to do it for them. I'm trying to do the same with my house and community.

Nancy: You have the rare ability to see beyond the surface: you don't just see a product, you see how it was manufactured and the implications on human lives and the environment. Where did this awareness come from?

Philp: I think I was pushed by circumstances. I've watched my countrymen and women die in wars nearly my entire life, at least one of which was built on lies. I've seen, in Detroit and elsewhere, people starving and homeless in "the greatest country on earth." I've taught in prisons where there is little to no rehabilitation going on, and the privatization of incarceration, the making money from locking people in cages. I've seen eight, just eight now, men owning half as much wealth as 50 percent of the world...the list goes on.

I feel I've been lied to very deeply, by my government, by society, by culture, and I've seen it with my own eyes, and had to begin looking for my own answers. They've led me to a startling place. From the clothing on our bodies to the pipes running through our homes, much of our comfort has been built on the near slavery of workers in the global South and environmental degradation the world over.

Nancy: I appreciated the sense of community that you describe in Detroit. Few communities behave like family any more. Can this be patterned in other communities?

Philp: I would argue that community is always important, we can just temporarily mask that need with longing for perceived safety and consumer culture, for example. There's a lot of ennui happening in the supposedly wonderful suburbs and McMansions. People aren't as happy as they pretend to be. In Detroit we're not all that special in finding community--we've just faced the problems longer than anyone else, and by virtue of time, have had longer to find the answers.

As to participation in community, I think it's what my generation is looking for above all else. Fulfillment comes from authentic life, which comes through community. Many of us have grown up in faceless suburbs, divorced from any meaningful culture, sense of belonging, and are very, very lonely. People have been moving back to cities to find a sense not only of selves but their history and connection to others. If the US continues down this road of fascism and cruelty, we're going to see an explosion of it.

Nancy: Everyone is rooting for Detroit to be the come-back kid but I know too many neighborhoods do not enjoy benefits from the growth of trendy restaurants or boutiques. Do you think that Detroit's past is it's future, with areas attracting suburbanites for play vs. areas of neglect and poverty?

Philp: I think that is what the grassroots in Detroit is fighting against. As I mention in the book, the only real failure Detroit can undergo in moving forward is not trying anything new. We have an amazing opportunity to become, as strange as it sounds, the city of the future. The grassroots in Detroit is attempting to solve global problems on the local level-- i.e., climate change, which we won't be getting too much help from the current federal administration--and paradoxically, Detroit has solutions to offer. Hopefully we can stave off the big money and current thinking in our own city to give them as a gift to the rest of the world.

Philp is one of those rare people who rise above status quo conventions to see a higher moral order, another vision of a better city. It gives one hope that America's future will be influenced by ideals that will lead to a better America.

Read the article that became a sensation and led to this book:

"As we rebuild this ashen city, we're deciding on an epic scale what we value as Americans in the 21st century. The American Dream is alive in Detroit, even if it flickers." Drew Philp

I revived a free ebook from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

A $500 House in Detroit: Rebuilding an American Home and an Abandoned City
by Drew Philp
Publication April 11, 2017
$26 hard cover
ISBN: 9781476797984

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