Why I Bought A House In Detroit For $500
After college, as my friends left Michigan for better opportunities, I was determined to help fix this broken, chaotic city by building my own home in the middle of it. I was 23 years old.
“I wanted something nobody wanted, something that was impossible. The
city is filled with these structures, houses whose yellowy eyes seem to follow
you. It would be only one house out of thousands, but I wanted to prove it
could be done, prove that this American vision of torment could be built
back into a home.” – young Michigander Drew Philp
My first job out of college was working for a construction company in Detroit.
“We’re an all-black company and I need a clean-cut white boy,” my boss told me over drinks in a downtown bar when he hired me. “Customers in the suburbs don’t want to hire a black man.”
When a service call would come in, we would ask, “Does he sound white or black?” If it was the former, I would bid the job. If the latter, my boss would. Detroit is one of the most segregated metro areas in the nation, and for the first time I was getting what it felt like to be on the other side of that line. In contrast to the abstract verbal yoga students at the University of Michigan would perform when speaking about race, this was refreshing. And terrifying. I couldn’t hide behind fancy words any longer.
I grew up in rural Michigan, 45 minutes away from any freeway. I’m the first male member of my family in three generations never to have worked in front of a lathe, and aside from one uncle, I’m the oldest with all of my fingers intact. The university had given me some grandiose ideas like “true solidarity with the oppressed,” and I figured “the oppressed” lived in Detroit, never mind the patrimony. I thought I was making a sacrifice. I thought moving here was staying home when everyone else was leaving the state. I thought I was going to change the world and had some vague notions of starting a school. I cringe at how naive I was. I first rented an apartment in the city, sight unseen, that didn’t have a kitchen sink, so I did my dishes in the bathtub.
Aside from bidding jobs, I spent my days like everyone else: sanding floors in cheap rentals for $8.50 an hour, which got me thinking: I could buy a house and fix it up myself. Not that I was sure how to go about buying, let alone renovating a house. It was just an inexplicit dream, some trick that would keep me from leaving like everyone else, make me a true Detroiter.
Not long after, I went to a Halloween party dressed as an organ grinder. At one point I set my cardboard organ down in a corner to dance, and when I went back to get a beer I’d hidden inside it, sitting next to the organ, all knotted up and looking out of place, was a guy named Will dressed as an organ grinder’s monkey. Between his fingers he held a hand-rolled cigarette.
“You want to go outside and have a smoke?”
After the usual pleasantries, him looking nervous and fidgety, me overeager to make friends, I told him I wanted to buy a house on the city’s east side.
He answered, “I just did.”