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Drew Philp: My $500 house in Detroit -- and the neighbors who helped me rebuild it

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In 2009, journalist and screenwriter Drew Philp bought a ruined house in Detroit for $500. In the years that followed, as he gutted the interior and removed the heaps of garbage crowding the rooms, he didn't just learn how to repair a house -- he learned how to build a community. In a tribute to the city he loves, Philp tells us about "radical neighborliness" and makes the case that we have "the power to create the world anew together and to do it ourselves when our governments refuse."

- Journalist, screenwriter
Drew Philp is the author of "A $500 House in Detroit: Rebuilding an Abandoned Home and an American City," a memoir of rebuilding a former abandoned home while finding his place in his city, country, race and generation. Full bio

In 2009, I bought a house
in Detroit for 500 dollars.
00:12
It had no windows,
no plumbing, no electricity
00:17
and it was filled with trash.
00:21
The first floor held nearly
10,000 pounds of garbage,
00:24
and that included the better part
of a Dodge Caravan,
00:28
cut into chunks with a reciprocating saw.
00:31
(Laughter)
00:33
I lived nearly two years without heat,
00:34
woke up out of a dead sleep
multiple times to gunshots,
00:36
was attacked by a pack of wild dogs
00:40
and ripped my kitchen cabinets
from an abandoned school
00:44
as they were actively tearing
that school down.
00:48
This, of course, is the Detroit
that your hear about.
00:52
Make no mistake, it's real.
00:55
But there's another Detroit, too.
00:58
Another Detroit that's more hopeful,
01:00
more innovative,
01:02
and may just provide some of the answers
01:04
to cities struggling to reinvent
themselves everywhere.
01:06
These answers, however, do not
necessarily adhere to conventional wisdom
01:10
about good development.
01:14
I think Detroit's real strength
boils down to two words:
01:17
radical neighborliness.
01:21
And I wasn't able to see it myself
until I lived there.
01:24
About a decade ago,
01:28
I moved to Detroit with no friends,
no job and no money,
01:29
at a time when it seemed
like everyone else was moving out.
01:33
Between 2000 and 2010,
01:36
25 percent of the city's population left.
01:39
This included about half
of the elementary-aged children.
01:42
This was after six decades of decline.
01:46
A city built for almost two million
was down to less than 800,000.
01:48
What you usually don't hear
is that people didn't go very far.
01:54
The population of the Detroit
metro area itself
01:58
has largely remained steady
since the '70s.
02:02
Most people who left Detroit
just went to the suburbs,
02:05
while the 139 square miles
of the city deteriorated,
02:08
leaving some estimates as high
as 40 square miles of abandoned land --
02:12
about the size of San Francisco.
02:17
Aside from platitudes such as the vague
and agentless "deindustrialization,"
02:21
Detroit's exodus can be summed up
with two structures:
02:25
freeways and walls.
02:28
The freeways,
02:31
coupled with massive
governmental subsidies
02:32
for the suburbs via
infrastructure and home loans,
02:35
allowed people to leave the city at will,
02:39
taking with it tax base,
jobs and education dollars.
02:41
The walls made sure
only certain people could leave.
02:46
In multiple places,
02:50
brick and concrete walls
separate city and suburbs,
02:51
white and black,
02:55
running directly across municipal streets
02:56
and through neighborhoods.
02:58
They're mere physical manifestations
of racist housing practices
03:00
such as redlining,
03:04
[Denying services to people of color]
03:05
restrictive covenants
03:07
and outright terror.
03:09
In 1971, the Ku Klux Klan
bombed 10 school buses
03:11
rather than have them transport
integrated students.
03:15
All these have made Detroit
the most racially segregated metro area
03:19
in the United States.
03:23
I grew up in a small town in Michigan,
03:26
the son of a relatively
blue-collar family.
03:28
And after university,
I wanted to do something --
03:31
probably naïvely --
03:33
to help.
03:35
I didn't want to be one of the almost
50 percent of college graduates
03:36
leaving the state at the time,
03:40
and I thought I might use
my fancy college education at home
03:42
for something positive.
03:45
I'd been reading this great
American philosopher named Grace Lee Boggs
03:47
who happened to live in Detroit,
03:51
and she said something I can't forget.
03:53
"The most radical thing
that I ever did was to stay put."
03:56
I thought buying a house might
indelibly tie me to the city
04:02
while acting as a physical protest
to these walls and freeways.
04:06
Because grants and loans
weren't available to everyone,
04:10
I decided I was going
to do this without them
04:12
and that I would wage my personal fight
04:15
against the city that had loomed
over my childhood with power tools.
04:16
I eventually found an abandoned house
in a neighborhood called Poletown.
04:21
It looked like the apocalypse
had descended.
04:25
The neighborhood was prairie land.
04:28
A huge, open expanse of waist-high grass
04:30
cluttered only by a handful
of crippled, abandoned structures
04:33
and a few brave holdouts
with well-kept homes.
04:36
Just a 15-minute bike ride
from the baseball stadium downtown,
04:40
the neighborhood was positively rural.
04:45
What houses were left looked like
cardboard boxes left in the rain;
04:48
two-story monstrosities
with wide-open shells
04:52
and melted porches.
04:55
One of the most striking things
I remember were the rosebushes,
04:57
forgotten and running wild
over tumbled-down fences,
05:00
no longer cared for by anyone.
05:04
This was my house on the day
I boarded it up
05:07
to protect it from the elements
and further decay.
05:10
I eventually purchased it
from the county in a live auction.
05:13
I'd assumed the neighborhood was dead.
05:16
That I was some kind of pioneer.
05:18
Well, I couldn't have been more wrong.
05:22
I was in no way a pioneer,
05:24
and would come to understand
how offensive that is.
05:26
One of the first things I learned
was to add my voice to the chorus,
05:29
not overwrite what was already happening.
05:33
(Voice breaking) Because
the neighborhood hadn't died.
05:36
It had just transformed in a way
that was difficult to see
05:38
if you didn't live there.
05:41
Poletown was home
to an incredibly resourceful,
05:43
incredibly intelligent
and incredibly resilient community.
05:45
It was there I first experienced
the power of radical neighborliness.
05:50
During the year I worked
on my house before moving in,
05:55
I lived in a microcommunity
inside Poletown,
05:58
founded by a wild and virtuous farmer
named Paul Weertz.
06:01
Paul was a teacher
in a Detroit public school
06:05
for pregnant and parenting mothers,
06:08
and his idea was to teach
the young women to raise their children
06:09
by first raising plants and animals.
06:12
While the national average graduation rate
for pregnant teens is about 40 percent,
06:15
at Catherine Ferguson Academy
it was often above 90,
06:20
in part due to Paul's ingenuity.
06:23
Paul brought much of this innovation
to his block in Poletown,
06:25
which he'd stewarded
for more than 30 years,
06:28
purchasing houses
when they were abandoned,
06:31
convincing his friends to move in
and neighbors to stay
06:33
and helping those who wanted
to buy their own and fix them up.
06:36
In a neighborhood where many blocks
now only hold one or two houses,
06:40
all the homes on Paul's block stand.
06:44
It's an incredible testament
to the power of community,
06:47
to staying in one place
06:49
and to taking ownership
of one's own surroundings --
06:50
of simply doing it yourself.
06:53
It's the kind of place where black doctors
live next to white hipsters
06:56
next to immigrant mothers from Hungary
07:00
or talented writers
from the jungles of Belize,
07:02
showing me Detroit
wasn't just black and white,
07:04
and diversity could flourish
when it's encouraged.
07:07
Each year, neighbors assemble to bale hay
for the farm animals on the block,
07:10
teaching me just how much
a small group of people can get done
07:14
when they work together,
07:18
and the magnetism of fantastical
yet practical ideas.
07:19
Radical neighborliness is every house
behind Paul's block burning down,
07:24
and instead of letting it fill up
with trash and despair,
07:29
Paul and the surrounding community
creating a giant circular garden
07:32
ringed with dozens of fruit trees,
beehives and garden plots
07:35
for anyone that wants one,
07:39
helping me see that our challenges
can often be assets.
07:41
It's where residents are experimenting
with renewable energy and urban farming
07:45
and offering their skills
and discoveries to others,
07:49
illustrating we don't necessarily
have to beg the government
07:52
to provide solutions.
07:55
We can start ourselves.
07:56
It's where, for months,
07:58
one of my neighbors
left her front door unlocked
07:59
in one of the most violent
and dangerous cities in America
08:02
so I could have a shower
whenever I needed to go to work,
08:04
as I didn't yet have one.
08:07
It was when it came time to raise
the beam on my own house
08:10
that holds the structure aloft --
08:13
a beam that I cut out of an abandoned
recycling factory down the street
08:14
when not a single wall
was left standing --
08:18
a dozen residents of Poletown
showed up to help lift it, Amish style.
08:20
Radical neighborliness is a zygote
that grows into a worldview
08:25
that ends up in homes and communities
rebuilt in ways that respect humanity
08:29
and the environment.
08:33
It's realizing we have the power
to create the world anew together
08:34
and to do it ourselves
when our governments refuse.
08:38
This is the Detroit that you
don't hear much about.
08:42
The Detroit between
the ruin porn on one hand
08:45
and the hipster coffee shops
08:48
and billionaires
saving the city on the other.
08:50
There's a third way to rebuild,
08:53
and it declines to make
the same mistakes of the past.
08:55
While building my house,
08:59
I found something
I didn't know I was looking for --
09:00
what a lot of millennials
09:02
and people who are moving
back to cities are looking for.
09:04
Radical neighborliness is just
another word for true community,
09:07
the kind bound my memory and history,
09:11
mutual trust and familiarity
built over years and irreplaceable.
09:13
And now, as you may have heard,
09:18
Detroit is having a renaissance
09:20
and pulling itself up
from the ashes of despair,
09:22
and the children and grandchildren
of those who fled are returning,
09:25
which is true.
09:28
What isn't true is that this renaissance
is reaching most Detroiters,
09:31
or even more than a small fraction of them
09:34
that don't live in the central
areas of the city.
09:36
These are the kind of people
that have been in Detroit for generations
09:39
and are mostly black.
09:43
In 2016 alone,
09:44
just last year,
09:46
(Voice breaking) one in six
houses in Detroit
09:48
had their water shut off.
09:51
Excuse me.
09:55
The United Nations has called this
a violation of human rights.
09:58
And since 2005, one in three houses --
10:03
think about this, please --
10:06
one in every three houses
has been foreclosed in the city,
10:09
representing a population
about the size of Buffalo, New York.
10:13
(Sniffles)
10:17
One in three houses foreclosed is not
a crisis of personal responsibility;
10:19
it is systemic.
10:24
Many Detroiters, myself included,
10:26
are worried segregation
is now returning to the city itself
10:29
on the coattails of this renaissance.
10:33
Ten years ago,
10:38
it was not possible
to go anywhere in Detroit
10:39
and be in a crowd
completely made of white people.
10:41
Now, troublingly, that is possible.
10:45
This is the price that we're paying
for conventional economic resurgence.
10:48
We're creating two Detroits,
two classes of citizens,
10:54
cracking the community apart.
10:58
For all the money and subsidies,
11:00
for all the streetlights installed,
11:02
the dollars for new stadiums
and slick advertisements
11:04
and positive buzz,
11:06
we're shutting off water
to tens of thousands of people
11:08
living right on the Great Lakes,
11:12
the world's largest source of it.
11:14
Separate has always meant unequal.
11:17
This is a grave mistake for all of us.
11:20
When economic development
comes at the cost of community,
11:24
it's not just those
who have lost their homes
11:26
or access to water who are harmed,
11:29
but it breaks little pieces
of our own humanity as well.
11:31
None of us can truly be free,
11:38
none of us can truly be comfortable,
11:40
until our neighbors are, too.
11:42
For those of us coming in,
11:44
it means we must make sure
we aren't inadvertently contributing
11:46
to the destruction of community again,
11:49
and to follow the lead
11:51
of those who have been working
on these problems for years.
11:53
In Detroit, that means average citizens
deputizing themselves
11:56
to create water stations and deliveries
for those who have lost access to it.
12:00
Or clergy and teachers
engaging in civil disobedience
12:04
to block water shutoff trucks.
12:07
It's organizations buying back
foreclosed homes for their inhabitants
12:09
or fighting misinformation
on forced sales through social media
12:13
and volunteer-run hotlines.
12:16
For me, it means helping others
to raise the beams
12:19
on their own formerly abandoned houses,
12:21
or helping to educate
those with privilege,
12:24
now increasingly moving into cities,
12:26
how we might come in and support
12:28
rather than stress existing communities.
12:30
It's chipping in when
a small group of neighbors decides
12:32
to buy back a foreclosed home
12:35
and return the deeds to the occupants.
12:37
And for you, for all of us,
12:40
it means finding a role to play
in our own communities.
12:42
It means living your life as a reflection
of the world that you want to live in.
12:46
It means trusting those
who know the problems best --
12:51
the people who live them --
12:54
with solutions.
12:56
I know a third way is possible
because I have lived it.
12:58
I live it right now
13:02
in a neighborhood called Poletown
13:07
in one of the most
maligned cities in the world.
13:08
If we can do it in Detroit,
13:11
you can do it wherever you're from, too.
13:13
What I've learned over the last decade,
13:16
building my house,
13:18
wasn't so much about wiring
or plumbing or carpentry --
13:19
although I did learn these things --
13:22
is that true change, real change,
13:25
starts first with community,
13:28
with a radical sense
of what it means to be a neighbor.
13:30
It turned at least one
abandoned house into a home.
13:34
Thank you.
13:38
(Applause)
13:39

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About the speaker:

Drew Philp - Journalist, screenwriter
Drew Philp is the author of "A $500 House in Detroit: Rebuilding an Abandoned Home and an American City," a memoir of rebuilding a former abandoned home while finding his place in his city, country, race and generation.

Why you should listen

Drew Philp is a freelance writer living in his rehabbed house and most often covers inequity in the Midwest for the Guardian. He has hitchhiked the Rustbelt to speak with average Americans about changing manhood and walked to Cleveland from Detroit to speak to postindustrial trump supporters in pursuit of stories. Philp has also been published in BuzzFeed, The Detroit Free Press, De Correspondent and other national and international outlets.

In 2009, Philp bought an abandoned house in Detroit with no windows, plumbing or electricity, which was filled with 10,000 pounds of trash. Living without heat for nearly two years, fighting wild packs of dogs, and harvesting materials from the often burning neighborhood, Philp repaired the house with his own hands and the help of his dynamic community. He lives there with his dog Gratiot. 

Philp has also hitchhiked the US, co-taught a class on race to all white students at the University of Michigan, written scripts in the film industry and taught for many years inside prisons and juvenile justice institutions across the state. His accolades include the Stuart and Vernice Gross award for literature, an 11th Hour Food and Farming Fellowship facilitated by Michael Pollan and a 2017 Kresge Arts in Detroit fellowship.

More profile about the speaker
Drew Philp | Speaker | TED.com