Why I Bought A House In Detroit For $500Posted: January 12, 2014
Drew Philp writes: 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.
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.”
A corner in Poletown. Photograph by Garrett MacLean
Will told me that the best way to buy a house here is to find one you like and then figure out who owns it. He had lived in Detroit a decade before, but moved out to travel the country. This was his homecoming. He purchased the house for $3,000 from the son of a woman who had died. It had been abandoned for years, but there was an upstairs room full of her possessions — steamer trunks, furniture, family pictures. Some of her photographs still hung on the walls, including a portrait of the first black mayor of Detroit, Coleman Young, and a painting of a white Jesus Christ. She had them arranged so the Christ appeared to be praying to Young. Only half the rooms in the house had electricity; he lit the rest with oil lamps. He let me live with him that summer.
There were almost no other homes around Will’s, just scrubland and a few scraggly houses standing against the odds. Once they were packed in together like cardboard matches; only a five-minute bike ride from downtown, it was now the country in the city. The only other house nearby was a hideous cinderblock project house built by an architecture student from Cranbrook, the private school Mitt Romney attended as a teenager. It was abandoned, the frozen pipes burst from the cold.
Behind Will’s house was a paradise of wretched forestland. Any homes or buildings had been torn or fallen down, nature reclaiming what it had lost more than a century ago. Full-grown trees stood between dumped boats and hot tubs and railroad ties and piles of rubble, smack-dab on top of where houses used to be. A sextuplet of abandoned grain silos towered over the neighborhood. Scrappers would burn the insulation off copper wire at the bottom, and a rather congenial gentleman, since killed in a fistfight, lived in one of the boats. Occasionally Will and I would climb the towers and look out over the city, smoking cigarettes and drinking cheap beer. I’d try not to fall through the crumbling roof, and we’d point out landmarks, churches, schools, empty factories, trying to figure our place in it all…
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