Debbie: Drew, please tell us a little about yourself.
Drew: My name is Drew Philp, and my journalism and essays have been published both nationally and internationally, including in translation, and have appeared in publications including BuzzFeed, the Guardian, and the Detroit Free Press, among others. I live in Detroit with my dog, Gratiot, in a formerly abandoned house I purchased for $500 with no plumbing, electricity or windows. I repaired it myself, and my book about the experience, A $500 House in Detroit: Rebuilding an Abandoned Home and an American City, will be published April 11.
Debbie: And, of course, we want to know all about your book.
Drew: From the flap copy:
In 2008, Drew Philp, an idealistic college student from a small town in Michigan, withdraws from the comforts of life on a university campus in search of a place to live where he can make a difference. He sets his sights on Detroit, the failed metropolis of abandoned buildings, widespread poverty, and rampant crime, a complicated source of fascination often stereotyped and little understood. Arriving with no job, no friends, and no money, Philp is naively determined to fix the huge, broken city with his own hands and on his own terms. A year later, he saves up and buys a ramshackle house for $500 in the east side neighborhood known as Poletown and moves in.
Philp gets what he pays for. The roomy Queen Anne has been abandoned for a decade and is little more than a clapboard shell on a crumbling brick foundation, filled with heaping piles of trash (including most of a chopped up minivan), and missing windows, heat, water, electricity and a functional roof. The landscape of the surrounding neighborhood resembles an urban prairie: overgrown fields dotted with houses that haven’t been demolished or burned to the ground—some of them well-maintained by Detroiters who have chosen to remain in the city, but many, like the Queen Anne, left vacant and in complete disrepair.
Based on a Buzzfeed essay that resonated with millions of readers, A $500 House in Detroit is Philp’s raw and earnest account of rebuilding everything but the frame of his house, nail by nail and room by room. It’s also the story of a young man finding his footing in the city, the country, and his own generation. As he assimilates into the community of Detroiters around him, Philp guides readers through the city’s vibrant history and engages in urgent conversations about gentrification, racial tensions, class warfare through his first-hand experiences. We witness his concept of Detroit shift, expand, and evolve as his plan to save the city gives way to a life forged from political meaning, personal connection, and collective purpose.
Part social history, part brash generational statement, part comeback story, A $500 House in Detroit is an intimate account of the tentative revival of an American city, home by home and person by person—and a glimpse at a new way forward for generations to come.
Debbie: Other books or projects on the horizon?
Drew: I’m currently working on a wordless “children’s book” with Italian illustrator Matthew Watkins. As for a next book of nonfiction, I have some irons in the fire but nothing set as of yet.
Debbie: Upcoming appearances?
Drew: My book release party is April 14, at Trinosophes coffee house, art gallery and performance space. The event begins at 7PM and is free. All are welcome, and I’d love to see you there! We’ll also have some surprises, including music and art from people in the book.
I’ll also be reading at the Mount Clemens Public Library April 25th and The Detroit Public Library June 7th.
Debbie: Do you have a favorite Michigan bookstore? And/or a favorite Michigan library?
Drew: Too many to name! I love both Literati and Nicola’s Books in Ann Arbor, and John King Used books, The Source Booksellers and Pages in Detroit are always wonderful places full of great books and phenomenal, knowledgeable staff.
I have always loved the Detroit Public Library, particularly the main branch—they were a sanctuary to me when I first moved to Detroit, and they will forever hold a special place in my heart.
Debbie: How about a favorite place in Michigan?
Drew: I grew up near my grandparents’ house on Lake Huron. There’s nothing like watching the sun rise over the lake, the fiery, orange ball appearing over all of that fresh water. On any given morning there’s no place I’d rather be.
In Detroit, there’s no beating a bottle of wine and some cheese on Belle Isle, and maybe a pizza at the Motor City Brewing Works after. Polish Village Café and Yemen café, both in Hamtramck, have the best Polish and Yemeni food—and some of the best food anywhere—this side of Warsaw and Sana’a.
Debbie: Do you have a Michigan event or happening that you love to attend?
Drew: I really enjoy “boat day” in Port Huron, the start of the annual Port Huron to Macinac sailboat race. The city swells to more than twice its size with all of the visitors, and if the wind is right the boats sail close to shore showing their colorful spinnaker sails.
Debbie: A few fun Michigan people we should all know about?
Drew: I’m really into the horn playing of young Michigander Marcus Elliot. He’s wicked smart, utterly superlative, and will be a huge star someday. Catch him in Metro Detroit while you can—this guy is going to be huge.
Airea D. Matthews also has a new book of poetry out, Simulacra, via Yale University, which is certain to be mindbending and powerful and unmissable. I eagerly await my copy.
Debbie: Something you'd like a non-Michigander to know about Michigan?
Drew: Michigan is clearly the finest state in the union, and Detroit is the best city in the US for young artists.
Debbie: Last question. Some folks in Michigan refer to themselves as Michiganders, others as Michiganians. For our ongoing vote tally: are you a Michigander or a Michiganian?
Drew: Michigander all the way.
Debbie: Drew, we'll add you to the Michigander column! Thank you so much for joining us today for Michigander Monday!