A $500 House in Detroit: Rebuilding an Abandoned Home and an American City

Whether it's crime, corruption or urban decay, Detroit's seemingly insurmountable array of problems have been well documented. That's why freelance journalist Drew Philp's A $500 House in Detroit is such a tonic. The story of its author's five-year effort to rehabilitate a dwelling in one of the city's blighted neighborhoods is an inspiring portrait of one man's dogged persistence. It offers a clear-eyed glimpse at how a brighter future for the once proud Motor City might be slowly emerging.

A graduate of the University of Michigan, the idealistic Philp, who is white, is the quintessential Angry Young Man. He moves to Detroit--whose population is more than 80% African-American--with "no job, no friends, and no money," trying to reconcile his background of educational privilege with the poverty that surrounds him. At a tax sale in October 2009, he acquires a 1903 Queen Anne house and sets to work transforming it into habitable space. With the help of his father, grandfather and a shifting cast of neighbors, Philp slowly acquires the skills that enable him to resurrect this "white-and-gray clapboard shell on a crumbling brick foundation, filled with junk."

He layers the account of his backbreaking labor with economic and sociological insights into Detroit's plight, while describing the efforts of other determined homesteaders to reclaim abandoned neighborhoods. He has little patience for the gentrification movement led by wealthy business leaders and instead puts his faith in the unceasing toil of his fellow urban pioneers. "We were going to have to pit our humanity against their money," he writes. It's probably not a good idea to bet against this once great city's revival. --Harvey Freedenberg, attorney and freelance reviewer

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