Opinion: I bought a $500 house to help save Detroit. The city saved me instead.

With spring just inches away, the wildflowers are about to return to Detroit.

People don’t often associate wildflowers with the Motor City, but I can assure you they grace the landscape in my neighborhood, Poletown, every spring: spiderwort, primrose, chicory, fleabane, rosinweed. You also may not associate “radical neighborliness” with Detroit either. This too, I can also assure you, calls Detroit home.

Ten years ago I bought a decrepit house in Poletown, a house abandoned for ten years with no windows, no plumbing, and no electricity on a crumbling foundation filled with 10,000 pounds of trash. With the help of my neighbors, I built it into my home.

The fine people at TED brought me to New York last November to talk about it, and this is the result. I was very nervous.

Drew Philp is a journalist and screenwriter living in Detroit. He is the author of “A $500 House in Detroit: Rebuilding an Abandoned Home and an American City.”

It’s difficult to stand up in front of your peers and the world and say what you believe— give the truth as you see it— and I tried to use my position to talk about things happening in this city that are plain wrong, yet some very powerful people are making a lot of money doing or ignoring.

Related Detroit coverage

There has always been something special about Detroit, and although here I call it radical neighborliness, it goes by other names as well. There is a powerful sense of community here, but it’s being threatened— the latest in a long line of threats started 15 years ago with evictions and foreclosures, and again in 2014 with the mass water shut offs.

Author Drew Philp’s account of buying and rehabbing a decrepit home was published last year by Scriber. Buy the book through this link.

I’ll say it again: one-third of Detroit homes have been foreclosed in the past 12 years, representing a diaspora the size of Buffalo, New York. More than 100,000 homes, one-seventh of the city, have had their water shut off in what United Nations experts called a “violation of international human rights.”

These are massive crimes, and there is no true “renaissance” or “resurgence” while our neighbors don’t have shelter and water.

I sincerely I hope I’ve made my neighbors, maybe even you, proud. I hope I’ve done the subject just a small bit of justice. I did my best, and I hope, as a society, as a people, we do better.

I also hope this new Detroit we’re creating still includes the wildflowers: Both the kind that you can place in a vase for your partner when they’re having a bad day, and the other kind, the metaphorical kind, that find home in our imaginings of what the future of Detroit can hold.

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J Hendricks
Wed, 04/11/2018 - 9:28am

I guess that’s the next entitlement - free water!

Wed, 04/11/2018 - 2:38pm

I'm born and raised in Michigan, but I've never lived in Detroit. I've never lived anywhere close to Detroit. But throughout its relatively recent decades of trials and tribulations, I've never stopped rooting for it.

Wed, 04/11/2018 - 5:53pm

You remind me when I once went to a McDonald's for lunch years back.

I was sitting near the windows with the small tv showing a Detroit Tigers game. An older lady in her 80s walked over with her meal to sit near a table to watch the screen. She was enthusiastic in speaking out-loud on how the Tigers were doing. I spoke to her briefly and she said how she is a major Detroit sports fan. Moments later, she acknowledged the negativity surrounding the city. "No matter the negative comments people across the nation say, I'll never abandon Detroit. "I'll always love my Tigers, even during the worst of times."

Made me glad how some elders who are lived during Detroit's "height" still have hope and don't feed into the negative cynicism their younger peers spread.