Drew Philp is a Detroit-based author and writer. His autobiographical article, Why I Bought a House in Detroit for $500, went viral–and not because it was your typical internet clickbait. It’s a deep, meaningful piece about Drew’s life in a city that much of America has shamefully written off. Drew has continued to write, and recently released a book, A $500 House in Detroit: Rebuilding an Abandoned Home and an American City, which expands on the themes of his article. He was kind enough to catch up with us while on a book tour to answer these questions about his life, his advice for new writers, and his view of the future of Motor City.
One thing I realized when reading your article is that if you had just taken a cushy magazine job in New York instead, you probably never would’ve even written about Detroit, and if you did, your writing about it would’ve been much less personal and impactful. Do you think more writers and artists should follow your example and take the harder, less conventional path?
I think the future of the US depends on it. The election of Donald Trump seemed like a huge wakeup call to large swaths of coastal media, many of whom treated the president like a joke until way too late. I think this has come from a profound misunderstanding of how people in the center of the country actually live, and the evils they are dealing with. This isn’t just a problem within media but our society more generally, including both political parties.
For example, Detroit is the most segregated metro area in the nation—the city about 80 percent black and the suburbs similarly white, and the rest of the rust belt isn’t far behind. This harsh segregation has been allowed to go on for decades, by both political parties and everyone frankly, leaving people like our current president with enormous room to exploit these areas of ignorance. Within the media itself, we have had reporters write stories about Detroit that contained no quotations by black people—in America’s blackest city. This is unconscionable, and a mistake unlikely to be made by hiring a local.
There’s somewhat of catch 22 here for young writers. On the one hand, places that are not New York or LA are where the majority of the good, real, difficult stories are. On the other, it’s difficult to make connections to the industry necessary to publishing when living in a place like Detroit or Kansas City. Everyone has to find their own, individual path through this maze, and I don’t think there’s one right answer. Good stories occasionally come from people who “parachute” into places like Detroit, but those examples are rare.
We have had reporters write stories about Detroit that contained no quotations by black people—in America’s blackest city. This is unconscionable.
More broadly do you think the concentration of writers in the Northeast results in a picture of America that is not accurate?
Less inaccurate than incomplete.
Very recently I think we’ve seen some movement to attempt to address this incompleteness, but I think it’s still been a stumbling rather than a striding. Where reporters live is important—I think to truly understand the problems of a community one must live amongst them on the daily, and in some sense make those problems one’s own. 21st century problems are wicked complex and I don’t think we can really understand them in a weekend. This often means living in places that are considered “undesirable” by good yuppies (but that many people find beautiful and human and poignant) and this means living in places like Gary Indiana instead of Chicago, or Butte Montana rather than Denver.
The good news is, these stories can be, when done right, very profitable for news organizations. I think the vast majority of the country is starving for stories that both recognize who they are and deal with these thorny American issues in more than a superficial or cruel way. When things are the real deal they tend to get read and interacted with.
You walked to the Republican convention and, of course, live in Michigan, which Trump unexpectedly flipped. You also have written both in your book and earlier articles about wealth inequality. Were you surprised by the election results given what you’ve seen living in Detroit?
I was somewhat shocked, but not surprised. When walking From Detroit to Cleveland to speak with people, I knew something was up when a pipe welder told me he had voted for Obama twice and was now voting for Trump. And then I heard the same story again. And again, and again, and again. One man told me he had voted a straight Dem ticket his “whole life” and was now voting for Trump. I knew then the current president had a serious shot.
People just wanted change, wherever it would come from. And they would vote for a man that said “grab her by the pussy” if they had to, justifying away almost anything undesirable. I met dozens of people struggling to pay the mortgage, or working for weeks away from their families and living in shitty motels, 30 year old men living with their parents because they couldn’t afford anything else. There was and is real pain going on in the “white working class.” I’m not attempting to excuse anything, but on the coasts there was and is a profound misunderstanding about how desperate people are for something different and what they’ll do and who they’ll vote for to get away from their agony and worry.
I met white people who had never had an actual conversation with a black person or an immigrant or an Arab. I met people who thought—on the record— prison camps ala Japanese internment would be a good idea for Muslims. This can seem absurd in a place like New York, but it’s very real in the Midwest and was rife to be exploited. Changing these views is going to take actually taking to people, not just at them, and it’s going to take a long time and involves a great deal of hard work in places they don’t serve brunch.
In your book you say “What I learned that first winter was that my goal wasn’t to build a house. It was to transform myself by building a house.” How have you changed since you moved to Detroit?
I guess I’d like to think I’ve become much more aware and intelligent on issues of race and class, especially the former. I grew up in a blue-collar household, in a town where most people were blue-collar and fairly comfortable, and it wasn’t until I attended college I bumped up against these massive class differences myself. In school, I met only one other person whose father worked with his hands.
This, of course, got me thinking about race as well. I began teaching in prisons and “studying” how race worked in the US. By the end of my schooling was actually co-teaching a class about racism to all white students, by design. At the same time I had moved to Detroit and was working for an “all-black construction company” who hired me to be the first (white) face clients saw in the suburbs. This was, uh, intense to say the least—I’d often hitchhike between these two desperate worlds, school and work, and got a very small taste of how wildly different America can be for people born a different race living just a few miles from one another. To be honest, it was extremely painful. Although I had a good academic grounding in how race works in the US, it wasn’t until I saw it play out every day that I really began to understand what people of color deal with on a daily basis, how it shapes one’s entire life, and just how unequal we are and pretend not to be.
How would you describe where Detroit is today, and where it is going in the future?
Detroit is on the precipice of a great change. There is an immense amount of money pouring into the city, which is in many cases in direct opposition to a new form of value and values people are attempting to develop in Detroit, and have been developing for decades. This money, and let’s call it community-centered ideology, are locked in a death struggle for control of the city.
In the last couple decades, while the US had largely forgotten about Detroit as anything other than an apocalyptic hellhole, from necessity Detroiters were forging a new way of living in the US and with each other as human beings. I was lucky enough to experience this for a number of years before the billionaires came, and I saw what I liked and was in many ways deeply changed by it.
There is a radical neighborliness to Detroit—people say hello to one another, people cut each other’s grass, people often embody the biblical directive about neighbors in a tangible way—and many people seem to be worried that will go away when the almighty dollar reins again. It seems to me we may be making many mistakes of the past and again ignoring many of the problems that have plagued us during the same time, namely segregation and racism, ever widening economic inequality, and generally how we treat human life in the wealthiest country the world has ever seen.
Find a community that has the same values as you, and wants to express them via art.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to get into writing?
Go the opposite direction you see everyone else of your age going. Find a niche that you understand well, that you can make your own, one that you love and enjoy. Look where everyone else is not looking.
Be curious and voracious in interacting with culture. Draw inspiration from everywhere, not just what’s popular or within your own genera—much of my inspiration comes from paining and visual art and country music.
It’s often said that you need to “listen.” Well of course, but we also need to believe people when they tell us something. Trust that people know their own problems better than an outsider, and they mean what they say. A good example is sex workers. I have no idea how the laws or policies or stories of sex work should be told or implemented in a place like Detroit. But I’m sure the sex workers have ideas, and they know their own problems better than anyone. Let’s listen to them and follow their lead.
Tattoo this on the back of your hand with a sewing needle and a bottle of India ink: read everything all the time, and write, write, write all the time.
Journal. Write letters and send them in the mail (I’m sure your grandma wants to hear what you’ve been up to). Read the back of salt containers and wonder why it’s written that way. Write for publication, even if very few people will read it. Memorize poems. Sit in the bathtub and read out loud to your lover. Study fairy tales and myths and archetypes. Think about storytelling more than “writing.” Find a community that has the same values as you, and wants to express them via art. Become comfortable with the person you’re with when you’re alone—you’re going to be spending a lot of time alone. Try not to drink too much. Seek out older people who can give you advice on the writing industry and introduce you to people. Realize every time you are watching TV or wasting time you could be reading or writing. Realize your brain needs time to process and rest, and watching TV or wasting time can be beneficial. Patronize the fucking library.
Fall in love with the truth.
Can you tell us about your work in the film industry?
I fell into it accidentally. I was between journalism jobs and working as a cook at an open-kitchen French restaurant. There was a gentleman that would come in every single day, and order the exact same thing, every single day. Naturally we started chatting, and I told him I was a writer. He told me he owned a local film production company and asked if I would take a look at a short script, but he didn’t have any money to pay me. I wasn’t doing anything else, so I said sure. I made some changes and gave him some notes.
He told me that was basically a test, and asked if I wanted a job. I ended up writing two films with him, both of which are yet unproduced. I currently have a few other irons in the fire.
What makes a good script?
What’s next for Drew Philp?
I can’t talk too much about this right now, but trust I’ll still be telling stories in some form, about people who don’t always get to hold the microphone.
Right now I’m working real hard to help my new book find its place in the world. I hope you’ll take a read.
Be sure to buy Drew’s new book, A $500 House in Detroit: Rebuilding an Abandoned Home and an American City, follow him on Twitter, and check out his homepage.