“Any act of self-sufficiency in common with community is an act of rebellion.” – Drew Philp
I’m sure Drew Philp self-identifies as a liberal, a Democrat, a progressive, or some combination of the three. But, in my mind, he’s clearly a Libertarian, if not an outright anarchist. I first read Mr. Philp’s story back in 2014 when BuzzFeed ran his feature article “Why I Bought A House In Detroit For $500.” At 23, in his final year of college at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor, disenchanted with the path he saw America following, Mr. Philp moved into the Poletown neighborhood of Detroit and started to build a life of meaning for himself.
“It would be only one house out of thousands, but I wanted to prove it could be done, prove that this American vision of torment could be built back into a home. I also decided I would do it the old-fashioned way, without grants or loans or the foundation money pouring into the city. I would work for everything that went into the house, because not everyone has access to those resources. I also wanted to prove to myself and my family I was a man.”
Mr Philp’s article was an inspiration and a source of renewed hope that there were still people in the United States who understood the road to both personal happiness and a healthier society was not being built by politicians or government programs, but by individuals – one day at a time.
Over the last couple of years Mr. Philp expanded that article into a book, A $500 House In Detroit: Rebuilding an Abandoned Home and an American City, which I just finished reading. The conversational writing makes for easy reading and I finished its 300 pages in about 8 hours. Along with the heart-warming (and occasionally heart-wrenching) tales of living in poverty while struggling to rebuild a devastated (and literally trashed) house into a home once again he shares numerous first hand accounts of government harming individuals in the name of helping “progress”.
From the folly of eminent domain-
“In the early ’80s, the entire north half of the neighborhood was demolished to make way for a 362-acre auto plant, heavily subsidized by the city, state, and federal governments. More than 4,000 residents were eminent-domained from their property; 1,400 homes, several churches, and 140 businesses were razed to make way for the promise of three shifts of work a day.
“Approximately 6,500 jobs were promised at the Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Plant plant in exchange for demolishing half the neighborhood. At its peak employment, roughly 3,500 people worked there, less than the number of people kicked out of their homes to build it. Fewer than 1,500 people work there today.”
To the literal disenfranchisement of everyone living in America’s 18th largest city-
“The governor of Michigan, Rick Snyder, appointed Detroit an emergency financial manager with autocratic control over the city’s finances and major decisions. In the United States of America, I am not, nor are any of my neighbors, able to select who will lead us locally. We have a mayor, but he can’t do anything aside from what the emergency manager tells him he can.”
But it’s not just the failures of government that have become evident to this young man trying to build his own American dream. Social Justice Warriors made their impotence just as visible-
“That summer, 2010, the United States Social Forum, a sort of ideological precursor to Occupy Wall Street, was held for a week in Detroit. More than 20,000 people came into the city from around the world, slept in tents, went to classes and discussions, drank and partied, networked. I would have liked to see more of the Social Forum, but I was working on my house and cooking at a French restaurant.
“One of the events I did see was a march staged by professional protest coordinators who had come in from California opposing Detroit’s trash incinerator, the largest in the United States. We have an asthma hospitalization rate three times the national average. The protest would march down Detroit’s main thoroughfare and past the incinerator with hundreds of spray-painted sunflower pickets, miniature incinerators, and signs, presumably raising holy hell and sticking it to the man.
“I guess no one saw the irony in cutting down real pine trees to make fake sunflowers. Or that a protest to demand clean air would use so much aerosol spray paint. But the real irony came when the Social Forum was over and it was time for the out-of-towners to leave for the next protest.
“What are you going to do with all this stuff?” we asked.
“Why don’t you just recycle it?” they said.
“They left it all [behind] and split, leaving it for us to deal with. Now we had another pile of trash to clean up and nowhere for it to go. So while they were gallivanting off to the next good deed, that shit went into the incinerator and into our lungs.”
And then there’s the story of a group of art students who set up camp on Mr. Philp’s lawn while he’s at work one day. When his neighbors inform them that they are trespassing their response is “you don’t understand. We’re helping.” By setting up easels and painting pictures of his house being rehabbed? Upon his return from work he asks them to leave and the teacher refuses, yelling at him: “But I taught at Harvard.” There is no thought to calling the police, of course, and no need as his neighbors came out en masse to help him defend his property. Luckily, he was able to diffuse the situation before the neighborhood residents and the invading art students came to blows – but just barely.
Near the end of his book Mr. Philp points out that, despite living “in Detroit’s east side, which reporters describe as ‘bombed out’ and like ‘Mogadishu,’” a place that “even the police say is ‘war-like… unsafe for visitors,’” he’s only had a gun pointed at his face three times in is life. All three times by police officers.
“But there’s another Detroit, too, of which I am but a small part. It’s been happening quietly and for some time, between transplants and natives, black and white and Latino, city and country — tiny acts of kindness repeated thousands of times over, little gardens and lots of space, long meetings and mowing grass that isn’t yours. It’s the Detroit that’s saving itself. The Detroit that’s building something brand-new out of the cinders of consumerism and racism and escape.”
They key thing about that “other Detroit”, the one in which Mr. Philp and his neighbors live, is that it’s the Detroit of the people. And they’re accomplishing those things despite the government, not because of it. Which is what truly makes this story so powerful. These people have changed the world, and are continuing to do so, not by asking other people to change anything, not by using the force of government to change anything, but by changing themselves and their environment each and every day. Their lives are a shining example to all and the living embodiment of being the change they want to see in the world.
If you have friends or relatives who just can’t wrap their brains around the concept of healthy society without government I highly recommend you give them a copy of this book. Whether they’re liberals like the author or conservatives who profess ideals of self-reliance this tale of functioning anarchy is one that simply can’t be denied.