Happy New Year! We all take time every January to figure out how we can make a difference. In this first edition of POLICYSMART for 2019, we introduce you to someone who took one stone, dropped it in the larger pool, and created positive energy to change a city. Listen to our discussion with Drew Philp as he describes what he chose to do to help the city of Detroit.
Regina: (00:05) From GRIDSMART Technologies, I’m Regina Hopper. Welcome to POLICYSMART.
Regina: (00:18) Welcome to this edition of POLICYSMART. We’re going to take a little different track. We’re going—we’re gonna take a detour in this episode because we’re going to talk with an author, Drew Philp. He is—he works a lot with The Guardian. Freelance. I’ve seen his stuff in different places—TED Talk, you can go online and find that. But Drew did an amazing thing with his life because he was 23 and had graduated from the University of Michigan and decided that he was going to take on Detroit.
Drew: (00:52) It’s true. So yeah, I graduated in 2008 and that was, of course, right at the height of the Great Recession. I come from a pretty blue collar family and I felt very, very lucky to get the education I did at the U of M. It’s one of the best schools in the world. And I wanted to use that education for something positive at home. I didn’t want to be one of the 50 percent of college graduates in the state that were leaving at the time. So, you know, I moved to Detroit without—without a huge plan. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew that I wanted to do that in Detroit, whatever it would be.
Regina: (01:27) So you have now authored a book—you’re a journalist as well—but you’ve authored a book—it’s called a $500 House in Detroit, Rebuilding an Abandoned Home and an American City. So this podcast typically is about transportation and we talk about all things new transportation, new mobility, but we’re going to take, like I said, a little different detour because basically what the theory that I have garnered from your book is that if we don’t invest in your own community, there’s not going to be a community to move around. There’s not going to be very many. And we all know that Detroit’s had some tough times. So tell us a little bit about why you decided to—and I’ve heard of a lot of people who went in and did this—but decide to go in, buy a house for 500 bucks and begin trying to rebuild Detroit brick by brick.
Drew: (02:18) One of the things I found—you know, like I said, I didn’t really have a plan…I was just kind of working construction. I was sanding floors for $8.50 an hour after college and I was kind of working in these, you know, these cheap rentals and it really got me thinking like, “Hey, I should buy one of these because it will tie me to the city.” Detroit is really the city of leaving, right? I mean, so many people—half of the population has left—more than half the population has left. So I wanted to make sure I would stay there and the house would tie me there, at least for quite a while, you know. It’s not something you really want to sell when you put your blood, sweat, and tears into it like that. So one of the things that I found there that I didn’t really expect to find was this incredible sense of community as—as kind of, you know, America really pulled out from Detroit in all kinds of ways. You know, there’s no Walmart in Detroit. There’s no Applebee’s. There’s—there’s nothing like that. That void had to be filled by something, and I think to Detroiters’ credit, you know, that was really filled with a very radical sense of community and what that means and helping each other out in, you know, one of the country’s most violent and dangerous cities. It really surprised me. I didn’t necessarily expect to find that, but that was my ignorance. That was—that was my ignorance that I, that I didn’t imagine it could be happening there. Yeah, yeah.
Regina: (03:34) So…but you know, in—in our—as a matter of fact, we just spoke with the director of the DOT of Michigan here and—Kirk Steudle—and he’s done amazing things in the state. And he talked about how he really got into intelligent transportation because of General Motors. General Motors was one of those companies that didn’t leave. Of course it was—it was in trouble, but it didn’t leave. So if you look at the city of Detroit and you see it as the place of innovation for this country—I mean the automobile, and now you’ve got new mobility, and a governor who’s trying to make it a tech center. What is—what is sort of the future of Detroit from the ground up, from one house up?
Drew: (04:18) Sure. That’s a great question. And what I always tell people is that in Detroit, what I want—people ask me all the time, you know, what do you want to have—what do you want? What do you want to see in Detroit? What should happen? My answer is the only failure would be trying nothing new. The only failure would be not doing anything different. Trying everything. We tried a lot of these, a lot of these things, you know, in the past and in my opinion, we’re still making some of these mistakes. I want to try new things—whatever they may be. Autonomous vehicles…definitely need more public transportation there. But I don’t think those things are mutually exclusive, necessarily. I think that in the United States we talk about some of these things like either/or, and I don’t think it has to be. I would like to see a new spirit of innovation, whatever that may be in how we plan things and how we do things I don’t want—I just don’t want to simply do things the way that we’ve done in the past all the time. We need—we need something new.
Regina: (05:11) Well, so you went in and invested, right? You went in and you…tell us the story. It was 500 bucks for a house, right?
Drew: (05:18) 500 bucks. You know, really what I invested in was my time and myself, right? You know, I spent the best years of my life building this house. I bought a house at 23, you know, with no windows or no plumbing or nothing.
Regina: (05:31) Tell us a little bit about how you found this house. It’s an interesting story.
Drew: (05:31) So as I said, I was working in these kind of cheap rentals and I didn’t know how to buy a house. There’s no realtors for abandoned houses, right? Um, so I—believe it or not—went to a Halloween party dressed as an organ grinder, like an old-timey organ grinder with, like an organ that played Motown—and I had hidden some liquor. This is embarrassing, but it’s true. I had hidden some liquor in that organ and set it down to go dance. And when I came back, sitting next to the organ was an organ grinder’s monkey. And uh, we, of course, we got to talk a little bit and I said, “You know, I want to buy one of these cheap houses.” And he said, “I just did.” It was a very, very uncommon and really seemed meant to be. I never would have met this man—he’s kind of a hermit—if we hadn’t been dressed like that. So I lived with him the first summer in this neighborhood in Detroit called Poletown, which is basically rural. There are pheasants…there used to be these like giant packs of wild dogs. It was the apocalypse. It was like Mad Max there, honestly. And we would ride our bikes around. We’d ride our bikes around the neighborhood. And just kind of look for houses to see what was good, you know, at the time you could throw a stone in any direction and hit an abandoned house. And eventually I found this kind of white queen inn [unclear]. We don’t know when it was built because it was built before Detroit started keeping records. So officially it’s 1903, but it was built—built far before that based on the architecture. And I boarded that house up, which was illegal. I wasn’t allowed to do that because it was city property, and then I purchased it in a live auction at the city.
Regina: (07:05) So the city itself was actually auctioning off these properties?
Drew: (07:09) It was the county, actually.
Regina: (07:11) Okay, so kind of back me up to where I understand. So basically, as the city began to go down and the economic infrastructure sort of broke apart, people lost their jobs, couldn’t maintain their homes and just walked away from them.
Drew: (07:24) Yeah. So yeah, a lot of these houses were literally just abandoned, kind of like, you know, a shredded tire on the highway.
Regina: (07:30) Wow. And so then the city or the county or whatever jurisdiction then took possession of that, right? And so you just went in and said, “Okay, I’ll—I’ll take one.”
Drew: (07:40) You know, there were literally tens of—tens of thousands of these properties. When I—when I purchased this house in an auction, there was a book about an inch and a half thick and it had, you know, 15, 20 properties on each page. The auctioneer would just, you know, “Does anybody want anything on page 145 or 146?” It was—it was incredible, You know, over the last…
Regina: (07:59) Who would come to these auctions?
Drew: (08:02) You know, I was like the only white person in there. It was, you know, people—a lot of people like buying their grandma’s house back from foreclosure, or they would want to buy the lots next to them and they’ve been taken care of for years and years, and just to kind of own that land and make it official.
Regina: (08:17) So people from the community?
Drew: (08:19) Without a doubt. It’s very different now. Um, it’s—it’s uh… The auction is done online now, so there’s a lot of outside investment—lots of Chinese investment and in many cases people are, or corporations or companies, are coming in and buying like a whole block. Which is not that great for us because if the house gets sit on [unclear] and people that want to do things with them can’t. Um, so it’s—so it has changed a little bit, the last couple of years.
Regina: (08:42) So that you spent how long then? Once you—once you got the house, you boarded it up illegally, but you got it. How did you decide like this is where I want to go and if I’m going to put my time and money in here, you were really taking a risk ’cause you didn’t know what was going to come up around you. And do you know what’s gonna come up around you now?
Drew: (09:00) You know, it’s a lot different. So as I said, the city is—is demolished, like 12,000 houses in the last couple of years of. In my neighborhood in particular, they’re really getting ready to develop that. And we don’t know what’s going to happen, which is kind of—which is kind of scary now. I enjoy my life. I mean, I own half of the block, my neighborhood is basically rural. I can sit on my porch at night and listen to like the insects and see foxes and pheasants and this is like a 15-minute bike ride from the baseball stadium, you know. It’s a very unique situation where we have kind of the country in the city, I can ride my bike to the art museum, you know the kind of museum district, any of that. Um, so yeah, so the community is pretty concerned about what’s going to come in there. It’s next to a—one of the United States’ oldest open air markets called Eastern Market. And they’ve been talking about moving a lot of the kind of industrial things in the market into our neighborhood, which of course, we don’t necessarily want.
Regina: (09:56) So you’re going to have to wait and see.
Drew: (09:58) We’re gonna have to wait and see. Yeah, absolutely. Somebody, you know, everything changes, you know, like look at any kind of neighborhood in Brooklyn or New York. I mean the change there has been incredible over the last decade.
Regina: (10:08) And the industrial areas are basically where people want to be.
Drew: (10:13) Yeah, yeah.
Regina: (10:14) So tell me a little bit about, what is transportation like now in Detroit? So Detroit has—I was there actually…oh gosh, it’s been…I think I was there in June—and I started seeing places where you can see it up-and-coming, stores are moving in, people are beginning to invest, and you see the people walking out again. So now if you’re looking at Detroit as something that was—certainly had gone down, then maybe stabilizes, trying to move up a little bit. What’s transportation like for the people who live there? What needs to get done?
Drew: (10:46) So Slate Magazine has said that Detroit has the worst public transportation in the United States. Detroit at one point had one of the best. It’s—it’s all car-based. And I think we need a better mix. I mean, I’m not as arrogant to think, uh… United States has one of the best freeway systems in the world, but that has had some real unintended consequences for cities in Detroit. Basically, you know, kind of breaking up the community. And in Detroit, in particular, the freeways were run through some very culturally important African American neighborhoods. They’ve kind of separated neighborhoods from one another and made it harder to get around within the city itself and also, you know, really allowed people to leave and kind of break those bonds of community, that kind of ethnic neighborhoods. There’s—there’s only a handful, there’s a lot of them are not there anymore. So in some sense, transportation is stagnant. In another sense, you know, we have a new train line that, you know, like only goes, like a mile or something. It’s not very useful to average Detroiters running about in the neighborhoods trying to get to jobs. It’s very concentrated in the center city. But there are some developments that I’m pretty excited about, like—like these Bird scooters, right? We just got them in Detroit. And I think it’s a really interesting idea. I’d like to see more innovation like that. I think that sometimes the knee jerk reaction to these things like, “Oh, it’s new, we don’t like it.” It’s changing things. But you know, I see all kinds of people getting around. You know, it’s another way to get around. It’s relatively inexpensive…it’s like, good for the environment. I think that’s a great idea.
Regina: (12:15) I’m not so sure how it works in the winter, though.
Drew: (12:17) You know, like we’ll see. We’ll see like it’s totally untested right now. But you know, as I said before, like I think that we need to try new things. We need new ideas, you know, I don’t want to make some of the same mistakes of the past and what I think about transit —and, you know, just in general what we want—you know, I think that we want transit that helps build community rather than…rather than break it like as it as it had in the past. As I said, you know, we have these great transportation systems in the United States, but one of those unintended consequences which it really kind of hurt community in a lot of ways—and in Detroit in particular—and I think going forward we’re going to want to look at, you know, in the North Star that I kind of guide my life by is this idea of radical neighborliness of creating community. And I think that when we look to the future and transit, that’s what we want to think about. How can we—how can we use these things to create communities rather than destroy them?
Regina: (13:13) It’s interesting. We spoke recently with a woman in Seattle who—in Seattle, the city has actually adopted a policy for equity in transportation and they’re…well, equity across all services, but certainly across transportation—and so she was actually hired to be sort of the equity manager. I mean, to make sure that new transportation initiatives reflected this equity, making sure it’s equal to all, available to all.
Drew: (13:41) I think it ends up helping all of us in the end, too, you know. Like it ends up helping the economy. One of the biggest problems in Detroit right now with jobs—you know, as I said in my speech—there’s perhaps 50 percent unemployment when you count people that are not looking for jobs. I mean that’s a—it’s an incredible number. You know, one of the biggest…
Regina: (14:00) Still.
Drew: (14:01) Still. You know that’s changing. We haven’t seen seen new numbers, but these are fairly recent, within the last 10 years.
Regina: (14:07) So 50 percent of the population.
Drew: (14:10) Perhaps, yeah, that’s one estimate.
Regina: (14:12) Wow.
Drew: (14:12) Yeah, absolutely. You know, in one of the largest barriers to jobs is—is simply transportation. You know, it’s so car based in Detroit. You know, it can take hours to get to the other side of the city. On the buses, there’s no like, comprehensive regional public transportation, which is perhaps the only large city in the United States to do that. You know, if you can’t get to your job, you can’t have a job. You know, that’s just how it is. It’s…it’s…there are these kind of unintended consequences that we’re getting, which obviously hurts the economy. You know, Detroit, in many places—Detroit and many places like it, are what we consider to be what’s called food deserts. Basically, where people don’t have access to healthy, healthy, fresh food. Which you know, in Detroit, Detroit is the most obese city year to year, sometimes it changes. The most obese city in the United States. These have enormous unintended consequences, not just in health and the happiness of our society, but also in economics. When you can’t get healthy fresh food and that makes you sick, there’s more that, you know, there’s a larger cost on healthcare, right? There’s a larger cost on just—there’s just—there’s just more taxing of the system, right? So you know, when we make transit more equitable and you know, other things, but transit in particular, because that’s one thing that’s difficult to do yourself, you know, if you’re community or small business. We do need some governmental intervention in that. You know, like we have to…
Regina: (15:35) Think forward.
Drew: (15:36) We have to—we have to think forward and we have to, you know, that kind of rising tide tide has to lift all boats. We can’t be so segregated any longer because, you know, like…I don’t think that it’s any mistake that the incredible amount of segregation in the Detroit Metro area—which is the most racially segregated Detroit Metro area in the United States—is separate from our economic situation. I think—I think it’s, it’s wild to think that. Right?
Regina: (16:01) So, as a journalist—and you’re sitting in probably one of the most important experiments, you hate to use that term, but in fact if the unemployment rate is as interesting as it is and…but companies are moving in Detroit kind of still is an experiment. And so as a journalist, where does your eye take you? Where does the inquisitiveness take you? What…what do you really want to see and talk about?
Drew: (16:27) Sure, sure. That’s a great question. You know, I think Detroit has always been an experiment, right? There’s really no reason it needs to be there, you know. It’s on a lake, but like it’s cold, like nobody’s there for the weather, right? So I think Detroit has always been this experiment—and in a lot of U.S. social movements, it’s been the first, you know—the first in suburbanization, the first in urbanization, [unclear] or things like this. So, you know, what my—what my eye goes to is…Detroit is America with the volume turned all the way up, right? So all of these American problems we have…I think are really easy to see in Detroit, so I look for stories that can tell those stories that aren’t just about Detroit, but are larger things going on in the United States and I—you know, as a journalist and maybe this a little bit too technical—but I try to get people to…I try to wrap big ideas in a love story, basically. It’s in some kind of story that will have people kind of look at these hard things and like these numbers and these things are confusing or maybe not very sexy by wrapping them in something else. You know, we call the numbers journalism spinach journalism because people don’t, you know, like you should eat it, but you don’t really want to. I’m trying to make some kind of like nice Greek dish with like, the spinach is hidden in there.
Regina: (17:41) Here’s what it’s really…here’s what those numbers really mean.
Drew: (17:45) Right, right, right. You know, by using narrative and story to tell that.
Regina: (17:48) Well, I gotta tell you I was watching you do your speech while here at INTERSECT and I was watching you do your speech and people were enthralled. I mean they’re, you know, people were wanting to talk about transportation and listening to your story and realizing that their role in the world and moving people around. You got to have a world to move people around and that’s really where you started. So, thank you so much. Any, any last words? Do you want to—I mean, I’m assuming there’s another book in there somewhere, right?
Drew: (18:18) I’d like to think so. Yeah, I hope to go to Iraq or Afghanistan soon and look at some of the things that are going on there. So if there’s anybody listening that wants to give me a job there…
Regina: (18:28) Oh, okay. There you go. Listen. Well I can guarantee…you’re talking about an experiment.
Drew: (18:32) You guys want to get me to the Middle East? I would love to go see. So, thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate being here.
Regina: (18:38) We appreciate it.
Drew: (18:38) Yeah, thank you.
Regina: (18:40) So, thanks so much for listening and participating in the POLICYSMART podcast. You can download the POLICYSMART app on the Apple App Store and Google Play and you can listen to the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, and now on Spotify. And also, please leave a review to help people like you—those interested in the next generation of mobility and intelligent transportation—find us.