What We’re Reading

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

by Drew Philp

Scribner 304 pages $26

As a chronic DIY renovator—a year-long cosmetic rehab of a 1910 four-square in Takoma Park, Maryland, a decade-plus rebuild to the studs of a 1926 bungalow in Washington, DC—I really wanted to like Drew Philps’s new book as much as I did Ed Zotti’s 2008 The Barn House: Confessions of an Urban Rehabber. Each author recounts the knuckle-busting, heart-filling resurrection of a ruined dwelling in a dire post-industrial town—Zotti in 1993 Chicago, Philps in 2008 Detroit. Alas, where Zotti explains in rollicking and self-deprecating detail how to make a hulk a home, Philps, after a promising start, wallows again and again in Occupy-grade righteousness. Rhetoric about The Man and his downpressing ways rings false amid Philps’s periodic forays into pillaging—a tried and true tactic among the DIY tribe–to advance his hegemony. $500 House does illuminate the asphalt-roots wave trying to resuscitate the Motor City, but Philps’s polemics combine with his vagueness about the actual work, embodied in the scorn he heaps on the craft of Sheetrock-finishing, to overshadow his genuine accomplishment in participating a great experiment and retrieving a house from its one-way ticket to Dumpsterville. Skip the Zuccotti, go for the Zotti. –Michael Dolan is editor of American History