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Drew Philp: How Can 'Radical Neighborliness' Help Struggling Communities?

Sep 28, 2018
Originally published on October 11, 2018 11:34 am

Part 5 of the TED Radio Hour episode Building Humane Cities.

About Drew Philp's TED Talk

In 2009, Drew Philp bought an abandoned house in Detroit and worked with neighbors to fix it up. He discovered the power of 'radical neighborliness' to rebuild his struggling neighborhood.

About Drew Philp

Drew Philp is a journalist, screenwriter, and teacher. He chronicled his experience of buying an abandoned house in his book, A $500 House In Detroit: Rebuilding An Abandoned Home And An American City. It won the 2017 Stuard D. and Vernice M. Gross Award for Literature.

Philp's work focuses on inequity in the Midwest. In addition to writing, Philp has hitchhiked across the United States and has taught at prisons, juvenile institutions, and the University of Michigan.

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On the show today, building humane cities - and like Richard Berry just said, part of making a city more humane comes down to neighbors helping neighbors. And writer Drew Philp experienced this when he bought a house in Detroit. Here's Drew Philp on the TED stage.


DREW PHILP: In 2009, I bought a house in a neighborhood called Poletown - had no windows, no plumbing, no electricity. And it was filled with trash. This, of course, is the Detroit that you hear about. Make no mistake. It's real. But there's another Detroit, too, another Detroit that's more hopeful, more innovative and may just provide some of the answers to cities struggling to reinvent themselves everywhere. These answers, however, do not necessarily adhere to conventional wisdom about good development. I think Detroit's real strength boils down to two words - radical neighborliness. And I wasn't able to see it myself until I lived there.

During the year I worked on my house before moving in, I lived in a microcommunity inside Poletown founded by a wild and virtuous farmer named Paul Wertz. Paul was a teacher in a Detroit public school for pregnant, parenting mothers. And his idea was to teach the young women to raise their children by first raising plants and animals. Paul brought much of this innovation to his block in Poletown, which he'd stewarded for more than 30 years, purchasing houses when they were abandoned, convincing his friends to move in and neighbors to stay and helping those who wanted to buy their own, fix them up.

In a neighborhood where many blocks now only hold one or two houses, all the homes on Paul's block stand. It's an incredible testament to the power of community - just staying in one place and to taking ownership of one's own surroundings of simply doing it yourself. Radical neighborliness is every house behind Paul's block burning down and, instead of letting it fill up with trash and despair, Paul and the surrounding community creating a giant, circular garden ringed with dozens of fruit trees, beehives and garden plots for anyone that wants one. It's where residents are experimenting with renewable energy and urban farming and offering their skills and discoveries to others. It's where, for months, one of my neighbors left her front door unlocked in one of the most violent and dangerous cities in America, so I could have a shower whenever I needed to go to work, as I didn't yet have one.

Radical neighborliness is a zygote that grows into a worldview that ends up in homes and communities rebuilt in ways that respect humanity and the environment. It's realizing we have the power to create the world anew together and to do it ourselves when our governments refuse. This is the Detroit that you don't hear much about, the Detroit between the ruin porn on one hand and the hipster coffee shops and billionaires saving the city on the other. There's a third way to rebuild, and it declines to make the same mistakes of the past. While building my house, I found something I didn't know I was looking for. Radical neighborliness is just another word for true community, the kind bound by memory and history, mutual trust and familiarity, built over years and irreplaceable.

For me, it means helping others to raise the beams on their own formerly abandoned houses or helping to educate those with privilege, now increasingly moving into cities, how we might come in and support rather than stress existing communities. It's chipping in when a small group of neighbors decides to buy back a foreclosed home and return the deeds to the occupants. For you, for all of us, it means finding a role to play in our own communities. It means trusting those who know the problems best, people who live them, with solutions. What I've learned over the last decade building my house is that true change, real change, starts first with community, with a radical sense of what it means to be a neighbor. It turned at least one abandoned house into a home. Thank you.


RAZ: That's Writer Drew Philp. He wrote a book about his experience. It's called "A $500 Dollar House In Detroit: Rebuilding An Abandoned Home And An American City." You can find his full talk at


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RAZ: Hey. Thanks for listening to our episode Building Humane Cities this week. If you want to find out more about who's on it, go to And to see hundreds more TED Talks, check out or the TED app. Our production staff at NPR includes Jeff Rogers, Sanaz Meshkinpour, Jinae West, Neva Grant, Rund Abdelfatah, Casey Herman, Rachel Faulkner and Diba Mohtasham, with help from Daniel Shukin (ph) and Megan Schellong. Our intern is Daryth Gayles. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Colin Helms, Anna Phelan and Janet Lee. I'm Guy Raz. And you've been listening to ideas worth spreading right here on the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.