Friday, September 1, 2017

Post #3

Post # 3

September 1,2017

Quote of the Day: "On the first day ... the Lord created fudge. And on the second day, He created northern Michigan so people could get the fudge." Kay Severinsen, Michigan Living, August 1979


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

Drew Philp was a senior at the University of Michigan who, after four years in Ann Arbor, couldn't reconcile the completely different world of Detroit barely 40 miles from his campus. While the wealthy and privileged were living comfortably in Ann Arbor, just down the freeway was one of the once-great cities of the U.S., which had lost two-thirds of its population and most of its manufacturing; the remaining residents flirted daily with destitution and foreclosure. From 2005 to 2007, about 67,000 houses in Detroit were foreclosed. As the author succinctly puts it, "The city that put the world on wheels drove away in cars they no longer made."

Drew came from a working-class background. He had been taught the value of hard work, and he was looking for a cause, a way to make a personal statement and a place where he could make a difference. He found it in the nearly deserted neighborhoods of Detroit, where foreclosed houses were auctioned off by the city at a starting bid of $500.

A newly minted UM graduate, he bought an abandoned Queen Anne-style house in Detroit's Poletown neighborhood for the opening bid. He was broke, lacked a job and now owned a house that came without doors, windows, plumbing, electricity, a furnace and a hot water heater,. It didn't even have a sink. What it did have was holes in the roof and the floor. When he walked in the house for the first time, he found mountains of trash filling every room. And so began years of work and an introduction to a new culture and way of life that is taking root in an abandoned city.

Drew grew up learning how to fix things. Every chance he had while growing up, he was under the sink or on the roof helping Dad fix leaks, repair toasters or work on a home improvement project. But translating his childhood experience into rebuilding a derelict house was a tall order. And he learned getting through all the bureaucratic red tape could be even more discouraging.

Drew found a job and poured every dollar he made into his house. It took months to just clear out the trash and board up the openings where doors and windows used to be. His father and uncles helped when they could, but his most valuable help and support came from his neighbors. Only two other occupied houses were on his block, but at least a dozen urban homesteaders who lived within several surrounding blocks came to Drew's aid with tips, knowledge and the offers of free help.

The community into which Philp was welcomed is extraordinary. Through very hard work, a lot of help from each other, and lots of imagination and ingenuity, Detroit's new settlers are slowly rebuilding some of the city's neighborhoods. People are planting orchards on vacant lots, and a farmer not far from Drew's house has turned an entire block into a hay field to feed his farm animals. Hay cutting and baling is a community event that always concludes with a much-anticipated party. Vegetable gardens abound, and even beekeepers practice their trade -- or hobby -- in neighborhoods cleared of houses. These good people live and work in this new frontier under a "given" understood by Michigan's earliest settlers: You must have community support and your neighbor always has your back.  The last is a must when the response time for a 911 emergency call is almost an hour.

It took the author several years to rebuild his home, which included replacing a basement wall with the help of his family and neighbors. The only job he didn't do himself was re-roof the house. In the course of remaking a piece of urban blight into a house and home, Drew also remakes himself. He becomes more comfortable with himself , more outgoing and trustful, thanks to finding a cause.

Philp also voices deep concern about the direction Detroit is taking. The city's movers and shakers are trying to lure big money into the Motor City. Twenty percent of Detroit's land is already owned by speculators. In most cases, they buy up entire blocks of derelict houses, then let them sit and rot while the gamblers hopefully wait for prices to rebound or the chance to can sell the land to an urban farm conglomerate or urban renewal project. Philp worries that the city's power of imminent domain could let billionaires displace the urban homesteaders.

Detroit has had a half-century of very rough times, but you can't read this refreshing and optimistic book without hoping Philp  is right that Michigan's greatest city can be rebuilt one house at a time.

Philp, Drew. A $500 House in Detroit: Rebuilding an Abandoned Home and an American City, New York: Scribner, 2017, 290p.

Wolf's Mouth
by John Smolens

Although this is John Smolens' ninth novel, it's the first book of his I've read. My initial reaction after only a couple of dozen pages was: How could I have overlooked this author for so long? This was almost immediately followed by, "Hot damn, eight more books to add to my must read list." Wolf's Mouth  is a love story, novel of pursuit, war story, thriller and tale of revenge and redemption -- all crammed into 259 pages that nail you to your chair.

Francesco Verdi, a captain in the Italian army, is captured by U.S. forces in North Africa during WWII. After long trips by boat to Boston and by train to Michigan's Upper Peninsula, he finds himself in a POW compound called Camp Au Train. The prison, located some miles west of Munising, is in a seemingly endless forest that the prisoners attack daily with axes and saws. The camp is so remote and the woods so daunting that escape is unlikely; the few who try give up and just walk back to camp. Verdi is thankful to be out of the war, but has doubts he's even in the United States because all the civilians he talks to are Finnish, French Canadians or Native Americans. At first he wonders if the Yoopers are also prisoners. 

Because Verde is one of the few prisoners who speaks passable English, he him sent into Munising on errands and to pick up supplies. The trips give him the chance to meet and talk to these strange Americans, and he's shocked to discover the vast majority of people living in this sparsely populated, isolated northern wilderness wouldn't think of leaving -- ever. 

As in most POW camps. the senior officer among the prisoners controls daily life inside the wire. The rub for Verde is that the camp kommandant is a virulent Nazi who thinks it is the duty of all detainees to escape, sabotage trains, destroy war plants, and spread terror and confusion among the populace.  Verde wants none of it; instead, on a trip into town he rescues a child from a burning house. He's a hero to the civilians, but the kommandant charges Verdi with aiding and abetting the enemy. When the Italian is found guilty and sentenced to death, his only option for staying alive is escape.

Verdi makes it into town and goes to the home of  an Italian mother and daughter. Both women consider the prisoner a hero for rescuing the boy, and the daughter, Chiara Frangiapani, readily agrees to help Verdi escape. The couple make a long and difficult drive to Detroit, where Verdi hopes to disappear in the big city.

By 1956, Verdi and Chiara are married and living in Detroit under the names of Frank and Claire Green.  Frank owns a small appliance repair shop, and life is good except for that constant twinge of fear that he will be found out. As the years unfold, Frank and Claire's lives and their growing family undergo drastic changes as Frank waits for the inevitable.

Then one day it happens. A man from the Immigration and Naturalization Services walks into Frank's life. He learns the INS doesn't want to send him back to Italy, they want to use him as bait for his old kommandant. Still a fanatical Nazi, the man has been tracking down and killing ex-POWs he believes were unfaithful to the Third Reich.

It wouldn't be fair to reveal much more of the plot as the book turns into an unconventional thriller that takes unexpected turns as Frank and Claire's quiet life comes under attack. In a last, desperate attempt to survive and elude the killer, the couple return to the U.P.

Smolens is a master at portraying the uniqueness of life in the U.P. in the 1940s as well as the hustle and bustle of Detroit during the war. He has an intuitive feel for setting scenes and peoples his novel with fully rounded, flesh and blood characters. Match those talents with the little known history of POW camps in the U.P. and a flair for storytelling, and you've got a can't-put-down reading experience.

Smolens, John. Wolf's Mouth, East Lansing: Michigan State University Press. 2017. pb $19.95

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