It’s the oldest story in the Rust Belt: businesses closed their doors, people lost their jobs, and now your neighborhood becomes a little more of a ghost town every year as once full houses fall into ruin. But even if we can’t change the beginning of that story, an organization known as Motor City Blight Busters is working hard to change the ending.
Any Detroit resident understands the psychological toll caused by the constant sight of abandoned and neglected buildings. Every day seems just a little bleaker, every problem just a little more unsolvable when there are as many or more ruined properties in your neighborhood as not. But Detroit blight causes plenty of practical issues, too. Vacant properties cost the city hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars each year in lost tax revenue. Abandoned buildings are at constant risk of collapse, fire, and rodent infestations, threatening the safety and health of nearby residents. And perhaps most troublingly, crime rates spike in areas where vacant properties abound. That’s because many of them become drug dens or gang hideouts, putting neighboring residents at risk for robbery and violence.
Fighting Crime by Fighting Blight
It was that very risk of violence that brought Motor City Blight Busters into being. 25 years ago, founder John George watched as an abandoned home in his neighborhood became a haven for drug dealers every evening. Fights often broke out and people feared for their families’ safety. Instead of moving, George rounded up a couple of neighbors and together they boarded up the house, painted it, and mowed the lawn. As he told the Christian Science Monitor, when the drug dealers returned that evening to find the property transformed, they didn’t attempt to force their way back in. “They got into their jeep and they left.”
Since that first small victory, Motor City Blight Busters has grown into a 120,000 strong all-volunteer juggernaut. Over the course of their 25 year history, they’ve demolished 300 abandoned buildings by hand, salvaging as much as possible to rehab other buildings or sell to support the organization’s work. They’ve boarded up and secured an additional 379 buildings to prevent them from becoming a danger to the community or serving as a base for criminal activity.
And it’s not just abandoned properties the Blight Busters are giving new life. They’ve renovated and/or painted 860 existing homes, and participated in building 114 new structures, providing stable housing for 1,160 people. They’ve also undertaken nearly 4000 community cleanups.
Changing the way residents feel about their community is often the first step to that community bouncing back from hard times. And MCBB understands that giving residents a more hopeful outlook on their community can start with something as simple as ensuring that what they’re looking out on is a pleasant environment, rather than crumbling houses and garbage-strewn vacant lots.
Beyond Blight Removal
As of 2014, the Detroit Blight Removal Task Force determined that over 84,000 parcels of land citywide (the equivalent of about 1 out of every 4 properties) show at least some signs of blight, from wire-stripping to total abandonment to fire code violations and overgrown lawns. While the task force’s plan for solving the problem focuses on demolishing blighted properties, many believe that money and resources would be better spent on rehabbing properties wherever possible. Not only would this create affordable housing options and business opportunities, it would also help buoy property values for struggling homeowners and generate new tax revenue for the city–all the while creating jobs and eliminating the dangers associated with abandoned buildings.
The Blight Busters seem to be on board with this line of thinking. Since 2012, MCBB has been working with the Fertile Ground Collective on a project known as Detroit Farm City. Ten blighted properties in Brightmoor are being transformed into an urban farm that employs 32 local young people, provides a green space where community residents can gather, and generates nutritious food for community use.
Nearby, the Blight Busters are now busy rehabbing an abandoned multi-dwelling facility into veteran housing. Veteran’s Village Center, as the facility will be called, aims to provide support to local veterans through work, mentoring, and therapeutic opportunities at Detroit Farm City, as well as to provide transitional housing for newly returning service members. With help from both local and national veterans’ organizations, MCBB is close to securing the necessary approvals and licenses to get the project underway.
The Brightmoor Revival: From Rust Belt Ruin to Downtown Oasis
For years, Brightmoor has been the poster child for Detroit blight, home to so many illegal dumping grounds, neglected properties, and the crime that accompanies them that people nicknamed it “Blight More.” Over the past 12 years, MCBB has invested more than $300,000 to turn a 6000 square foot blighted business facility in Brightmoor’s Old Redford neighborhood into a shopping and entertainment complex. Today, that facility, known as Detroit Artist Village, is home to five retail and entertainment businesses, two office spaces, and three residential tenants. It’s also home to Motor City Java House, a favorite meet-up spot for locals that doubles as Blight Buster’s volunteer headquarters.
The creation of Detroit Artist Village revived a dying area into a thriving commercial hub complete with spaces for community members to mingle and enjoy their neighborhood. MCBB is working hard to attract more businesses to the facility, and also plans to open their own Blight Busters Factory Store where they will sell architectural salvage acquired through their demolition and rehab projects. They’ll use the proceeds to further the organization’s work.
The continued growth of Detroit Artist Villageis a testament to the idea underlying all of Motor City Blight Busters’ efforts: when you clean up a neighborhood, people will come back. Businesses will follow them. Visitors will follow the businesses. And we’ll all be another page closer to a new chapter in our Rust Belt story.