Guerilla Blight Busters in the Midst of the ‘Blank Canvas’ that is Detroit

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By Sean Mann

There has been a reoccurring theme of optimistic stories involving Detroit, and Michigan’s other struggling cities like Flint, portraying them as “clean slates,” “blank canvases” or “frontier towns” where creative and rugged independent types can make a name for themselves. While I generally agree with, and appreciate, the notion that Michigan’s rust belt cities lend themselves to certain opportunities not found in more popular destinations, I would challenge the notion of them being “blank canvasses”. In fact, a person new to our fair cities will be confronted with a series of obstacles and liabilities as well as enjoy unique assets like extremely affordable historic housing, resilient neighborhoods, world-class cultural institutions and supportive professional communities.

These assets are better than a blank slate and transcend the brick and mortar that house them. They inspire a constant and communal effort to protect and expand them that brings people together in unorthodox and organic means, in ways that create stronger ties, neighborhoods and cities.

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For instance, driving around in a suspicious-looking windowless van boarding up abandoned homes may not be the way most folks would want to spend a beautiful autumn afternoon, but that’s exactly what I did this past Saturday in Detroit-and my neighborhood is a better place for it.

I live in historic Hubbard Farms in southwest Detroit. A neighborhood that a non-Detroit friend succinctly describes as “not bad, but not especially good.” It’s a mostly well-maintained, lower middle class urban neighborhood that defines diversity-from its housing stock that ranges from sizable 1900s single-family brick homes to the pocket-sized apartment buildings that once housed the workers that took the old streetcar down W. Vernor to the Ford Rouge complex. The neighborhood’s inhabitants include Mexicans that have lived there for generations or just arrived, art students, overeducated, underpaid non-profit and government workers, and inhabitants of the halfway homes that pass their days aimlessly walking the streets.

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Like a good number of my neighbors, I was drawn to the neighborhood by the diversity, affordable historic homes, and the strong sense of community. The thing about these attributes is you can’t have the first two without the third, and a strong community isn’t something that comes naturally, it has to be worked towards.

Hubbard Farms, like just about every neighborhood in Michigan, has been negatively impacted by Michigan’s lost decade and the recent housing crisis. For well-treaded reasons, once stately historic homes have become vacant and are gradually falling into disrepair. What separates vacant homes in a Detroit neighborhood from those left empty in a place like suburban Canton is that in Detroit, they easily become hangouts for drug dealers, prostitutes, and even homeless camps-and not the type of camps romanticized by Steinbeck, but far more depressing, disgusting, and dangerous.

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To ensure these homes don’t become cancers on our stable neighborhood, eating away at it until it resembles the far too many burnt-out and torn down swaths of Detroit, neighbors have to come together and get personally involved in fixing the situation. The reality is that it is pointless waiting for the banks that own the properties to properly secure the buildings or for the city or county, which are overwhelmed with tens of thousands of properties, to intervene. And this is why I don’t’ begrudge friends for not living in Detroit; it doesn’t come easy, you almost have to want it and work for it in so many ways, and not everyone is looking for that.

Hubbard Farms is lucky to have some young (and old) blood that is committed to the neighborhood. We approached the local Southwest Detroit Business Association and were able to get a micro-grant from them for some plywood, paint, and some lawn equipment to secure and maintain a few homes in the neighborhood.

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A few weeks back a couple of us walked the streets surveying vacant properties to check for squatters and assess if they were secure. With the skills of some artists in the neighborhood, some plywood was precut, painted, and decorated with creative stencils ranging from clouds and cats to a peregrine falcon swooping down on a Mickey Mouse.

These activities all built up to Saturday when over a dozen of us, as well as a van load of U of M volunteers, got together on what will probably be the last nice weekend of 2009. One group removed graffiti on several blocks of commercial buildings and another group picked up trash from various properties. A couple of us proceeded to move through the neighborhood in the suspicious-looking windowless van jumping out and boarding up four vacant buildings in a guerrilla fashion . . . well, I mean as guerrilla as you can possibly be when you are being funded by a grant.

Who exactly owned the properties wasn’t entirely certain in some cases. What was certain was that each property had been empty for years and had become a magnet for undesirable activity and something had to be done.

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Now I doubt any of my neighbors or I would be surprised if fresh graffiti soon adorns any of these buildings, or if someone tries to get back into one of the homes in the coming winter months. Our efforts may soon seem in vain, but Saturday wasn’t about winning the war to preserve our neighborhood as much as it was about coming together as neighbors and making a small difference, showing we cared, and building a stronger sense of community for the countless battles to come.

Now granted if we lived in a more functional city that wasn’t the epicenter of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression we probably wouldn’t have to take things into our own hands but then again we wouldn’t be as strong of a neighborhood.

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As much as I celebrate and appreciate the opportunities that exist for the mythical John Wayne-esque creative type forging a brave new path in the wild west of our rust-belt Michigan cities, what I think our strongest selling point, and the building block for our renewal, is our supportive communities whether they be professional or residential.

Now, if you don’t live in Detroit or one of Michigan’s urban cities it may be easy to dismiss a story like this as just a Detroit or urban situation, but the thing is there are vacant homes springing up in cities all across this state regardless of how affluent the community. Take a lesson from those Detroit neighborhoods that have been weathering a 60-year storm of abandonment and declining economic fortune. You don’t have to board up the McMansion at the end of the block, but team up with your neighbors to mow that empty house’s lawn, it’ll bring you closer to your neighbors and only help your own property values. It’s not an ideal situation, but if we are going to get through these trying times we need to come together and act.

I mean what else would you rather be doing on a Saturday in November . . . watching the Spartans or Wolverines? Not this year.

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Photos courtesy of Aliccia Berg-Fischer, Libby Palachdharry, Matthew Bihun and myself