Saving Detroit, one house at a time | The Storytellers | DW | 27.11.2013
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The Storytellers

Saving Detroit, one house at a time

In Detroit, whole neighborhoods have been left to decay under the elements. John George is on a mission to turn the ghost towns into vibrant community centers.

Expansive, ornate, and left to rot, the Masonic Temple in Old Redford neighborhood was long past its prime when John George bought it from the city of Detroit, Michigan in the summer of 1995.

"We paid a dollar for that building," he says, then he adds with a laugh, "We paid too much. They should've given me the dollar. It took 10 years and two million dollars to turn it into a community center."

That didn't faze George. He's made it his mission to revitalize Detroit, one block at a time.

The city has fallen on hard times as corrupt public officials, the decline of the auto industry, racial tension, and a seemingly unending economic slump battered the once bustling metropolitan center. The maelstrom of trouble eventually led city officials to file for bankruptcy early this year.

But a mass exodus has been in the making for some time, with about 1.3 million people having fled the city since its population peaked at two million around 1950. These residents left behind nearly 80,000 houses, many of which appear to wear the cities woes on their walls.

It's in the abandoned neighborhoods that now make up large swathes of the city where George spends most of his time.

"Blight is like a cancer," he says adjusting his trademark black Detroit Tigers' baseball cap. "If you don't nip it in the bud, it spreads and it kills everything."

To stop the urban decay from spreading, George founded Motor City Blight Busters, a nonprofit organization that revitalizes houses that can be salvaged and demolishes the ones that are beyond saving in an effort to bring Detroit back to life.

Community assets

The old Masonic Temple is a part of the project that's taking most of George's energy these days. It's on one end of a city block where nine decrepit houses once stood.

"We decided that we would try to remove neighborhood liabilities and create community assets, and so Farm City Detroit was born," he says as he supervises a crew of over a dozen volunteers who are helping to dismantle the last of the dilapidated houses in the area.

A vegetable garden sponsored by Blight Busters

Blight Busters is replacing dilapidated houses with communal vegetable gardens

Blight Busters opened a coffee shop and art gallery down the street, and turned two lots into a community garden where tomatoes, brussels sprouts and eggplant grow in planter boxes made from planks of wood salvaged from demolished houses.

But George's vision doesn't end there. He hopes to expand the community garden into an urban farm, create a youth center and an apartment complex for returning war veterans along this patch of land.

"Five, 10 years from now if someone wants to come in and buy this land and put all new housing in, I'll be the first to get out of the way. But in the meantime, while they figure out the grand plan," he says with a smile, "it's important that nonprofit groups do the work that needs to be done, and in this neighborhood, clearly, blight removal reigns supreme."

Learning by doing

Since George started Blight Busters 25 years ago, it has served numerous functions that the local government might do in more viable cities: like clearing unsafe structures, sweeping streets and managing trash bins in business districts. Taking on these roles has meant taking on a hefty price, in addition to the high cost of demolition.

George estimates that it costs about $10,000 (7,400 euros) to remove a single blighted house. Most of that sum comes from corporate sponsors, although the former accountant has invested a lot of his own savings into Blight Busters. After boarding up his first abandoned Detroit house in 1988 - one that had become a drug den just down the street from where he lived with his pregnant wife and two-year-old son - he just couldn't stop.

Now, he passes on the satisfaction of making a community safer and cleaner to the thousands of volunteers who've dedicated their time to help Blight Busters with its mission. He teaches them what he too learned by doing.

Two volunteers demolish a house in Detroit

George works with thousands of volunteers to clear the urban decay

Standing beside a volunteer who's taking a sledgehammer to the floorboards of the last house standing on this block, George shouts directions like a sports coach might: "Hit it like you mean it! There you go. Now you're talking. Hit it like it stole something from you. Like it's talking about your momma. Put some emotion into it."

John George believes that training a league of volunteers to carry on the work he's started will help him create habitable spaces in the city he loves - and beyond.

"Really, seriously," he says, leaning on a beam saved from the structure of the house, "Our goal is to save the world starting with Detroit. We just want to leave the area a little better than how we found it."

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