Destroying to Save in Detroit - Community Week


By Tanya Silverman

Abandoned factory in Detroit. Photo courtesy of Peter Van den Boss che.

Recently news about Detroit has focused largely on bankruptcy. Over the years photographs have depicted the city’s bleak property blight. Perceptions of an economically bustling Motor City – or a culturally vibrant Motown – seem to have faded, while reports of ongoing population flight, rampant crime and urban decay have prevailed.

“Blight is like a cancer,” John J. George, founder and director of Motor City Blight Busters, tells BTR. “If you don’t fight it, it’ll spread and kill the whole neighborhood.”

A lifelong Detroiter, John J. George began the Motor City Blight Busters, a non-profit housing organization, 25 years ago. He has been determined to stabilize and revitalize Detroit – rather than give up on and flee its daunting abandonment and financial crisis.

“There are people that love this city all over the country, all over the world,” George says proudly. “You have to remember that Detroit put the world on wheels. We were the Arsenal of Democracy during WWII. Not to mention, we taught the world to dance with the Motown Sound!”

Currently, George says, Motor City Blight Busters has over 10,000 registered volunteers who fight blight Monday through Saturday, engaging in tasks like deconstructing abandoned houses, boarding up old properties, cleaning up neighborhoods, renovating old buildings, constructing new ones, and helping maintain properties.

George states that over the course of these 2.5 decades, the Blight Busters have worked on 1,500 addresses, and spent 20 million dollars; such efforts have made use of “21,000 gallons of paint, 15,500 pounds of nails and 15,470 sheets of plywood” and resulted in “1,550 dumpsters of trash and 70,000 garbage bags.”

One outstanding figure is how, in 1995, the organization made a $1 purchase on a 4-story, 21,000 square foot former Masonic Temple in Northwestern Detroit.

“A lot of people say we paid too much, that they should have given us the dollar!” admits George. “It took us 10 years and $2 million to restore that facility.”

The returned Masonic Temple now houses the Motor City Blight Busters’ headquarters, active not only with the organization’s resource center, but also a drug prevention program. In addition, TechTown Detroit, an economic development organization, works out of this refurbished facility, helping with the neighborhood businesses – all while the Michigan State University Extension provides guidance for personal health and wellness.

“We also have a banquet facility across the street from the resource center,” says George. Around this Northwestern Detroit area, the Motor City Blight busters have also “built coffee shops, art galleries, cafes and jazz clubs.”

Down the street from these establishments, George explains, the Blight Busters have demolished two city blocks of abandoned houses, clearing the space’s slate so they can extend their existing community gardens into a whole urban farming project. This endeavor, titled “Farm City Detroit”, is planned to start up next year.

“Keep in mind, everything we grow, we give away to the neighbors, children and seniors,” says George.

John J. George considers his overall goal, of ensuring a safe, livable neighborhood in Detroit, to be an inherently conservative vision that he has to go about by radical means. Allowing children to grow up around blight, he says, is a form of child abuse, and as parents and community members, Detroiters feel obliged to prevent it.

Of course, for all of his proven efforts and well-intended ideals, John J. George is definitely aware that Detroit is still full of problems: for one, racial segregation has been an inherent aspect of the city for ages; a study published in 2011 determined Detroit to be the most segregated city in the United States. Its urban population is over 80 percent black, and most of the white populace has long moved away to the suburbs.

George explains the integrative approach that the Motor City Blight Busters’ neighborhood restoration efforts try to create. Close to all of their revitalized headquarters, urban gardens and local businesses sits the Old Redford Theater, a local cinema that holds film festivals and plays classic movies. On weekends, he says, a “crowd of mostly older, white folks comes in from the suburbs,” and during intermission, they head over to the coffee shop and jazz club, where “a younger, African American crowd from the city” hangs out.

“A very diverse, interesting group of folks gets together to build bridges, create friendships, and talk about solutions,” describes George. “It’s really a beautiful thing to see everybody giving and participating and taking from the effort.”

Fostering a diverse social scene in this one part of Northwestern Detroit is certainly a progressive feat for Motor City Blight Busters. Still, one must note that geographically, Detroit is a big place, and beyond the hundreds of houses the organization has so far demolished, there are still tens of thousands to go. During a 60 Minutes segment, John J. George confesses that he feels overwhelmed by this blight situation every day.

Even so, George retains his enthusiastic and energetic attitude:

“We know what all the problems are, but if we sat around and crying over them and being depressed, we wouldn’t be able to raise our heads to do anything. You have to look at the positive things that are going on. Positive energy has a way of rolling – you just have to make sure that everyone’s rolling in the right direction.”

Such statements are pleasant ideals for anyone to present, but for John J. George’s sake, it’s gratifying to find someone who actually puts them to action – even when the task, like the blight of Detroit, seems (and is) complicated to handle.

“Blight is a very cunning foe,” George says. “You eliminate it here, and it pops up over there,” which is why he and the Motor City Blight Busters “always have to be on guard to eliminate this negative energy from the community.”

John J. George invites people visiting Detroit to come take part in Motor City Blight Busters’ volunteer efforts.