A community struggling to save itself

America’s inner cities have been in disastrous decline for fifty years. Once thriving and dense neighborhoods have become depopulated, with abandoned houses developing into fire hazards and magnets for criminal activities. Small businesses and stores have disappeared on commercial streets, giving way to party stores and medical marijuana outlets. No one — not mayors, not well-intentioned foundations, not Federal urban development officials, and not academic urban sociologists — have proven ideas on how to arrest and reverse these processes of decline.

Who suffers in these neighborhoods? The answer is pretty clear: the primary victims are children, young adults, and old people, all of whom are pretty much stuck in the situation of poverty and decline their neighborhoods define for them. Here is a 2011 photo of a Brightmoor neighborhood in the city of Detroit from the Detroit Free Press. Abandoned houses, illegal dumping, and children on their way to school present an enormously evocative image of urban life. What can we do to solve these widespread urban problems?

One of the community-based organizations that is working hard to improve urban neighborhoods in Detroit is Motor City Blight Busters Detroit. Blight Busters was created over twenty-five years ago in the Brightmoor and Old Redford neighborhoods of Detroit. Its founder, John George, has the same passion for making a difference in these neighborhoods that he had in the 1980s. And in the meantime, this non-profit organization has achieved a lot when it comes to urban land and housing reclamation.

The record of success for Blight Busters is impressive. The organization has demolished hundreds of abandoned homes in the neighborhood and has helped to secure even larger numbers. It has created urban farming and garden spots in the neighborhood. It has invented some effective responses to the Angels Night traditions of arson in the city of Detroit and has mobilized thousands of volunteers to help prevent arson. It is working to create a new living unit for veterans who will in turn be trained to do some of the work of blight busting. And it has created Artist Village Detroit, a collection of spaces on Lahser Road that give a new definition to urban restoration.

A coffee house, a meeting room for community organizations, a performance space for poetry, music, and the spoken work all contribute to a sense of vitality and community engagement in the Artist Village Detroit. And all of this is in a series of buildings that were abandoned and decrepit when Blight Busters acquired them.

According to John George, Blight Busters has brought in over twenty million dollars for blight removal and neighborhood restoration during its twenty-five year history. And the fact of the positive impact of Blightbusters in this neighborhood seems to have been crucial for the decision by Meijer grocery stores to locate a major new store on Grand River last year. The store brings a convenient source for food, groceries, and produce to a neighborhood that was previously unserved; and it brings thousands of shoppers from other parts of Detroit to the neighborhood for their own shopping. This means that other small businesses have more of a reason to invest in the area.

More impressive than the bare statistics is the fact of community involvement that the organization demonstrates. For example, illegal dumping of demolition waste is sometimes a debilitating problem in this neighborhood (and many others in Detroit). How can rogue developers be discouraged from gutting a house purchased for a few thousand dollars and dumping the waste throughout the neighborhood? Community activists pay attention to what is happening in the neighborhood, and through collaboration with city government and the media they are able to stop this behavior before it creates yet another enormous source of blight for the neighborhood.

Blight Busters is a good example of an impactful and long-serving community-based housing organization. It demonstrates the kind of impact that residents and committed leaders can have on the quality of life and the economic vitality of their neighborhoods. And it shows that an effective CBO can be successful in mobilizing thousands of volunteers and millions of dollars in support of the community improvement efforts it spearheads.