Detroit charity turns blight into gardens, parks, and homes

Motor City Blight Busters is fighting to bring Detroit back one abandoned building and one vacant lot at a time. The nonprofit demolishes abandoned buildings that are beyond repair, renovates homes, and cleans up parks and illegal dump sites.

Rebecca Cook/Reuters/File
Two members of the nonprofit group Motor City Blight Busters clean up debris from a dilapidated, abandoned home they tore down in the Brightmoor neighborhood of Detroit on Oct. 17, 2012. The group also renovates homes and cleans up parks and illegal dump sites.

Detroit may have declared bankruptcy, but Motor City Blight Busters is fighting to bring the city back one abandoned building and one vacant lot at a time.

For 25 years the nonprofit has demolished abandoned buildings that are beyond repair, renovated homes that are not, and cleaned up parks and illegal dumping sites. Blight Busters created a community garden that it hopes to expand to a full-blown urban farm when it finishes clearing a two-block area of abandoned housing.

“Sometimes before you can create you have to destroy,” says John George, the organization’s founder. “So we’re in a constant, almost yin-and-yang thing where we’re tearing something down and fixing something up. When the smoke clears, that’s going to add up to a new Detroit.”

Blight Busters grew out of the experience of Mr. George and his neighbors living near abandoned properties. When Mr. George’s son was two and his wife was pregnant with their daughter, a vacant home in their neighborhood was taken over by crack dealers. On weekend nights, the dealers would set up shop in the building, leading to fights and frightening residents.

Mr. George thought about moving, but instead he and two neighbors boarded up the house, painted the boards, and cut the grass.

“When the drug dealers returned that evening, they couldn’t get in,” he says. “They got into their Jeep and they left.”

Blight Busters now works with more than 10,000 volunteers, including employee groups from companies like Ford, Chrysler, Quicken Loans, and Starbucks. Support from corporations and foundations accounts for roughly 70 percent of the organization’s $300,000 budget. Most of the rest comes from the sale of donated cars and real estate.

As Detroit has continued to hemorrhage residents, the problem of blight has only gotten more daunting. Current estimates put the number of abandoned properties at between 50,000 and 80,000.

But Mr. George says he remains optimistic as residents band together to revitalize the city.

“Detroit has an opportunity with the bankruptcy to recreate itself,” he says. “Basically, my theory is that if you have a clean and safe city, people will stop leaving and might even come back.”

This article originally appeared at The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

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