Detroit area's battle with blight may be key to survival

Thu Jul 25, 2013 12:17am EDT
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By Nick Carey

DETROIT (Reuters) - If you want to tackle Detroit's thousands of abandoned homes and trash-strewn and overgrown lots, there are few better places to start than in Brightmoor in the northwestern corner of the city.

"Brightmoor is arguably one of the most blighted areas in Detroit, which makes it one of the most blighted areas in the country," said Kirk Mayes, executive director of community group the Brightmoor Alliance. "If you can tackle blight in Brightmoor, you can do it anywhere."

Local non-profit, the Detroit Blight Authority, aims to do just that, with a budget of up to $500,000 to clear 14 blocks of this neighborhood and more to come once it raises more funds.

The group has hired 25 local residents, clearing an urban jungle of brush, trees and garbage to the point where occupied and abandoned homes are visible from the street and to each other. In a Detroit neighborhood like Brightmoor that is regarded as a victory.

When Detroit's state-appointed emergency manager Kevyn Orr filed last week for the city to enter into the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, he cited the need to tackle widespread blight, including many abandoned homes and other buildings, as one of Detroit's most urgent problems.

"Perhaps no issue is as fundamental to - or emblematic of - Detroit's decline as urban blight," Orr wrote in a declaration in the filing, adding "These decrepit eyesores dramatically undermine Detroit's efforts to maintain public safety (as they contribute to the proliferation of crime and arson) and contribute to declines in property values."

The rise of Detroit alongside the U.S. auto industry brought a tide of humanity to the area, making this the fastest-growing city in the world in the first three decades of the 20th century and reaching a peak population of 1.8 million mid-century. That tide ebbed as automotive jobs faded and initially white residents - and later middle-class black residents - fled to the suburbs, leaving thousands of decaying buildings and just 700,000 residents.

The city estimates it has 78,000 "abandoned and blighted" structures, roughly one fifth of Detroit's housing stock, and 38,000 are considered dangerous. This in an area of 139 square miles - big enough to fit Manhattan, Boston and San Francisco.   Continued...

A pile of illegally dumped tires is seen during a blight removal project in the Brightmoor neighborhood in Detroit, Michigan July 16, 2013. Picture taken July 16, 2013. REUTERS/ Rebecca Cook