Volunteers fight blight in Detroit neighborhoods

October 3rd, 2015
Philip Neubauer, 55 of Detroit keeps out of the way of blowing sawdust as Scott Newport, 56, of Royal Oak cuts wood to board up the home behind them on Joann Street in Detroit on Sat., Oct. 3, 2015. Neubauer lives in the neighborhood and wanted to pitch in and help clean up his neighborhood.(Photo: Eric Seals, Detroit Free Press)

Matt Helms
Detroit Free Press
October 3, 2015

Hundreds of volunteers fanned out in three areas of Detroit Saturday, braving the breezy chill to board up vacant homes and clear out overgrown brush, debris and trash in neighborhoods that hadn’t yet been touched by the city’s blight-removal efforts.

The cleanup by the volunteer-based group I Believe in the D targeted four districts in the city Saturday, on the east, northwest and southwest sides.  Some of the board-ups were in areas where military veterans live, while others were around a Catholic church that’s a hub for a neighborhood near 8 Mile and Schoenherr on the city’s east side.

The houses, owned by the Detroit Land Bank Authority, are not yet scheduled to be demolished or sold at auction, so they’ve become targets for vandalism and illegal dumping, making the neighborhoods all the more unsightly and unsafe for kids, organizers said.

I Believe in the D volunteers aimed to clean and board up 100 homes through the event. They nailed plywood over doors and windows, hauled out debris and garbage, cut down overgrown brush, and mowed weeds that grew as tall as them.

Mike Murley, 19, a Wayne State University engineering student who lives in Midtown, said he wanted to help out cleaning up in the city’s neighborhoods because they need more attention than the reviving downtown. As he and about 30 others worked on houses around St. Raymond-Our Lady of Good Counsel Catholic Church on Joann Avenue south of 8 Mile, Murley said he sees the entire city turning around.

“If you compare it now to what it used to be, it’s a lot better, especially with everything the community does to help it out, events like this,” Murley said.

An estimated 300-400 volunteers formed cleanup crews made up of community residents and employees of Home Depot, representing 37 stores from southeast Michigan and the Toledo area, said Ryan Jones, operations manager at the home-improvement chain’s Troy store.

Paul Grout, a Birmingham building contractor and home builder, started I Believe in the D about two years ago. He said he was inspired by bipartisan calls to help Detroit move through and recover from its historic Chapter 9 bankruptcy.

Grout said he figured downtown was getting enough attention, so he wanted the group to focus on neglected neighborhoods. He leveraged his relationships with employees of Home Depot’s store in Troy to get the Home Depot Foundation on board and work with other community groups to get the cleanup effort going.

The cleanup is a collaboration of the Home Depot Foundation, the military veterans group The Mission Continues, Detroit’s Department of Neighborhoods, the city’s land bank, Southwest Solutions and NeighborWorks America.

“I figured, if we can get 100,000 people at Michigan Stadium on a Saturday, why can’t we get 1,000 people in Detroit to help in the neighborhoods?” Grout said. “I believe people want to help, they just don’t know how to help.”

The Rev. Robert Kolarz, senior pastor at St. Raymond-Our Lady of Good Counsel, said the neighborhood has seen decline, but not nearly as bad as some other areas of the northeast side. He said the homes near the church are salvageable with the right kind of attention and preventive efforts.

Kolarz noted that major nearby roads including 7 Mile and Schoenherr have been repaved in recent years, and a separate group, Life Remodeled, has done renovation work at Osborn High School and on homes in the neighborhood to keep the area from declining further.

“This is renewable,” Kolarz said of the neighborhood. “We’ve had a great comeback over the last year or so.”

Hanna Newcomb, 16, a junior at Birmingham’s Seaholm High School, came with her mother, Trina Steele, after hearing at her school about the chance to pitch in to help the city.

“Detroit’s making a comeback, slowly but surely,” Newcomb said. “I feel like in my lifetime, like 20 years or so, it will be back to what it was before. I want to see that.”

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