Detroit’s Plan to Fight the Blight

Detroit-Feb 18, 2013I’ve never been to Detroit.  The image I have of the city comes from what I see or read about it.  And lately that hasn’t been good.  While the auto industry has made a remarkable comeback, the Motor City’s struggling real estate market has so far failed to hitch a ride on the road to prosperity.

Thousands of vacant houses in once vibrant neighborhoods are either facing demolition or selling at prices as low as $1.  For a house.

Zillow-Garland St, Detroit

Detroit-Jan 28, 2013

The soundtrack of life in communities scared by these derelict structures is less the bouncy beat of Motown and more Bessie Smith’s blues standard from the 1920s, “No One Knows You When You’re Down And Out.”  When $1 is the serious price for a house and there are no takers, you know the city’s got problems.

Urban decay moves in quickly when good people are forced to abandon their homes in tough economic times.  Boarded-up, empty houses that nobody obviously cares about are breeding grounds for crime, vandalism, drugs and arson.  Something has to be done.  And it is.

Detroit Mayor Dave Bing recently announced the formation of the Detroit Blight Authority (DBA), a non-profit partnership of concerned businesses, civic leaders and volunteers.  Its stated goal is to tear down thousands of vacant buildings.  Property owners will retain their rights to the land, but just how these open spaces will be used in the future has yet to be decided.  The priority right now is to remove hopelessly beyond repair structures from neighborhoods in the most cost-effective way.  The DBA recently took a big bite out of blight when its first project cleared a ten-block area of uninhabited eyesores.

DBA photos-Before and After

The authority will also target what they refer to as “ones” and “twos,” abandoned and neglected houses on streets where most of the other homes are occupied.  It’s a scene many Detroit residents reluctantly live with.  Forsaken, dilapidated houses can be found on the same streets as well-maintained homes that display a pride of ownership.  For example, these nice looking homes below on the left are just down the block from the yours-for-a-buck house on the right.      

                St. Clair Street, DetroitSt. Clair Street, Detroit

After having a closeup look at the doomed ghost houses of Detroit on websites such as Google and Zillow, I can’t help but wonder what happened, how things got to this lower than low point.  Every house–the cared for and the abandoned alike–all share a similar beginning.  One day years ago, the last nail was driven into the frame by a carpenter or the final brick set in place by the builder of a brand new home.  A key to the front door was handed to the proud new owner.  Beds, dressers, and boxes filled with all the things that make a house a home were carried over the threshold, maybe even a bride.

For decades, these homes sheltered Detroit families and provided them a refuge from the outside world.  Lives were lived under those now sagging, burnt or splintered roofs. Fathers read the evening newspaper in the living room.  Sons listened to the Tigers game on the radio out on the front porch.  Upstairs, a mother braided her young daughter’s hair in a bedroom she shared with an older sister.  Down the hall, children splashed in the tub before being tucked away in their beds for the night, safe and secure.  These were homes where people shared and celebrated the good times, and consoled each other when the phone in the parlor rang with the sad news that a beloved member of the family had passed away.  They are real life scenes hard to envision ever happening in the forgotten homes of Detroit.  Yet they surely did.

I’m hoping that when I read about Detroit in the future I will have a new, upbeat image of the city and its residents.  They’re off to a good start in their fight against blight, but have a huge job ahead of them.  I wish them the best.

If you would like to learn more about the non-profit DBA or make a donation, here’s a link to the Detroit Blight Authority website.  The Detroit Free Press also has a good article on the DBA’s plan to revitalize and reshape the city’s landscape.

And If you or your family lived in Detroit during better times, consider sharing some old photos taken in and around your home.  Contact me at whpcl@earthlink.net and I will post your pictures and stories on this blog .

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Looking Down From Above

One of my favorite features of Google Earth is the Historical Imagery view.  It lets you turn back the clock to see what the same area on the map looked like from the air years ago.  While Google Earth offers historical views of anywhere in the country, many are relatively recent, while others go back only as far as the 1980s and 1990s.

Google Earth is still a fun destination with many great features, but I’ve found another website that I prefer to use while building house histories on wikiHomePages.com. HistoricAerials.com offers a bird’s eye view of streets and homes from as far back as the 1920s in some areas.  A killer feature lets you slide or dissolve to compare aerials from different time periods.  That is really cool.

The color photo on the left of the split screen is a 2005 aerial view of my first apartment in Los Angeles.  On the right is the 300 block of S. St. Andrews Place and Manhattan Place as they appeared in 1948.  What today is apartment building after apartment building was once a row of tidy single-family homes with lawns, trees and driveways.  Switching to other years and moving the map around, I can also see how the surrounding neighborhood has changed from when I lived there in 1972.

The only thing I don’t like about these old aerial photos is that I can’t get enough of them, they don’t cover the entire country.  But HistoricAerials.com is adding new, or should I say older, aerials every day.  You can view them for free online, but with watermarks.  If you see a family home or other must-have photo, you can purchase a clean copy from their website.