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Albert Green, 86 years old, stands outside his well-kept home that sits next to a burnt, blighted, vacant home in the Delray neighbourhood of Detroit. Mr. Green and his wife of 68 years have lived in the home for 56 years where they raised four children. (REBECCA COOK FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Albert Green, 86 years old, stands outside his well-kept home that sits next to a burnt, blighted, vacant home in the Delray neighbourhood of Detroit. Mr. Green and his wife of 68 years have lived in the home for 56 years where they raised four children. (REBECCA COOK FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Detroit: A city in distress struggles for rejuvenation Add to ...

Albert Green has spent two years trying to get the city of Detroit to tear down the house that sits next to his.

It’s easy to see why. There’s not much left of the ravaged structure, except for its blackened frame, and Mr. Green’s biggest concern is that the house may catch on fire, again.

“It’s frustrating,” he said standing on the sidewalk in front of his house. “I have paid taxes since 1946 and this is what I get.”

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Mr. Green, 86, has been living here for decades, running his convenience store, Green’s Variety, and slowly watching the street fade from a vibrant community filled with families to one where his house is just about the only one left standing. His neat, white-sided home with potted marigolds out front is in sharp contrast to the half a dozen properties nearby, all left vacant and close to collapse.

This neighbourhood, not far from the bridge to Canada, is emblematic of large swathes of Detroit – a city where more than one million residents have fled since the auto industry started closing down plants in the 1950s, leaving empty buildings to fester in its wake. The financial crisis helped propel the city into bankruptcy and pushed the blight further across town. More than 80,000 buildings and vacant lots are in a state of disrepair. In Delray, where Mr. Green lives, nearly 70 per cent of his neighbourhood is empty.

Now the city is trying to figure out what to do with the blown-out structures. Getting rid of all the blight is critical to the city’s economic recovery. It’s a key step toward attracting new investment, new residents and new confidence. But it won’t be easy.

A task force convened by the Obama administration has estimated that it will cost $2-billion (U.S.) to remove the blight. So far the city has received just $52.3-million from Washington, about enough to tear down 3,800 homes. There is some hope more funding will come as part of a massive restructuring plan that’s being developed during the bankruptcy process. But there are many competing interests and creditors all vying for a piece of the action. A bankruptcy court judge will start deciding in mid-August which creditor will get paid and whether Detroit will have enough to start tearing down and rebuilding.

In the meantime, residents can only hope and wonder when the decrepit buildings in their neighbourhoods will finally be removed.

The scourge of blight

Detroit is surprisingly large, at least in terms of land mass. The city spans 370 square kilometres and has a unique mix of leafy estates, working-class neighbourhoods and some of the worst ghettos in America. Today, 38 per cent of residents live below the poverty level and the city’s unemployment rate is more than double the national level of 6.1 per cent.

There are some signs of change. The gleaming General Motors headquarters, appropriately called the Renaissance Center, sits by the river that borders Canada and is surrounded by a small but growing pocket of rejuvenated streets. Rents here are climbing, affluent out-of-towners are moving in and there’s even a dog park, a sure sign of gentrification.

But that is the exception. Much of the city remains a place where street lights don’t work and police officers routinely tell residents that they don’t have the resources to respond to calls. In short, most Detroiters have learned to fend for themselves.

“I can’t wait 10 years to get the house next door knocked down,” said John George, who grew up in the northwest part of the city where he still lives.

Mr. George, 56, spent years in the insurance business but quit in 1988 to fight the blight that was creeping across his neighbourhood and countless others. He made the change after an abandoned home on his block turned into a crack house. Mr. George, who had a young family at the time, could see it from his back window and was enraged.

“People would come in every night, piss in the bushes and party,” he said.

He didn’t want to move, so he took matters into his own hands and boarded up the house. It worked. The night travellers took one look at the shuttered house and drove away.

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