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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 ...

The owner of Hantz Farms, Detroit businessman John Hantz, watched the city become less livable and wanted to do something with the empty spaces. He is among a handful of business people that are trying to help rebuild the city.

Mr. Hantz started negotiating with officials in 2008 to buy the acreage. This year he succeeded and paid about $400,000. However the land came with about 70 blighted properties that will cost about $800,000 to remove. “Land is cheap, but the property is not,” Mr. Score said.

Acres of saplings are now planted although the odd blighted house can still be seen from any point on the young farm. Eventually Mr. Hantz hopes to break even on the farm once the trees are large enough to sell.

Rejuvenating the downtown

The most high-profile investor in Detroit is Dan Gilbert, the founder of Quicken Loans, the country’s second-largest retail mortgage lender. Born in Detroit and schooled in Michigan, Mr. Gilbert moved his corporate headquarters to the city from the suburbs in 2010.

He has spent around $1.3-billion to buy more than sixty Detroit skyscrapers and properties, including several city landmarks, and he controls the bulk of the downtown core.

Mr. Gilbert, who is on the Forbes “World’s Billionaires List” with a net worth of $3.8-billion, has devoted much of his energy to rejuvenating Detroit. On top of co-chairing the federal-convened blight removal task force, Mr. Gilbert has donated funds to help map out the blighted properties as well as to save the Detroit Institute of Art from selling its collection to pay the city’s creditors.

There is a youthful energy in the headquarters of his umbrella company, Rock Ventures, where the route to Mr. Gilbert’s office involves passing a basketball court.

Rock Ventures hired more than 1,000 interns from dozens of colleges and universities across the country this year, training them in everything from marketing to mortgage banking. The average age of his employees is 28.

Jeremy Paolercio moved to Detroit from Manhattan for the opportunity. The 27-year-old is now working as a loan officer. In his one year on the job, he has been promoted and is earning more than he did in New York. “You can make a name for yourself here,” said Mr. Paolercio, describing his move as becoming a big fish in a small pond.

That Mr. Gilbert’s efforts have transformed downtown is beyond dispute. A 700-square-foot condo in downtown Detroit can rent for as much as $1,700 a month. Mr. Gilbert’s organization has created 10,200 new jobs, though it is not known how many of those jobs were filled by Detroit residents.

“I do believe he is trying to rejuvenate the downtown area. I am all for it. But it doesn’t affect the common man. ... It doesn’t mean anything to the neighbourhoods themselves,” said Jay Peltier, a Detroit realtor.

Staying put

Many describe the bankruptcy filing as a fresh start for the city. Housing prices have started to rebound and business is picking up in places. Investors are looking for deals, the downtown core is coming to life and Detroit has attracted worldwide attention, albeit more for the blight than its rich culture.

Back in Delray, there aren’t many signs of change. The streetlight behind Mr. Green’s house doesn’t work and the other day he heard the sound of gunshots in his back alley.

In the old days, Mr. Green said he never had to leave the neighbourhood. He and his wife raised their four children here; there was a movie theatre, a hospital and five schools. He used to sell ice cream from his Green’s Variety, which he has operated since 1959.

His daughter owns the only other house on his street that is not blighted or razed. She wants her parents to move, but Mr. Green, who has lived in Delray since he was one year old, refuses to leave. For him, this is home.

“I try not to worry,” he said.

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