Detroit Neighborhoods Take Matters Into Their Own Hands

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In the absence of effective government and services, some Detroit neighborhoods are banding together to provide for themselves.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Detroit's bankruptcy filing has raised a lot of questions about the future of Rust Belt cities. In Detroit's neighborhoods, residents have been asking those questions for years, and in some areas, people have been trying to make up for services the city has not been providing.

Sarah Hulett of Michigan Radio reports one group says it's up to the people to save Detroit.

SARAH HULETT, BYLINE: John George motions me into his battered Dodge Ram pickup, which is parked halfway up the curb in a part of the city called Old Redford.

JOHN GEORGE: OK, girlfriend, here we go.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRUCK ENGINE)

HULETT: Twenty-five years ago, George got fed up with the blight in his neighborhood. And he marshaled some neighbors and boarded up the house in back of him. That effort evolved into a group he calls Motor City Blight Busters.

GEORGE: We just got done tearing down both of these properties onto your right and to your left. And, of course, this one here is going to be next.

(SOUNDBITE OF BANGING)

HULETT: George's crew is demolishing the vacant homes on two city blocks, and plans a large-scale garden for the neighborhood. And let's be clear here: It's the city's job to board up and tear down dangerous, abandoned buildings. But there are almost 40,000 of them, and the city just doesn't have the money to put much of a dent in the problem, let alone keep on top of it. George says he's demolished, boarded up, built or rehabbed 1,500 buildings since 1988. He loves this city, but he says he doesn't count on City Hall for much of anything.

GEORGE: What I would suggest instead is people should do what I did: Get your neighbors together, get a rake, get a broom, get a shovel and get busy.

HULETT: And in pockets of the city, people have done just that.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRILLING)

HULETT: About a mile away, Riet Schumack, in glasses and a pink T-shirt, tells some teenagers up on ladders the right way to board up a vacant house.

RIET SCHUMACK: So, just put the last board a little lower, under the awning.

HULETT: They spent the day before clearing all the shrubs and trees from the perimeter. Neighbors say you couldn't even see the house.

SCHUMACK: So when you're done with this board, start on that side, OK?

HULETT: Shumack has been working to transform block after block of her notorious Brightmoor neighborhood. She's recruited neighborhood kids to board up houses, put out trashcans and make new parks where houses have been torn down. Shumack says when she heads to a new block and starts knocking on doors, things often play out like this.

SCHUMACK: You have the famous they conversation. So, people will say, well, they are never picking up my garbage, or they don't board up the houses, or they came and boarded up some houses. And so our question is: Well, who are the they? And that has changed, that they have to become us.

JULIUS GORDON: I was cooped up in the house. My parents were, you know, afraid for my life because, you know, we live in Brightmoor.

HULETT: Julius Gordon is one of the us. He's 19. He says he walks the neighborhood now. There are fewer drug dealers, less trash, but there is still crime here, and that is a huge issue throughout the city.

MUHSIN MUHAMMAD: Hey, did you see a young man come by on a bicycle a few minutes ago? That way?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Yep.

MUHAMMAD: My man.

HULETT: Muhsin Muhammad has been part of his neighborhood's crime watch since 1995. Lorenzo Blount is driving. Tony Bailey sits shotgun with a clipboard in his lap. They drive the 42 blocks of their Grandmont neighborhood, looking for anything or anybody that's out of place. Today's pretty quiet. The guy on the bike rode out of the neighborhood. They never found a lost pit bull named Money. Lorenzo Blount says he does this for one reason.

LORENZO BLOUNT: Self-preservation. Nobody's coming to help us, so we got to help ourselves.

HULETT: In Detroit, the average time it takes police to respond to a 911 call is 58 minutes. The national average: about 11 minutes. So Blount's patrol and about 25 others help out in different neighborhoods. They're trained by and worked closely with the police department, which can use all the help it can get. City officials say they wholeheartedly support volunteer efforts. But the scale of Detroit's need is pretty staggering, and there are some gaps that grassroots efforts can't really fill, like the 40 percent of street lights that are broken. But the people in these neighborhoods say bankruptcy makes no difference to their efforts. Riet Schumack from Brightmoor says: We didn't get anything before the bankruptcy. We're not going to get anything after it. For NPR News, I'm Sarah Hulett.

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