Detroit 'Heroes' Fix Up Motor City Neighborhoods

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Detroit has big problems and limited resources to fix those problems. But Detroiters aren't waiting around for someone else to do the work. Heroes have stepped up to keep their streets clean while city services withered. Much of the work has been done through community groups.

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LYNN NEARY, host:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Good morning.

We've reported frequently from Michigan throughout the economic crisis. And this week, we're focusing on Detroit. The Motor City has big problems and limited resources to fix them. Now the people of Detroit aren't just waiting around for conditions to improve. Some are joining neighborhood groups and block clubs to do crime patrols and clean city streets. And in many places, it's working. Michigan Radio's Dustin Dwyer has the first report in our series.

DUSTIN DWYER: Detroit is the city of wreckage. That much you've probably already heard. To see it is another thing: neighborhoods where abandoned houses outnumber occupied ones, empty houses blackened by fire with rain-soaked furniture and clothes thrown around the yard. It's the kind of devastation you usually only see on the Weather Channel.

But for an outsider, what's even more surprising than this wreckage is how many really nice neighborhoods are literally right around the corner. One street will look like a tornado came through. The next has perfectly manicured lawns, shady trees and friendly neighbors.

So how can the most troubled big city in America also have some of its nicest-looking neighborhoods? Lyke Thompson runs the urban studies program at Wayne State University in Detroit. Here's how he explains it.

Dr. LYKE THOMPSON (Urban Studies, Wayne State University): There's some heroes out there in those streets.

DWYER: Heroes who've stepped up to keep their streets clean while city services withered. Much of the work has been done through what Thompson calls an ecology of community groups. And there are a lot of them.

Dr. THOMPSON: At one point, the city did an analysis of it, and they found over 1,200 nonprofit organizations - 501-C3's - with real budgets. So that's a large number.

DWYER: And many of these groups are working right in Detroit neighborhoods.

Unidentified Woman: Good morning, bishop.

Bishop TONY RUSSELL (Founder, MAN Network): Good morning.

Unidentified Woman: Good morning, Marcel.

Mr. MARCEL COPELAND (MAN Network): Hey, good morning.

DWYER: Every weekday morning, volunteers for the MAN Network meet in Detroit's Osborn neighborhood to patrol the streets while children walk to school. MAN is acronym for Maintaining a Neighborhood. And the four members of this morning's patrol team are all wearing black clothes and black hats with the word respect stitched in white lettering. On the roof of the car, a yellow light noisily rotates.

Bishop Tony Russell started the MAN Network about four years ago to get people engaged in the community and stop crime.

Bishop RUSSELL: It's just a fact that the police generally are only called after a crime has been committed. And we want to be a force to prevent crime.

DWYER: They do that mainly just by keeping watch. If something more serious is going on, they have sheriff's deputies on speed dial. Earlier this year, the patrol helped stop an attempted rape in an abandoned garage across the street from an elementary school.

Marcel Copeland joined the MAN Network two years ago. He grew up in Detroit with the mindset that he couldn't do anything to fix the city. But now that mindset has changed.

Mr. COPELAND: This is where I live. It could be where my children will live and my grandchildren live. So why make myself live somewhere that is, you know, dangerous and dirty when we don't have to?

DWYER: And while more people like Copeland step in up in Detroit, large organizations are able to do more. The Skillman Foundation has given money to help children in Detroit for half a century. A few years ago, the foundation announced a $100 million program targeted at six Detroit neighborhoods.

Ed Egnatios helps lead the program. When it first rolled out, he was told not to expect much involvement at meetings.

Mr. ED EGNATIOS (Skillman Foundation): We were told 100 people would come. And do you know, we would have - every three weeks we'd have a series of five meetings in the beginnings in all six neighborhoods, and we'd be averaging between 300 and 450 people.

DWYER: The money for the Skillman Foundation helped support a lot of work in the community, including the patrols by the MAN Network. And there are several other foundations with their own programs. But in some parts of Detroit, it's clear that even this is not enough.

Children in the Osborn neighborhood walk to school past half-burned houses and piles of trash every day. Tony Russell says he doesn't expect the city or anyone else to clean up the neighborhood. But he does need some help.

Bishop RUSSELL: We should be able to maintain our neighborhood, but many times, we just don't have the resources necessary.

DWYER: Despite the millions of dollars poured into Detroit and the thousands of people doing work, Russell says more can and will be done as Detroiters step up to fix their city.

For NPR News, I'm Dustin Dwyer.

MONTAGNE: Our series on Detroit continues this week with a look at retraining unemployed autoworkers. And we'll hear about the city's Hispanic business community, which is thriving.

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