Reclaiming Abandoned Homes And Vacant Lots

Guests

Daniel Okrent, contributing writer, Time
Mhari Saito, reporter, WCPN

Cleveland, like many former manufacturing powerhouses, is pocked with vast tracts of vacant lots, empty warehouses and abandoned homes. More than 8,000 properties are slated to be cleared, and Clevelanders are developing new ways to make use of those empty lots and obsolete buildings.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Factories may slowly add jobs. But after decades of decline, Cleveland, like many old manufacturing cities, are a lot smaller than they used to be. Not physically, but about half of this city's population left after jobs disappeared. Throw in the mortgage crisis of the past few years, and well, we drove around the city this morning that has vast tracts of vacant lots, abandoned warehouses and boarded up houses. Thousands of properties are slated to be cleared in the coming year. And Clevelanders are trying to find new ways to use that land. Urban farms are up and running. While other groups hope to reclaim and resell the wood and the wiring from buildings before they are raised.

So what is your city doing to re-imagine abandoned properties? Is it working? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. More about Cleveland in a moment.

A year ago, though, we spoke with Time Magazine contributor, Daniel Okrent, who's been covering Detroit's struggle to respond to its shrinking population. And he joins us now on the phone from New York. Danny, nice to have you back.

Mr. DANIEL OKRENT (Contributor, Times magazine): Nice to be here, Neal.

CONAN: A year ago, Detroit was considering trying to shrink itself, provide city services to less a much smaller area, a more densely populated area. How's that working out?

Mr. OKRENT: Well, both well and poorly. Well in the sense that the planning for it is going ahead. Some really brilliant people are engaged in it, and they understand that this is an absolute necessity for the city's survival. On the other hand, no one wants to be removed from the they don't want their neighborhood abandoned. And it's the you have a real struggle between what would make managerial sense and human sense, and what can be done politically. And the political struggle is quite ugly.

CONAN: And what do you mean ugly? Can you give us an example?

Mr. OKRENT: Well, yes. One example would be the charge that was thrown at Mayor Dave Bing and his staff, that what they were engaged in was ethnic cleansing. This was said by a prominent African-American clergyman in Detroit to an African-American mayor, an African-American city council, African-American planning staff, of the notion that this is something that he's working, you know, against black people.

And, you know, this comes I don't think it's rational. But it comes there's a reason for it. It comes from people who have long memories of the urban we know of the '50s and '60s, which was catastrophic for African-American neighborhoods.

CONAN: And are there people living in certain neighborhoods that are virtually abandoned, yet refusing to move?

Mr. OKRENT: Yeah. You know, I've written the last article in this series. It will be in Time magazine on Friday. And one of the women we talked to, a woman named Betty Corley(ph), she lives in a block that once had 26 houses. And hers is the only house there. The rest is turned, you know, into brush and almost prairie. There are pheasant, raccoons, rabbits. She says she's not moving. This is where she has lived most of her life. She wants to stay there.

And it's very hard for the political establishment to say, well, sorry. We're not going to send fire trucks. We're not going to send police cars. We're not going to clean the trash any longer. She has rights. She's a citizen. It's not in the easy situation for anybody.

CONAN: So, after all of this talk, is the city physically smaller and denser than it used to be?

Mr. OKRENT: It isn't yet, Neal. I think that it's happening very slowly. It's not going to get physically smaller. The 140 square miles of Detroit that once held two million people and now holds about 750,000 people. You can't shrink that, but you can choose to abandon parts of the city. And that's the political difficulty that Mayor Bing and his staff are facing. But I think it is going to begin to happen sometime next year.

CONAN: And to some degree, is this a story of denial?

Mr. OKRENT: It's absolutely a story of denial. It's very hard for a city to say, you know, we were once big and great. And now, we're, you know, a pip-squeak. There's this sense of pride and of grandeur that comes with cities that were once powerful.

You know, Cleveland is now like the 65th largest city in I'm sorry. It's Pittsburg, which is once of the 10 biggest cities in the country, is now 63rd in the country. There has to be recognition, you know, that you're living in a fantasy world if you think you can regain that. It's just not going to happen.

CONAN: Danny Okrent, a contributing writer for TIME magazine. We'll look forward to the article.

Mr. OKRENT: Thanks very much, Neal. Nice to talk to you.

CONAN: Daniel Okrent joined us today by phone from New York.

Here with us in Studio 4 in downtown Cleveland is Mhari Saito, a reporter at WCPN ideastream, covers the foreclosure crisis. Nice to have you with us today.

MHARI SAITO: Thanks very much for having me.

CONAN: And I saw you nodding your head, well, a little sadly as you listened to Daniel Okrent's description of Detroit. Does that sound familiar?

SAITO: It does. It's, you know, it's a conversation that's had - been had here in Cleveland, as well as on other parts of the state. You know, Youngstown, Ohio had also talked about shrinking the city and the recognition that the city is not what it once was, and the populations have left.

CONAN: And the same sense of denial amongst some parts of the population?

SAITO: Certainly. You know, you talk about shrinking the city and losing a powerbase and, you know, coming to terms with what that really means and actually figuring out how to downsize a city and make it affordable and attractive again, even though you are a smaller location.

CONAN: Sustainability is another word we're hearing a lot about on our visit here to Cleveland, people saying: We have to figure out how to stop importing food from South America, necessarily, and maybe we can grow it right here.

SAITO: That's sort of how the shrinking concept is sort of being adopted here in the city. It's about reimagining the city and figuring out ways to use lots in creating - in order to facilitate job creation, as well as economic development.

CONAN: And farms, vineyards. We're hearing some odd things that you don't usually think of is happening inside the city of Cleveland.

SAITO: That's right. We've - in the past year and a half, there's been a number of legislative activities, as well as funding activities that have gone to support agriculture, development of agriculture, within the city.

There was a legislation that's sort of famously known as the chicken-and-bees legislation, which allows people to keep a certain number of chickens and rabbits and beehives on their properties. And the idea is to allow people to use their land, as well as vacant land and create farms that can generate food, not only for themselves, but also for local farmers' markets, for restaurants, and - as one councilman reminded me this morning - for the local food truck that sort of circles the city and serves gourmet Chinese.

CONAN: Well, who owns this land? It's been abandoned?

SAITO: The land stays in - well, for example, we have the Ohio City Farms, which is on the west side of Cleveland. It's 60 acres, and it's considered to be the largest urban farm in the country. And the land is actually still in the property of - under titled from, I believe it's the County Housing Authority. So it's essentially HUD. And it's leased to the various owners of the farm, who, in turn, allow farmers to plant and harvest on the - they harvested their first crops just this last fall.

CONAN: We'd like to know how your city is adapting to different economic times. And if you're reimagining ways to use properties that would otherwise remain vacant or abandoned, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org.

And Matt's on the line, Matt calling from Binghamton in New York.

Mayor MATT RYAN (Binghamton, New York): Yeah. I'm the mayor of the city of Binghamton, New York. And we had a program in New York State called Restore New York, and we're very proud of what we did. And we found a whole bunch of dilapidated properties that have been taken on tax sales. We got the organization to give them back to us. And we pretty much cleaned them all up, demolitioning the ones that had to be demoed, but also rehabbing a lot of them.

Certainly, we don't have the problems with Cleveland and Detroit, because we're not as a sprawling a city, but we have lost - we were once a city of 88,000 at a time. We're now down to 47,000. So it's similar circumstances. But gratefully, I don't think we'll have to tear down whole tracts of housing and stuff. That was kind of done in - some of that was done in urban renewal times, about 40 years ago.

So we're a smaller city, but we're doing a lot of the things that they're talking about in Detroit and Cleveland with trying to start SmartGrow, trying to get the whole county around us to embrace that, to try to convince people that urban living is really good for the environment, good for a lot of things, social - bringing the society back together again, so people feel they're part of a cohesive community. So I think there's a lot of exciting things going on all over the country because of necessity.

CONAN: I was just going to ask you, Mr. Mayor, how important is density? Do you have to bring people into an urban core?

Mayor RYAN: Oh, absolutely, because every year, our, you know, the cost of -mandated costs go up and up. So if we don't increase our people living in our city, we're just going to keep batting our heads against the wall because cost of government goes up while we don't have any - a lot of new revenues unless we get more people living in our city. But we're really seeing a lot of investment in our downtown, a lot people coming back, especially young professionals, renovating old buildings and really getting a core back together again, which have been largely abandoned for the last 20 years.

CONAN: And do you find that young people want to stay there in the Susquehanna Valley in New York?

Mayor RYAN: Well, that's our sort of struggle. We're doing a lot with Binghamton University. And they have a great group of students there called CIC2020. Their goal is to keep 20 percent of the university community here by the year 2020 - a very ambitious goal, but we think having that kind of synergy with the university is a real good thing.

And we are seeing a lot of young people trying to find ways to stay here, because it's a - it has a lot of things to offer because of the big university, it has a lot of great arts and things. We have 38 art galleries in our city. First Friday, they're all open. People are really starting to come back to the city, where we have two rivers, the Chenango and the Susquehanna, developing river walks along there for quality of life and outdoor activities. And so anybody out there who wants to come to a progressive city, please move our way.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well, it sounds like the chamber of commerce could not find a better salesman than you, Mr. Mayor. Appreciate your time today.

Mayor RYAN: Well, thank you very much.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Interesting places like Binghamton say they're learning lessons from Cleveland and Detroit.

SAITO: Well, that's sort of the message that the county has - and the city has been, you know, the city officials loudly tell people like me on a regular basis that sustainability has, you know, sustainability and different initiatives here are making their way across the country. We have - I think you mentioned the vineyard. This is an effort on the east side of Cleveland, the neighborhood - primarily African-American neighborhood called Hough, which was famous for the riots, actually, in 1966. And a man there - he - across the street from him, he took a weedy vacant lot, a man named Mansfield Frazier, and he planted three quarters of an acre of two varieties of German wine grapes. And the idea...

CONAN: So we're going to see Hough Riesling on the shelves there?

SAITO: Well, actually he wants to call it - his first bottle, he wants to call it Hough - the Hough Riots.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SAITO: And he's hoping to have that for sale in 2012.

CONAN: He might need some help with marketing. Here's an email we have from Graham here in Cleveland. The Ohio City formed the largest, contiguous urban farm in America. At nearly six acres, it's a remarkable collaboration among the Ohio City Neighborhood Development Corporation, The Refugee Response, Great Lakes Brewery, three entrepreneurial farmers and CMHA, the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority. It's economic development, workforce training and positions Ohio City as the Cleveland neighborhood that feeds the region. You've been - do - you've been there?

SAITO: I have. It's a remarkable area, actually. It's sort of a, you know, you talk about planting hope, it really - you know, you see a lot of the destruction and a lot of the wreckage that was left after the foreclosure crisis because it hit us here a little bit earlier than the rest of the country. And then to go out and see places that have been cleared and where people are coming in, you know, it sounds so, you know, cliche, but they're literally working the land and growing and feeding the city. It's a - inspires a lot of hope.

CONAN: And people might worry about environmental consequences of some of that land. The farms I saw were raised beds, so that's not a problem.

SAITO: Right. A lot of the Ohio State University extension is working with a lot of these groups to help make sure that the farming is safe.

CONAN: We're talking with WCPN reporter Mhari Saito. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Let's go next to - this is Kevin(ph), Kevin calling from Cleveland.

KEVIN (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

KEVIN: Hey. I just want to let you know that I'm working on a project where not all land, you know, in Cleveland that is vacant is suitable for warm fruits. So I'm looking at other options. And take that land and to boost - produce a product such as lavender to solve this big land issue. Not only will it, you know, provide the resource for people in the cosmetic and perfume industry, but also improve the aesthetics of the neighborhood.

CONAN: And are you finding a market for it?

KEVIN: I'm looking for a market for it right now. That's the one thing, you have to show a demand for the product. And just looking for right now those who are interested in taking the products once its grown from me.

CONAN: And in order to generate that interest, you're hoping to generate some capital investment at the same time.

KEVIN: Yes. And a capital investment really isnt all that much because lavender is a product that you plant once. It doesn't need to be replanted year after year.

CONAN: So it's a perennial?

KEVIN: Yes.

CONAN: All right. Well, good luck, Kevin.

KEVIN: Hey, thank you very much.

CONAN: Here's an email, this from Jeff in Cleveland. I hope on your drive around town today, you took note of the gorgeous historic architecture we have in our downtown and nearby environs. We have a lot of community boosters here in Cleveland. From the old Model-T factory, the - at the Cleveland Institute of Art, uses as their main studio building to our Restaurant Row of East 4th Street, we are blessed with beautiful old buildings that have been refurbished and are gorgeous.

He is right, but, Mhari, as I drove around, I saw a lot of very attractive apartment buildings boarded up.

Ms. SAITO: Yes. The - you know, as the result of, you know, so many things, the economic recession, the housing crisis, population loss, you know, the city of Cleveland - since 2005, there's been 33,000 foreclosures in the city of Cleveland alone, about that many in the surrounding suburbs. And you know, we've had, I think there is 7,000 vacant and abandoned properties within the city limits at this point. You know, there's no shortage of the wreckage of this housing crisis.

CONAN: Here's an email from Noah. While on the topic of reimagining abandoned areas in the United States, I'm curious if you know of the Hypothetical Development Organization. They're working in areas of New Orleans to apply some really outside-the-box thinking to what could be done with some of those derelict spaces. Some are realistic, some are really out in leftfield. The important thing is this notion of reimagining. There's lots of potential there. Have you ever heard of the Hypothetical Development Organization?

Ms. SAITO: I have not. I wonder how hypothetical it is. You know, we - there's a ton of really creative and innovative ideas that are coming out of this. The city has both grants and loan programs that they basically throw out to people, saying, look, do you have a great idea for a vacant lot? What is it? Tell us. And there's a ton of ideas like the lavender farm, like the vineyard. I even heard of some people thinking about alternative energy use. You know, how we can pull enough land together to actually make something viable and economically feasible?

CONAN: Again, a lot of that is going to need capital investment. Where does that come from?

Ms. SAITO: Exactly. And that's the challenge going forward, especially in this economy and especially with a, you know, state that's facing an $8 billion shortfall.

CONAN: Let's go to Steve, Steve with us on the phone from Oklahoma City.

STEVE (Caller): How are you?

CONAN: Very well, thank you.

STEVE: Well, back in the mid-'80s, Oklahoma City was going through very much the same thing with the oil bust and after Penn Square Bank failed. And it took a lot of forward thinking and the citizens ability to look deeply within themselves and decide, okay, we need to move forward. And we taxed ourselves, voted several sales taxes to refurbish and completely redo our downtown, which now is completely different than it was 20 years ago. And I think sometimes it takes a...

CONAN: Go ahead.

STEVE: ...sometimes it - I'm sorry - sometimes it takes a population being able to look way into the future, 20 years even, past the - what seems to be very bleak at the time.

CONAN: All right, Steve. Thank you very much for the call. And we appreciate it. And indeed there were some dramatic changes in Oklahoma City. Mhari Saito, thank you for you time today.

Ms. SAITO: Thank you very much for having me.

CONAN: Mhari Saito, a reporter for the WCPN Idea Stream. She joined us here in the studio. Before we leave Cleveland, I want to thank everybody at the Idea Stream for the warm welcome and hospitality, especially Jeff Carlton, David Molpus and David Kanzeg.

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