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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

LYNN NEARY, HOST:

And I'm Lynn Neary. Cities that fall on hard times often face the same staggering problem: abandoned properties. In Detroit, an estimated 40 square miles of land sit vacant. Added up, that's an area larger than Miami.

While some Detroiters are using that emptiness to quietly reshape their neighborhoods, they're annexing vacant lots around them, buying them or just fencing them off. That story now from Kate Davidson of the Midwest reporting project Changing Gears.

KATE DAVIDSON, BYLINE: Call them blotters, B-L-O-T, blot. That's not a negative term. Blots are properties between the size of a lot and a city block. The easiest way to find blots in Detroit is to just look for a very long fence.

KEVIN GARCIA: We're walking on the side of my house. My lot extends corner to corner.

DAVIDSON: Kevin Garcia's immediate neighbor is emptiness. So far, he's annexed four of the vacant lots surrounding him and he did it legally. He bought them.

GARCIA: This lot here, I had an issue with the city of Detroit trying to obtain it. It took me 10 years of hard work and perseverance to get this from them.

DAVIDSON: Cities often hold onto land if they think there's potential for redevelopment, but in this neighborhood...

GARCIA: Pretty much, I've seen every structure on my block burned, unfortunately. It's gotten as bad as where I've seen two burn at the same time.

DAVIDSON: Garcia throws shotgun shells on his front porch to keep intruders away. He buried his dog in back after someone shot it. Still, Garcia says this neighborhood is a gem. There's space now, lots of it. Behind the fence, he's planted trees and shrubs, honey locusts, Siberian elm, white pine, purple lilac.

GARCIA: And if I want to go to the park, I just go out here in the backyard. I can pretty much enjoy everything that I can there without the travel time.

DAVIDSON: Now, keep in mind that Detroit was built to be packed tightly with working class homes, but the city has lost a million people since the 1950s. That's more than half its population. That left gaping holes in the structure of neighborhoods. Blotters aren't waiting for the city to fix that.

MARGARET DEWAR: I call it an everyday remaking.

DAVIDSON: Margaret Dewar is an urban planning professor at the University of Michigan.

DEWAR: Every day, there's a little step in this direction of remaking by people who are pretty invisible, but over time, it becomes a dominant feature of the city.

DAVIDSON: Dewar sampled tax foreclosed properties resold by the city over 20 years. She found more than a quarter were bought by the homeowner right next door. But not every blotter is so lucky. Behind this fence is the house Paul Browne's family bought in 1925. Next to it stretch four lots, an oasis of fruit trees and gardens, but there's a catch.

PAUL BROWNE: This one's actually a city lot.

DAVIDSON: So you don't own this lot?

BROWNE: No. I'd like to, but they don't want to sell it. I'm more than willing to buy it off of them.

DAVIDSON: It turns out the only lot the family actually owns is the one that's farthest from the house. They tried, but failed to buy the middle lots years ago, so why put all this effort into land they don't own?

BROWNE: Because we live next door to it. If you go up the next block from here, you'll see what it would look like. Just overgrown, brush piles, trash, car parts and it's only from stubbornness and perseverance that keeps it from becoming a debris pile.

DAVIDSON: In Detroit, Cleveland, New Orleans and many other cities, residents already get first dibs on adjacent empty lots. The idea is to stabilize neighborhoods and bring land back on the tax rolls. So, for instance, some Cleveland homeowners can buy an empty side lot for as little as a dollar. In Detroit, it's $200. The city has sold about 1,000 lots in the past five years, but it owns 60,000 parcels of land, most of it vacant.

ROB ANDERSON: We haven't really promoted the program. I think that's why we have such small numbers.

DAVIDSON: Rob Anderson is Detroit's new planning director and his staff just started studying the adjacent lot program and how to expedite it.

ANDERSON: What I don't want to have happen is we promote it and we're not ready for, you know, an influx of interest. We want to make sure that people don't get bogged down once they approach this.

DAVIDSON: But people here already get bogged down in bureaucracy. It can take years for residents to buy the lot next door. Anderson says his new goal will be 30 days.

For NPR News, I'm Kate Davidson in Detroit.

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