America's Progressive Developers: Detroit Blight Busters

In the latest installment of America's Progressive Developers, a non-profit known for demolition in Detroit also helps build it back.
By Scott Beyer | Jun 11, 2018 |
By Scott Beyer | Jun 11, 2018 |
A mural in Artist Village Detroit / organization photo

[This is part of an ongoing monthly cross-country series profiling America’s Progressive Developers. Here are the pieces on Miami, Charlottesville, New Orleans, San Antonio, San Diego and San Francisco.]

Detroit – This city has a blight problem. For seven decades, Detroit has suffered terminal decline, leaving behind a net population that is only 36% of its 1.8-million peak. The natural result has been an empty physical infrastructure that attracts further crime and visual pollution. The city government has never sufficiently tackled the problem, leading to various citizen-led blight removal efforts. The best-known among them is the nationally-renowned Detroit Blight Busters (DBB).

Founded in 1988 by John George, DBB is a non-profit dedicated to tackling blight in the neighborhood – and the city – where George has lived his entire life. But DBB is also a development organization that builds rather than just tearing down. Along with demolishing homes, it constructs new units, fixes others up, provides retail, grows food, and offers various public services that Detroit's government can't or won't do. DBB is thus a great case study on how a small organization can take a comprehensive approach to neighborhood revival.

DBB was started when George, who grew up on Detroit's northwest side, became frustrated with crime in the area, namely the drug-dealing from an empty building near his house. George was raising young children then with his wife Alicia. So one day he joined other parents in the neighborhood to board up the windows in the vacant home. When the drug dealers returned the next day, they were unable to enter and quickly left.

Following that early success, George made it his life calling to eradicate blight in Detroit, and has since taken a multi-pronged revival strategy. Leveraging a total volunteer workforce of 182,000 during these 30 years, DBB has demolished over 900 blighted homes; painted 700; secured 400, namely by boarding them up; renovated 200; and built over 100 new ones. More than 1,000 Detroiters have been housed as a result of DBB's work.

John George with his longtime wife Alicia. / Nic Wells Stallworth

But the non-profit, which is partly funded by corporate donations from the likes of Google, Starbucks and Detroit's auto companies, does more than just housing. The crown jewel of DBB's portfolio is a stretch of commercial properties in the Old Redford neighborhood, namely Artist Village Detroit. This is an all-purpose community space that includes a coffee shop, music venue and event space. The property, which adaptively reuses the same sort of Main-Street-style buildings that now sit empty elsewhere in Detroit, is splashed with murals and paintings by local artists. It hosts frequent events, from daytime hangouts for neighborhood kids to nighttime music shows.

Artist Village Detroit is just one of many revival strategies DBB has for the neighborhood, though. Within this same square mile, DBB also manages an urban garden; has helped several entrepreneurs open restaurants; restored or demolished various homes; and is working on a "veterans village" to house and employ military vets. George has actively recruited corporate retailers to open branches in the neighborhood, most notably the Midwestern grocer Meijer. He encouraged the city to reopen some government buildings that it had shuttered during ex-mayor Kwame Kilpatrick's administration. Even more, DBB does the little things: picking up trash, making street art, and generally engaging the community. For example, George has long held a Saturday morning meetup where locals volunteer to help with DBB's latest project. I joined one recent Saturday, to find myself cleaning the community garden alongside Mormon missionaries, neighborhood locals, and a student from nearby Wayne State University.

“We do it all, soup to nuts,” said George of DBB’s strategy. “There’s 12 trash cans on Lahser and Grand River. You know who put them out there? We did.”

"Blight Busters has multiple revival strategies for this small slice of Detroit."

The net effect has been to create an area that, while small in imprint, is notably different than most of Detroit.  For example, the broader section of northwest Detroit that surrounds artist village has the surreal blight found throughout the city – with empty buildings, random trash piles, burnt homes, countless liquor stores, etc. But for at least two blocks, DBB has nurtured contiguous urbanism, and the Meijer and MetroPCS stores just down the street are unusual establishments to find in this part of the city. In fact, one could say that DGG's de facto role as a farmer, events coordinator, economic development specialist and general service provider has turned this small slice of Detroit into an actual neighborhood.

The Blight Busters' HQ / organization photo

It may be hard to replicate this success throughout Detroit - after all, there aren't just a bunch of John Georges hanging around. While corporate business activity continues moving into the greater downtown area, it has stayed out of the neighborhoods. And the blight demolition, while more common since Detroit received federal cash following bankruptcy, is still in its beginning stages. But for now, George has at least been able to reverse the misfortunes of a small area where he's spent much of his life.

[This article was originally published by Forbes.]