On a special, Detroit Public Television-produced Frontline episode, Reporter Christy McDonald and Producer Bill Kubota tell the story of the efforts to support neighborhoods across the city using social media technology and innovative financing. As they report, vacant structures in any city mean trouble. They are a haven for predators, drug dealers and drug users, and fast declining property values for the entire neighborhood. But in Detroit, an infusion of federal funds, new technology and community involvement are helping Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan speed up the removal of blight in the City and save at-risk neighborhoods from becoming blighted through code enforcement and new homeownership programs.
Local journalist and historian, Bill McGraw has an article in this month’s National Geographic magazine about how nature has reclaimed some of Detroit’s trash dumping areas. McGraw says many illegal and legal dumping areas in Detroit that have been neglected are sprouting trees, grass and ponds. But McGraw says the city is working on cleaning up sites that remain active dumping sites. Here he is on Detroit Today.
A Plano, Texas, company has been hired to give Detroit a clear picture of how much individual properties in the city are worth. Tyler Technologies Inc. says its appraisal arm will compile data on real property in the city. It says Detroit has not completed a full reappraisal of real property in more than 50 years. Here’s the full story.
As chair of Detroit Land Bank Authority board, Erica Ward Gerson is working on one of the most cited problems in Detroit: what to do about vacant and dilapidated properties. In an interview with The Jewish News, a Detroit Journalism Cooperative partner through New Michigan Media, Gerson details the efforts that promise to be one of the crucial revitalization efforts in Detroit’s post-bankruptcy era.
We dubbed it the “BIKE-ruptcy” tour.
Following the route as best we could that was taken by Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes on his bus tour last week, Todd Scott and I rode more than 50 miles through Detroit on Saturday. Todd, the executive director of the Detroit Greenways Coalition, has probably logged more miles on the city’s streets than anyone and has a keen understanding of how non-motorized transportation can help connect people and neighborhoods.
From the perspective of our bike seats, we wanted to see what the judge saw and we wanted to be closer to it than he was to see if it changed how we thought about it. We wanted to take a slower roll through the city and better experience the neighborhoods than we do from our cars. We wanted to see what opportunities there are to meet people when you’re not caged behind the glass windshield of a car (or bus, of course…), and we wanted to see just what understanding about the city the judge’s entire route may have given him, the city attorneys, the creditors’ lawyers and the others on board.
Using the map handed out to media by the city attorneys, the tour was heavy on residential neighborhoods, mainly areas with single-family homes. We thought the blocks the tour organizers picked were extreme: some middle-class areas more densely populated than other comparable places in the city; some more decimated or vacant as well. Palmer Woods is clearly the best of the best in the city.
The route was light on commercial areas, with virtually no industrial sites. Little urban agriculture was in view, and few parks or gardens appeared. We didn’t ever see the Detroit River or witness the potential of some of its adjacent neighborhoods.
The bus traveled dozens of miles on freeways – we had to ride alternative routes, of course. Judge Rhodes was extremely concerned about secrecy and security, keeping the day, time and location of his route a secret from media until after it happened. We had little fear of a competing Detroit media cycling tour, and the most danger we faced was traffic on Eight Mile Road. That is NOT a street designed for anything but high-speed car and truck traffic so it was a little hairy at times pedaling next to high-speed cars. Why not ride the sidewalk? Well, first of all, in Michigan cyclists have a right to share the road. Second, the condition of the sidewalk pavement is often much worse than the roadways.
(Todd points out Eight Mile and Gratiot Avenue, our other most dangerous road, are both state roads and not the responsibility of the city…)
Along our 50-plus-mile route, we met some nice people, got invited to church, posed with a horse from the Detroit Police Department mounted unit, and wrapped up our tour with the most creative, exciting, historical and cultural site we’ve ever ridden.
We rolled into Rivera Court at the Detroit Institute of Arts, bikes and all.
Here’s a transcript of a conversation we had about what we saw. It’s airing on WDET 101.9FM today.
Todd Scott: So the route began in Brightmoor. We went through the west side. Then we came back north up through the University District and through Palmer Woods.
Sandra Svoboda: That part was really nice and residential. Then we went through the parking lot of the new Meijer’s at Woodward and Eight Mile and we had that long eight miles into the wind along Eight Mile and then we took Gratiot back into the city. A little job through the Heidelberg Project, through the downtown and by the Detroit Institute of Arts.
TS: I feel the judge saw a pretty accurate view of the city in terms of the positive and the negatives and how it rapidly changes between both of them.
SS: Let’s remember the tour was not designed as a bike tour. This was really for the judge, of course, to give him context for what he’s going to be hearing in the city’s bankruptcy trial on the Plan of Adjustment that restructures the debt and the city services. So the attorneys had asked him to go along and really get some kind of idea of what’s out in the city. I kept thinking as we were going along that really, again, we had time to think about it because we were on bicycles and not zooming through on the bus. But I feel like there were some really positive signs about city services. We saw some police out on patrol, the fire stations were well taken care of. We couldn’t judge the lights because we were there in daylight.
TS: That’s correct. The residential garbage collection seemed to be working. We did see some dumping in some areas and there were some road conditions that could have been improved especially some that needed some street sweeping.
SS: Again, I think the focus of the judge seemed to be on residential and we saw some extremes in that regard. We saw some beautiful houses, well-maintained in Palmer Woods. We saw some middle class neighborhoods that seemed to be occupied. But we also saw some really blighted areas that were probably more extreme than the norm in the city where there’s one house missing or a couple burned out. Some of those blocks were really, really vacated I’m sure that made an impression for the judge.
TS: I’m sure it did. We also saw a few business districts. Some that were operating really well and some that needed a little love. We really didn’t go through any industrial areas though. That was an oversight.
SS: Yeah, that was missing. I feel like the judge, he was in a bus, and they made a couple of stops abut they didn’t have a chance to interact with residents like we did. When you’re in a bike seat and people are saying hello, and you can hear their dogs barking and you can hear the lawn mowers going, it certainly gives you a different impression about the vibrancy of the city.
TS: Absolutely we got to wave to people and get out and stop and talk to folks and find out what’s really going on.
SS: We had a similar conclusion as the judge. We did not finish going up the Lodge Freeway. I should point out that we skipped I-96 of course because we can’t take bicycles on that. It was dangerous enough on Eight Mile. But we finished at the Detroit Institute of Arts. This has been a huge part of this bankruptcy case that I’ve written about and covered in terms of the creditors asking that the art get sold to pay debt. I thought it was a good finale for our tour.
TS: It was great.
SS: Thanks to the DIA for letting us in there.
TS: I’ve ridden in many different places but that was quite unique. We were both staking claims to being the first people to ride in the DIA which is something we’ll check off on our bucket
SS: Nothing I’ve done in my reporting career before.
Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes and a handful of attorneys today took bus tour of Detroit to see conditions in the city’s neighborhoods. Lawyers for the city arranged the tour, and they say it will help the judge understand what he’s ruling on during the bankruptcy trial that starts in less than two weeks.
The 58-mile tour started in Brightmoor, went southeast to the Dexter Davison neighborhood, moved through the University district, drove past the new Meijer’s on Eight Mile and then headed to the city’s east side. The bus drove through the Heidelberg Project and Eastern Market, up Woodward Avenue where the M-1 rail line will run and finally to the Detroit Institute of Arts.
Three city attorneys were on board the bus, along with lawyers for three financial creditors and Oakland County. The judge, who did not ask questions, had two staff members with him taking notes.
Passengers got off the bus twice, once at a police precinct and again at the D-I-A where they viewed the Diego Rivera murals and a Van Gogh painting.
City attorneys say the tour included the good, the bad and the ugly in Detroit. They call the tour “eye-opening” and say it should help the judge understand what his decisions during the trial will mean to residents and businesses in the city.
“It was important in our minds for the judge to get context of the evidence that he was going to hear and by going on the tour and seeing the different sites, we believe it provided the context necessary for us to present our case,” says Robert Hertzberg, an attorney for the city.
Detroit is known by its most unwelcome attributes: It has one of the highest murder and violent crime rates in the country. And it currently is known as the most populous U.S. city to ever seek bankruptcy protection. Can it also enjoy the biggest recovery? In a comprehensive piece, Bridge’s Mike Wilkinson answers questions about the city’s recent past to get a hint at its future: Does the city generate enough money to fix what ails Detroit if billions in debt are cut? Are the city’s costs too high? Does it pay its workers too much? Are pensions too generous? Can the city endure a reduction in both spending and revenue and revive what is by most measures the most dysfunctional large city in America?
In advance of WDET’s Community Meeting tonight from 6-8 p.m. at Matrix Human Services at 13560 E. McNichols, Detroit, MI 48205, WDET Bankruptcy Reporter and Next Chapter Detroit Blogger Sandra Svoboda interviewed Wayne Ramocan of the Osborn Neighborhood Alliance about how neighborhood groups are working hard to address the issues of blight, park maintenance, and creating sense of community. More details about meeting which is open to the public, can be found here.
Sandra Svoboda: Tell me about the Osborn Neighborhood Alliance.
Wayne Ramocan: The Osborn Neighborhood Alliance is a community organization that has been in existence since 2010, but we’ve been in the Osborn neighborhood since 2006 just building the foundations for the organization, and we work a lot with block clubs, a lot of small organizations that have been in the neighborhood for a long time. Our main goal is to support them when it comes to any type of planning, advocacy, even some small funding. We help them to try and find the resources that they need for their programs and initiatives and other representatives of the neighborhood.
SS: For who aren’t familiar with the Osborn Neighborhood up there in north, northeast Detroit, can you tell me about some of the challenges the area is facing?
WR: One of the challenges that we face of course is blight. The east side in general is pretty notorious for blight or at least it has been traditionally. Now the thing is, it is also a citywide problem but that’s something we’ve been tackling since we got here but as we’ve started to focus on blight we’re obviously seeing a lot of other issues in the neighborhood, population loss is another one but these things aren’t anything that aren’t going on anywhere else in the city and also across the nation, not just Detroit.
SS: And what are some of the strategies that you’ve seen work in the Osborn area related to improving the blight situation?
WR: As far as how we’ve been addressing blight, one of the main things we’ve been trying to do is look at small wins. So how we started with it was the small clean ups and boards up. But we’ve also started to address some of the blight in our neighborhood parks. Now we know that the city has not been able to take care of some of the parks around these neighborhoods and for whatever reason, we’re not going to go into all the reason but the fact is they haven’t been taking care of what they should have been so in the past we’ve been working in the parks helping to maintain the grass and things like that. We’ve been looking at different ways we can do little things to show physical improvement in the neighborhoods. We’ve been fortunate now that the city is starting with the Adopt a Park program, at least they’ve rejuvenated it. So we’re seeing a lot of improvement in a lot of the parks we’ve been maintaining over these past several years. The city is doing a better job of working with their partners. We’ve been working on things like that and building on those successes. Like I said those small wins. We’ve been building on those small wins and now we’re looking at actual development of buildings, single-family homes, multi-family homes and even apartment building that we’re starting to address in the Osborn Neighborhood.
SS: So is this almost the reverse of the Broken Window theory. That’s the idea that once one window is broken in a neighborhood, everything goes down quickly. It sound like you’re almost having that effect in reverse. One park is improved and there’s some momentum?
WR: That’s what we’re hoping for and it’s starting to work. You have two sides of it. So one side is like the people who live here. That’s what I would argue is the most important. Folks who live in the Osborn neighborhood want to see something because you can have some of these other issues being addressed behind the scenes but if residents aren’t seeing it, it doesn’t really exist. You know, because sometimes those things take a little while to actually be visible or manifest itself where residents can actually touch it. That’s on one side. We’re trying to show results to the residents who live here to say, OK things are happening. It’s slower than a lot of us would like but things are happening. So that’s one. The other side is for the funding. The reason why we start small is because when it comes to funding you want to show that something small, you know, a pilot project or whatever you want to call it, it’s can work so you build on those successes. Like I said, we’ve been working in many different ways throughout the neighborhood on these small projects over the years and now these things are being compounded and we’re actually finding funding for these larger projects that residents are asking for and saying there is a need for, we’re able to show that hey, we’ve shown success and now we’re asking for larger funding for so and so project.
SS: I’m speaking with Wayne Ramocan, he’s the program manager at the Osborn Neighborhood Alliance, our community partner at tonight’s bankruptcy meeting. What strategies have you used in these project to really get residents involved and really feel like they’re making a difference in their neighborhood?
WR: It’s showing those results as much as possible even if they are small because in order to get any kind of buy in for anything that is happening, whether it’s our type or work or anything you could even apply this to business. If you want people to get on board, you have to show some type of result. People don’t want to be a part of something they feel is going to fail. And a lot of times in the past we’ve seen some examples of how residents have been failed by institutions or the city I don’t know, people, things that are here in Detroit. So what we want to show is that we will be successful or at least we’re more likely to be successful than things that have seen here in the past. That’s what we’re still working on, building that trust. Because at the end of the day, that’s what it is: building that trust and building these relationships in neighborhoods. That’s the strategy that we’ve been taking and it really does end up like being a one or one type of thing where you have to build relationships one by one. We find ourselves visiting the homes of some of the resident here, some of the block club leaders. That’s what it takes. You have to sit down and have conversations, get feedback and have conversations. You have to respect the people, the voices of the people who do actually live in these neighborhoods.
SS: What are you hearing from people there about the bankruptcy? Are they feeling any specifics effects or do they have particular questions about the process?
WR: You know, I haven’t heard too much about the bankruptcy. A lot of times when we’re talking about any type of issue in the neighborhood it’s usually just about the neighborhood. A lot of times when I hear about the bankruptcy is when somebody is say a former city employee or has some type of interest in the bankruptcy itself but other side, the average resident at least the response that I’ve been getting form the average resident, the bankruptcy doesn’t come up as often as you think though it is such a big deal and it affects a lot of, just everybody’s lives.
SS: Why do you think that is?
WR: Because I think it’s so big and now this is just me speaking, right, this is what I believe is that it’s so big, it’s so hard to grasp and it’s moving so quickly it’s hard to catch up. You usually just hear about the larger developments that are happening with the pension or whatever is happening at the moment. Usually that’s just the talk but other than that, there’s not too much to grab onto unless you have a personal interest.
SS: Why should residents come to these kind of community meetings?
WR:Usually with these community meetings, now I guess I should start with our organizations, that’s one of the things we’ve done over the few years we’ve been here is host community meetings and we’ve also invited partners and other folks to come and speak about whatever important issue is important at the moment, right? So we’ve always made sure to have a variety of information so in this case, the primary thing we’ll be talking about is the bankruptcy but we are always including other information that is relevant to the resident of Osborn. So in this case, you know, the bankruptcy being distilled would be great beaus like I said it’s a huge topic that is hard to wrap your mind around so that’s what I think the benefit will be for the residents but also general information that we have about the neighborhoods, about the city about the things that are happening that pertain to the residents of Osborn.