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How one Motor City man became a warrior in the battle against blight

Volunteers working in Detroit.
user Charlie Wollborg
Flickr - http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

Since Detroit emerged from its history-making bankruptcy, much of the city’s attention has been focused on blight.

The city is making efforts to reduce blight by knocking down or rehabilitating derelict buildings, and by finding creative uses for the growing amount of empty land in Detroit’s 140 square miles.

At last count, we’re up to 23.4 square miles of vacant land, more than the size of the entire island of Manhattan.

But for John George, the battle against blight began in 1988.

The story of the man who founded the Motor City Blight Busters will be told in a documentary airing September 10 on Detroit Public Television.

It’s called Urban Warrior.

Nancy McCauley produced, wrote, and narrated the documentary, and tells us that after years of following George and his mission, it was finally time to tell his story.

They had no budget for the project and no real idea how to make it all work, but despite the “many challenges along the way,” she says they made it happen.

McCauley says that the story being told harkens back to the idea that one person has the power to make a change.

“It’s a story of a man who has a great passion for his city, for his community, and for people, [who] wanted to and has made a difference,” she says.

George tells us that Blight Busters began 27 years ago when he decided to board up a crack house.

“There was an abandoned home behind our house that turned into a crack house, and I didn’t want my children, the children, growing up in and around that negative energy,” he says.

“I was going to move. And then I thought for a moment, I said, you know what, I’m going to the hardware store. I did, and I purchased some plywood and some paint, and came back to the site and started boarding it up.”

He tells us that a couple of his neighbors saw what he was doing and joined him in the effort, and after around eight hours of work they had turned the abandoned house into, “one of the nicest-looking houses on the block.”

They were really making a difference, and they were proud.

And when the drug dealers showed up that evening and couldn’t get in the house, George says they got back in their car and just left.

Since then, Blight Busters has kept busy.

“It’s over 1,500 properties that we’ve either dismantled, rehabbed, secured, or built,” George says.

Impressive as that number is, George hasn’t let it go to his head. He tells us he’s grateful to all the volunteers who donate time and expertise and the myriad corporations who have sent money, resources, and yet more volunteers his way.  

McCauley tells us that she’s always known George to be an energetic and motivated person, but through filming she really got to see how much he and the people working with him care about what they’re doing.

“From the beginning of the day until the end of the day I would see a big change in these people, because they were a part of something really big, bigger than themselves,” she says. “They were really making a difference, and they were proud. And they couldn’t wait to come back.”

“We’ve been able to create opportunity and hope, and that’s really the magic of Blight Busters, is getting everyone to participate and creating a situation where everybody wins,” George says.

My dad used to say, if it was easy, everybody would be doing it.

George largely attributes his success and passion to his faith, but adds that motivation is in his blood.

“I’m 50% Lebanese, 50% Italian, and 100% stubborn. So if I get something in my heart and in my head, I can’t even help myself. It’s just, we’re going to do this until we make it happen,” he says.

George tells us that there have been a lot of “bumps and bruises” along the way and that the work has always been a challenge, but even after almost three decades of hard work he’s nowhere near ready to sit down.

“My dad used to say, if it was easy, everybody would be doing it,” he says. “I was sent here to do something out of the ordinary, and I didn’t know what that was until I boarded up that crack house with my neighbors.”

More information on the Motor City Blight Busters can be found on their website.

Urban Warrior will air on Sept. 10 on Detroit Public Television.

– Ryan Grimes, Stateside

Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 8 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.
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