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Getting the true picture of blight in Detroit

Though Glenda Price has been in Detroit barely 15 years, it is hard to imagine the city without her. A Philadelphia native, she first came to town as president of Marygrove, a small, struggling Catholic college on the city’s west side. Now in her mid-70s, Price is both a skilled fundraiser and a visionary who can see around corners.

Though neither Catholic nor a Detroiter, thanks to development skills and an ahead-of-its time distance learning program, she helped revitalize Marygrove before retiring seven years ago. She could have gone anywhere after that.

She'd had careers in medical technology and as provost and dean of prominent universities. But she had fallen in love with Detroit, and elected to stay. You may not know her, but those who run things do.

Before long, Price was on the boards of everything from Compuware to Receiving Hospital to the Jewish Fund. By the way, she also has a full-time job running the Detroit Public Schools foundation.

Then last year, the governor appointed her to Detroit’s Financial Advisory Board. It promised a lot of work and no pay, so naturally she agreed. Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr kept the board in place, but divided it into teams.

This week, I caught up with Price over lunch to see how things were going. She is naturally low-key and not given to exaggeration. Nevertheless, she is enthusiastic about what’s happening now. “I think this is a very exciting time for Detroit,” she told me. “I feel there are so many options and opportunities.”

Currently, she is one of three co-chairs of the subcommittee charged with getting a handle on blight. Very soon, 75 three-person teams will be setting out to document all of the 350,000 parcels of land in Detroit.

By the end of January, they expect to have cataloged and photographed every one. Working with Data Driven Detroit, they will then compile a registry that can be put on line and constantly updated. The idea is to finally have a handle on the true picture of blight.

There are some parcels that are more or less fine, some which need work, and some which need demolition, the sooner the better. Though people throw around supposed numbers of derelict buildings – 78,000 is one estimate -- nobody really knows, any more than they know the cost to tear them all down. But now the city will have a data base. Price said she and Kevyn Orr believe the key thing is that the city emerge from bankruptcy with a blueprint for going forward.

Though money is always a problem, she thinks funds will be there to tackle the task, and have a significant economic impact. “You don’t have to have a lot of education to help clean up a vacant lot,” she said. Participating in cleaning up the city may also give people who now feel alienated a sense of ownership of their neighborhoods.

Glenda Price knows this won’t be simple, easy, or fast. But the city is finally facing and tackling its biggest problems. That, after decades of rot and denial, has to be maybe the most exciting news of all.  

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.