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Demolitions are transforming Detroit. Some wonder: what comes next?

Sarah Cwiek
Michigan Radio
The East Outer Drive-Hayes neighborhood on Detroit's east side has seen nearly 600 demolitions in the past five years.

“I am obsessed with a goal: To eliminate blight from the city of Detroit entirely by 2025,” Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said recently.

Duggan has said some variation of this many times. His vision of eliminating blight calls for Detroit voters to approve a $250 million bond. That would allow the city to take down around 19,000 vacant and abandoned homes. His administration has demolished about that many already.

But Duggan has not fully articulated a vision for what a post-demolition city will look like. Meanwhile, Detroiters are already living in a city being transformed by demolitions. Some wonder what the plans is — and if there will be space for them in the new city.

“What about the land?”

The East Outer Drive and Hayes community is like a lot of Detroit neighborhoods. There are some dense, pleasant residential streets.

But others are like gap-toothed smiles. Occupied and vacant homes are scattered amongst empty lots. And then there are the blocks with few homes left at all.

Credit Sarah Cwiek / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Demolitions have left lots of empty space in East Outer Drive-Hayes. Some residents say that's made the neighborhood safer and improved their quality of life.

Spoon Taylor has lived in a tidy corner house here for 32 years. He remembers what it was like when he first moved in.

“Oh, it was real nice,” Taylor said. “Plenty of trees, and plenty of houses, and plenty of folks. I seen it, I seen ‘em going. They’re going, but nothing’s coming back.”

Since Mike Duggan became Detroit’s mayor in 2014, he’s tackled Detroit’s tens of thousands of abandoned homes with a vengeance. The city is in the midst of an unprecedented project to completely eliminate them within the next few years.

The bold plan is already well underway. And few areas have seen more action than Outer Drive and Hayes, here on the city’s east side.

Spoon Taylor approves. “It looks a lot better without all the vacant houses and trash,” he said. “Like that one’s been vacant for years, but I try to keep it clean over there, so it don’t look as bad. We don’t have to sit here and look at it.”

But other Detroiters are more ambivalent about this transformation of their neighborhoods.

Tadarian Sanders has lived here for over 40 years. He says without a doubt, things are better and safer without so many dangerous vacant homes around. But he’s also skeptical about the end game.

“Tear ‘em down, yeah, that’s a good thing. But what about the land?” Sanders wondered.

Sanders thinks the people who have stayed in this neighborhood for decades should have a say in what happens with all this new open space—maybe even get a chance to buy it.

What he doesn’t want is a bunch of outside investors just gobbling up the land. “Why are you giving it to somebody who’s about to play Monopoly with the city?” he asked.

Sanders owns a home improvement company, and he also worries that the city is taking down too many good homes.

“I have over 10 addresses of houses that have brand new roofs, brand new picture windows, good decks, good foundation, everything,” he said. “And they’re on the demolition list.”

“Everything we’re doing is for the people who stayed”

Morningside is another east side Detroit neighborhood that’s seen a number of demolitions.

James Johnson is playing horseshoes with his brother in an empty lot across the street from his house. He was born and raised here and he doesn’t like what the city is doing to his neighborhood.

“People living in there. They push ‘em out, and they tearing these houses down for nothing,” Johnson said. “Nice brick houses. For what?”

Johnson answers his own question. “Trying to push us across 8 Mile,” he said.

Johnson’s idea that aggressive demolitions are part of an effort to push out longtime Detroiters out of the city is one you hear pretty often in some corners of this 80% African American city that’s run by a white mayor. It’s also something the Duggan administration is trying to counter.

“It’s for the Detroiters who are here today. Everything we’re doing is for the people who stayed,” says Arthur Jemison, Detroit’s head of Planning, Housing and Development.

Jemison says tackling blight is the “number one issue” he hears about from city residents, and that’s what’s fueling the city’s demolition zeal. The plan is to bring down a total of nearly 40,000 homes, sell another 8,000, and rehab and sell up to 1,000 more. He admits that means some salvageable homes will be demolished, but says that’s a question of economics — it’s simply too costly to rehab many of those homes.

Despite the grand scale of these plans, Jemison insists there’s no pre-existing master plan to remake the city.

Credit Sarah Cwiek / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Arthur Jemison says this is the moment to transform Detroit with inclusive planning. He's leading the city's effort to reshape its post-demolition landscape.

He says deciding what comes next will be a neighborhood-by-neighborhood process of figuring out what a post-demolition landscape looks like, one that’s driven by the people who live there.

“It’s Detroiters imagining a city without vacant and abandoned structures, with the very best talent from around the country and here in Detroit, that’s how we’re going to identify the future of these neighborhoods,” Jemison said.

Duggan’s remaining demolition plans hinge on a $250 million bond proposal the city says would not hike taxes, but it needs voter approval. And this question of what a supposedly blight-free Detroit should look like — and who that change would be for — is a pressing one for many of the residents who will decide.

A new beginning, or the end?

Back in Morningside, James Johnson says he’s tried to buy this lot where he’s playing horseshoes. But the city won’t sell.

Johnson points to a cracked-up sidewalk and uprooted tree stump right alongside the lot. City crews come by to cut the grass a handful of times a year, and he cuts it the rest of the time.

“They got landscaping people coming out here, they just run over it, just knock it down a little bit, leave trees like this on the ground, then get the [expletive] on,” Johnson said.

Jemison says the city has set aside money to deal with this type of “non-structural blight.” And he points out the Duggan administration has sold over 13,000 lots to city residents through its side lot program — most for $100.

“Where community access to land wasn’t happening, it’s happening,” Jemison said.

And he says neighborhood plans with community input will continue to be the norm when it comes to deciding how to manage the city’s transformed landscape.

Johnson did manage to get the empty lot right next to his house. He’s fenced it off, planted some trees, was keeping a boat there before someone stole it. But he says he’d rather have more neighbors than more space.

Credit Sarah Cwiek / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
James Johnson got this side lot adjacent to his house, but has been unable to buy the city-owned lot across the street.

“All these houses is gonna be fields in a minute,” he said. “And in a minute there’s gonna be somebody out here buying these houses and everything from everybody, and it’s gonna be a wrap.”

Many Detroiters are already living the reality of Duggan’s obsession with ending blight.

Some see hope, safety, and a better quality of life in it. But others, like Johnson, see it as the end — at least for them.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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