For years, Annette McGuire waited for someone else to turn her Eastside Detroit neighborhood around. She watched her street decline over two decades, as suburban flight, auto industry downsizing and the city’s calculated neglect of neighborhoods devastated block after block around her. Today, the stately brick homes that once rivaled those in the wealthy Grosse Pointes neighborhood sit boarded up or gutted by fire. Trash blows through lots strewn with abandoned cars, discarded tires and broken glass.
Through it all, McGuire focused on raising her children and, later, getting through job training programs in order to find a job and get off welfare. But soon she wanted to do something to improve her neighborhood as well, so when a friend told her about Project Lead, a leadership training program run by the Warren/Conner Development Coalition, she signed up. There, she learned about government programs that would help her reclaim her block.
Now, McGuire is attempting to do just that, going on a one-woman campaign to spruce up and fix up her block. She first purchased the lot next to her home on Troester Street for $250 at a state auction, cleared out the trash, and planted grass. At the next auction, she bought another lot down the street, which she plans to turn into a community garden. After that, she took over an abandoned house from the city that she has begun to renovate, with plans to move in within two years. Most ambitiously, she plans to turn her current house into a senior citizen group home.
“All these years I wasn’t involved with the community, but I started thinking ‘This don’t make sense,'” McGuire says. “I’d seen the neighborhood go from beautiful to nothing, and I thought, ‘We don’t have to live like this–somebody’s got to do something. I went to Project Lead and realized it was me. I’ve got to do something.”
The Project Lead classes are part of what Warren/Conner calls its Neighborhood Toolbox, through which it aims to teach residents and small groups how to help stabilize their neighborhoods. Warren/Conner is wagering that small projects like neighborhood clean-ups are only the beginning for engaged residents like McGuire. Once a few people get the know-how, and get some support from their neighbors, downtrodden blocks can wage more difficult crusades–like getting resources and results out of government agencies.
A block group might begin with immediately fixable problems–like abandoned housing and illegal dumping–and then move on to pressuring the city to make zoning changes or rehabilitate housing. Residents learn exactly who makes things happen in Detroit and how they do it. Which city agency is the one to call to get a filthy corner cleaned up? How do you negotiate for concessions from business owners? Apply for grants?
“It is focused on building the capacity of the community to act,” says Lisa Nutter, project director at OMG Center for Collaborative Learning in Philadelphia, which is evaluating these and other similar projects for the Annie E. Casey Foundation. “It’s not focused on building Warren/Conner’s capacity to act for the community.”
Warren/Conner operates on many fronts at once. A schools campaign began when parents lodged complaints about broken windows; now, it’s formulating a set of systemwide demands for reform that parents will present to Mayor George Archer. Another project has moved from urging repairs in a rat-infested shopping center to collaborating with developers on a plan to rebuild the stores. And Warren/Conner is hoping to bring that scaling-up process to dozens of block clubs that dot the Eastside.
McGuire emphasizes that starting small can ultimately bring big results. “We’ve complained to each other and it didn’t get anywhere,” says McGuire. “We have to start finding out, where are the resources? Where do we go to make a change, even if it’s just a little change? Even if it’s a little bitty one, that makes a difference.”
Finding residents with McGuire’s tenacity isn’t easy. Nearly half of Eastsiders live below the poverty line. The state has designated the area a Project Zero site, meaning that every adult on welfare must get a job. “We are dealing with people who have a full plate of priorities. We’re asking them, ‘Why don’t you reprioritize your life and do some of this stuff, with the benefit of ultimately improving your life so that the priorities then shift?’ That’s a hard task to sell,” observes Tonya Allen, who directs Warren/Conner’s program.
By working with groups that were old partners, relying on word of mouth, and employing four staff organizers, Warren/Conner has managed to sell that idea to some 60 neighborhood associations. One of them worked with McGuire to establish the Troester Street Block Club. She got a $1,500 grant from the organization, which she used to buy lawnmowers, clippers and grass seed for monthly block cleanups.
Organizer Stanley Moore says he starts by sizing up a block club’s goals and its capacity. The two are often far apart. The things residents naturally want to see first off–like new housing, or more stores–are out of their reach. “The groups come in needing lot of education,” he explains. “They have passion behind an issue but they lack the focus to bring their visions and make them become reality.”
So Moore helps groups define smaller goals, then suggests whom to turn to and how to get results out of bureaucracies. For example, Moore counseled one resident who had repeatedly asked the city to tear down an abandoned house. He suggested that she follow up with a letter noting that the house sat near a school and was a drug haven–in other words, the city was obligated under its own rules to take immediate action. She then took her case to the City Council. Not only was the house torn down; neighbors who saw her testimony on TV signed on to her block club.
But material change will not come easily to the Eastside, and not just because of its limited wealth. In Detroit, a stultifying city bureaucracy slows public business to a crawl. Even experienced real estate developers avoid city government–they have been known to assemble hundreds of small parcels of privately owned property rather than spend the years it would take to negotiate for one city-owned tract.
Finding resources for housing is equally cumbersome. An audit of the city’s federally funded home repair grant program found that an average application takes 597 days to process. “Detroit is a challenge just because of the unresponsiveness of the city’s government,” says Allen. “A lot of times you can have the right process, you might even follow the right procedure, and you still can’t get change to happen because the city is so deep in bureaucracy. It makes people extremely frustrated in doing this work.”
McGuire is remarkably persistent. She waited a year and a half to claim the abandoned house, then had to run a bureaucratic gauntlet just to apply for a rehab grant. Although it’s nearly a year later, she still hasn’t received the money. “You just have to have patience,” she says. “I’m just going day by day. What I can do I do, and what I can’t, I can’t.”
She still has a long way to go with her plans–and risks taking on more than she can handle. Even if she gets the grant, bringing her newly acquired home up to code could break her. Repairs on “free” city-disposed houses can end up costing owners up to 10 times what a house is worth, the Detroit Free Press has reported.
Her vision for the senior home is even more fragile. When she got the new house, McGuire planned to attend a meeting with a state agency to learn what she would need to do next. She also weighed the idea of starting a community center instead. But a year later, she still hasn’t gone to the information session.
Since starting work at a temp agency, McGuire has had less time for the block club, so she’s watched her neighbors take responsibility for work she used to do. These days, the block club is starting a neighborhood watch, and hopes to run out drug houses and organize field trips for young people.
“With us coming together we know each other now,” McGuire explains. “It brings us closer together, so then we can work as a team.” It’s that shared commitment, she believes, that will help Troester Street rebuild itself–in time.
“It took a while to get like this,” says McGuire. “It will take a while to get it back together.”
Kristin Palm is a Detroit-based freelance writer.