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Beyond 'ruin porn'

The Motor City is facing very hard times, but there is more to Detroit than the usual images of decay.

Beyond 'ruin porn'

(Andre J. Jackson/Detroit Free Press/MCT/Newscom)

DETROIT-It's a challenge to tell stories about people in this city who see its problems and are working hard to be part of its rebirth. It's a challenge because press accounts of Detroit are training us to view the city in three morbid ways.

"Ruin porn" is the favorite negation. Photo after photo of broken windows, vandalized schools, abandoned and decaying buildings. Murder capital, riots, corruption, crummy cars, poverty, racial bigotry. Detroit has something for nearly everyone to hate or ridicule, and ruin porn-porn in the sense of provoking civic, not sexual, degradation-has become a shorthand way to convey scorn.

The second genre is shoot 'em up. Last month's Metro Times: "A car turned from Jefferson onto Chalmers. It drew closer, then slowed when it reached Jackson's house. The headlights panned the front of the home until they revealed the ex-cop sitting there on the otherwise dark porch, staring back. He had a shotgun in his lap."

Conventional coverage's third variety focuses on Detroit as the site of weird art. The "ice house," a structure covered with sheets of ice, is a commentary on frozen assets. An artist is selling 1-inch-square plots of Detroit land for a dollar to "inchvestors" building a "surreal virtual world."

The common denominator: Detroit is an urban wasteland, nearly 140 square miles of urban blight. A clever reporter from Britain's The Economist wrote, "Detroit has space, and quiet. It has, as Wallace Stevens said about a snowy landscape, 'nothing that is not there, and the nothing that is.'"

Kevin Butcher, pastor of Hope Community Church on the city's extreme southeast edge, responds: "What are we doing when we castigate and point and forget that down in all of that are sons and daughters of God? . . . How dare we dehumanize Detroit and call ourselves followers of the Christ who touched everyone as if they were all equal in God's eyes?"

Last month I tried to learn about this city as viewed by followers of Christ who see all Detroiters as created equal.

Some of them work at the Central Detroit Christian Community Development Corporation (CDC2), several blocks west of Woodward Avenue, a main drag lined with magnificent old church buildings. The neighborhood is about a mile south of the city's thriving cultural center, filled with museums and Wayne State University buildings, coffee shops, and boutiques. That relative prosperity hasn't stretched north across Grand Boulevard.

Executive director Lisa Johanon, 50, has lived in her central Detroit neighborhood 23 years. Her house, like many of its neighbors, has ornate moldings, carved doors, and leaded glass. It sits on nearly half an acre and appreciated throughout the 1990s, but economic downturn deepened by the decline of the Big Three automakers has lowered its value and caused many neighbors to flee. In CDC2's housing development area (approximately 18 blocks) "we typically have 25-30 vacant homes. Now we have 88."

CDC2's offices are in the basement of an 11-unit low- and moderate-income apartment building owned by the organization. The warmly painted space with walls of pumpkin, gold, and sage green is divided into several offices and a big room neatly arranged with rows of tables, Gateway computers, and some couches. CDC2 employs six full-time and six part-time staff, along with five part-time housing counselors. Learning from pastor and Christian Community Development Association founder John Perkins, they emphasize the three Rs: relocation, reconciliation, and redistribution. This means that the employees live in the neighborhood, so they can live where they minister.

For Johanon, "redistribution" means bringing resources, including skills and education, back into the community. The organization works with about 400 families annually: "If you start working with a child at age 5 or 6, when they become adults these are going to be your future leaders. These are the people who are going to view the community differently, who are not going to have victim mentalities, who are committed to being here, who have a work ethic and a strong relationship with Christ."

Johanon points to Vinny, a polite 20-year-old intern: "He's one of those life changers." Over the years Vinny has been in Breakthrough Enrichment (a Tuesday night program that provides a hot meal, art, drama, dance, or music class, Bible time, and homework help), summer day camp and overnight camp, middle school program, after-school program, high school program, and more day camp and overnight camp, and ongoing relationships with two youth leaders. Through CDC2 his parents started going to church. The organization was there when Vinny's dad died last year and when the family went through foreclosure.

Vinny is the same age as Johanon's son, and she has tracked what happened to her son's neighborhood friends: school dropouts at age 16, incarcerated at least once by age 18, and "at 19 most had had their first child . . . the tug and the pull of the streets."

Tony McDuffy, 40, is a soft-spoken African-American man in a neighborhood without many dads around. Only about one out of six kids in central Detroit lives in a two-parent home. Johanon met Tony when he was 15. He's now one of the youth leaders, mentoring kids like Vinny. Johanon says, "He's far more impactful than I can ever be."

With only 15 percent of kids in her area graduating from high school, CDC2 focuses resources on helping kids get their diplomas. The organization also owns a deli, an ice cream store, and a produce market where young people who go through employment training can work. After five or six months, they move on to jobs with local employers, including the concession stands at Joe Louis Arena and a local McDonald's franchise. They're valuable employees because they've learned the secret of "showing up" and they have interested adult mentors.

Last summer CDC2's Peaches and Greens, the produce market, began selling fresh produce from a brightly painted truck that winds its way through the neighborhood like an ice cream truck. The store and the truck, filled with produce grown in a CDC2 community garden or bought at a wholesale market, is CDC2's attempt to provide access to nutritious foods in a part of the city that has one grocery store and 23 liquor stores.

CDC2 is broadening its jobs focus, working to retool people in "niches where there is a prospect of a job at the end." That includes energy auditing and medical billing, through partnerships with qualified trainers and employers.

It is hard sometimes to see progress, so Johanon keeps a list in her purse with the names of those whose lives have changed because of her organization: "If you just build houses, it becomes a ghetto 20 years later if you haven't done anything to change people's mentalities."

Riet Schumack is a blunt-spoken woman who knows how to get things done in her Brightmoor neighborhood in far northwest Detroit. She volunteers 50 hours each week, acting as secretary for the Brightmoor Alliance, gardening, working with kids, and just being a presence-someone who cares. When she sees criminal activity, she calls the police. When she sees a decrepit and abandoned home, she and her husband Mark, a professor at the University of Detroit Mercy, have been known to buy it, renovate it, and make it available to a solid citizen. They don't do it to make money. (One of their purchases cost them nearly $50,000 after renovations, and it's appraised for only $20,000.) They do it because they care about the neighborhood.

Brightmoor, 12 miles northwest of CDC2 but within the city limits, is a neighborhood founded in the 1920s for Appalachian whites recruited to work on Henry Ford's assembly line. The houses were small frame structures without inside bathrooms. They sat on large lots-and the expectation was that residents, after working for several years, would build larger and more permanent houses. Then came the Depression, and those plans stalled. The neighborhood never prospered.

Riet Schumack greeted me in front of the house she and her husband bought in 2006. For years they had wanted to move to Brightmoor to do urban gardening, but it had taken a while to find the right house. This house became available when the previous owner, a single mother, abandoned it after thieves broke in three times. The Schumacks offered to pay her what she still owed.

The house was in terrible shape, but with the help of their church they remodeled it and moved in. Now, four years later, the house overflows with life. It sits on a huge lot with towering shade trees in the backyard, which slopes down to the Rouge River. It's a flood plain, so the Schumacks can't build or garden on most of it, but it gives the neighborhood a quiet, country feel. At the top of the backyard, on higher ground near the house, is a chicken coop. The 13 hens produce about nine eggs a day in mid-winter. The yard has beehives, a compost pile, and firewood stacked neatly along the fence.

Near the driveway sits a greenhouse. The Garden Resource Program, sponsored by several local groups to help urban gardeners, helped her build it after she completed a six-week class on extending the growing season.

We walked down the street so Schumack could show me one of the community gardens, but she also wanted to check on a house where she had seen suspicious activity-a squatter? A legitimate tenant? Later she spent 15 minutes on the phone, calling various neighbors until she learned that a new tenant had moved in.

In a neighborhood like Brightmoor it's important to keep track of neighbors; otherwise, "people break in and then start squatting." Schumack ticked off the status of the small frame bungalows across the street: "Most are rentals . . . owner, rental, rental, nice rental." She paused at one house: "Someone abandoned and stripped the pipes out of it. It flooded and is now pretty useless."

As Schumack told me this story, a teenaged boy dressed in shorts dashed out of her neighbor's house, despite the snow on the ground and 10-degree temperatures. She scolded him affectionately, reminding him that he stayed home from school because he was supposed to be sick. One of the kids involved with the community garden, he earned enough last summer to buy a computer with his share of the profits.

More than a dozen kids are involved with the garden, helping to build the frames and haul the compost, planting and tending the gardens, and selling the produce at a nearby farmers market. They share in the profits depending on how much labor they put in. As the number of beds has increased, from two the first summer to 24, the program has become more organized. Kids took a weekly financial literacy class and last year learned about giving some of their bounty to others.

Schumack and her neighbor, Sheila Hoerauf, are seeing how activity in the neighborhood can bring tangible results. When Schumack first moved in, she took an eight-week course that covered urban gardening topics and explained how to apply for city-owned land. Schumack learned "if you have problems with crime, community gardening would be a very good thing to do." It didn't take long before she could test that theory.

A house on the other side of a city-owned lot was an active crack house. Schumack got permission from the city to plant a garden on the lot. They located the garden so they could keep watch on the house: "Crackheads and prostitutes came in and out all the time. . . . They were dealing from there." Schumack and Hoerauf called the police every time they saw the dealer there, but by the time the police came he would be gone. Then on Good Friday they called, the police came, the dealer was still there, and the police arrested the whole crew.

Schumack's church came and boarded up the house, scribbling Christian graffiti on the boards. Eventually the Schumacks bought it out of foreclosure. The parents of one of the kids involved in the gardening project now live there.

Last month at the other end of the street a house abandoned six weeks earlier sat amid a field of ice. Thieves had stripped the pipes. Water had been flowing continuously out of the basement and onto the yard and into the street. Schumack called the city to turn the water off, but no one had yet come.

Schumack acknowledged that new neighbors don't always know what to think of her: "Sheila and I are called the Bible ladies. We always go up and knock on the door, tell them who we are, and offer our help." Sometimes the neighbors "are suspicious, like, 'Who are you? What do you want from us?' . . . We just continue to be friendly."

Dan and Cherie Bandrowski graduated from college, attended Bible school, thought deeply about John Perkins' ideas, and moved into Brightmoor in the mid-1980s. They knew they wanted to work with kids over a long time so they could develop lasting relationships. They do not have children of their own, and they throw their love and labor into Wellspring, a nonprofit organization that offers Kumon math and language arts tutoring for low-income kids. It operates out of a small frame house in Brightmoor that also functions as a community center, with a basketball court outside and foosball and pingpong in the basement. The Bandrowskis live down the street.

Last year 68 children, ages 6-17, received math tutoring. Thirty of those students also enrolled in the Kumon reading/language arts program. The classes are a big commitment for parents and children. Each class lasts 90 minutes, twice a week. A child in both classes spends at least six hours a week at the tutoring center, and that doesn't include the nightly homework, which requires parental supervision.

In suburban areas, for-profit Kumon centers charge between $85 and $115 a month per subject; Wellspring charges families $15. Even that stretches the budget of many parents in the Brightmoor area-and requires extensive Wellspring fundraising to pay Kumon royalties.

The payoffs for kids are big. Detroit public-school students scored dismally low on recent NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) tests, but Wellspring's Kumon students-90 percent of whom come from low-income families-are exceptions: "Kids who stick with us until eighth grade are doing 10th-grade math."

Over the years the Bandrowskis have tried various programs to develop deep relationships with the children who come to the center. "We've had pre-employment training, job coaching, mentoring, backpacking, and camping." Their paid and volunteer staff members disciple teenagers. Kids wind down after their tutoring sessions in the basement recreation room.

Living and working in the neighborhood over decades "gives a depth to relationships. There are no shortcuts. It takes time, it takes suffering and lots of heartache." Even though some of the kids stumble-they mention many pregnancies and a kid who went to prison (who calls Dan "Pops")-Cherie sums up their experience: "I'm very rich." Dan adds a caveat: "There's richness here, but it's not without suffering."

Detroit has other followers of Christ sprinkled through its neighborhoods. A mural at the CDC2 building depicts an urban street scene that features old people sitting on porches while children play in the street. Zechariah 8 inspired the image: "Old men and old women shall again sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each with staff in hand because of great age. And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing."

Lisa Johanon says, "It's a beautiful picture of heaven, but I like it to be the picture of central Detroit. We will have a community that is safe enough for senior citizens to sit on their porches with their canes in hand. Kids can play on the street-and not be so burdened down with adult life and responsibilities."

Detroit basics

Detroit sits on a stretch of the Detroit River that runs east and west, so in a quirk of geography the city is north of Windsor, Ontario: Yes, here the United States is north of Canada. Detroit forms a sprawling semi-circle divided by roads that radiate out from downtown, which is located right on the river.

Detroit early in the 20th century, fueled by the growth of the automobile industry, was the fastest-growing city in the United States. Between 1910 and 1920 the population more than doubled, from 465,766 to nearly a million. Detroit reached its population peak of 1.9 million in 1950 and has been leaking people to the suburbs and beyond ever since. The next census will show about 800,000 people living within the city's 138.8 square miles.

That square mileage figure probably zipped by you, but it's significant: Detroit grew geographically during its boom years, annexing huge swaths of territory to the west and east, completely surrounding the smaller cities of Hamtramck and Highland Park. Detroit is now vaster than all of San Francisco, Boston, and Manhattan combined. Since Detroit grew along with the auto industry, it resembles a Western city much more than an Eastern one. Blessed with plentiful and relatively flat land, the city has had a more suburban feel, with many poor neighborhoods made up of single family homes with yards and trees.

A place to do business

It took Detroit's city council eight years to adopt its latest master plan, making it obsolete the day it was adopted, says Deborah Younger, executive director of Detroit Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC). It planned for growth rather than downsizing, and only now are city officials beginning to talk openly about the need to "right size" the city. Right sizing acknowledges that the city has too few people, too much land, and too little money to provide services.

Trying to figure out how to downsize will require great wisdom among the many bureaucracies, both public and private, that wield power and allocate resources in a city that has decades of mismanagement and grudges either to nurse or overcome. As the city decides which neighborhoods are "winners" and which are "losers," residents will be looking to see what new mayor and (former basketball star) Dave Bing and the new city council will do. Bing's office plans to use data to come up with a viable land use plan, but will the data include what's happening in Brightmoor or central Detroit?

Meanwhile, business opportunities remain. For the past five years Mark Wallace, 32, has been managing and leasing commercial real estate in downtown Detroit, where he's lived for seven out of the past 10 years. He grew up in a small farming community an hour from the city, studied public policy at Princeton, became interested in poverty and inequality issues, and taught high school in Detroit for three years.

He's a Detroit booster who rides his bike all around the city: "I'd like to spend the rest of my working life in Detroit. . . . [There is] tremendous opportunity for people my age, which is absent in more mature markets like Chicago or New York." He says the city has to create an environment conducive to new business, "where the burden of taxes and physical plant upkeep is not so excessive that business can't locate here."

Wallace plays poker with Gideon Pfeffer, 29, a married father of one child who came to Detroit from New York in 2002 to set up a mortgage company and says, "The business community really embraces young talent because there's not a ton of it. . . . If you come up with a good idea and have a good business model, work hard, you can definitely succeed in the market."

Susan Olasky

Susan Olasky

Susan is WORLD’s story coach and has authored eight historical novels for children. Susan and her husband Marvin live in Austin, Texas. Follow Susan on Twitter @susanolasky.