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Brightmoor fighters

Population loss and official neglect haven’t kept residents of one Detroit neighborhood from banding together to rebuild

Brightmoor fighters

TRUE GRIT: Gwen Shivers harvesting vegetables on a vacant lot in the Brightmoor neighborhood of Detroit (Rebecca Cook/Reuters/Landov)

DETROIT—Riet Schumack has lived in the Detroit area since 1991. In 2006 she and her husband Mark, an engineering professor at the University of Detroit-Mercy, moved to Brightmoor, a four-square-mile, hard-pressed neighborhood on the city’s northwest side. Some people call it Blightmoor.

The Schumacks for years had prayed for an opportunity to do urban gardening and be a good influence in Brightmoor. They bought their home from a woman fleeing the neighborhood after seeing her house broken into three times. It’s now worth much less than what they’ve put into it, but they’re not running. After police closed a drug and prostitution house down the street, the Schumacks bought it and fixed it up for about $50,000. It’s now appraised for about $20,000—not very smart investing if making money (or even treading water) is the goal.

That didn’t keep them from doubling-down on the neighborhood. They recently bought three small houses across the street for a total of $15,000: a good deal, maybe, although market value is hard to judge. The seller had them priced at $75,000 two years ago and $45,000 last year. Riet Schumack shrugs off questions about the long-term investment value of the properties: “We’re all in,” she says, describing their commitment to the neighborhood. She noted an upside: They bought the houses before “the scrappers” had stripped out the copper pipes and wiring to sell as scrap. 

I first visited Brightmoor three years ago (“Beyond ‘ruin porn,’” March 27, 2010). Like Detroit overall, it has lost close to one-third of its population since 2000. Some people left because they couldn’t afford $5,000 to replace deteriorating sewer lines. Others had enough of crime, poor city services, and bad schools. Three out of five Brightmoor lots are now vacant. 

Yet, hope floats in a 21-block micro-neighborhood called Brightmoor Farmway, with neighbors pursuing a person-by-person, block-by-block strategy, and embracing Detroit’s “post-apocalyptic” possibilities, when city government no longer provides services. On one block, raised-bed gardens stretch out over 10 lots—about an acre. The land belongs to a young man who hopes to make a living growing high-end organic vegetables for local restaurants. On another, blackboard paint covers the exterior of a boarded-up house, providing a clever way to announce neighborhood events. 

Other art-covered, vacant and boarded-up houses throughout the Farmway sport flowers and trains, sunsets, and Dr. Seuss–like trees. Some carry slogans along with artwork: “God Makes Beautiful Things Out of Us,” and “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” That slogan, painted on boards covering the windows of an abandoned school, sums up the neighborhood doctrine.

Brightmoor Farmway started informally with several families working together on a “youth garden” down the street from the Schumacks’ house. After several years, those families started a nonprofit organization, Neighbors Building Brightmoor (NBB), to continue the work they were already doing—building gardens, making friends, and keeping blight at bay. In 2010, 12 families decided to hold a neighborhood Harvest Fest, and 200 people showed up. About 150—half of them children—came from the 21-block area. 

The existence of so many children surprised neighbors because they rarely saw them playing outside. Schumack speaks of children who sit “inside a house watching TV or playing video games, because out there it’s dangerous and ugly and nasty, and they grow up not knowing what beauty is. … That’s to me the worst of everything. … I can’t live with that.” 

Creating a safe environment for children became an NBB goal. By removing exterior walls and leaving interior walls and the roof, volunteers turned a debris-filled vacant house into a children’s playhouse. Located next to a neighborhood pocket park redeemed from the ruins, the playhouse boasts a small stage for musical performances and plays. In the summertime children roast marshmallows over a fire pit and chase fireflies under the trees. NBB put on potlucks, sponsored petting zoos, cleaned up a field for ultimate frisbee, and led nature walks.

Efforts snowballed as more neighbors caught the vision. Over the past three years, gardens and pocket parks have sprouted throughout the 21-block area. Each garden or cleaned-up lot announces that someone—Scott, Wayne, Old Dude, Nikki, Kat, Kenny, Jess, Jeremy, Craig, Ray—has agreed to care for that site. “You can board a place up,” Schumack says, “but if there’s no one to sponsor it, it will just look a mess.” 

She points to a stretch of unkempt houses, some owned by residents and others occupied by tenants who have shown little interest in the neighborhood. If they aren’t interested in cleaning up their own yards, NBB refuses to do it for them. Schumack says, “You have to become involved. … It’s Neighbors Building Brightmoor. Neighbors helping neighbors. There is no service industry here.”

Outside the Farmway, traditional neighborhood revitalization efforts can’t seem to halt Brightmoor’s downward spiral. John O’Brien heads up Northwest Detroit Neighborhood Development (NDND), which since its founding in 1989 has built 231 new rental houses and renovated a 23-unit apartment building. Money came from the Low Income Tax Credit program (LITC), a government-funded program that subsidizes rents for people within certain income guidelines. NDND, hoping construction would stabilize the neighborhood, also built or renovated 126 homes for purchase by people who qualify under another government program. 

Those efforts largely failed. Timing was part of the problem: The subprime and foreclosure crisis hit Detroit hard. Today, at least one of the NDND houses built fewer than 10 years ago sits boarded up. Listed at $70,000 to $80,000 in 2008, it is now worth less than $20,000. Under the terms of the government program that funded construction, the house had to be sold, not rented, so it ended up with boards over the windows and door. “An embarrassment,” O’Brien said.

O’Brien still says stabilizing the neighborhood depends on construction of new housing with funds from outside, but the latest citywide long-range plan, “Detroit Works,” which came out in early January, makes new funding seem unlikely. A video made by the Federal Reserve at the beginning of the Detroit Works process argued for government and private foundations to align their goals and direct money into healthier neighborhoods, while letting less healthy ones go. Brightmoor, it said, was too far gone to save. 

The final document softened those recommendations, but if planners have their way, Brightmoor will receive even less in city services. The city can’t afford to keep up fire, sewer, garbage, street lights, and snow removal in such sparsely populated areas. Already the neighborhood feels the effect: The city still provides police, but the fire station closed. Street lights work, but no inspectors come to check on them, so burned-out bulbs don’t get fixed unless neighbors make a fuss. The day I visited, several inches of frozen snow covered unplowed streets.

Schumack is a realist: “If it were up to the city, they would get us all out of here tomorrow.” In the meantime, she says, her neighbors view themselves as a demonstration project for post-apocalyptic living. Wood-burning stoves and composting toilets are in. Some, like the Schumacks, keep bees and raise goats, chickens, and rabbits. Neighbors support themselves with market gardens, watered by rainwater catch systems: If gas prices keep going up, they think their vegetables might be able to compete with produce shipped from across the country.

Neighbors are also using hoop houses, a kind of low-tech portable greenhouse, to extend the growing season. Some are looking into rocket mass heaters, a super-efficient, wood-burning heat system. Is this experimentation strictly legal? Detroit zoning laws don’t permit farming, but that could soon change. Chickens, rabbits, and bees will be in, but goats will still be out. Schumack says an unwritten rule guides interactions between the city and the Farmway: “The city ignores us, both negatively and positively. They don’t want to say, ‘No, you can’t do that.’ So they smile and say, ‘Don’t tell us anything. … We’re not asking anyone anything.’ We’re just doing it.”

Brightmoor resident Katharina Walsh, who trains teens to create murals on boarded-up houses and to translate the ideas of younger children into house-sized art, meets with neighbors to hear what kind of art they’d like on nearby houses. She doesn’t seek approval from city hall: “We don’t have time to follow regulations. … If landlords have a problem, I don’t have a problem telling them their priorities are out of line.”

Schumack and some of the people moving into the neighborhood are Christians, as are many long-term residents, but the philosophy guiding development in the Farmway depends on sight, not faith: “Hope comes from highly visible and short-term evidence of renewal.” The names of local gardens reflect big concepts like “neighborhood empowerment” and “individual initiative”: Myra’s Bird Haven and River Trail, Miss Gwen’s Edible Play-scape, Char’s Butterfly Trail, a Community Pumpkin Patch, Pingree’s Community Potato Patch, and others. 

Schumack says residents have lots of practical skills to share. “I’m in awe of what I see here. Miss Gwen is my greatest example.” When a foundation turned down Miss Gwen’s grant request, the long-time resident said no worries, she’d raise the money herself. She and a friend held two fish fries and made $1,000. Schumack admires her neighbors for being “hustlers” who “make do with what you got. [That’s] what it takes to live in a neighborhood like this one—and it might be what it takes to live in a future world.”

Businesses are starting up: A neighbor with woodworking skills employs local teens to make carved and painted wooden signs and wooden benches adorning some of the Farmway’s “50 parks, gardens, and places of interest.” Once neighbors decide what they want to do, plenty of outside groups help with small amounts of money and time. In 2011, volunteers (1,400!) contributed 16,000 or so hours of labor. They helped NBB maintain 125 lots, grow more than 5,000 pounds of produce, employ almost 60 teens, and reach nearly 400 children.  

The NBB 2011 annual report declares, “There is no short cut! Keep at it. You can’t restore instantly what was destroyed over 30 years of decline.” That tortoise-like approach has drawn media and foundation attention. The Marjorie Fisher Foundation funded construction of a Kaboom! orange-and-green playscape designed with input from the community and built by 250 residents and volunteers. Nearby is a fitness course and picnic area. A wooden sign built by local teens announces the Eliza Howell Nature Trail, a wood-chip path built by volunteers that begins at the playground and travels for a mile along the Rouge River. 

A year and a half after installation, the playground still sports no graffiti, one evidence of neighborhood pride and ownership. In a video made on playground construction day, a young black woman said to the camera: “This is our park. … We’re not going to let anyone sit here and mess it up. Because I’m right here. I’m watching.”

As I sat in Schumack’s van admiring the playground, a truck pulled up to the curb a few houses behind us. Schumack watched out of her rearview mirror, “Oh, no, oh, no. Scrappers. We chased them from our street yesterday.” She grabbed her phone and punched in a number. (She has all NBB members’ numbers in her phone.) Then she jammed her van into reverse. 

One of the scrappers sat in the truck and the other disappeared into a vacant house. He reappeared carrying a door. Schumack jumped out of the car: “Put it back. We don’t want scrappers in this neighborhood. … We’re going to start calling the police.” The scrappers insisted they had permission to take the door. They threw insults, but eventually backed down and returned the door. Then they drove off. 

Schumack said, “Every day we chase them away from somewhere. Five times in the last two months. They make messes. … They open houses up, dump over garbage cans. … Once it’s a mess, that’s a signal to other people to come. … You got to be vigilant.”

Listen to Susan Olasky discuss the Brightmoor Farmway on WORLD’s radio news magazine The World and Everything in It.

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.