DETROIT, MICHIGAN — Detroit, Michigan - known as the "Motor City," home to the “Big 3” U.S. automakers - is in the midst of an economic decline after a slow mass exodus of the city’s population. Those who departed the city left behind unoccupied structures that have succumbed to fire, vandalism, and neglect, changing Detroit’s global image. One man fed up with the blight is now leading a team of volunteers to clean up his hometown, one block at a time.
If one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, then the Brightmoor neighborhood of Detroit is John George’s gold mine.
"I look at Detroit through rose colored glasses. I’ve been here all my life. We were the city that put the world on wheels. We were the arsenal of democracy that helped win World War II," said George. "We taught the world to dance with Motown. So I have such a deep respect and love for the city. I just don’t think they realize how far we’ve fallen.”
George doesn’t see broken windows and burned out homes… he sees memories. This is where he raised his children, when each house along these streets was occupied.
George said people started leaving in the wake of Detroit’s deadly riots in 1967, and the exodus has not stopped.
“You can blame it on everything from the riots to the oil embargo, to racism, to suburban sprawl. There are so many reasons why. think at this point it really doesn’t matter why. I think the question is now what?” he asked.
Now, George’s neighborhood is at the beginning of a revival, thanks to his organization of volunteers to change the circumstances.
"Blight is like a cancer, and if you don’t remove it and nip it in the bud, it spreads and it kills everything,” he said.
George’s "Motor City Blight Busters" tears down, or secures the worst of the blighted structures in the Brightmoor neighborhood. They do it one board, one brick, one house at a time.
“Last weekend, there were youth actually playing on that top porch. So, today, because of the condition of this property, it’s a bit of an emergency, so we are going to remove the porch and board up the property,” he said.
In 25 years, George has razed or fixed dozens of structures, replacing areas of devastation and crime with green space. Through it all, he has refused to give up, or leave.
“The people who are left in Detroit are the die-hards. John George is Detroiter number 1, and I can’t imagine a Detroit without John George,” said Brightmoor Alliance Executive Director Kirk Mayes. He said people slowly are returning because of George’s efforts.
“Somebody who’s got a mission like his, somebody’s got the heart that he has, somebody that has the drive that he has for the things that he does, the rare thing is that he gets the attention,” said Mayes.
Detroit business leaders have taken notice of Blight Busters. A newly formed non-profit Detroit Blight Authority seeks donations to fund an ambitious goal of razing about 13,000 structures per year, at a pace that could eliminate Detroit’s blight completely in five years.