Charge of the blight brigade

With one hand on the wheel, John George steers a bright red Ford F-250 pickup truck down a narrow street on Detroit’s northwest side, swigging coffee from a foam cup as he drives. It could just as well be jet fuel he’s chugging. Even sitting, the guy is a blur of action.

The coffee drained, he grabs a cell phone, calls his Dumpster guy and begins to cajole. Dumpsters play a big role in George’s life. Every one filled and hauled off is a small victory over the urban blight he’s been battling for the past 15 years. The Dumpster guy wants money. Money, or, more precisely, the constant quest for it, is an even bigger part of George’s life.

Most of us could say the same. But George isn’t looking to get rich. Sit with him for just a few minutes and there’s little doubt he’d be rolling in cash if that were his goal. But John George has a higher purpose than building a fortune. He’s trying to rebuild a community instead.

It is an infinitely greater challenge.

Fifteen years ago, George was just another city resident frustrated by a nearby abandoned house being commandeered each night by crack dealers. Then something snapped. The moment remains etched in his memory. He’d just gotten off the phone with the city. Again. For about the 200th time. Literally. And then it struck him. Nothing would ever happen unless he took direct action. With two young kids, he was determined to keep them from growing up in the kind of neighborhood that allowed a crack house to exist, and he wasn’t about to move.

At the time he was part-owner of a family insurance agency founded by his father. Money wasn’t a problem then. Instead of spending time in a pickup, he owned a spiffy Lincoln Town Car, which he drove to a hardware store and loaded down with plywood and paint. Then he went back and began boarding up the crack house. Before long a few neighbors were pitching in. And that night, when the dealers returned to do business, they were shut out.

And thus Motor City Blight Busters was born.

“I’ve known from a very young age that I was supposed to do something out of the ordinary with my life, but I didn’t know what it was until I shut down that crack house,” says George.

It was a revelation.

At first George, who was then in his late 20s, would pursue his newfound passion in the evening and on weekends, targeting more abandoned homes that would be sealed up. Then he started going in and tearing places down, not bothering with cumbersome technicalities like city permits.

Before long, he sold his share of the insurance agency to his brother, dedicating himself to Blight Busters full time, running things out of his basement. But keeping on was like an act of faith, and George kept the nonprofit organization he founded growing steadily.

In ’95, George and company acquired a sprawling three-story building near the corner of McNichols and Lahser from the city for a buck.

“I like to tell people we paid too much for it,” laughs George. There was a hole in the roof, and all the doors and windows were missing when they first moved in. Now the building is worth about $2 million. The first two floors have been completely renovated, and work is under way to restore a marvelous third-floor theater that will, when finished, have 350 seats and a cyber café. Down below are the Blight Busters’ offices. There also are meeting rooms for community groups, job training for students, and offices for a mortgage company, an appraiser and a builder.

Along with helping put people in homes, rent from these businesses also helps keep the cash flow flowing. George wants dilapidated houses torn town and new ones built in their place, with owners occupying them. That’s the way you rebuild neighborhoods. House by house, block by block.

Back in his truck, George pulls up to a site where about a dozen people are at work in the pouring rain, tearing down a house, filling up yet another Dumpster. George jumps out, grabs a tool box, rips out a heavy steel chain, and in minutes is using the truck’s big 10-cylinder engine to pull support beams from the structure, collapsing what remains.

Then just as fast, he’s back in the truck, providing a tour. With each turn he offers another story.

“Right there was a house that we tried to get the city to tear down for 11 years,” he says. “Eleven years. Finally, they did it. Now look. Neighbors are fixing up that place, and that place there.”

Blight, he says, is like a cancer. Nip it in the bud, or it will surely spread. Take it out, and the opposite occurs, as neighborhoods begin to rehabilitate. He points out a house Blight Busters built and sold to a low-income family. With help from groups such as Habitat for Humanity, there are about 150 of those stories for George to tell.

With a budget of about $1 million per year, much of it from corporate donations and almost none from the city or state, George says Blight Busters walks a tight line, always worrying about meeting the next payroll, about keeping the lights and phone on, about paying the Dumpster guy. Which is why, he says, a major funder is needed to infuse a steady flow of substantial money.

“Someone like Bill Gates or Oprah,” he says. “It doesn’t matter who it is. But we need them to help us realize the value of what we’re doing and help support that in a big way. We need someone to help us achieve our vision, which is to rebuild and repopulate northwest Detroit.”

His phone rings. Someone has a problem and is looking for help.

“C’mon into the office this afternoon,” says George. “I’ll make it happen.”

No doubt.

Motor City Blight Busters is at 17405 Lahser, Detroit; call 313-255-4355 or surf to

Curt Guyette is the Metro Times news editor. E-mail [email protected]
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