Blight buster

Jun 11, 2008 at 12:00 am

Things change, and they don't.Take John George and Motor City Blight Busters, the nonprofit group he founded two decades ago.The story of his group's origins has been told before, but it deserves telling again as the organization prepares to celebrate its 20th anniversary next week.

Back in the late 1980s, George was the part owner of a family insurance business and lived in northwest Detroit. Instead of the full-size pickup truck he drives now he tooled around in a Lincoln Town Car.

But he had a problem: an abandoned house in his neighborhood that crack dealers would take over each night. He claims to have called the city a couple hundred times but got no action, so he took matters into his own hand. With plywood and paint and the help of a few neighbors inspired by his action, they boarded up the house and forced the dealers to move elsewhere.

Back in 2002, when we first interviewed George, he had this to say about that experience: "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."

It was a life-changing experience. It was also, ultimately, a community-changing experience.

Ridding the community of blighted homes has been a central part of the group's mission from the outset. Working at first out of the basement of his home, George and the volunteers he began attracting weren't afraid to take matters into their own hands. When bureaucratic red tape stood in the way of getting a derelict home torn down and cleared away, they'd just ignore the red tape — permits from the city and permission from absentee slumlords be damned.

But it didn't take George long to realize that just tearing down problems wasn't enough. To make a lasting improvement, it would also be necessary to rebuild and revitalize as well as demolish and remove.

To that end, the nonprofit acquired an abandoned, three-story former Masonic temple on Lahser near Grand River between McNichols and Seven Mile roads.

The windows were all busted out, and the building's occupants were pigeons and alley cats and rats. But George saw a place full of potential.

"It was a chance for us to put our money where our mouth is," says George. Believing that the 21,000-square-foot structure — which had been vacant for 15 years and was acquired for $1 — could be transformed into a showplace put to the test one of George's guiding philosophies: "If you believe in the impossible, then anything becomes possible."

Since then, more than $1.4 million has been invested in renovating the place, turning it into the Motor City Resource Center. Along with serving as the headquarters for Blight Busters, the building provides office space to about a dozen other organizations and for-profit businesses. George looked for tenants that could be "strategic partners," like the nonprofit National Faith Homebuyers, which, according to its website, helps potential homebuyers with such issues as "financial literacy, credit education, homeowner workshops, housing counseling, down-payment assistance, wealth building seminars, and a variety of other programs and services."

The resource center has become just that, a center of activity for a community that in recent years has lost both its police station and high school. It also serves as a selling point, showing corporate benefactors that their money is being well spent, and helping inspire potential donors to open up their wallets, says George.

The place is also still a work in progress. The third floor, with a dance floor and elevated stage, remains unfinished. The plan is to turn it into a 350-seat performance venue.

Alicia Marion began running into George soon after moving to northwest Detroit a decade ago. Inspired by George's vision and can-do attitude, she began volunteering at Blight Busters. For several years before that, she worked for a national hotel chain, doing billing and other accounting duties. Within months of becoming a volunteer, though, her career course took an abrupt change: She went from the button-down corporate world to working full time as George's executive assistant at Blight Busters, which by that time had grown into an established nonprofit with a budget of about $500,000 a year and growing.

Asked about how she sees the organization, Marion references the old Frank Capra movie It's a Wonderful Life. She sees John George as the Jimmy Stewart character George Bailey, who, through divine intervention, is given the chance to see what life would have been like had he never been born. What he learns is that one person can make a huge difference. Had George Bailey never lived, his town of Bedford Falls would have been filled with renters occupying slum rental housing instead of homeowners living the American dream.

No one can say with certainty what the business district known as Old Redford and the nearby Brightmoor neighborhood would be like had George not founded Motor City Blight Busters, but there is no denying the transformative power of his vision and energy.

About 10,000 volunteers a year show up to help with projects. Along with tearing down derelict homes, they help business owners renovate vacant buildings like the former bank that is now a tire and rim shop.

Also receiving volunteer help was Cassandra Thomas, whose business making pies, cookies, ice cream, cheesecake and other treats from sweet potatoes had outgrown its small shop on Lahser just down the block from the resource center. To help keep it in the neighborhood, George provided 150 volunteers who helped renovate a much larger space across the street. A job that would have taken two or three people months to complete was accomplished in a matter of days.

Also in the works is a new business to be called the Motor City Java House and Café, which will be part of a complex called Artists Village, a joint project involving Blight Busters, artist Chazz Miller and others. Along with art programs for kids, a chess club and a community gathering place that are already in place, the café and apartments being built in a former vacant building will bring added vibrancy to a business district that is in the process of re-creating itself.

Murals created by Miller with the assistance of volunteers already dot the area. More are planned, as is a project to construct within the next few weeks, a 34-foot-tall temple-like gazebo that will have a barbecue pit and outdoor pizza oven that will serve as another community gathering place.

Working with community groups in Brightmoor, George estimates Blight Busters has helped create 300 new homes in the area over the years — during a time in which the city's overall population continues to decline. And attempts to revitalize the business district are moving ahead full speed.

He plans to place increased focus on attracting artists, musicians and performers to the area — members of the "creative class" that urban studies professor Richard Florida says is vital to creating vibrant communities.

It is all part of the change John George, who is infused with a seemingly endless amount of energy, has helped engineer and inspire. Notably, the community garden and barbecue bit will be built on the site where two abandoned houses across from the resource center used to stand.

"Someone made the mistake of turning those places into crack houses," says George, breaking into a wry smile. "I don't like crack houses."

Some things don't change.

Birthday bash

To celebrate its 20th anniversary, Motor City Blight Busters is staging a week of activities beginning with a trio of events on Saturday, June 21.

A show billed as "The History of Music Concert" and featuring the group The Contours as well as a showcase of young talent from Detroit will be held at the Redford Theater, 17360 Lahser, from 6-9 p.m. cost is $25.

Afterward there will be a "Gemini & Cancer Bash" across the street from the theater at the Motor City Resource Center, 17405 Lahser. That event, which begins at 9 p.m. and lasts until 2 a.m. Cost is $10.

At the same time there will be an event featuring art, food, jazz and fashion at Artist Village Detroit, 17340 Lahser. $10.

For more info call 313-255-4355.

Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]