Detroit's vacant lot problem

Jun 6, 2018 at 1:00 am
Myrtle Thompson (center) at the Fox Creek Artscape.
Myrtle Thompson (center) at the Fox Creek Artscape. Lon Howard, courtesy The Kresge Foundation

There are a lot of vacant lots in Detroit: The count a couple of years back was more than 90,000 of them, and the numbers haven't significantly changed at this point. That's a lot of space in the city.

Vacant lots demand resources for their maintenance, or they become even bigger problems.

"We know what happens to vacant lots if they are left alone," says Myrtle Thompson of the Feedom Freedom Growers. "They become dumps. Stray animals start to live in them."

And they sometimes become hiding places for people who prefer their activities to be hidden from the eyes of neighbors.

It makes sense that with so many open lots, fixing that issue is an important part of fixing Detroit. Yes, there are other vacancies that bedevil the city. There are as many vacant houses and buildings as there are vacant lots. And when you tear one of those down, you're left with a vacant lot. So something that seemed to be a solution at one point — tearing down an abandoned house — can eventually turn into another problem.

People in the neighborhoods know this, and finding useful solutions for vacant lots is a noticeable trend in the Kresge Innovative Projects: Detroit grants announced last week. The charitable foundation handed out $1.5 million to 18 different community coalitions in the kick-off of the second three-year phase of the program. Seven of those projects involve vacant lots in one way or another. Other projects address rehabbing homes and parks, and creating community spaces. The majority of the grants at some level address blight, not just cleaning it up but creating usefulness and value in those places.

"We hadn't specifically targeted projects that involved vacant lots," says Bryan Hogle, a program officer at the Kresge Foundation. "It makes sense in that there are a number of them in neighborhoods. We were looking to support projects that improve the quality of life in neighborhoods. ... Communities and residents are thinking about ways to reuse vacant land to benefit the community."

Apparently enhancing the quality of life in neighborhoods is closely related to doing something about those pesky vacant lots.

The first wave of local lot reclamation started in the 1970s when Mayor Coleman Young started the Farm-A-Lot program. That eventually evolved into the urban agriculture movement that has gardens and farms dotting the cityscape today. But you can't just grow food on every vacant lot. Not everybody wants to live next to a garden.

"It depends on the person who's looking at the lot," says Thompson. "Some see a driveway; some see a garden; some see a fence, some people don't see anything. ... As we reclaim the vacant lots it inspires others to take care of other spaces."

Thompson and her husband Curtis have long been involved with the urban agriculture movement. The Feedom Freedom Growers (FFG) started out in the vacant lots adjacent to their east side home. Now their influence dots the neighborhood. Expanding on that into related projects seems to be the next step. As a recipient of one of this year's Kresge grants, FFG's project with the College of Creative Studies is to build the Fox Creek Artscape on two vacant lots in the Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood.

The project includes a pavilion that will be a community meeting space and also will function as a water collection and storage system. There is a children's play area and a standing mural planned as well as a market stand for produce. A series of garden rooms will grow progressively wilder from the street side to the creek side as benches and pavers give way to native plantings.

The project has been in planning for more than three years. Thompson says that in the course of developing the plan they listened to stories from neighbors about fishing in Fox Creek. The development is an outgrowth of a series of relationships. For instance, Curtis Thompson is an artist, and he knows other artists, and next thing you know there is a CCS connection.

This is becoming a familiar tack for Kresge. The foundation funded the Joann Greenway in 2017 — a two-block stretch on Joann Avenue between State Fair and Manning — with approximately $100,000. This project with the Osborn Neighborhood Alliance includes a tree nursery, which is unusual in the local urban agriculture profile.

Osborn program director Kayana Sessoms says the funds cover the purchase of vacant lots and clearing them out. It also covers the cost of training a neighborhood resident to run the nursery.

"This is creating economic benefits for the community," says Sessoms. "The city of Detroit buys millions of dollars worth of trees every year."

That sounds like a pretty good market to get into, and training a community member to run it has a direct economic benefit.

Sessoms says the group expects to have 400 trees potted and planted by this fall. Projections are that within five years the nursery will bring in $80,000 to $100,000 annually. That will pay for the nursery worker and serve as an economic base for the Osborn Neighborhood Alliance to continue functioning as a neighborhood asset.

"We were looking at economic ways to stabilize the organization," Sessoms says. "This will benefit the organization and bring jobs to locals, as well as beautify the neighborhood."

It will also eliminate more vacant lots. It's a major feat to turn these lots from eyesores to assets. It's taking some imagination, some effort, and some money. In the process these blemishes on neighborhood profiles are becoming tools for neighborly engagement within the neighborhood.

That's supposed to happen in a big way in the Fitzgerald neighborhood as the Fitz Forward project takes shape. There, every vacant lot is supposed to have a specific purpose. That's 200-plus parcels that were formerly neglected, trash-strewn, and overgrown getting targeted attention as to its function in the neighborhood.

The space where Ella Fitzgerald Park is being constructed was formerly mostly vacant lots, as well as the basketball court across the street.

Agriculture, recreation, and art seem the major avenues that folks have travelled as they reimagine what the open spaces on Detroit can be. It's great that the Kresge Foundation recognizes and supports innovations such as the Joann Greenway and the Fox Creek Artscape.

There are a lot of vacant lots out there. It's going to take a lot more imagination to transform the tens of thousands of open spaces into something productive. But it looks like we've got some good ideas. We could use a few more.

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