How Paul Weertz helped stabilize the tiny Detroit neighborhood you almost never hear about

The block that blight forgot

May 13, 2015 at 1:00 am
How Paul Weertz helped stabilize the tiny Detroit neighborhood you almost never hear about
Meredith Miotke

Take the Mount Elliott exit off I-94 and head southwest into the old Polish neighborhood and you will quickly find the scenery most often associated with Detroit's disinvestment and decline. Fate has been unkind to old Poletown, and many of the old main thoroughfares have been so denuded of old houses they exist now as urban prairie.

But should you drive south on Moran Street on a spring day, you might notice a barely perceptible change. It might be the bright pink blossoms of a sugar magnolia in bloom, or the way the houses stand more thickly on the side streets. By the time you pass Kirby Street, you'll notice the greenhouses rising on what appears to be a small farm, and, beyond it, an apple orchard. Hang a right at the community farm on the corner of Farnsworth Street and you'll be transported to an image from Detroit's past: a street with almost all of its houses intact, with mowed lawns, colorful homes, children playing on the sidewalks, and some lively foot traffic. Unlike many of the better-kept blocks in Detroit, this isn't a rich neighborhood for well-to-do boomerangers or old-money monarchs; it's a working-class street of sturdy old houses.

In a way, this block of Farnsworth isn't a complete oddity. It's not so different from some streets in Detroit, such as the block of Parkhurst off Woodward Avenue, or the Fourth Street neighborhood tucked in behind the I-94 and the Lodge Expressway. It's a place where residents have weathered the storms that have battered the city and stubbornly maintained the fading city's neighborhood life.

Many people deserve credit for the upkeep of this block of Farnsworth, but chief among them is Paul Weertz (rhymes with "shirts"). He's a retired Detroit teacher who was instrumental in the successes of the city's now-shuttered Catherine Ferguson Academy, a special Detroit school for students with children of their own. The story is told in the 2010 documentary Grown in Detroit, about how the unorthodox institution provided educations for the students and day care for their children. For a time, it was a success story, with 100 percent of its students graduating and going on to college. Weertz pioneered the school's ambitious agricultural component, which included growing fields, orchards, livestock, bees, and even a barn.

It's on a bright spring morning that we arrive in front of Weertz's 1914 home, the front yard massed with myrtle, witch hazel, and a forsythia that still refuses to blossom on this brisk April day. Weertz hails us from down the street, where he's already at work on his apple orchard, and guides us into his kitchen for a chat.

Weertz's philosophy as an educator is that students should learn by doing, and it suits him well. His mind is as restless as his body, with his conversation leaping from topic to topic as he paces around his kitchen, unpacking scones and making coffee. When he finally does settle down to tell his story, he's interrupted by about a half-dozen guests: neighborhood kids dropping by for work in the nearby fields, neighbors and renters stopping in for lunch, even his elderly mother, who is visiting today to get in a bit of backyard gardening. Nobody needs to declare Weertz a block captain or community organizer; his existence as the neighborhood focal point is obvious to any and all, and he's inhabited that role for damn near three decades now.

As Weertz tells it, back in the late 1970s, he and his wife bought a rambling old house on Mack Avenue between John R and Brush streets and spent eight years fixing it up. Then, in the middle of the night in 1986, the house caught fire and was destroyed. "We woke up in the middle of the night and ran out the front door," Weertz says.

Fortunately for him, two weeks before the fire, he had just bought the house on Farnsworth he now lives in. "I bought this house for $8,000 and it was a two-family," he says. "I thought I could rent it out and be happy. We had just closed on it with no intention of moving there when the house burned, so we're here. And the house next door was vacant, and I couldn't live next to a vacant house after a fire, because I was kind of paranoid about fires, so I bought that house and fixed it up. Over time, I either bought houses from old people who were moving or dying. I either kept them or sold them to other people, and that's how it got going 20-odd years ago."

Of course, back in 1986, Weertz's block of Farnsworth was no different from many other blocks in the active, crowded southern end of Poletown East. Unfortunately, a host of factors would ensure the neighborhood's decline. At the time, crack was ascendant, Detroit's murder rate made international headlines, Devil's Night arsons were near their peak, and, in 1986, Detroit built the world's largest municipal trash incinerator just to the west of the struggling neighborhood. Yet, as the streets around Weertz suffered steep decline, his block of Farnsworth never quite emptied out.

"We stabilized the neighborhood," he says.

Weertz's strategy to avoid the problems that wreaked havoc on other blocks seems to have worked. He'd rather buy a house on his block than leave it vacant long enough to tempt the area's match-happy firebugs. And dealing with drug dealers and absentee landlords forced Weertz to discover some ingenious solutions.

"A house down the street was a crack house," Weertz says. "A suburban guy owned it and was kind of a slum landlord who didn't care what was going on in the house, so we put a little pressure on him and got it."

How did Weertz prevent dealers from using the spot as a trap house? "Before I built a barn at the school, I didn't have a place to store the hay for animals. So I stored it in this crack house. I just filled the whole house with hay."

After using the house as a hayloft forced the drug dealers to move on, Weertz moved the feed into a newly built barn at the school and sold "the hay house" to a young man who still lives there with his family. He sold the 1904 house across the street to Molly "Motor" Steggerda, who also still lives there. Soon, free-thinking people started to be drawn to the block, attracted by its large annual parties and community spirit. "It started filling in with people," Weertz says. "We got a bunch of homeowners. My son lives across the street. We kept what we could and behind me here is a street of houses that all burned down, one after another. That's where I started the gardening. Tore stuff down and graded it."

And so began the formation of an oasis in Detroit, the block that blight forgot. Or, rather, the block that Weertz wouldn't let blight get to know.

'Do no harm'

Getting a tour of the neighborhood from Paul Weertz is an unusual treat. On this cool, sunny spring day, he beams smiles as he wanders about, obviously proud of his work. Every few minutes, the tour is joyfully interrupted by chance meetings with neighbors who stop to josh him or share the latest news. When his hands aren't gesturing out a thought or pointing out a feature, they're waving at all the people he knows. By the time the fourth or fifth person has stopped him on his journey, it's almost comical.

First, Weertz shows off his "back 40," the lots across the alley behind his house that he has graded into a hockey rink surrounded by planting beds. The rink wasn't just for laughs: He points out that when city houses are demolished, the crews often leave hummocks of earth; he, however, graded them down so they retain water during rains (and ice during winter).

Walking across Moran, he shows off a string of lots he's turned into a heritage apple orchard, surrounded by ornamental trees. Before he can say much, letterpress poster printer and neighbor Amos Kennedy shows up in a pair of overalls, ready to volunteer.

Weertz continues, telling how he owns three of the lots, the city owns a few, and a local landowner he knows owns the others. His principle in building the orchard on the abandoned lots is this: "I'm not doing any harm here," he says. "Say somebody wants to take this property and build houses or something. I didn't mess it up. You can just tear down these trees. Now if I had built a rendering plant or a toxic dump ... so I think the city should think about some of these concepts, say, 'Hey, this won't hurt. Let's let these people have gardens and stuff,' or even encourage it."

At the back of the orchard, Jamal and Marvell, two neighborhood kids, are shoveling decomposed leaves from a cart to use as mulch. When they've covered an area, Weertz climbs aboard the Ford 4000 diesel tractor and pulls the cart ahead a length, and they go back to work. When the cart is empty, Weertz pulls the tractor off the field, tows the cart down Farnsworth Street to a mound of leaves abutting the alley, where Weertz has contractors deposit them, and loads up the cart with a Bobcat for another trip to the orchard. In any other neighborhood, it would be a bizarre sight, but it's old hat along Farnsworth.

'Since the beginning'

Molly "Motor" Steggerda invites us into her 1904 home across the street from Weertz. The self-described "alpha female" of Farnsworth, she has lived there since 1995. It's a beautiful house still clad in its original wood siding, with a faded coat of red (which probably should have been repainted more than a few years ago) that gives it a rustic charm. Inside, we sit in her tile-clad TV room, where she sits back on a built-in couch, relaxing on her day off from her job at Midtown's La Feria.

"I thought about the design of this room for about 10 years," she says. "And I don't make a lot of money so I'm always crunching the numbers. It came out better than I expected. A lot of this stuff was found. These poplar boards on the built-in were found in the roof of an abandoned house. And this beam we found in an empty field and put two of them together. I put the tile on this wall behind me myself. And I get all the art at the Motor City Brewing Works' art shows. It's all local people and super affordable, so I have a cool contemporary collection of local artists now."

Steggerda grew up outside of Chicago and had lived "all over the Midwest" by the time she met Weertz while working at Detroit's Pewabic Pottery back in the 1990s. That's when she heard Weertz was trying to find a buyer for the house opposite his on Farnsworth. Weertz got to know her and offered her the place for $26,000 on a land contract deal, in the process gaining a loyal resident for the block.

"I've been here since the beginning," Steggerda says. "The two houses on the end of the block, those were two drug houses. One was a money house and one was a drug house. I remember not ever wanting to have to park down there because I was afraid my windows would get shot or something. Paul started piling brush in front of the houses with the tractor just to inconvenience them. He would call the police station every day. One thing I've realized about those drug houses is that they either end with people setting them on fire and burning them down or they move on. You can outlast them."

In the beginning, Steggerda says, "It was funny because it was just me and Paul, and we were doing different gardening things, and I eventually started the corner garden. And we would have coffee every weekend and walk each other around to show each other what we had done. Then people really started moving here and it became really desirable to live on this block."

Over the years, Steggerda has grown to love her neighbors, and to harbor a lighthearted skepticism about some of the people drawn to the neighborhood, or about the trappings of a neighborhood "on the rise."

"I hate to be such an old curmudgeon," she says, "but when I see these 25-year-olds come and — oh my God, they're gonna change the world, they're gonna do all this amazing stuff. Which is great, but it's a lot of work, and it's really hard. And if you're doing it with other people, you have to maintain a civil relationship, and it's a lot harder than people realize, I think. Especially when you're young and you're gonna do all this great stuff. It's exciting to see the energy, but as an older person who has seen many different people come and do different projects and then leave, I'm always a little skeptical. I'm trying to grow. Now we have a listserv and community meetings. I'm trying to be more open-minded."

'A form of wealth'

Dave Roberts, 53, is another longtime Farnsworth resident. For more than 20 years, he's been behind the bar at Cass Cafe, where he curates rotating art shows. He's just renting now, but he bought the house next to Steggerda around 1997, and lived in it for 12 years.

Roberts has an obvious fondness for the block's unconventional makeup. "It is different from the American way of approaching real estate, which is as a disposable commodity. Maybe the people here do approach things in a different way," he says. "Rather than buy everything new from the store, they're finding and repurposing items that are already available in the area. Most of the people on the block pride themselves on their 100-year-old stoves. Nobody has a new stove. Everybody has an antique stove that they use. Everybody is all about creating durable existence that isn't based on disposability."

And it isn't easy being a neighborhood householder in Detroit, a city that devotes so many resources to big-ticket projects that are supposed to help the city turn the corner.

"That's been the prevailing theme for nearly 40 years, probably longer," Roberts says. "People have been screaming that the neighborhoods have been ignored since at least the 1980s and I'm sure before that. Neighborhoods really haven't been addressed and you hear that from just about any neighborhood."

And yet without any public infusion of cash, without any silver bullet, Farnsworth hangs stubbornly on. Roberts credits the neighborhood fellowship that has grown up around Weertz. "It's a little neighborhood compared to others," he says, "but I think the sense of community is what has held this together and made it happen. That's in large part due to Paul. It's a form of wealth to know your neighbor here."

'We need these kids'

We're back in Weertz's kitchen, where he is delivering a sort of informal lecture on education and citizenship. Between this and his beliefs on learning by doing, he sounds every bit a disciple of John Dewey. Talking about the kids in the neighborhood and the special challenges they face, it becomes clear what made Weertz an outstanding teacher: his plain speaking, his empathy, his compassion, and his determination to make young people an important part of a functioning community.

"Nobody is teaching kids skills," he declares. "Part of this block's success is that we have skills. And we have to nurse those skills. Everybody is good on a keyboard but how many people can get a wrench and fix that leak? Houses have to be fixed and if you don't maintain them they leak and fall apart. What do you think a high school education is for? Is it to get you into college or to make you a citizen? What is involved in citizenship? We're not teaching that in school. I taught math and science but, they teach too much math and science. Who factors quadratic equations nowadays? Nobody does that shit. Who was the genius who thought that everyone needs to know calculus?"

Instead, Weertz tries to offer youngsters a practical education, a chance to earn some money and learn some skills. At the very least, he makes space for them to play. In return, he gains their respect, and helps stop trouble before it starts.

He puts it this way: "One of my security strategies was to ask the kids who wanted to play basketball on the street what their addresses were. And then I put up a basketball net. So they knew that I knew where they lived, and now they knew that I did something good for them. Who would ever think of a security device like that? 'Hey, why don't you put up a basketball net in your neighborhood and get to know the kids and figure out where their heads are at before they get into trouble?' We need that community and we need these kids. Instead of looking at them like they could help us or be the next Einstein, we look at them like they're going to knock us upside the head. Is that where our society has gone?"

An unintentional community

Carolyn Leadley, 31, is sitting cross-legged on a shady bit of turf behind her home on Moran Street. Leadley and her husband, Jack VanDyke, 35, are former Farnsworth residents who've started their own urban agricultural operation, Rising Pheasant Farms, just across the street, where they also raise their two sons, aged 4 and 2. The farm is busy with spring preparations. The aluminum framework for the farm's new greenhouse stands ready to be wrapped, and, underneath it, the small operation's sole employee is preparing rows underneath. It's a bucolic scene that makes Farnsworth look bustling by comparison.

Originally from the Kalamazoo area, Leadley got to know Weertz back in 2007, when she moved to Detroit for a job with Greening of Detroit and wound up taking a job administering the agricultural programs at Catherine Ferguson Academy. For two years, she worked with Weertz on a daily basis, an experience she now admits was a crash course in agriculture.

In 2009, when she and VanDyke were wed, they rented from Weertz on Farnsworth in a building known as "the doll house." It's a single-family home that Weertz says was slid to the back of the lot decades ago so a larger house could be built in front. In this ancient structure, Leadley and VanDyke got permission to turn the attic into a grow room, effectively marking the beginning of their farming career.

She laughs now, recalling the way "only a crazy landlord like Paul would have let us get away with it. It was all under lights on multilayer shelves — that's how we were able to compact so much into an 8-by-20-foot space."

The business was a success, but living "under a farm" left much to be desired.

"It has a lot of downsides," Leadley says. "Taking compost up two flights of stairs in buckets. No matter how much you clean your house, it's just really dirty, 'cause you're just harvesting. I mean, we would basically clear out furniture every Friday in the living room so we could set up tables to harvest in the middle of winter."

The couple bought the house on Moran in 2011, and since then, working with Weertz, the city, and other owners, has assembled a farm that spans two blocks and comprises 11 city lots. They've been helped along by some generous grants, but through their hard work they've been able to add more agricultural energy to the core Weertz has provided. And they make a profit.

"It just has a very extended-family feel," says Leadley. "And Paul's always wanting to make things more kid-friendly. He's got his three grandkids. And so I think that attracted other folks who are not necessarily wanting to raise their kids in an intentional community of any sort."

In these rambling conversations with Farnsworth residents, it's the first time anybody has mentioned an "intentional community." Leadley laughs about it being an "unintentional intentional community," but clarifies the thought: "It's intentional in that it's community-minded, and it's kid-minded, and that it would be a supportive place to raise your kids with neighbors looking out for other neighbors and people working together on projects and things like that. Not because it's, like, 'in the rules' of some collective that you have to do those things, but that you do it 'cause you just want to."

Failure in the system

Weertz is understandably proud of the success of his block of Farnsworth. But his other success story, his role as the teacher who helped build up the agricultural program at Catherine Ferguson Academy, ended badly. He says it had always been a struggle to justify the funding for a school that combined parent-focused teaching, day care, and an intense agricultural component, but the fact remains that all of the academy's students went on to college, and the scholars' children received excellent care. But instead of being imitated, it was terminated.

The beginning of the end came when a Lansing-appointed emergency manager stepped in and announced the school would be closed. This resulted in a battle that left the school open, but in the hands of a charter operator. The charter company, run by Blair Evans, brother of current Wayne County Executive Warren Evans, closed the school after running it for a few years.

"Well it's always been 'too much money,'" he says. "That's why there were only five schools like that in the country. Pregnancy is the leading cause of dropout for young women. You think they'd have these at every state in the union, but it's just a discrimination issue. You can hassle poor women or pregnant women; they're not gonna say anything. With pregnant girls, we can somehow say, 'It's your fault.'

"It's a sensitive issue to me because I've always felt like I donated a lot of my labor and material, so to speak, because it was the public. Blair Evans is a nice guy, but I'm not donating my time to him. I thought it was the public school. It's like cleaning up a public park and finding out it's a gated community. What happened there? So that's the way it happened at Catherine Ferguson, and it was kind of a media frenzy. So many of us walked away like, 'That wasn't a victory,' but that's how the media presented it. 'They're saving the school and it's OK!' No one is doing a story now about what happened to the school. What is Detroit doing with their pregnant kids now?"

The way the program he helped build was wrested away provides a remarkable contrast to his ongoing efforts at neighborhood citizenship. No administrator or authority can step into Farnsworth and dole it out to some politically connected contractor. Weertz has labored for years for the system; now he's content to do things his own way, on his terms.

"I've always felt like you can work inside the system or outside the system for change, and the with the school stuff I worked inside the system," he says. "I went to board meetings and parent teacher meetings for years and years. And on this I'm working outside the system. I can do things with my neighbors and there's no supervisor."

Farnsworth keeps its head down

The story of the success of this single block of Farnsworth hasn't been easy to tell. And one of the reasons is that the people who live on Farnsworth have had a keen avoidance to publicity. The first time Metro Times approached Farnsworth residents about a story six years ago, we were given a polite but definite refusal. Over the years, that reluctance to go on the record about this unusual neighborhood has persisted. The people who've invested their time, money, and lives in this tight block of 100-year-old houses are still concerned that wider awareness would mean unavoidable change.

We met up with blogger, author, and MT contributor Drew Philp on a sunny spring afternoon on Farnsworth. Not only did he live on the block, it was part of the long-form piece he wrote for BuzzFeed about living in Detroit, a story that remains the most-read long piece in the website's brief history.

In his piece, and in the book he's writing based on the article, he has chosen to alter the names of streets and of key residents to throw curious readers off the scent.

"The reasoning behind that was that people here want to be left alone, generally," he says. "Paul wants to ride his tractor, doesn't want to get into a lot of this stuff, and I didn't want it to become a tourist attraction, as so much in the city does. Part of what's interesting about Farnsworth is it's in some ways a community without consumers, without consumer culture. And, in my opinion, I think the larger American culture often eats up good things like this and turns them into commodities. I want to be very careful to protect that."

Asked to clarify what he wouldn't want to happen, he says, "I think you can see it happening downtown, in a way. Cass Corridor, especially, with what has happened there. That neighborhood, good or bad, wrong or right, is very different than it was a decade ago. I'm not trying to make any value judgments on that whatsoever, I'm just saying it's very different. I think right now, people quite like it here. I think that, myself included, people want to be able to do that themselves and make it in their own image instead of having somebody come from on high likes Moses and make the decisions for them. 'Cause people here have been living for themselves and doing things for themselves with minimal city services and interaction for a long time."

Asked what publicity-shy residents don't want to see, Steggerda says, "Probably sightseers, for one. Perhaps we're afraid of too many people finding out and buying up the area. The city taking notice and clamping down. I'm mixed about development. My fears of changing what I like about Detroit. It's gonna change, and, ultimately, it's good for the city to have more people living here and to have more businesses and pay more taxes. But I kind of liked it the way it was too, so it's hard to adjust to that."

It isn't investment that Steggerda fears, but the way in which that investment tends to express itself. "In this country," she says, "there's generally one form of growth and gentrification and that is to upgrade. 'Upgrade, upgrade, upgrade.' Price out the poor people and move them out. Build nicer lofts and shopping. That's the only way we progress. ... I just think the fabric of a city should be multi-income and multi-ethnic. It never seems to work that way. I'm torn, like with the Cass Corridor. I wouldn't be working at a great Spanish restaurant if it wasn't changing and being gentrified. But I also miss the diversity."

But, for the most part, Steggerda has given journalists a cool reception. "Probably starting eight years ago, since my phone number is on the corner sign, I would get a phone call from someone writing an article or making a show. Our response for a while was if you want to help Detroit, move here and pay taxes. That's the rift between keeping our secret and wanting our city to grow."

It also hasn't helped that one journalist allegedly wrote about the neighborhood without its permission. Neighborhood resident Adam Verville tells how, several years ago, an old friend brought a writer for The New York Times onto the block and showed her around without identifying her as a journalist. "Then an article showed up," Verville says, "and no one had ever been told that anyone was doing anything. It just was like a kind of 'swoop in, write a piece, swoop out.' So there wasn't anything that wasn't factual in the article, but no one was really consulted about anything either."

Would an article mean that tourists would start descending on the block?

"They already do," Verville says. "I mean, via Keep Growing Detroit, or bike tours, or different things. At least that's all issue-based. People who are into farming or something, they show up. It's not just like random people who are out on the hunt for things to do and see come by. But, you know, with more attention, it might be like down on Mount Elliott, at Heidelberg."

What worries Leadley, she says, is "superficial interest. It being the next cool place, or the next cool neighborhood, and you get an influx of people who are from Brooklyn who are like, 'Sweet! I read about this in an article, so I decided to buy a house and move here!' It's like, 'Wait, wait, wait! You don't even know us! We could all be assholes! And you don't know the greater neighborhood or the context.' I mean, we were certainly excited about the neighborhood, but we rented from Paul for a long time and wanted to make sure it was really a place we wanted to be. So, yeah, I guess you worry that things will change. I just feel like there's a general sense of the appreciation of slow change, the grassroots kind of slow change that created this."

'Sharing it together'

Perhaps, in the end, the deciding factor to speak with Metro Times was the unavoidable fact that the neighborhood isn't just stable — it's growing. The block is almost completely occupied now, its destiny seeming to be firmly in the hands of its householders, and the last five years have seen a number of fans of Farnsworth buy homes on adjacent blocks, or, like Philp, within a 10-minute walk. And, of course, the activity at Rising Pheasant Farms can't be ignored.

"This nucleus is expanding in rings because now there are other people who were inspired by this model," Dave Roberts says. "There's a tight cluster down on Garfield-Canfield-Campau, a whole area that now is filled with people who were really inspired by this example here. What they don't necessarily have is the same housing density that exists here. On Garfield there's really just one side of the street left, but they're farming on the other side of the street and doing the same kind of restoration in terms of everybody wanting repurposed items. I think it is expanding from here, at least from this area as a nucleus."

How that process plays out is an obvious concern. Leadley wants any new residents to add to what's already there, and to respect the city residents around it.

"I want a better quality of life for my neighbors and things like that, but you don't want people to be left behind, you don't want people to be silenced because they feel like, 'Oh, well the Farnsworth neighborhood is all that's here,'" she says. "Obviously, there's lots of people here who've never heard of the Farnsworth neighborhood and they live right next to it. And they'd be like, 'Who's that? What are you talking about?' We don't want other people to feel silenced out of their own neighborhood, so to speak, because they don't really associate with that idea or that new naming of it, kind of like that Midtown-Cass Corridor dynamic."

It's a fair point. Because the neighborhood has been so disinvested, a few households of modest means have been able to buy homes and preserve them. It has allowed the small community to defy the odds and grow by slow accretion over three decades. A sudden surge in interest, or in land values, or in institutional investment, could harm that fragile balance that allows the neighborhood to pursue a form of growth that's socially just.

Molly Steggerda puts things more simply: "I think we're one little group of people that loves our block and takes care of it and we're lucky to have so many people who care. I'm not gonna stop mowing at my lot line; I'm just gonna mow as far as I can mow. We're lucky to have people like that. I think all over the city there are little enclaves like that. You drive around and you see these people who have taken over the lots next to them and they're well-manicured, and I truly believe that spreads."

As for the man at the center of it all, Weertz sums it up thusly.

"I like public schools because they're socialist. Schools are like socialism: Not everyone is even-steven but they try to work for the good of everybody, not the good of one teacher or one student. They do it for the good of the group. We get our reward in seeing that group succeed. That's the same kind of thing around here: It's kind of a socialistic. This, it's benefiting the neighborhood, and we're all sharing it together."

Michael Jackman is managing editor of the Detroit Metro Times.