The last stink

John Nagy has been alive for 53 years, and every one of them has been spent living in Delray. Until now. A well-known grassroots activist, Nagy has pulled up stakes, moving from his lifelong neighborhood on Detroit's southwest side to Monroe's Frenchtown Township. He's left the community where he was born and attended school, moving from the house on Bacon Street he and three brothers grew up in and continued to live in as adults. And, most importantly for those who remain behind, he's left the community he's been trying to better for decades.

All that history and all the points of connection that come with it are being left behind because Nagy's finally fed up with a city he says doesn't care about the neighborhood he loves.

"I hit a brick wall," he says.

The breaking point came in the form of a composting facility that moved into southwest Detroit last year and received final approval from the City Council on a 5-4 vote earlier this year. Nagy and others complain that the facility produces a nauseating smell — one he can easily distinguish from the other foul odors that also plague the neighborhood, like the stink that comes from the city's wastewater treatment plant located nearby, or from the diesel fumes belched by big semis that roll through the area day and night.

"C'mon," says Nagy, "let's go for a ride and I'll show you what I'm talking about."

We took a similar ride back in January, when Nagy was still fighting the composting facility. On that trip he pointed out efforts by people in the community to make improvements to their homes, a new porch here, new siding there and a fresh paint job at another spot. He also pointed out the challenges, but the emphasis was on highlighting the reasons to be optimistic in a neighborhood that, at last count, had about 4,000 residents.

This time out, the rose-colored glasses were gone. Around the corner from his house is the long-closed McMillan Elementary, which Nagy says was purchased a few years ago. "Look at it now," he says. "It's wide-open. There's no boards on the windows. Anyone can get in." Land around the building has been turned into a dumpsite.

"I've made numerous complaints to the city about this," he says, "but nothing's been done."

He makes a right-hand turn and points to a line of doors leaning against a chain-link fence enclosing a yard strewn with junk. It's another source of complaints that have gone unaddressed. "I turned that one in three years ago," says Nagy.

Farther down the block he points to another house. "That guy's running a used appliance business out of there. The city just lets him do it."

He turns the corner and goes down another street until he gets to a mound of trash and junk several feet high. Since the city cut back to doing bulk trash pickup once every three months, three pickup cycles have come and gone without the garbage pile getting hauled away.

"It's just gotten to the point where I'm tired of fighting battles I can't win," he says before pulling in front of an abandoned, vacant house with the exterior brick gone.

"I called the city's Buildings & Safety Engineering Department as the guys were actually there stripping the bricks, and they [B&SE] told me they didn't have enough inspectors to send anyone out. And the guys were right there, stealing the bricks."

At the end of the tour, Nagy stops at a yard at the end of his block. It's enclosed by chain-link fence, has trees and shrubs and roses. It used to be an abandoned eyesore sitting next to one of Nagy's rental homes. He simply took control of the property, spending a few thousand dollars to landscape it before eventually acquiring it from the city. In the yard sits a large wooden sign, painted blue with gold letters that announce: "Welcome to Delray." He built the sign and planted it in the ground, he says, "Because I've always been proud to be from Delray."

It is hard to calculate what it costs a community like Delray to lose a John Nagy, but his move out certainly comes with a price to be paid by those who remain.

"John leaving is an incredible loss," says Lisa Goldstein, executive director of the group Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision. A frequent ally, Nagy took a lead role in assisting Goldstein's group in the battle against the composting facility.

"I also understand why he came to the point where he felt like he was beating his head against he wall," says Goldstein. As with other problems in the community Nagy points out, Goldstein says it has been a struggle getting the city and state to keep odors at the compost site in check.

"I'd say enforcement has been fairly minimal," observes Goldstein.

As a result, Nagy feels particularly bad for his neighbors, many of whom are elderly and on fixed incomes. Unable to afford air conditioning, they have to leave their windows open on hot summer nights, when the stink is often at its worst.

That kind of concern will surely be missed, says Thomas Cervenak, executive director of the nonprofit Peoples Community Services. The organization is concerned with the provision of social services to people in the area's needy neighborhoods; Nagy serves on its board of directors.

"The thing about John," says Cervenak, "is that he's always clear on his agenda, which is the betterment of his community. For some activists, they are active to see what they can get out of it. Not John. All he's been interested in is to make sure his community thrived as best as possible."

Nagy's departure doesn't represent a total break from his community — he intends to remain involved with Peoples Community Services and promises to remain active on other issues, but his move out raises anew a basic question about Delray today: Located as it is in an industrial zone, should it continue to be a residential area at all?

"The city is trying to have its cake and eat it too," says City Council President Kenneth Cockrel Jr. Continuing to allow new industry to move into an area where residents are already shouldering more than their fair share of polluters, and at the same time selling city-owned property to new homeowners, doesn't make sense, he says.

He thinks the best plan might involve relocating homeowners, but that takes money the city doesn't have. And even if a funding source were found, some residents would fight leaving.

"There are folks living there who have their roots planted pretty deep, folks who are not going to go no matter what," says Cockrel.

It always seemed like John Nagy would be one of those people.

Until now.

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

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