The Return of the Abandoned Structure Squad

Dear Sir or Madam:

With rue my heart is laden. … For the buildings that once were homes, stores, businesses, manufacturing plants, churches. … For the shelter they provided, for the mercantile exchanges they saw, for the industry that took place, for the worship, for the learning (did I mention schools?). And last but not least, for the abandoned structure squad, and all the sentiments that were raised by it. Please don’t discontinue it.

David Helmbold


Our ASS was born on Jan. 9, 2002, but it took a while for its identity to be firmly established. It started out as the abandoned house of the week, an item that anchored our News Hits column with a photo, as much info as we could dig up on some vacant home we set our sights on, and, usually, a dash of description parodying a typical real estate blurb. For a short while it became the abandoned shelter of the week after we made forays into storefronts and apartments. But that didn’t have quite the right ring to it. Then (as with most legends, the exact moment of its creation can’t be pinpointed) what we were doing morphed into the Abandoned Structure Squad, and we had our identity.

We also had our critics. Plenty of them.

“What’s the purpose?” they asked. They said all ASS did was perpetuate a negative image that the city of Detroit desperately needed to shed. And what about all the good things happening in the city? Why did we ignore that?

Well, that just wasn’t the ASS way. For one thing, we have written and will write plenty about redevelopment and restoration of the community. For another, politicians and bureaucrats are always eager to trumpet good news and pooh-pooh ongoing problems. Developers pay PR flacks good money to pump up the volume. And our brethren in the media are usually more than willing to carry the tune.

No one needed us to do the same thing. Besides, our new mayor was on the stump proclaiming that the demolition of abandoned buildings would be a priority for his administration. We thought we could help. So our ASS stepped into the breach.

It could be hazardous duty. One ASS member had her vehicle rammed while out scouting a particularly rough neighborhood. It seemed one of the denizens there wanted to send the message that interlopers weren’t welcome. And we never knew when we’d stumble upon some derelict or addict holed up in one of the places being explored. Squad members venture into forbidding neighborhoods and knock on strange doors in search of information. They try to decode often-clouded deeds to determine a property’s ownership.

There’s one other thing about our ASS that motivated us to ignore the critics and keep cranking out the pictures and text every week: We thought it might do some good, keeping a constant eye on a problem that plagues far too many Detroit neighborhoods. In January 2002, when ASS launched, Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick set a goal of 5,000 demolitions by September — and that was just to take care of empty structures near schools. (According to the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, 2,578 residential units were actually demolished in 2002 — a figure that includes houses destroyed by fire). We tried to find out from the city how many abandoned buildings remain today but weren’t provided the information.

What we did find over time is that the critics weren’t people living next to forsaken dumps. Those folks welcomed our ASS with open arms. They phoned and wrote to provide us with the addresses of places they wanted to see featured. Besides that, we thought that the squad’s work could be poignant and provocative and sometimes, in a slightly demented way, fun.

Apparently, so did a lot of our readers. Just how many, we didn’t realize until earlier this year when we decided to discontinue the feature. We thought that, after more than two years, ASS was beginning to grow stale. Apparently, we were wrong. We received e-mails, plenty of them, some from as far away as California. People approached us on the street and in the store and in bars and at parties. They e-mailed and wrote letters in droves, all saying the same thing: We want our ASS!

And so we decided to do two things. First is this package of stories, an ASS retrospective that looks back at 48 of the structures we wrote about during the first year of the squad’s existence.

We found a lot of progress. Twenty-two buildings have been demolished. Eight are being renovated. Unfortunately, the other 18 are still standing, or in some cases teetering, in even worse shape than when we first wrote about them.

The other reason for all this is to serve notice to friend and critic alike: Our ASS is back and ready to keep kickin’.

Beginning next week, look for the ASS featured abandoned structure in each issue of Metro Times.


Read the following ASS profiles:
Last house standing
One hole among many
Brush back
Lion in wait
Loretta's turf
What a steel
Strangled in red tape
After-school special
Washed up - not!
More ASS stories Curt Guyette is the news editor of Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]

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