Picking Apart Detroit To Make It Whole Again

March 9, 2014

Images of a fallen city have drawn national attention to Detroit. But the focus now is on how to remake Detroit into the grand city it once was.

Part of the recovery process is repairing the bankrupt city’s blight.

There are an estimated 80,000 abandoned buildings scattered throughout Detroit. In February, Kevyn Orr, the state-appointed emergency manager, announced a $500 million project to tear down those structures. Now all kinds of organizations are jockeying for position to win city contracts to do the work. One of those is Reclaim Detroit.

“We have an approach that systematically takes apart these buildings piece by piece,” says Jeremy Haines, the sales and marketing manager for Reclaim Detroit.

Founded in 2011, Haines’ organization has been trying to recycle the wood found in these buildings. In the last few months, Reclaim Detroit has taken down 10 houses in the Springwells neighborhood, just a few miles southwest of downtown Detroit.

Esteban Castro has lived in this neighborhood for most of his life. A few years ago, he bought a red brick house across from the cemetery, which he says is the perfect backdrop for sunsets. And the house itself is a thing to behold, right down to its hand-carved molding along the ceiling.

Despite his lack of neighbors, Castro is a glass-half-full kind of guy; things could always be worse, he says.

“There’s one empty house next to me and I’m bummed out, but what about the street … that is all slated for this demolition that we’re talking about? It’s all relative,” Castro says.

The city’s blight commission and organizations like Reclaim Detroit are trying to change Castro’s neighborhood — quickly.

Once a building is torn down, the second phase of the process begins. Any salvageable wood is brought to a workshop where it’s transformed into something else, like a coffee table or a door.

Isaac Lott is one of the dozens of workers whom Reclaim Detroit have trained and put to work.

“I take down houses the green way — by hand,” Lott says, “and I love it. It’s called deconstruction.”

Lott spent a lifetime on the streets of Detroit selling and using drugs. After he got out of prison, clean and sober, he was looking to start over. He was trained to do deconstruction work four years ago, and now he’s a site supervisor for Reclaim Detroit.

“I’m hoping that this deconstruction thing continues, even though demolition seems to be a little cheaper for the city,” he says.

That’s the problem groups like Reclaim Detroit are up against: The city wants the blight gone immediately, and that means demolition. Deconstruction, on the other hand — salvaging things along the way — takes more time and money.

Reclaim Detroit has to scale back the kind of job training programs that brought Lott into its workforce. Instead, it’s hiring more contractors who already have the skills they need to do the job. Two words that keep popping up in Detroit are “cost efficient.”

“We can say until we’re blue in the face that if you really look at it long term, if you capture all of the accounting, look at the lives, look at the neighborhood, we know that it’s the right thing to do; it’s sustainable,” Haines says. “But it comes down to dollars.”

Reclaim Detroit’s currency is the history of the city. Every piece of wood the organization salvages is labeled with the address of where it came from. In the end, it’s selling a story.

“When you walk through these houses, it’s hard not to imagine the footsteps of the former owners, and the children, and how many generations lived through this house that’s been here for 100 years,” Haines says.

It’s a story that a new generation of Detroiters are anxious to buy. Gabe Gloden and his wife, Emily Goodson, moved to Detroit a couple years ago and bought a flat in an old Victorian house in Detroit’s Woodbridge neighborhood. They paid about $800 for a table made out of the wood salvaged by Reclaim Detroit and refurbished by a company called Workshop.

The couple’s community is in transition. There are plenty of vacant homes, but there are also young families; one of the abandoned corner lots holds a bright red public art sculpture, while another is home to a community garden.

“Obviously it has a lot of problems,” Gloden says, “but if you can see through that, [the] core of an amazing city is still here.”

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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