It was the late Eighties, and the neighborhood just to the south of where John George lives in Old Redford was feeling the pinch of the crack epidemic.
“We didn’t want to be part of an expanding problem but part of a solution,” he says.
It came a little too close to home – literally – when an abandoned house behind theirs turned into a crack den. George knew he couldn’t let the situation continue. “It’s a form of child abuse to let kids grow up around that negative energy.” Instead of moving out and away from the problem, he recruited a few neighbors and boarded up the house—with plywood and nails, in one day. “When the drug dealers came back, they turned around and went home.”
That’s how Detroit Blight Busters started, 29 years ago.
George, 59, is a lifelong Detroiter. Born in Brightmoor, his family moved to Grandmont Rosedale which he described as a solid neighborhood. “We knew everyone on the block.” After marrying, he moved to Old Redford where his activism first took root.
Since starting Motor City Blight Busters – now known as Detroit Blight Busters – George has facilitated approximately 182,000 volunteers to stabilize the neighborhoods in Northwest Detroit. They have painted 700, secured 400, renovated 200, and built over 100 homes since the group’s inception.
On October 24, Geroge was recognized with the Exemplary Neighborhood Leadership Award at the 2017 Detroit Community Development Awards. The annual event drew leaders from the non-profit and business sectors to Cobo Hall’s Riverview Ballroom for a presentation that honors community leaders and residents making real change in and around Detroit.
The awards are presented by the Masco Corporation Foundation, Detroit Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), Michigan Community Resources (MCR), and Community Development Advocates of Detroit (CDAD).
George’s other signature project is Angel’s Night, a term he coined in response to his Aunt Mary’s dread when Devil’s Night – the night before Halloween – was nearing.
“A light bulb went off in my head. ‘We’ll get rid of it!’ I said,” George recounts of the night that had traditionally seen arson and vandalism run rampant all over Detroit. His response: Angel’s Night, a citizens patrol that would take to the streets stirring up good instead of mischief, i.e., looking for vandals and any suspicious activity and keeping it at bay. That first year 12 people from the neighborhood showed up. The media picked up on it and the next year 100 people showed up. The following year there were 500. George ultimately convinced Mayor Archer to take the Angel’s Night concept citywide. Today, more than 60,000 people come out for Angel’s Night. The arson prevention program has been so successful that Mayor Duggan announced it is being eliminated and replaced by three-day, community-wide celebration.
Detroit Blight Busters does a lot more than just rehab houses. George eventually dove into the heart of Old Redford, the area at Lahser Road and Grand River, raising and investing $20 million in the last 29 years on rehabbing existing businesses, including the restoration of the former Masonic Temple at 17405 Lahser.
They have painted murals and built Artist Village Detroit, five city blocks that have now become a campus including Motor City Java House (run by his wife Alicia), offices, a courtyard, and an art gallery where each year “Sidewalk,” an outdoor arts and culture festival, takes place on the first Saturday in August. There is even Farm City Detroit, a community garden where everything grown is given away. Two blocks east, George is partnering with a veterans’ organization on the renovation of an apartment building for returning veterans.
Then there is the Meijer off McNichols, which George helped encourage after a meeting with the president of Meijer. “I asked them to buy the old high school, tear it down, and put in a 32,000-square-foot grocery store.”
Today, the store is a neighborhood anchor.
He also convinced the city to re-open the Eighth Precinct, at Grand River and Eight Mile, which was closed during the Kilpatrick administration.
Mayor Duggan declared the Lahser and Grand River district a new arts and entertainment development district earlier this year, even assigning a city planner to work on it. He has also called upon Detroit Blight Busters to help board up 12,000 blighted houses. Their ongoing discussions have led to a plan and contract from the city.
George knows that what they do is vital to the continuation of the city’s resurgence.
“Blight is like a cancer: If you don’t set upon it, it will spread. We are knocking that cancer back and killing it.”
He also knows that what Detroit Blight Busters set in motion long ago is helping to spur Detroit’s real renaissance today.
“We are on the front porch of the greatest urban comeback story in this nation’s history.”
Editor’s Note: For more information on Detroit LISC, visit detroitlisc.org.
See other Detroit Blight Busters Coverage from TheHUB:
For more information on the 2017 Detroit Community Development Awards, visit their facebook page
See more of TheHUB’s coverage on the 2017 Detroit Community Development Awards:
Neighborhood redevelopment leader Jefferson East, Inc. honored