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Beyond 'ruin porn'

"Beyond 'ruin porn'" Continued...

Issue: "Cities of God and Man," March 27, 2010

Vinny is the same age as Johanon's son, and she has tracked what happened to her son's neighborhood friends: school dropouts at age 16, incarcerated at least once by age 18, and "at 19 most had had their first child . . . the tug and the pull of the streets."

Tony McDuffy, 40, is a soft-spoken African-American man in a neighborhood without many dads around. Only about one out of six kids in central Detroit lives in a two-parent home. Johanon met Tony when he was 15. He's now one of the youth leaders, mentoring kids like Vinny. Johanon says, "He's far more impactful than I can ever be."

With only 15 percent of kids in her area graduating from high school, CDC2 focuses resources on helping kids get their diplomas. The organization also owns a deli, an ice cream store, and a produce market where young people who go through employment training can work. After five or six months, they move on to jobs with local employers, including the concession stands at Joe Louis Arena and a local McDonald's franchise. They're valuable employees because they've learned the secret of "showing up" and they have interested adult mentors.

Last summer CDC2's Peaches and Greens, the produce market, began selling fresh produce from a brightly painted truck that winds its way through the neighborhood like an ice cream truck. The store and the truck, filled with produce grown in a CDC2 community garden or bought at a wholesale market, is CDC2's attempt to provide access to nutritious foods in a part of the city that has one grocery store and 23 liquor stores.

CDC2 is broadening its jobs focus, working to retool people in "niches where there is a prospect of a job at the end." That includes energy auditing and medical billing, through partnerships with qualified trainers and employers.

It is hard sometimes to see progress, so Johanon keeps a list in her purse with the names of those whose lives have changed because of her organization: "If you just build houses, it becomes a ghetto 20 years later if you haven't done anything to change people's mentalities."

Riet Schumack is a blunt-spoken woman who knows how to get things done in her Brightmoor neighborhood in far northwest Detroit. She volunteers 50 hours each week, acting as secretary for the Brightmoor Alliance, gardening, working with kids, and just being a presence-someone who cares. When she sees criminal activity, she calls the police. When she sees a decrepit and abandoned home, she and her husband Mark, a professor at the University of Detroit Mercy, have been known to buy it, renovate it, and make it available to a solid citizen. They don't do it to make money. (One of their purchases cost them nearly $50,000 after renovations, and it's appraised for only $20,000.) They do it because they care about the neighborhood.

Brightmoor, 12 miles northwest of CDC2 but within the city limits, is a neighborhood founded in the 1920s for Appalachian whites recruited to work on Henry Ford's assembly line. The houses were small frame structures without inside bathrooms. They sat on large lots-and the expectation was that residents, after working for several years, would build larger and more permanent houses. Then came the Depression, and those plans stalled. The neighborhood never prospered.

Riet Schumack greeted me in front of the house she and her husband bought in 2006. For years they had wanted to move to Brightmoor to do urban gardening, but it had taken a while to find the right house. This house became available when the previous owner, a single mother, abandoned it after thieves broke in three times. The Schumacks offered to pay her what she still owed.

The house was in terrible shape, but with the help of their church they remodeled it and moved in. Now, four years later, the house overflows with life. It sits on a huge lot with towering shade trees in the backyard, which slopes down to the Rouge River. It's a flood plain, so the Schumacks can't build or garden on most of it, but it gives the neighborhood a quiet, country feel. At the top of the backyard, on higher ground near the house, is a chicken coop. The 13 hens produce about nine eggs a day in mid-winter. The yard has beehives, a compost pile, and firewood stacked neatly along the fence.

Near the driveway sits a greenhouse. The Garden Resource Program, sponsored by several local groups to help urban gardeners, helped her build it after she completed a six-week class on extending the growing season.

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