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Beyond 'ruin porn'

"Beyond 'ruin porn'" Continued...

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

We walked down the street so Schumack could show me one of the community gardens, but she also wanted to check on a house where she had seen suspicious activity-a squatter? A legitimate tenant? Later she spent 15 minutes on the phone, calling various neighbors until she learned that a new tenant had moved in.

In a neighborhood like Brightmoor it's important to keep track of neighbors; otherwise, "people break in and then start squatting." Schumack ticked off the status of the small frame bungalows across the street: "Most are rentals . . . owner, rental, rental, nice rental." She paused at one house: "Someone abandoned and stripped the pipes out of it. It flooded and is now pretty useless."

As Schumack told me this story, a teenaged boy dressed in shorts dashed out of her neighbor's house, despite the snow on the ground and 10-degree temperatures. She scolded him affectionately, reminding him that he stayed home from school because he was supposed to be sick. One of the kids involved with the community garden, he earned enough last summer to buy a computer with his share of the profits.

More than a dozen kids are involved with the garden, helping to build the frames and haul the compost, planting and tending the gardens, and selling the produce at a nearby farmers market. They share in the profits depending on how much labor they put in. As the number of beds has increased, from two the first summer to 24, the program has become more organized. Kids took a weekly financial literacy class and last year learned about giving some of their bounty to others.

Schumack and her neighbor, Sheila Hoerauf, are seeing how activity in the neighborhood can bring tangible results. When Schumack first moved in, she took an eight-week course that covered urban gardening topics and explained how to apply for city-owned land. Schumack learned "if you have problems with crime, community gardening would be a very good thing to do." It didn't take long before she could test that theory.

A house on the other side of a city-owned lot was an active crack house. Schumack got permission from the city to plant a garden on the lot. They located the garden so they could keep watch on the house: "Crackheads and prostitutes came in and out all the time. . . . They were dealing from there." Schumack and Hoerauf called the police every time they saw the dealer there, but by the time the police came he would be gone. Then on Good Friday they called, the police came, the dealer was still there, and the police arrested the whole crew.

Schumack's church came and boarded up the house, scribbling Christian graffiti on the boards. Eventually the Schumacks bought it out of foreclosure. The parents of one of the kids involved in the gardening project now live there.

Last month at the other end of the street a house abandoned six weeks earlier sat amid a field of ice. Thieves had stripped the pipes. Water had been flowing continuously out of the basement and onto the yard and into the street. Schumack called the city to turn the water off, but no one had yet come.

Schumack acknowledged that new neighbors don't always know what to think of her: "Sheila and I are called the Bible ladies. We always go up and knock on the door, tell them who we are, and offer our help." Sometimes the neighbors "are suspicious, like, 'Who are you? What do you want from us?' . . . We just continue to be friendly."

Dan and Cherie Bandrowski graduated from college, attended Bible school, thought deeply about John Perkins' ideas, and moved into Brightmoor in the mid-1980s. They knew they wanted to work with kids over a long time so they could develop lasting relationships. They do not have children of their own, and they throw their love and labor into Wellspring, a nonprofit organization that offers Kumon math and language arts tutoring for low-income kids. It operates out of a small frame house in Brightmoor that also functions as a community center, with a basketball court outside and foosball and pingpong in the basement. The Bandrowskis live down the street.

Last year 68 children, ages 6-17, received math tutoring. Thirty of those students also enrolled in the Kumon reading/language arts program. The classes are a big commitment for parents and children. Each class lasts 90 minutes, twice a week. A child in both classes spends at least six hours a week at the tutoring center, and that doesn't include the nightly homework, which requires parental supervision.

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