Cover Story
TRUE GRIT: Gwen Shivers harvesting vegetables on a vacant lot in the Brightmoor neighborhood of Detroit
Rebecca Cook/Reuters/Landov
TRUE GRIT: Gwen Shivers harvesting vegetables on a vacant lot in the Brightmoor neighborhood of Detroit

Brightmoor fighters

Cities | Population loss and official neglect haven’t kept residents of one Detroit neighborhood from banding together to rebuild

Issue: "The new urban frontier," March 9, 2013

DETROIT—Riet Schumack has lived in the Detroit area since 1991. In 2006 she and her husband Mark, an engineering professor at the University of Detroit-Mercy, moved to Brightmoor, a four-square-mile, hard-pressed neighborhood on the city’s northwest side. Some people call it Blightmoor.

The Schumacks for years had prayed for an opportunity to do urban gardening and be a good influence in Brightmoor. They bought their home from a woman fleeing the neighborhood after seeing her house broken into three times. It’s now worth much less than what they’ve put into it, but they’re not running. After police closed a drug and prostitution house down the street, the Schumacks bought it and fixed it up for about $50,000. It’s now appraised for about $20,000—not very smart investing if making money (or even treading water) is the goal.

That didn’t keep them from doubling-down on the neighborhood. They recently bought three small houses across the street for a total of $15,000: a good deal, maybe, although market value is hard to judge. The seller had them priced at $75,000 two years ago and $45,000 last year. Riet Schumack shrugs off questions about the long-term investment value of the properties: “We’re all in,” she says, describing their commitment to the neighborhood. She noted an upside: They bought the houses before “the scrappers” had stripped out the copper pipes and wiring to sell as scrap. 

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I first visited Brightmoor three years ago (“Beyond ‘ruin porn,’” March 27, 2010). Like Detroit overall, it has lost close to one-third of its population since 2000. Some people left because they couldn’t afford $5,000 to replace deteriorating sewer lines. Others had enough of crime, poor city services, and bad schools. Three out of five Brightmoor lots are now vacant. 

Yet, hope floats in a 21-block micro-neighborhood called Brightmoor Farmway, with neighbors pursuing a person-by-person, block-by-block strategy, and embracing Detroit’s “post-apocalyptic” possibilities, when city government no longer provides services. On one block, raised-bed gardens stretch out over 10 lots—about an acre. The land belongs to a young man who hopes to make a living growing high-end organic vegetables for local restaurants. On another, blackboard paint covers the exterior of a boarded-up house, providing a clever way to announce neighborhood events. 

Other art-covered, vacant and boarded-up houses throughout the Farmway sport flowers and trains, sunsets, and Dr. Seuss–like trees. Some carry slogans along with artwork: “God Makes Beautiful Things Out of Us,” and “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” That slogan, painted on boards covering the windows of an abandoned school, sums up the neighborhood doctrine.

Brightmoor Farmway started informally with several families working together on a “youth garden” down the street from the Schumacks’ house. After several years, those families started a nonprofit organization, Neighbors Building Brightmoor (NBB), to continue the work they were already doing—building gardens, making friends, and keeping blight at bay. In 2010, 12 families decided to hold a neighborhood Harvest Fest, and 200 people showed up. About 150—half of them children—came from the 21-block area. 

The existence of so many children surprised neighbors because they rarely saw them playing outside. Schumack speaks of children who sit “inside a house watching TV or playing video games, because out there it’s dangerous and ugly and nasty, and they grow up not knowing what beauty is. … That’s to me the worst of everything. … I can’t live with that.” 

Creating a safe environment for children became an NBB goal. By removing exterior walls and leaving interior walls and the roof, volunteers turned a debris-filled vacant house into a children’s playhouse. Located next to a neighborhood pocket park redeemed from the ruins, the playhouse boasts a small stage for musical performances and plays. In the summertime children roast marshmallows over a fire pit and chase fireflies under the trees. NBB put on potlucks, sponsored petting zoos, cleaned up a field for ultimate frisbee, and led nature walks.

Efforts snowballed as more neighbors caught the vision. Over the past three years, gardens and pocket parks have sprouted throughout the 21-block area. Each garden or cleaned-up lot announces that someone—Scott, Wayne, Old Dude, Nikki, Kat, Kenny, Jess, Jeremy, Craig, Ray—has agreed to care for that site. “You can board a place up,” Schumack says, “but if there’s no one to sponsor it, it will just look a mess.” 

She points to a stretch of unkempt houses, some owned by residents and others occupied by tenants who have shown little interest in the neighborhood. If they aren’t interested in cleaning up their own yards, NBB refuses to do it for them. Schumack says, “You have to become involved. … It’s Neighbors Building Brightmoor. Neighbors helping neighbors. There is no service industry here.”

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