Cover Story

Brightmoor fighters

"Brightmoor fighters" Continued...

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

Outside the Farmway, traditional neighborhood revitalization efforts can’t seem to halt Brightmoor’s downward spiral. John O’Brien heads up Northwest Detroit Neighborhood Development (NDND), which since its founding in 1989 has built 231 new rental houses and renovated a 23-unit apartment building. Money came from the Low Income Tax Credit program (LITC), a government-funded program that subsidizes rents for people within certain income guidelines. NDND, hoping construction would stabilize the neighborhood, also built or renovated 126 homes for purchase by people who qualify under another government program. 

Those efforts largely failed. Timing was part of the problem: The subprime and foreclosure crisis hit Detroit hard. Today, at least one of the NDND houses built fewer than 10 years ago sits boarded up. Listed at $70,000 to $80,000 in 2008, it is now worth less than $20,000. Under the terms of the government program that funded construction, the house had to be sold, not rented, so it ended up with boards over the windows and door. “An embarrassment,” O’Brien said.

O’Brien still says stabilizing the neighborhood depends on construction of new housing with funds from outside, but the latest citywide long-range plan, “Detroit Works,” which came out in early January, makes new funding seem unlikely. A video made by the Federal Reserve at the beginning of the Detroit Works process argued for government and private foundations to align their goals and direct money into healthier neighborhoods, while letting less healthy ones go. Brightmoor, it said, was too far gone to save. 

The final document softened those recommendations, but if planners have their way, Brightmoor will receive even less in city services. The city can’t afford to keep up fire, sewer, garbage, street lights, and snow removal in such sparsely populated areas. Already the neighborhood feels the effect: The city still provides police, but the fire station closed. Street lights work, but no inspectors come to check on them, so burned-out bulbs don’t get fixed unless neighbors make a fuss. The day I visited, several inches of frozen snow covered unplowed streets.

Schumack is a realist: “If it were up to the city, they would get us all out of here tomorrow.” In the meantime, she says, her neighbors view themselves as a demonstration project for post-apocalyptic living. Wood-burning stoves and composting toilets are in. Some, like the Schumacks, keep bees and raise goats, chickens, and rabbits. Neighbors support themselves with market gardens, watered by rainwater catch systems: If gas prices keep going up, they think their vegetables might be able to compete with produce shipped from across the country.

Neighbors are also using hoop houses, a kind of low-tech portable greenhouse, to extend the growing season. Some are looking into rocket mass heaters, a super-efficient, wood-burning heat system. Is this experimentation strictly legal? Detroit zoning laws don’t permit farming, but that could soon change. Chickens, rabbits, and bees will be in, but goats will still be out. Schumack says an unwritten rule guides interactions between the city and the Farmway: “The city ignores us, both negatively and positively. They don’t want to say, ‘No, you can’t do that.’ So they smile and say, ‘Don’t tell us anything. … We’re not asking anyone anything.’ We’re just doing it.”

Brightmoor resident Katharina Walsh, who trains teens to create murals on boarded-up houses and to translate the ideas of younger children into house-sized art, meets with neighbors to hear what kind of art they’d like on nearby houses. She doesn’t seek approval from city hall: “We don’t have time to follow regulations. … If landlords have a problem, I don’t have a problem telling them their priorities are out of line.”

Schumack and some of the people moving into the neighborhood are Christians, as are many long-term residents, but the philosophy guiding development in the Farmway depends on sight, not faith: “Hope comes from highly visible and short-term evidence of renewal.” The names of local gardens reflect big concepts like “neighborhood empowerment” and “individual initiative”: Myra’s Bird Haven and River Trail, Miss Gwen’s Edible Play-scape, Char’s Butterfly Trail, a Community Pumpkin Patch, Pingree’s Community Potato Patch, and others. 

Schumack says residents have lots of practical skills to share. “I’m in awe of what I see here. Miss Gwen is my greatest example.” When a foundation turned down Miss Gwen’s grant request, the long-time resident said no worries, she’d raise the money herself. She and a friend held two fish fries and made $1,000. Schumack admires her neighbors for being “hustlers” who “make do with what you got. [That’s] what it takes to live in a neighborhood like this one—and it might be what it takes to live in a future world.”


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