- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 4, 2010

DETROIT | Dennis Talbert turns onto Heyden Street toward the safety and security of his modest wood bungalow at the far end of the block, but first he must pass through a wasteland.

Twenty weed-infested and trash-strewn lots. Nine vacant houses. A pile of discarded car tires. A 6-foot-high mountain of clothing, moldering furniture and other refuse. Curbs littered with soiled baby diapers, soda bottles, potato chip bags.

This is Brightmoor, one of the most blighted neighborhoods in a blighted city. But Mr. Talbert, president of an organization that provides technical support to faith-based and community agencies, sees hope in a place that seems so hopeless to the rest of the world.

“You have a lot of vacant facilities. You have a lot of burned-out facilities,” Mr. Talbert said. “But you have these pockets where people have been for a long time and take care of their property. They love their property, and they consider Brightmoor home and they’re never going to move.”

Mayor Dave Bing, too, sees promise in places like Brightmoor. With $20 million in federal funds, he is pushing forward with a plan to resuscitate dying neighborhoods by tearing down 10,000 dangerous, vacant houses. Meanwhile, the Kauffman, Skillman, Kresge, Hudson-Webber and other foundations are throwing millions of dollars more into job creation, a public schools rescue and various quality-of-life programs.

The job of rescuing and remaking Detroit is monumental, fraught with many past failures and few successes. It is being undertaken at a time when the nation’s 11th-largest city needs victories — large and small.

Families are fleeing. A 139-square-mile city that was built for 2 million people could dip below 800,000 when 2010 census numbers are collected.

The public schools are challenged academically and financially. A state-appointed financial manager has ordered the closings of up to 44 schools in June to help cut a $219 million deficit and address rapidly declining enrollment.

Yet Mr. Bing has managed to keep Detroit a few steps ahead of bankruptcy. He presented the City Council with a budget that reduces a deficit of more than $300 million to $85 million. He also has eliminated vacant city jobs and laid off workers, and is threatening more layoffs while battling with the city’s largest union over pay cuts and other concessions.

With the former Detroit Piston point guard at the helm, trust in City Hall is returning slowly after a 2008 sex scandal derailed the political career of Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, though a federal public corruption probe that snared a councilwoman continues to dog the city.

Mr. Kilpatrick and other mayors of the past bet on riverfront development or glitzy downtown casinos to turn around Detroit, but Mr. Bing expects to invest in the places where people live.

Detroit has many beautiful, stable blocks of stately Colonial- and Tudor-style homes, neat brick ranches and bungalows. Yards are tended, property is well-maintained; “For sale” signs, foreclosure notices and sheriff’s sales signs are few.

But about 33,000 vacant houses and 90,000 empty lots are spread across town.

Tens of thousands of other homes are inhabited but falling apart because of age and neglect. Mr. Bing said in his budget presentation that the homes of 50,000 families are in foreclosure.

About 860 vacant houses were demolished in 2009. Mr. Bing has promised to tear down 3,000 this year and another 3,000 in 2011. By the time his four-year term ends, he expects to have completed 10,000 demolitions.

The work started in earnest in April. Some worry that the inventory of empty houses is just too large.

“I don’t know what we’d do if 10 years from now we still have 10,000 vacant homes and no one is moving into them. They’re just going to deteriorate as well,” said Kimberly James, the city’s building and safety engineering deputy director.

The problem is acute in Brightmoor, where homes were built quickly and cheaply more than a half-century ago for Southern immigrants seeking work in Detroit’s car plants.

“A lot of it is on slabs, no basements. It wasn’t built to last very long and it ain’t lasting,” demographer Kurt Metzger said. “Unfortunately, it’s just kind of sitting there falling apart.”

By the 1950s, Detroit neighborhoods were busy, filled with 1.8 million people. The lure of larger homes and bigger yards prompted the first real white flight to the suburbs in that decade and the 1960s.

But any downtown revival still is a generation away. While new stadiums, casinos, and hotels have helped inject new life into the city’s center, neighborhoods have continued to wither, a large chunk of the black middle class following the earlier flow of whites out of the city.

“People moved out,” said Dennis Talbert. “Their children grew up and left. When the seniors could no longer maintain their homes, their children had them move out, or they died. They had no interest in the house. They could not sell the house. That was the beginning of what we would call the great blight.”

Even if Detroit meets Mr. Bing’s goal of 10,000 demolitions, the mayor acknowledges, the city has no money to tear down dozens of larger buildings and former factories. Unless owners come up with funding, structures such as the 17-story Michigan Central Depot train station, the 3.5-million-square-foot Packard car plant, and a former nursing care facility complex that covers an entire city block would cost a combined $25 million to tear down.

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