An Eastside Venice and the ‘Hurricane without Water’

I visited the historic riverfront community of Jefferson Chalmers on Detroit’s lower eastside on Saturday for a walking tour with residents and members of the Lower Eastside Action Plan (LEAP) and Hope Community Outreach and Development (HCOD). The first part of this post is a gallery of images I took during my visit and a discussion of the neighborhood’s history and its current efforts to manage blight.

The second part of this post focuses on the foreclosure crisis that created much of the present-day blight in Detroit and other Rust Belt cities today, as well as a brief discussion about the differences between a “vacant” and “blighted” property (and why that terminology matters).

This entire area (including Jefferson Chalmers up to Grosse Pointe) was once a swamp; in fact, it was initially referred to by the French as the “grand marais,” the big marsh. It was drained in the 19th century to make way for businesses and roads connecting farms in the Pointes area with the city. Detroit annexed the village of Fairview, which lay in between Detroit and the city of Grosse Point Park, in 1907, and the area became one of the city’s most important early business districts.

Jefferson Chalmers sits on a series of canals (hence its nickname as “Detroit’s Venice”) that connect to the Fox Creek Canal, constructed in 1925, which in turn connects to the Detroit River. There are still many homes on canals in the community–you can see their boat houses and docks. Boats were a primary mode of transportation (and type of housing) for much of the neighborhood’s history, as the area’s tendency to flood made early roads muddy and difficult to use. During the Prohibition era, from 1917-1933, the state of Michigan received over 75% of illegal alcohol entering the US, much of it coming across the river from Canada and in to neighborhoods like Jefferson Chalmers, allowing canal-side speakeasies to thrive.

Thanks to its key role in the auto industry, the district prospered into the early 1950s, but between 1954 and 1960, Jefferson Chalmers lost 70,000 jobs, resulting in high levels of vacancy as people left the area. More recently, the foreclosure crisis and recession in the first decade of this century resulted in the loss of about 20,000 lower eastside residents between 2000 and 2010.

Whereas in other parts of the city (like the Hardest Hit areas), demolition is seen as the best way to address blight because it’s the least expensive and fastest method of removal (and because the land can then be used for community projects), residents in Jefferson Chalmers first banded together to halt the widespread demolition of historic, livable structures in the neighborhood, and then worked together to come up with several different strategies to remediate blight in the area.

Community members from more than 10 different organizations mapped vacancy in the area and then went door-to-door to survey remaining residents. They held planning meetings to discuss the possible uses for vacant land and properties in the neighborhood and to try to get the widest range of opinions possible They then came up with short- and long-term goals and several options for reuse, including the creation of recreational areas, urban farming, the rehabilitation of vacant homes, and investing in/supporting local businesses.

LEAP Engagement area
LEAP Engagement area

There isn’t a single “best” approach to blight remediation. Demolition may be the most common, but it really depends on the level of community involvement and the identified goals and needs of a neighborhood, which of course vary a lot. In an area like Brightmoor, demolition was/is favored due to the sheer number of vacant structures and the state of decay they were in (and the crime they attracted), the public and private funding available to demo them, and because the community’s goals include becoming an urban farmway. But in Jefferson Chalmers, where there’s less blight, the preference is to rehabilitate the structures if possible and keep attracting new residents to the area that way. Rather than view a blighted home as negative and unwanted space, community organizations in Jefferson Chalmers organized a “house hug” on Saturday, where members of the community come and physically surround a blighted structure. In the coming months, the community will rehabilitate the home, using that process as an opportunity to offer free workshops on different aspects renovating historic properties for residents.

Is it working? LEAP received national recognition for its blight remediation strategies from the EPA, and their plans were adapted for use by Detroit Works. The neighborhood I saw is beautiful and vibrant, and I noted that at least 4 people on the tour at Jefferson Chalmers had recently moved into the neighborhood and were there to discuss and learn more about its history. I look forward to learning more about and taking part in LEAP’s and HCOD’s projects in this historic neighborhood.

Understanding the Roots of Blight

As I often discuss in my posts here, present-day blight in Detroit is part of a set of historical, long-term process with many contributing factors…but many people left the city in just the last 7 years or so due to foreclosure crisis and the recession. By late 2011, as many as one in four homes in Detroit had been foreclosed on, and nearly a quarter of a million people had left the city as a result. The international focus on Detroit as “ground zero for ruin porn” started in about 2009 (when the term was first used in mainstream media by James Griffioen for this piece by Andrew Morton), right as the financial/foreclosure crisis hit and left huge swathes of the city vacant. But the fact that Detroit didn’t actually look quite like this until relatively recently is rarely discussed in the media. Was there blight in Detroit for decades before 2008 crisis? Absolutely. Was it on this scale, did the cities neighborhoods change as quickly as they have in the last 6 years? No.

I wanted to write about this here because when I ask residents about blight as a historical process with multiple contributing factors, many tell me that from their perspective, the mortgage and tax foreclosure crises, fueled by widespread unemployment due to the recession, is the cause of the vast majority of the blight you see in the city today, full stop. They are openly frustrated by the standard narrative most people tell about how the auto industry left, then (white) people and anyone else who could moved to the suburbs, and Detroit went downhill from there, until–after decades of corruption and mismanagement–you got the city you see today.

The biggest changes that current residents have seen in the residential landscape of the city in their lifetimes have been a result of the foreclosure crisis, but it’s important to note that the communities most affected by the foreclosure crisis were already vulnerable due to those decades-long processes of displacement and unemployment that lead to the city’s initial waves of population loss. That’s why those communities were targeted by predatory lenders in the first place and why they’ve suffered disproportionately during the housing crisis and recession. So yes, the biggest present-day problem may be the foreclosure crisis that’s removing residents from the city and leaving behind vacant and abandoned properties, but the reasons why it’s had such an impact here in particular have to do with the city’s past.

Residents know this, of course, because they live it. They’re just sick of having that simplified, chronological (and fairly sanitized) narrative trotted out every time there’s a conversation about blight. They see the financial and foreclosure crisis as a result of these decades-long processes and are frustrated because there is a chronic disconnect between the larger discussions about blight in the city and discussions about foreclosure. It’s as if we’re getting to a place where we recognize and can come to a consensus (albeit a very tenuous one) about the various factors that contributed to the city’s decline, but including foreclosure in that or using foreclosure as a lens through which to view and understand larger systemic problems isn’t happening yet (at least not on the level that it needs to be).

Another wave of tax foreclosures–often referred to as a “hurricane without water”–is upon us. Earlier this year, over 60,000 properties impacting about 100,000 residents (in a city of about 700,000) received foreclosure notices for unpaid property taxes. Foreclosure systems that might function somewhat in other cities don’t work in Detroit; there are too many properties going to auction, and the city usually can’t recoup the total amount owed in property taxes, penalties, and interest by selling it. Not only are residents being funneled out of the city in huge numbers, but people looking to move in to the city and buy property here are deterred by the possibility of having to pay huge sums in back taxes and penalties from previous owners when they purchase a property. The end result is a huge amount of vacancy and blight, which the city will eventually have to try to find the funds to demolish.

A resident told me about this home in Jefferson Chalmers that was foreclosed on and is now owned by the city. The city was unable/hasn’t tried to sell it, and it’s currently occupied by squatters.

The state of Michigan passed laws this year to cap and reduce amounts owed for property taxes (interest charged on back taxes is currently at 18%) and to work with residents to develop payment plans that will keep people in their homes, but it’s not yet clear how many people will be helped by the new laws, and there’s a general consensus that the tax foreclosure system itself needs a complete overhaul if the city is going to survive. Despite all the new development and changes that the city is undergoing, Detroit  simply can’t sustain itself with a foreclosure system that can remove a 7th of the city’s total population in one year.

For an overview of the foreclosure crisis in Detroit and its roots in the recession, see the informative video below from Loveland Technologies:

The foreclosure crisis in Detroit is unique in terms of the sheer number of people affected and the fact that the foreclosure system is so poorly suited to a city that’s been seeing consistent population decline for over 60 years and is currently trying to rebuild and transition. But other rust belt cities face similar problems; areas that were already hard hit by unemployment and population loss are especially impacted by the foreclosure crisis.

What are the human impacts of foreclosure systems that work as a conveyor belt taking people out of already declining cities? Belt Magazine has a great piece about the difficulty of even finding people who’ve gone through foreclosure and getting them to share their experiences. In cities like Cleveland and Detroit, everyone knows somebody who has been affected by foreclosure, but we tend not to talk about it. There are a couple of reasons for this: there’s not any one organization or system that collects or stores data on where people go when their properties are foreclosed on (once you leave, you’re not trackable by conventional means), and the social stigmatization and feelings of shame and fear surrounding the issue of foreclosure (because we tend to blame individuals and not the broken system, and foreclosure is often treated as a moral issue) prevent people from being open about their experiences. After a month of searching, the author of the Belt piece found just two Cleveland families willing to share their experiences of losing their homes, and their stories illustrate how foreclosure impacts people differently depending on what other resources (in the form of savings and the support of extended family) they have to draw on.

For many residents of rust belt cities, penalties for “walking away” from your mortgage or property taxes make sense, because they are making their payments, and even if they can’t, they’re trying to…they don’t just walk away, and they’re supporting their neighborhood by staying in it. Residents are frustrated because the neighborhood is left holding the bag when someone is foreclosed on–once a house is turned over, the city can’t recoup its costs and most of the time can’t sell or rent the home, and then it’s up to neighborhood organizations and associations to figure out what to do about it. That frustration is completely valid and understandable, but unfortunately the reality is that if someone can’t afford to pay the mortgage or taxes on their house, they’re probably not going to be able to afford a penalty or interest on it, either. Many residents recognize that this goes beyond individual culpability, and oftentimes they go out of their way to help keep their neighbors in their homes.

A successful overhaul of the foreclosure system won’t be possible without a better understanding of how the foreclosure process impacts both residents going through the process and neighborhoods. While there has recently been a huge amount of research into  and mapping of foreclosure and vacancy in Detroit, data on where people go after foreclosure, how they’re impacted, the efforts they took to avoid foreclosure, and how neighborhoods deal with vacant foreclosed properties either isn’t systematically researched (as mentioned above, it’s incredibly difficult to track) or that data isn’t widely available.

Blight vs. Vacancy: Crossing the Line

I’m also trying to better understand when a “vacant” property transitions to a “blighted” one. I’m not sure where that line is, either in official terms or in colloquial usage. As I’ve discussed in other posts, blight is already a slippery concept; there are many definitions of it, and we’re just supposed to “know it when we see it.” Vacancy is a more temporary state, and it implies structural integrity (“vacant” as a descriptor makes it sound like the only thing that’s changed is occupancy). I assume blight also involves a longer period of time passing and a certain level of degradation (maybe it has been stripped or has fire damage). But a livable, sound structure can also be blight, and many livable properties were classified as “blight” in Detroit and have been demolished (though that number may soon be reduced).

The term “blight” also tends to strip a structure of certain identifiers. A structure described as “vacant” is still thought of and talked about as a potential home or a business or a school…but as we “lose structures to blight,” they become less recognizable to us (due to physical deterioration and other factors) and less believable as potential homes/schools/businesses; they’re lumped in with trash dumps and anything else we don’t want around.

So does the difference have to do with a neighborhood’s blight barometer, and how much hope (and reason to hope) residents and city officials have that the structure or property can be successful rehabbed or reused? The difference may come down to the potential that people can realistically imagine for a property.

I don’t have any concrete answers, but having a better idea of how Detroit residents and city officials use the terms and conceive of them directly impacts the way the city’s built environment is managed.

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