November 15, 2015


How organic farming and YouTube are taming the wilds of Detroit (Mark Guarino November 14, Washington Post)

This neighborhood in northwest Detroit might seem an unlikely candidate for revitalization. Decades of population loss have left block after block of boarded-up houses and vacant lots. For years, it was a dumping ground: tires, appliances, furniture, toilets, gas tanks, bags of garbage and, in one house, a dead body.

But the remaining residents of Brightmoor are determined to rebuild. Over the past few years, they have used social media to kick out drug dealers, harass arsonists and shame illegal dumpers. And they have solicited energetic homesteaders and farmers to repopulate vacant houses and lots, people willing to work for a renaissance even out here, far from the high-rise condos and upscale restaurants of downtown Detroit.

"As citizens, we are taking it back," said Pommerville, 38, a biker with a hanging goatee and a mischievous smile. [...]

Three years ago, Mergos helped found Northwest Brightmoor Renaissance (NBR), a nonprofit group of about 50 households. She and her fiance also bought "the house of our dreams," a cottage on two acres along the Rouge River.

Three weeks after they moved in, however, the couple and their three sons awoke to 40-foot-high flames. Witnesses later told them the arsonist lived nearby.

 Warning signs are placed in front of many abandoned houses in the Detroit neighborhood of Brightmoor. (Salwan Georges/For The Washington Post)
Though their home burnt to the ground, their dream grew more vivid. Mergos and her neighbors equipped themselves with digital cameras and smartphones to catch criminals in the act.

"I decided I'll put all of them on YouTube," Pommerville said. Today, his page is filled with video clips, shot from his truck, showing him pulling up on unsuspecting junkies and prostitutes and ordering them to leave.

Surprisingly, they tend to comply. [...]

[N]BR has begun scouting online for responsible homeowners to move in and fix things up.

That's how they found James and Theodore Washington, two former chefs, who jumped at the chance to move to Brightmoor after Pommerville reached out to them in August via a community Facebook group. A neighbor who lost his job five years ago had fallen far behind on his mortgage and was about to abandon a 1932 farmhouse on a three-acre lot.

With James, 49, suffering from brain cancer and facing mounting medical bills, the Washingtons jumped at the chance to cut their housing costs. They immediately moved into the vacant home, hauled out four truckloads of trash and lined the wooded front lawn with flowers planted in milk crates. On a crisp fall day, they were making plans to give the house its first paint job in years.

Theodore, 27, said if the couple hadn't reclaimed the property, the general consensus in Brightmoor was that "it would have been trashed" by looters. The couple are now in the process of purchasing the house from Fannie Mae for $78,000.

As residents negotiate to expand their ranks, they are also working to create economic opportunity with the one resource they have in abundant supply: land. In 2010, 1,215 properties were vacant in Brightmoor because of demolition, fire or both. On some blocks, only grass remains.

Another group has sprung up to take advantage of the free soil. Neighbors Building Brightmoor opened a community greenhouse last spring to produce crops to sell at local markets around town. The group has also led volunteer drives to clear blocks and make way for local gardens and nature trails.

So far, the most ambitious agricultural effort is Beaverland Farms, a for-profit enterprise that takes up 23 vacant lots. Founded in 2011, the farm is run by Brittney Rooney and Kieran Neal, both 23. They support a proposed city ordinance, set to be put to voters next March, that would permit them to add livestock: chickens, ducks, goats, rabbits, sheep and bees.

Rooney, who earned an environmental policy degree at Loyola University in Chicago, had considered starting an organic farm in a more typical location somewhere in the rural Midwest. She settled on Detroit instead, she said, because of the opportunity to improve the lives of her neighbors.

Posted by at November 15, 2015 10:11 AM