John George was living next to a crack house in Detroit. He and his wife were expecting a baby girl when he decided he better do something about it. So he went to the hardware store and bought some plywood, paint and nails and boarded up that crack house. More than 25 years later, the organization he started, Motor City Blight Busters, has torn down more than 1,500 derelict houses and replaced them with community gardens and other assets.
“The crack epidemic in this neighborhood hit pretty hard just a couple blocks north of here and some of it radiated out into our area. I had a young son at the time and he was two. I had a daughter on the way. And there was an abandoned house behind our house that turned into a crack house.
I called the police, I called the mayor, I called the city. I called everybody and no one would do anything. One Friday night got out of hand and my first thought was to pack up and move. But then I thought well I cut my grass, I take out my trash, I pay my taxes – I’m not going anywhere to hell with that. So, I went to the hardware store and I bought plywood, nails, and paint. I went back to the house and I boarded it up and cut the grass and painted the boards and a couple neighbors joined me. They jumped out of their car after I was halfway through with this project and they said “What are you doing?” And I said “Well I don’t know about you but I’m not going to live next to this. I don’t want my children growing up in it. This is negative energy. This is child abuse. I’m not leaving but I’m not gonna let this fester.” I said “You can either help me or get the hell out of my way.” They said “Well, we want to help.” And I said “Great.” And so we worked another four hours and at the end of the day the home was boarded, secure, stable.
When the drug dealers came back they couldn’t get in they got in their Jeep and they left. I just wanted to return a little peace and quiet to our community because the crack house had become a place of negative energy. Criminals are like cockroaches you know? You turn on the lights and they scatter. So, that was our first attempt to stabilize our area, return some peace and quiet to it and put a spotlight, a focus on what people can do when they put their petty differences aside and focus for a moment. I’m still in that same house.”
“We are out to change the world, and we’re starting in Detroit.”
APOMM behind the scenes:
I’d heard the stories about Detroit, but I had never seen it. Everything I’d read in the press was apocalyptic…with the exception of this piece by my friend and author Barry Yeoman. I’m sure there was more good writing going on, but this one resonated. I reached out to Barry and he connected me with John George.
As an artist, I have seen neighborhoods changed by creative people. In Minneapolis where I live…and in many cities across the country…there is a predictable cycle. Artists colonize blighted, low-rent neighborhoods where they can afford to rent studio space. A few coffee shops and cafes pop up to cater to the artists. Other people realize the neighborhoods are interesting and “hip.” Developers move in to gentrify the area and capitalize on the cool factor. Rents go up and the artists who started there as urban pioneers can no longer afford to stay.
It reminds me of a forest fire. After a fire, the area appears devastated, but is quickly colonized and rejuvenated in a cycle that leads to new life. That’s the hope I felt when I talked with John George. Detroit was in a rough patch, no doubt. But perhaps it wasn’t the end of the world. Perhaps it was the start of a new opportunity.
- What is the importance of hope and resilience? How do you stay resilient and hopeful?
- John George says “if you don’t have peace, you have nothing.” Do you agree? How can we cultivate peace in our lives?
- What do you have ownership of? Does this sense of ownership affect how you treat it?
- Do you have a network of peace in your life? How did you get in touch with this community?
- How do you give back to your community? What do you receive in return?
- When have you worked through something difficult? What helped you to solve the problem you were facing?
- When have you worked with a group of people different from yourself? How did you all find common ground to move forward?
- Why is it important to feel a part of something bigger than ourselves? What do you feel connected to that is bigger than you?
- When has someone given you a break when you may not have deserved it? How did this change you?