Battling Blight in Detroit
A new private-public partnership succeeds where government has failed.

Vacant stores in Detroit


Jillian Kay Melchior

James Hill-Harris walked down the long hospital hallway, his fellow firefighters stepping aside. They were silent, red-faced, and wet-cheeked. When he’d heard about the accident, Hill-Harris had hoped his father had just been burned, as had happened many times before on the job. But it was worse. Walter Harris — a firefighter, a minister, a big, gentle man known for his hearty laughter and his passion for the city of Detroit — was gone.

Firefighting “was something we shared, that only he and I in the family really truly shared,” Hill-Harris says. “We knew what it was like, that fear that you weren’t going to make it, the feeling of pulling someone out, the heart-wrenching feeling of dealing with a child or adult [fire victim] and trying to do CPR. The actuality of it, the emotions it invokes in you — there are some things that we shouldn’t have to see. We shouldn’t have to see. It wears on your soul.”

In the early hours of November 15, 2008, Walter Harris had responded to an arson blaze at a two-story “blight house” at 7418 Kirby in East Detroit. The team had nearly put the fire out, so Harris and two other firemen climbed upstairs, looking for any flames that might be trapped in the walls. But the building’s structure had been weakened during that blaze and a previous one, and as wall studs and support beams gave way, one firefighter felt wood strike his helmet.

Then, with a terrible crack, the roof collapsed, landing on Harris, a 38-year-old father of six boys. His fellow firefighters dug through the wreckage, searching for him, but it was too late. “He died of mechanical asphyxiation — a portion of the roof had landed on him and prevented him from breathing,” reports the prosecutor’s brief filed to the Michigan Supreme Court last week.

“My dad had given his life for the city of Detroit,” says Hill-Harris, who now works as an arson investigator. “We want [his death] to not have been in vain. How can we prevent another family going through this pain? We’ve got to get rid of these [blight] houses. They’re just sitting, waiting to fall on another firefighter. We go to the same house three, four times. Every time it burns, it weakens the structural integrity, and it becomes a place that’s just waiting to collapse on one of us.”

Blight is the most characteristic feature of Detroit’s 139 square miles, a problem the local government has utterly failed to address. The abandoned buildings provide the opportunity for crime, spawning additional problems that the city’s elected leaders struggle to address.

The most innovative answers are coming from community leaders such as Hill-Harris and his partners at Detroit’s Blight Authority, a new private-public partnership founded on free-market principles. Such efforts from the private, artistic, and charitable sectors are succeeding where Detroit’s government has long failed.

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View a pictorial of the Heidelberg Project art installations.

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The latest numbers list 38,779 structures on Detroit’s Dangerous Building Inventory. More are at risk. Between 2000 and 2010, the city lost 237,500 inhabitants — one-fourth of its population. And in 2007, Detroit was first in the nation for metro-area foreclosures, with one in 20 households succumbing. Today, 80,000 Detroit addresses no longer receive mail.

“Blight is a very tricky adversary,” says John George, founder of Motor City Blight Busters, a nonprofit that has worked on more than 1,500 abandoned houses over the past 25 years. “You eliminate it in one spot, and it pops up somewhere else. It’s also like a cancer: If you don’t nip it, it spreads. . . . We really are at war. It’s a fight against blight. It’s a cunning, tricky adversary. I’ve never seen anything like it. It almost has a personality.”