Detroiters, AmeriCorps fight urban blight

May 8, 2013— Detroit’s abandoned houses threaten public safety by harboring criminal activity, but the AmeriCorps Midtown Urban Safety project is fighting back.

Armed with abandoned-house board-up projects, vacant lot clean-ups and neighborhood block clubs, AmeriCorps members are on a mission to help Detroit residents reclaim and revitalize their city.

The AmeriCorps Midtown Urban Safety Project (AmeriCorps) has made a significant positive impact on Detroit neighborhoods. The perceived effectiveness and social significance this project has had on surrounding communities is also evident. It is a crucial first step to reduce urban blight and crime in the region.

Participants are setting the stage for Detroit’s revitalization after decades of decline resulting from political neglect, as well as other socioeconomic factors such as urban flight due to a lack of employment opportunities and the ensuing crime wave associated with politically orchestrated unemployment.

Every abandoned house boarded up by AmeriCorps represents another step closer to Detroit’s renaissance. The project eliminates a harbor for criminal activity, since drug dealers and drug users occupy abandoned houses and lurk in dark corners, which is a public safety risk to law-abiding citizens— especially schoolchildren. Abandoned houses also become locations for sexual assaults and places to dump murder victims.

Safer school routes, social significance and lower crime statistics=Success

Due to the overwhelming number of abandoned houses in Detroit, AmeriCorps starts its board-up evaluation process by determining a house’s proximity to schools.

“The specific purpose for our board-up project is to create safer routes for children walking to school,” one AmeriCorps member said. “We scan six blocks around a school and look for vacant houses in need of a board-up and trash removal. In the summer, AmeriCorps performs 2-3 board-ups a week.”

The AmeriCorps member believes Detroit’s abandoned-house problem doesn’t have to be solved with a mass demolition project. Some houses are beyond any hope of repair, but others are salvageable. “By securing houses for public safety reasons, we also protect the structures from the elements,” he said. “It’s possible that people can do something useful with them at a later date.”

AmeriCorps projects are successful in Detroit. According to a 2012 report by the Michigan Community Service Commission, crime has declined 33 percent overall. This figure includes a 63 percent reduction in drug dealing, 40 percent reduction in vandalism and 69 percent reduction in street robbery after one year of the AmeriCorps project’s implementation in Detroit’s Woodbridge neighborhood.

Boarding up houses also reduces the chance of injuries to children, whose natural curiosity and lack of alternative forms of entertainment in the midst of overwhelming urban blight tempts them to explore dangerous structures and vacant lots filled with hazardous materials from illegal dumping.

The social significance of this reclamation and revitalization project is evident. It unites people from all walks of life. Neighbors of various racial, cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds join academic and business leaders in this epic up-hill battle to revitalize Detroit against all odds.

Wayne State University’s Center for Urban Studies administers Detroit’s AmeriCorps Midtown Urban Safety project and rightfully claims its various projects unite people of all backgrounds with a desire to make a change.

Second chances, community support and dreamers

Project members and volunteers participate because they love a city that many Americans wrote off long ago due to a lack of employment opportunities as well as racial and social class discrimination factors.

The perceived effectiveness of this project to save Detroit is evident, even though it is in the early stages and is a monumental project due to Detroit’s size and the affects of long-term neglect.

However, based on the aforementioned hard data that cites a reduction in crime, as well as empirical evidence suggesting that the attitudes of neighborhood residents improve after board-up projects and the establishment of neighborhood block clubs that monitor and report criminal activity, neighborhood residents begin to take more pride in their neighborhoods and are more likely to report crime.

Residents have shown they have less tolerance for criminal activity once they see that somebody else cares about their neighborhood and gives them a chance to start over. The AmeriCorps project has helped Detroiters prove that they will take pride in their communities once they realize they are not alone.

The AmeriCorps neighborhood block-club program provides residents with the latest crime-prevention technology, which gives residents the ability and support to track and report suspicious activities in their neighborhoods.

AmeriCorps has established 40 neighborhood block clubs in Detroit’s Woodbridge, Henry Ford and New Center neighborhoods. AmeriCorps has held crime prevention events, distributed anti-theft devices for residents’ cars and distributed thousands of leaflets that provide crime prevention tips.

Another argument for reducing urban blight is that deteriorating neighborhoods and abandoned industrial sites have a negative effect on potential business investments in Detroit. Businesses are reluctant to invest in areas that are considered high crime areas and eyesores.

An article published in the “Journal of Urban Affairs” cites a study supporting arguments that urban blight has a negative impact on neighborhoods and business investment:

“Vacant and abandoned property is increasingly recognized as a significant barrier to the revitalization of central cities. It is based upon the findings of a survey of the 200 most populous central cities in the United States….The findings of the survey and interviews indicate that vacant and abandoned property is perceived as a significant problem…. This type of property affects many aspects of community life, including housing and neighborhood vitality, crime prevention efforts, and commercial district vitality (Accordino, 2000).”

Although many house board-up organizations and anti-crime initiatives exist, the AmeriCorps project incorporates Detroit residents with Wayne State University students from Detroit, other Michigan communities and international students.

This diverse collaboration provides an important opportunity. Student participants from around the state and the world will tell others about the positive activities they participated in while studying and working in Detroit.

Some people argue against board-up projects and instead say raze Detroit’s blight-stricken neighborhoods and once vibrant industrial sectors to reduce the size of the city limits.

Residents and government officials have also argued over who is to blame for Detroit’s situation and what to do about urban blight and ensuing crime rates, but one thing is certain; something had to be done at the grass roots level to change the condition of Detroit’s deteriorating neighborhoods and protect residents, hence, the AmeriCorps Midtown Urban Safety project.

Boarding up houses is not the long-term solution to Detroit’s problems. However, it is a short-term solution, as residents must address the underlying causes that enable crime to flourish in neighborhoods and pose dangers for neighborhood schoolchildren.

Board-up projects can secure property for future use or until funds are allocated for the property’s destruction.

Conclusion

Detroit’s AmeriCorps Midtown Urban Safety Project is a joint effort of government agencies, local businesses and private donors who provide materials and funding for AmeriCorps members and community volunteers from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. They are working to make Detroit a safer place by boarding up abandoned houses, cleaning vacant lots and organizing neighborhood block clubs to help eliminate refuges for criminal activity and the vast problems caused by urban blight. Crime data and community involvement proves the AmeriCorps project has had a significant positive impact on Detroit.

The project’s social significance is in the racial and cultural diversity of AmeriCorps members, residents, students and local business leaders, who have united to reverse urban blight and the socioeconomic downward trend that perpetuates crime in affected neighborhoods. Through teamwork, the foundation is being laid that can lead to Detroit’s revitalization by reducing urban blight that could in turn provide an increase in much needed business investments from local, state and international business interests. The AmeriCorps house board-up project is not the long-term answer to Detroit’s vast array of problems, but it is a crucial first step and short-term solution to reduce blight, crime and trash-ridden areas in Midtown Detroit for future revitalization projects and the eventual repopulation and beautification of Detroit.

To watch a YouTube video of a 2013 AmeriCorps Midtown Urban Safety project, visit: http://youtu.be/5B8gBhf6jVY. For information on the AmeriCorps Urban Safety Project at Wayne State University in Detroit, visit their Facebook page:  https://www.facebook.com/?sk=welcome#!/amusdetroit.

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John Watson, the South End and the elite ruling class

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