By Teddy Robertson
On Father’s Day, Sunday, June 19, NBC-25 aired a local news segment that showed a group of Mott Park residents as they cleared brush, cut dangling branches, boarded up windows, and mowed overgrown grass at a vacant house in the neighborhood.
Six volunteers, including an eager three-year-old helper named Jack, worked fast in the bright, increasingly hot, sunlight because one Mott Park resident, Bobbi Wray, had put out a call to friends asking for help to clean up a vacant house next to hers on Marquette street.
A crew came together organized by Steven Major, Mott Park resident of seven years and reserve officer for City of Flint police. Home Depot and the neighborhood association donated materials and friends loaned tools.
When TV-25 reporter Miranda Parnell asked why, Major said, “We’ve just had enough.”
The Mott Park’s Blight Squad had burst onto the scene.
One abandoned house leads to others
Bobbi Wray, herself a retired reporter from what was then called TV-5 and the first female TV reporter in Michigan, recounts a back story all too common. Sometime in 2011, her neighbors—a couple in their sixties—got underwater on their mortgage and were unable to take out a second to finance roof repairs. Finally, in desperation, they left, and the house reverted to bank ownership, a warning notice later tacked on its storm door saying the property belonged to “M & M Mortgage Services.”
Cleanup of more properties followed that first June action and the group adopted the name Blight Squad for their Facebook page and Major became its director, working closely with the Mott Park Neighborhood Association. The core members drove the neighborhood, checked properties, reached out to neighborhood residents through the Mott Park neighborhood association Facebook page, and gathered leads on addresses showing evidence of squatters.
Donations came—bags and compost from the Genesee County Land Bank “Clean and Green” program and paint from a neighborhood owner of a paint store. Neighbors loaned tools and brought cases of water, leaf bags, and work gloves wherever Facebook announced the crew was working.
A rare find in the overgrowth
One day during a late August clean-up, the squad uncovered a 1945 Chevrolet coupe made in the old “Chevy in the Hole” Fisher Body plant in Flint. They found it under heavy brush, the paint in fair condition protected by overgrowth. Online research showed it was a Fleetline AeroSedan, one of Chevrolet’s first vehicles when it returned to civilian car making. The crew has found other vehicles as well, though none so interesting.
Meantime, the Mott Park Neighborhood Association worked closely with Kettering University and Tom Wyatt, project manager of “Renew the Avenue,” a Department of Justice program whose Byrne Grant reduces crime by engaging the community (currently Stevenson Neighborhood, Mott Park, Sunset Village/Glendale Hills) to decrease blight. Byrne grant funds helped provide tools, board-up materials, and motion-activated LED solar security lights. Kettering University has provided student workers as well.
Toward the end of the 2016 and with a dozen properties cleaned up, the Blight Squad began to decide strategically where to work. They found a target at the triangle where Perry, Woodbridge, and Joliet streets meet—a small cluster of old commercial buildings whose renovation, the squad speculated, could have a big impact.
The “Historic Business District” emerges
Online research revealed the three buildings had once been the Woodbridge Market, a Plumbers’ Union, and a Pure Oil station (including building plans). Major dubbed the site the Mott Park “Historic Business District.”
The middle structure, Woodbridge Market, turned out to have an owner who decided to refurbish the building himself. The buildings on each side of the old market were the Plumbers’ Union (the initials “J.B. CO” embedded in its façade) and the Pure Oil building. The exterior for Pure Oil was “English Cottage” style, originally with a trademark blue roof, one of the first company attempts at a chain look for gas stations.
At present, with the exterior renovation nearly done, the neighborhood association plans to purchase the Plumbers’ Union building. The Pure Oil building is slated as studio space for Mott Park resident and artist Ryan Gregory.
After the Historic Business District clean up, the Blight Squad did small jobs, often cleaning up after illegal dumping, but with the approach of fall weather a new challenge emerged: squatters. A gruesome knifing incident occurred in late August in one squatters’ house in a row of derelict structures on Chevrolet near the Flushing Road intersection. The squatters were cleared and the houses boarded up in early winter.
“Renew the Avenue” gets involved
By the end of December, ABC-12 and NBC-25 had aired four news reports about the Blight Squad’s efforts. Over the winter into 2017, their work changed. The Blight Squad adopted an off-season pattern: assess now and then secure, install security lighting, and decide how to maintain.
Tom Wyatt’s “Renew the Avenue” at Kettering University supplied wood for board ups, four cordless drills and the loan of a generator—essential where power has been cut. The Blight Squad could obtain security lighting, purchased in bulk and tax-free. Winter work was a combination of networking with local groups and organizations and board ups.
In early January a group of 16 people, Blight Squad members and others, met at Kettering to plan for the coming summer season. As April begins, their plans for the first large-scale spring project are underway. The target? Joliet Street which runs from Kettering University at Dupont to Blair St. deep into the interior of Mott Park.
Sunday, March 26, a Blight Squad crew began the cleanup of one burned out property on Joliet. Volunteers knocked down all remnants, heaved concrete blocks into the basement, and loaded charred wood and debris into a 20-foot dumpster.
NBC-25 and ABC-12 stopped by to film the day’s crew that included Eric Bumbalough, Steve Major and son Kenny, Tony Coleman, Bo Cummins, Greg Harmon, Bobbi Wray, Chad Schlosser, Joe Shingledecker, Tony Coleman, and Ra’Shonda Magee from Flint Urban Safety Corps.
Rain cut the workday short, so a squatters’ house next door to the burned site will be cleaned out and boarded up later.
Spring plans include many partners
According to the Blight Squad Facebook page, full-scale plans for Joliet start April 15 and May 13 when the Blight Squad expect to lead teams comprised of Bahá’í youth volunteers, Kettering students, new Flint Police Reserve Officers, Flint Urban Safety Corps, and Joliet Street residents. Major said teams aim to work the full length of the street according to task—clear brush, clear trash, mow, and board-up. An equipment and materials station will be positioned at the center of the long street. The last squatter home will be boarded up. Major expects 50 to 100 volunteers.
Good news for this summer is that a program of AmeriCorps, the Flint Urban Safety Corps, a partnership between Genesee County United Way and UM-Flint, will be in Mott Park working on clean-up and board-up. In Flint on a three-year program, the Urban Safety Corps works in a residential swath extending from University Avenue to McLaren Hospital. Their clean-up of the Stevenson neighborhood has just ended and the results are positive. According to Michigan State Police data, a 25 percent reduction in violent crime and a 51 percent reduction in property crimes have been concurrently noted in the neighborhood.
The Urban Safety Corps will help recruit Blight Squad members, seek donations of perennial plants for roadway medians, especially Chevrolet Avenue, bike patrol the streets picking up trash, and seek funding for increased lighting and camera systems in the park and recreation area. A long, ambitious list, but the Corps will allow the Blight Squad to shift gears and concentrate on ridding the area of graffiti and maintaining cleaned properties.
And the maintenance challenge is substantial. According to Major, about 60 vacant properties need solar security lighting installed; their front yards will be seeded with “alternative lawns” (ground cover like a white clover perennial used by the Land Bank) that reduces mowing and watering. Rototillers can be rented at Flint’s Neighborhood Engagement Hub Tool Shed.
Blight enforcement in effect
Blight Squad enforcement is now in effect in Mott Park. Two uniformed safety officers work with Flint Police to monitor residential code enforcement in the neighborhood. As Major puts it, now the Mott Park “ship needs to be tightened.”
As houses have gone derelict, graffiti or tagging has proliferated. The Blight Squad goal is to paint over all tagging as quickly as possible, Major said. Alert to the geographical pattern of tagging, the Blight Squad monitors the movement of gang-type activity in Mott Park.
Several Blight Squad participants have formed the Mott Park Public Safety team to patrol the neighborhood late at night. They alert police to break-ins, count windows out, and check for squatters. Summer will bring an uptick in this work, Major predicts—more street activity, more people outside late at night.
Summertime also brings problem houses, technically termed “nuisance houses.” Last summer, the Blight Squad and the Mott Park Neighborhood Association worked with Kettering and neighborhood police officers to monitor a property on Frank St. Major said a record of complaints, police calls, and neighbors’ phone videos led to action with the Neighborhood Association able to notify the owner that the residence has been listed as a nuisance house and civil action will be taken. What seemed to be a “party house” was actually an “illegal rave.” Eventually the renter was arrested.
Research suggests that deep and pervasive social and economic problems form the bedrock of residential deterioration, sometimes almost poignant in its manifestations. According to Realtor.com, the burned-out house on Joliet was built in 1920. Zillow lists March 2015 as the last date it sold—for $3,500.
Rental companies, many from out of state, buy up such properties. Renters need economical housing, but few are able—for whatever reason—to maintain properties as homeowners. Mott Park, once a middle-class district, today is struggling for its life.
Mott Park’s beating heart
Is the Blight Squad ready for another year of struggle?
“The work is like household chores,” Major says. “You dread doing it, but you see that you must. You work as a team and the camaraderie is great. After it’s done we feel good, even if we are exhausted.”
At the March 26 clean up, Blight Squad veteran and seven-year Mott Park resident Bo Cummins paused to reflect how he felt after a year of doing this work.
“This is like a disease on the body,” he said. “You have to attack it wherever it turns up. Am I discouraged? No, I love this. When I don’t do anything—that’s discouraging.”
Steve Major is optimistic too.
“Do I think we can save the neighborhood? Questions come, sometimes I feel like we are losing the battle. My wife tells me maybe that’s just because now I know more about what was always there.
“Recently, power at the Plumbers’ Union building went out and there was a break in. We have to go back and re-do the work. But the City is more responsive to our neighborhood now. The culture in Mott Park has improved, the Facebook posts are more positive,” he said.
Today the Blight Squad is part of Mott Park life, maybe even its beating heart. Other organs—the Neighborhood Association and the Mott Park Recreation Area are healthy and functioning. But the heart is special; residents are enormously proud of the Squad’s work.
Each time photos of a newly cleaned up property are posted on Facebook, neighbors pour out their gratitude and admiration. The Blight Squad Facebook banner photo (taken by Steve Major’s son, Kenny) is a black and white shot that has a “noir” quality about it. Men with determined expressions and crossed arms as if to say—as Major said at that first clean up back in June, 2016—“We’ve just had enough.”
To donate to the work of the Blight Squad, the Mott Park Neighborhood Association website provides a link for contributions earmarked for the Blight Squad. More information is available by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
EVM staff writer and columnist Teddy Robertson can be reached at email@example.com.