John George sits at his large, wood desk in his spacious office in a restored Masonic lodge building in the Old Redford neighborhood in northwest Detroit. It’s a nicely appointed office, not too fancy, and everything is spic and span — except George.
He’s filthy, and he makes no apologies for it. He doesn’t need to.
The 47-year-old Detroit native puts the active in activist. He’s spent the day laboring in a nearby formerly abandoned, once-ready-for-condemnation building that he and his crew are turning into a haven for artists and a gathering place for the community. He rubs his knee. It’s a bit sore. “I was working on a Bobcat today and a brick wall fell on me,” he says. It was after 8 p.m., and he was nowhere near calling it a night.
To paraphrase the great ’80s anthem by Ray Parker Jr., when there’s something strange in your neighborhood, who ya gonna call? Answer: John George’s Motor City Blight Busters.
George, a former insurance salesman, has been waging a war on blight in the city, not only leading an ever-growing army of troops but getting down and dirty and fighting the fight himself.
There may be dirt under his fingernails, but George is a shining example of how one person, if he or she is fed up enough, plucky enough and dedicated enough, can bring on change.
He and his army of volunteers have helped clean up this city in more ways than one — taking down old houses, renovating crumbling structures, revitalizing neighborhoods, inspiring kids and adults, and driving the Devil out of Halloween Eve.
Parked outside the Blight Busters headquarters is the Blight Mobile, a scrappy old ambulance he converted much like a crew of screwball ghost fighters did in the movies.
While he maintains a great sense of humor about what he does, there’s nothing funny about what he’s up against.
Detroit and blight had been synonymous for decades. The city’s ruins sat, and sat, welcoming drug dealers, users, and unwelcoming families and recovery.
Then, one day, about 18 years ago, George had had enough. He’d tried to get the city to do something — anything — about a house that had become a haven for drugs around the corner from his West Side home. He got some plywood, marched over there and started boarding it up. Soon other neighbors joined him. “We spent nine hours that day basically stabilizing the abandoned house.” The drug guys, they didn’t come back.
That commando, guerilla, we can do it ourselves attitude has carried over.
George started Motor City Blight Busters sitting around a card table in his basement with other dedicated Detroiters, and even though he mobilizes thousands of volunteers and he now has 40 corporations to sponsor their efforts, he still gets his hands dirty.
It’s a nonprofit built on a DIY attitude. He looks for private grants and partners, and tries to keep city, state and federal funding to a minimum. He doesn’t like too many meetings or too much process, he says.
Besides, since 1988, Blight Busters has numbers, big numbers, with which to measure its success: They’ve built 200 new homes, restored 157 homes, demolished 106 homes that couldn’t be saved. They’ve boarded up and painted hundreds more.
They took a crumbling Masonic lodge near the corner of McNichols and Lahser and raised $1.6 million to renovate it. They built the Motor City Resource Center, kicking out the pigeons and rodents who’d taken over and bringing in other nonprofits and professional offices. Blight Busters also sponsors programs like Public Art Workz (P.A.W.Z.) arts camps, Girlfriendz teen group and the Summer in the City community service program, as well as promoting community public art through a mural-painting effort.
All this started from one guy. One hammer. One moment where George turned “I’ve had it” into “I’m taking control,” instead of, “I’m outta here.”
And he still maintains a hands-on, in the trenches approach to his activism. “He’s out there doing it himself. He’s not out there with a bull-horn telling people what to do,” says Terrence Hicks of the Ford Mortor Co. Fund. He sits on the Blight Busters board and worked on many projects with George, including the Paint the Town campaign.
Devil’s Night’s guardian angel
Another big trophy in George’s case is Angels’ Night.
Devil’s Night destruction in Detroit raged in the ’80s. In 1984, 810 houses burned over Halloween weekend. Mayors Coleman Young and Dennis Archer fought the tradition, trying to mobilize volunteers for Devils’ patrols. Still, in 1994, 354 buildings burned.
Blight Busters was on board for these efforts, but then, in 1990 George and his volunteers got an idea. He set out to convince the city that they’d been backing the wrong guy.
“It’s like anything. If you tell the kids it’s a devil’s night for 13 years, then they’ll do sneaky, devilish things,” he says.
George insisted the night be called Angels’ Night, to honor the thousands who patrolled the city’s streets, not the hooligans who burned them down.
Archer initially resisted, worrying to the Detroit News that the heavenly name might make residents put their guard down. He eventually acquiesced. The city officially changed the Oct. 30 designation to Angels’ Night, and participation grows every year. This year, more than 50,000 volunteers are expected patrol the streets.
The psychology was off with Devil’s Night, George says. “If you look at the universe, you’ve got positive or negative energy. If you start your car, it’s positive or negative energy. Our effort is positive. My dad used to say, ‘If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything.’ I take that to heart.”
‘We want art!’
For all of his motivational talk, George is something of a realist, too.
“What happened to Detroit, if it happened in one day somewhere else, you’d have FEMA here, and the president here. It’d be a tragedy,” George says. “It took 50 to 60 years to get where we’re at. It’ll probably take us 100 years to get out.”
He sees all of his accomplishments as just a step in the long, hard process of bringing back the city. “We’ve been doing this for 16, 17 years, and we’re really just starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
One light shines from across the street from the Blight Busters’ headquarters and is the reason for the dirt under his nails. Blight Busters is creating an Artists’ Village on Lahser, down the street from the Redford Theatre, which is also undergoing renovations of its own.
The Village will be a gallery, studio space, and cyber café. Everything is still under construction, but neighbors are anxious to get inside. On one unfinished wall inside, someone’s scrawled in magic marker, “We want art!”
Blight Busters has already hosted jazz jams there, but the official opening of the gallery will be Oct. 30, just before patrols set out for Angels’ Night.
Chazz Miller, a muralist and Blight Busters volunteer, says the theater is the anchor, and the Village will help support the area as a destination. “If you think of this as a strip mall, that’s (the theater) is your Wal-Mart. … Detroit, just like other cities, needs to offer destinations, just like when you go to Los Angeles. You need all these little areas to go to.”
Once the gallery, café and studio are running, George will be on to something new. There’s a house Blight Busters has built and is giving away. A pocket park they’re building. Clean-ups to organize. Much to do. Much to do. And George is doing it. Every day.
“I try to get up every day and change something for the better. I really do,” he says.
If you go:
The Artists Village gallery opening will be at 7 p.m. Oct. 30. It will be preceded by a peace rally at nearby Peace Park at 5 p.m., and a dinner at 6 p.m. at the Motor City Resource Center, 17405 Lahser Rd. Angels’ Night patrols begin at 8 p.m. from the resource center.