On Father’s Day, Sunday June 19, 2016, 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, put out a call to friends asking for help to clean up a vacant house next to her on Marquette Street.
A crew came together organized by Steven Major, Mott Park resident for the last 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, Steve said, “We’ve just had enough.”
The Mott Park’s Blight Squad had burst on the scene.
Bobbi Wray, retired tv5 reporter (and the first female TV reporter in Michigan) recounts a backstory 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 that indicated the property belonged to “M & M Mortgage Services.”
Clean-up of more properties followed the first June action and the group adopted the Blight Squad name for their Facebook page and Steve Major became its director, working closely with the Mott Park Neighborhood Association. The core Squad members drove the neighborhood, checked properties, reached out to neighborhood residents through the MPNA 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.
During one late August 2016 clean-up a 1945 Chevrolet coupe made in Chevy-in the-Hole Flint was found covered under 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 carmaking. Other vehicles have been found, but sadly, less 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 of Perry, Woodbridge, and Joliet streets meet---a small cluster of old commercial buildings whose renovation could have a big impact.
Online research showed that the three buildings had once been the Woodbridge Market, a Plumbers’ Union, and a Pure Oil station (including building plans). Steve dubbed the site the Mott Park “Historic Business District.” The middle structure, the 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, 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 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 derelict structures on Chevrolet near the Flushing Road intersection. The squatters were cleared and the houses boarded up in early winter.
By the end of December 2016, ABC12 and NBC25 had aired four news reports about the Blight Squad’s efforts. Over the winter into 2017, their work changed. The Blight Squad adopted a 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 2017 a group of sixteen people, Blight Squad members and others, met at Kettering University to plan for the coming summer season. Now at the close of March, 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 clean-up of one burned out property on Joliet. Wall remnants were knocked down, concrete blocks heaved into the basement, and charred wood and debris loaded 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 Rashonda Magee from Flint Urban Safety Corps. Rain cut the work day short; a squatters’ house next door to the burned site will be cleaned out and boarded up later.
Posted on Facebook, full-scale plans for Joliet St. announce work dates for April 15 and May 13 when the Blight Squad will lead teams comprised of Bahá’í youth volunteers, Kettering students, new Flint Police Reserve Officers, Flint Urban Safety Corps, and Joliet Street residents. Teams will 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 at the center of the long street. The last squatter home will be boarded up. Steve Major expects 50 to 100 volunteers.
The good news for summer of 2017 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 according to Tom Wyatt, “Renew the Avenue” Project Manager (headquartered at Kettering) “the results are positive---a 25% reduction in violent crime and a 51% reduction in property crime.[i]
Steve Major explains that the Urban Safety Corps will help recruit Blight Squad members, seek donations of perennial plants for roadway medians, especially Chevrolet Avenue, 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 shift gears and concentrate on ridding the area of graffiti and maintaining cleaned properties.
And the maintenance challenge is substantial. 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 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 Steve puts it, now the Mott Park “ship needs to be tightened.”
As houses have gone derelict, graffiti or tagging has boomed. The Blight Squad goal is to paint over all tagging as quickly as possible. 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 during late night hours. They alert police to break ins, count windows out, and check for squatters. Summer will bring an uptick in this work---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. 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 in fact an “illegal rave.” Eventually the renter was arrested.
Deep and pervasive social and economic problems form the bedrock of residential deterioration. According to Realtor.com, the burned-out house on Joliet was built in 1920. Zillow lists March 2015 as the last date it sold---$3,500.00 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 home owners. Mott Park, once a middle-class district, today is struggling for its life.
Is the Blight Squad ready for another year of struggle? Steve Major says “the work is like household chores. 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 26th clean up I asked Blight Squad veteran and seven-year Mott Park resident Bo Cummins how he felt after a year of doing this work. He says, “This is like a disease on the body---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 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.”
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’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 Steve said at that first clean up back in June 2016---“We’ve just had enough.”
If readers are interested in donating to the work of the Blight Squad, the Mott Park Neighborhood Association website provides a link where contributions earmarked for the Blight Squad can be made. More information? You can reach the Blight Squad by email firstname.lastname@example.org
For more essays like this go to East Village Magazine http//:eastvillagemagazine.org/
[i] Data from Michigan State Police who capture all Flint Police Department data. Michigan State Police provides data to CORE Community ComStat, a group of law enforcement agencies and security groups who meet monthly to review area crime statistics.