“40 Miles of Blight”

Posted on July 13, 2012

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I recently flew out to Detroit to visit some of the schools there, and was surprised at what I saw. Of course, we’ve all read the news and watched the Chrysler commercials, with their haunting, now iconic images of empty city streets and abandoned homes. Needless to say, I was unsure of what to expect.

And yes, I saw empty homes, and I saw poverty, but what hit me the hardest were the things that few outside of Detroit seem to be talking about, things you might not hear unless you go to the city yourself.

I learned many of these things from Dr. John Covington, Chancellor of the Michigan Education Achievement Authority, and a man who I hold in high regard, both professionally and personally. On a guided tour of Detroit, Dr. Covington drove me through mile after mile of largely abandoned neighborhoods, an area some are now calling the “40 miles of blight” ( a name, admittedly, I don’t find very accurate).

As we drove, Dr. Covington talked about a contraction of historical proportions. Detroit, as you probably know, has lost 25% of its population in just 10 years, down from just under a million to about 715,000. This trend is nothing new for the Motor City, whose population has plummeted a staggering 60% since the 1960s.

As Dr. Covington and I drove through the s0-called “40 miles of blight,” that contraction was evident everywhere. One street in particular stood out to me. I’ve included a picture of it in this post. I was told that at one time the street had been called the most violent in America. This was interesting to imagine, considering what it looks like now—completely quiet and empty, more like a movie set than a residence.

When I commented that the most dangerous street in America didn’t look so dangerous anymore, however, I was quickly corrected and told that while it may not be quite as bad as it once was, there’s a lot more to fear now than collapsing floors and black mold. Meth labs, gangs, and drug dealers have taken up residence in abandoned houses up and down the street and all over the neighborhood, making crime difficult to locate and more threatening than ever to residents.

Can you imagine living in a neighborhood full of abandoned homes, any one of which, including the one right next door, might house drugs and violent criminals? It’s easy to see why police in Detroit are spread so thin, covering an enormous area where criminals can simply jump from one house to the next without detection.

And this is why the next thing I noticed on the (formerly) most dangerous street in America, and on many of the streets in the “40 miles of blight,” was so remarkable. Even on the worst streets, and in the most dilapidated houses, there were still green lawns—healthy, well-kept grass everywhere. Apparently, even though there’s little that the remaining residents can do about their neighborhoods (outside of moving away), many will fertilize, water, and mow the lawns of homes surrounding their property.

I know I’m probably making more of this than I should, but to me, this was a sign of hope — a statement on human decency and industry in a neighborhood where decency is fading and industry has fled.

Detroit’s still waiting to see what’s going to happen to its “40 miles of blight,” but as for the people living there, I have little worry. I don’t see them giving up or giving in anytime soon.

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