Bloggers vs. Blight

An online community beats back urban decay in Detroit

| November-December 2008

A few miles northeast of Detroit’s gleaming new ballpark and glittering casinos, a few miles west of the sprawling mansions lining Grosse Pointe’s Lakeshore Drive, north of General Motors, south of Daimler-Chrysler, and just west of the regional airstrip known as City Airport, you’ll find a five-acre parcel of land known as Fletcher Field.

At first glance, Fletcher looks like any other city park in urban America: It has a baseball diamond, a basketball court, a swing set, and a jungle gym. It has two plastic picnic tables and one spring rider in the shape of a dolphin. As of last year, it has mowed grass. As of last summer, it has a small garden of flowers and a few stalks of corn, guarded by a cheerful scarecrow salvaged from the wreckage of a nearby home.

Zoom out and the perspective changes. Fletcher Field lies at the heart of the City Airport neighborhood, arguably one of the most dangerous swaths of real estate in what is arguably the most dangerous city in America.

A working-class enclave, City Airport was home to autoworkers in the 1950s and early 1960s. As plants closed and Detroit’s overall fortunes plummeted, though, residents—white, then black—fled. The exodus was under way before the 1967 race riots convulsed the region, but it accelerated in their wake, exacerbating the misunderstanding and mistrust between the two races. Today, homes that haven’t been condemned or destroyed by arson have been left to rot, some of them transformed into drug houses. The neighborhood school has disintegrated from the inside out, its windows shattered by stones and bullets, its metal fixtures stolen for scrap metal.

It’s rare, these days, to see people out walking on the streets near City Airport, or to see children playing in the park. The few residents left in the area often stay inside their houses—the drug dealers to avoid the cops, the other residents to avoid the drug dealers.

Neighborhoods like City Airport often fall through the cracks when it comes to the journalistic record, victims of news outlets’ tendency to focus their reporting on those who can afford to pay for it. Two things, however, distinguish the neighborhood from its counterparts: It has a small but determined group of citizens who advocate for it, and it is the subject of a blog. Both can be traced to Detroit’s second-largest newspaper.

12/16/2008 4:03:52 AM

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