Detroit: The Do-It-Yourself City

Although he retired long ago, Eddie Edwards has found work that keeps him busy for much of the year: staving off blight on his block.

This summer, the 63-year-old Mr. Edwards is chopping down tall weeds in empty lots and cleaning the alleyways behind his home and across the street. He also routinely takes care of the street sweeping, using just a broom and dust pan.

"It is time-consuming," says Mr. Edwards, who spent his professional life molding glass into windshields and tail lights for Chrysler. "But I don't have anything else to do."

Across Detroit, do-it-yourselfers such as Mr. Edwards are rolling up their sleeves and opening up their wallets to provide basic services that the financially strapped city can no longer manage on its own, from boarding up vacant homes to mowing lawns to maintaining parks. In some areas, residents also partner with city agencies or look to philanthropies for help.

"My cellphone is full of people" who do upkeep on their own, says Brad Dick, deputy director of Detroit's General Services Department. Many think they are going it alone, he says. "They're always shocked they're not the only one."

To serve an area of roughly 140 square miles, the city has 106 grass cutters, but also contracts with three vendors to mow vacant lots twice a year. If not for individual residents stepping in, Mr. Dick says, the city would be in much worse shape.

Mr. Edwards and his neighbors say it has been several years since the city provided many maintenance services on their far East Side block. In the winter, he also pays out of pocket for snow removal for most of his tiny block. Another neighbor has agreed to cover the rest of the block. That keeps residents from being snowed in at home, neighbors say.

"That's the reward," says Mr. Edwards. "They thank me all the time."

Southwest Detroit is home to some of the most active residential groups in the city. On one block, residents received a grant earlier this year to begin boarding up vacant homes. A nonprofit has pledged to demolish one vacant home on their own and turn another into a multipurpose space with public art.

The 30-acre Clark Park on the Southwest Side is mainly kept up by a nonprofit, community group that partners with the city. As a result, Clark Park has play grounds, fencing, baseball and softball fields, an ice hockey rink and a recreation center. Since 1991, the city has paid the utilities, trimmed the grass and collected the garbage, with the Clark Park Coalition pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations into everything from maintaining play grounds to providing summer camps and recreational sports leagues for youth. A number of similar groups exist to support other city parks.

In the Corktown community west of downtown, Howard King Jr. maintains more than a dozen empty lots, two of which he farms for his 87-year-old mother.

The 60-year-old youth advocate and part-time landscaper pays teens in his neighborhood to mow lawns and trains them to trim hedges, hoping to keep them out of trouble.

"It's like therapy to me," he says. "I like to see the vacant lots beautiful."

As Detroit continues to lose population and taxpayers, Mayor Dave Bing has been struggling to control a budget deficit in the hundreds of millions of dollars. He cut roughly $100 million in spending from his latest budget, but tried to avoid cutting into city services such as grass cutting and street cleaning, which tend to shape people's perceptions of neighborhood quality and safety.

A tussle over the budget for the 2010-11 fiscal year, which began July 1, left him and the City Council struggling to avert the closure of 77 of Detroit's 308 parks. A deal reached last month restored millions of dollars to save the roughly 1,400 acres of parks. But that plan depends on individuals continuing to shoulder much of the maintenance burden.

"Sometimes we really can't do much," says Mr. Dick, the General Services official.

One park spared was the 300-acre Palmer Park on the northwest side. Regulars there credit the condition of the tennis courts to William Martin, a 56-year-old psychiatrist and Detroit native who lives in the wealthy suburb of Grosse Pointe but still has a private practice in the city.

In recent years, Dr. Martin has spent thousands of dollars on filling cracks in the asphalt, putting up wind screens on the fencing and purchasing park benches. When the chains he bought to secure those benches failed to deter thieves, he bought thicker ones.

For the annual amateur tennis tournament he holds there, he called in someone to cut the grass near the courts. The city hadn't done that in weeks, if not months, he says. He also paid for a portable toilet, as there is no functioning toilet nearby.

"If I had to have the city's permission, it would have never happened," he says. He points up to the busted lights around the courts, noting that he hasn't been able to fix those. "To have the city represented like this" is unfortunate, he says. "This is supposed to be like Central Park in New York."

Residents know the city's straits and have been generally understanding, says Mr. Dick, of General Services. When they call, often "they're not saying send in 20 lawnmowers," he says. "They're just simply saying we need some trash bags."


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