PLEASE NOTE: People's Emergency Center, one of the organizers of “Funeral for a Home,” will be hosting Sweetbriar Rose on June 13th as as part of the 2nd Fridays Lancaster Ave. Arts celebration from 6-7:30 at Hawthorne Hall, and all tips that night will go directly to PEC's amazing work to support the rebirth of Philadelphia neighborhoods. If you can't come that night, consider making a donation to PEC, and know that it's going toward rebuilding Philadelphia, one person and block at a time.
Jason Parnell from Reclaim Detroit - My Work Crew Leader. For more photos, visit the Delaware Valley Green Building Council and the excerpt of this essay.
I had just traveled by bus from downtown Detroit, where I was staying with several hundred green building advocates gathered by the U.S. Green Building Council in May 2014. A group of about 15 of us were volunteering for a few hours at Reclaim Detroit, a nonprofit that is trying to salvage as much good building material as possible from blighted houses that are being torn down, and hundreds of other volunteers were fanned out across the city for other jobs.
We were going to take nails out of reclaimed wood that might be used to rebuild homes, make furniture, and build out new businesses. It was a muggy morning. It was early and I was already tired, but I was also excited to do something physical after many hours of meetings the day before at the hotel. I was thinking about the fact that local Philadelphia company Revolution Recovery, who has the same basic philosophy as Reclaim Detroit, was growing and thriving back home where I work at the Delaware Valley Green Building Council. When I got off of the bus, we were led to the door of the warehouse, and I was not expecting to get teary about what I saw.
It took a minute. At first all I saw were the piles of wood. Mounds of it. Some in messy matchstick piles and others already combed through and neatly stacked. But when I looked a little closer, I saw the addresses written on the papers pinned to each pile. 12850 Second Street. 190 Pasadena. 139 Buena Vista. These weren't piles of wood. These were people's homes. Families used to live there. All over Detroit.
Kids used to run in and out of the doors and parents yelled to tell them to come home for dinner and someone had climbed a tree, and a mom lost a job, and someone's brother didn't want to get up for church that morning, and someone suffered from addiction, and a young woman got into college, the first in her family, like my mother. Families in houses, just like everywhere in America. Like in my hometown. Now piles of wood. Our country's bridges and infrastructure collapsing, towns snuffed out by monster storms. Detroit, Motor City, its engine seized and rusted.
I clenched my jaw, and I took a deep breath, and I told myself that I would not cry, literally said to myself, “Blakeslee, you are not going to cry right now.” I would not cry in front of Jason, the nice work crew leader who worked there every day and went home to his blended family of six kids in Detroit, or the volunteers from USGBC Chapters around the country that I had just met that morning, or my colleague from USGBC who helped organize the trip. Again, “Blakeslee, you are not going to cry.”
Houses with families. Now piles of lumber. I see things in a flash like that. It only takes a few seconds for me to imagine what was there, or what could be. If you live in a city like Detroit or Philadelphia, that's a useful affliction to have. You need it to know how bad things are, and to see your way clear to making things better. I didn't cry. I got to work. That's all you can do. Sweat trumps tears. 8080 Senator. The house I would work on. I thought, “At least this isn't in the landfill.” Part way there. Get the blighted houses down, save the building materials, invest in the people who stayed, build something new. Make it better.
I peppered Jason with questions. “How do you get the nails out if you've snapped the head off?” and “I have a screw I don't know how to deal with,” or “is this piece worth the effort?” and “I can't figure out which way to lodge the tool in to get these two pieces apart.” Remedial physics and leverage and force and my gloves on upside down, safety goggles sliding down my nose, and he answered with nothing but patience, nothing but steady hands and help. You can tell why he's the guy leading the crew. My micro questions that are also being asked on a macro scale: What to do with that problem house on the block? Which street is worth the effort to save? What intervention that will cut off a neighborhood to save a city? At what cost? To whom?
A week after I got home to my job at DVGBC, a report came out with a recommendation to tear down 40,000 houses, an effort that planners believe will help remaining parts of the neighborhoods. I'm sure it will inspire much debate. This is five minutes from Jason's perspective as a Detroit native who is doing the work on a daily basis. The hammers in the background while Jason talks? That's the sound of the green building community pitching in for a day to help rebuild Detroit, a chorus backing up his steady lead.
When I returned home to Philadelphia the next day, I went directly home from the airport, dropped my bags, and turned around to go to a networking event with At Media, where a small group of entrepreneurs and advocates were trading stories inside the Dandelion, a popular upscale English pub-style haunt while outside the streets were jammed with happy-hour goers and commuters and shoppers, despite the muggy weather and imminent rain. I couldn't stop talking about Detroit---the empty streets, the blown out windows in what used to be Class A office space, the houses slated for demolition. Back in Motor City, Jason had probably returned home to his family, and the entrepreneurs that we had met during the conference like Detroit Dirt's Pashon Murry and Slow's Barbeque's Phil Cooley were likely turning over ideas in their heads for what was next.
It occurred to me that a trade mission would help both cities, since Philadelphia has many of the same problems, but hasn't seen the scale or depth of the Detroit crises in decades. Our social entrepreneurs would have a lot to learn from one another. I told I everyone that would listen that they should go to Detroit and see it for themselves, that they needed to see first hand what was happening, and also what was possible. Did they know that so many city services have been cut off that the kids are walking to school in the dark? That a woman named Reverend Ross was raising money for solar lights to be put on private land so that the children could be safe?
Meanwhile, advocates in Philadelphia were preparing for a ceremonial funeral to tear down a home in Mantua, one of hundreds torn down every year in Philadelphia. 3711 Melon Street, a sister home to 8080 Senator in Detroit, has its own family story, and until 1980, it was occupied by a fierce woman named Leona Richardson, who according to the story in The Philadelphia Inquirer left her town in segregated Louisiana in the 1930's and made her way to purchasing a home in Philadelphia, in between surviving as a single mother and working as a welder in the factories during World War II. The Mantua neighborhood has recently been designated a Promise Zone by President Obama, and community residents and support organizations like the People's Emergency Center are working hard to help the neighborhood thrive again. The more we invest now, the better the chance that Philadelphia will avoid Detroit's long emergency. Hopefully Reclaim Detroit and others will help keep the demolition material out of landfills, what will otherwise become mass graves filled with homes and the memories of the families that once filled them with life.
What was 8080 Senator Street in Detroit - Google Maps