Fighting Flint's blight one lot at a time

A mural on this house at the corner of Dayton St. and N. Chevrolet Ave. depicts the efforts of some local volunteers to clean up neglected lots.

It's hard to ignore the ailing façade in parts of the Vehicle City - sagging rooftops, boarded-up windows, the overgrowth of once-pruned trees along blocks of dilapidated homes.

"You just see whole streets just devastated,â?? Andy Ellard, president of the Fairfield Village Neighborhood Council, said.

Ellard is a man with a dream, and for the last few years, the driving force behind an effort to make his neighborhood cleaner and safer.

â??Call me crazy if you want,â?? he quipped.

In the small Fairfield Village neighborhood, it's hard to tell which homes are occupied and which are vacant - because Ellard found a way to put local teenagers to work, mostly mowing lawns and trimming overgrown shrubs.

"I enjoy cutting grass, really,â?? 17-year-old Anthony Kellum said. Kellum and his friend Brandon Wesley are part of a youth task force Ellard formed. Together with about a dozen other area youth, they mow lawns and maintain lots and earn money at the same time.

â??I'd most likely cut about four lots every week and I'd do it between a span of three days,â?? Wesley said. At $15 to $25 a lot, it's not a bad gig for 18-year-old Wesley. He gets a paycheck from the Court Street Village Non-Profit. On a good day, neighbors will throw in some extra cash.

Ellard says the responsibility breeds a sense of ownership.

"They'll actually pick up stuff from the street when they're walking down the street,â?? he said proudly. Pairing teens looking for a job with the task of maintaining neglected properties is a model Ellard says could work on a bigger scale.

â??The energyâ??s there. Just tap into it and let it roll,â?? Ellard said.

The county is already on to a similar system.

In the historic Civic Park neighborhood of Flint, empty homes and vacant lots are dime a dozen. But something interesting is happening there. About three years ago, a group of passionate young men decided to take some lawnmowers and garbage bags and show their neighborhood a little love.

Guided by Pastor Robert McCathern of Joy Tabernacle Church, the men keep the grass cut and board up windows to prevent scrappers. Itâ??s often a six-day job volunteers do wholeheartedly.

Tyrone Johnson said, â??When we're out wearing our green vests, you know people see us, and they know they can't just go into houses like that."

Johnsonâ??s efforts are illustrated on a mural on the side of the house at the corner of Dayton St. and N. Chevrolet Ave. It depicts men with paint rollers and ladders and lawnmowers working around the neighborhood. The makeshift mural shows thereâ??s an entire brotherhood at work, transforming a former hotspot for crime, one house at a time.

Natalie Pruett works closely with the Civic Park men through the Genesee County Land Bankâ??s Clean and Green program.

"They were sitting in neighborhoods, not being maintained, and bringing down property values, bringing up crime, things like that,â?? Pruett describes many of the Land Bank properties, like the ones in the Civic Park neighborhood.

The Clean and Green program provides community groups with a stipend to maintain Land Bank properties. The program has seen encouraging growth over the past nine years. This year, groups in maintained some 1,200 properties all around the city of flint.

â??It's about kind of pushing people to think of land that you would often call vacant and start to re-imagine new uses for it,â?? Pruett said.

Can these neglected lots and homes be transformed and restored?

The short answer - yes. It will take many years, require more willing people and more money the city doesn't have right now.

In the meantime, there are neighbors who are working hard every day, telling the rest of Flint, â??Don't underestimate the power of a few good men,â?? and there's always room for another helping hand.