In Detroit, it takes a block to save a neighborhood

Crime, blight and abandonment spread across Detroit like wild fire.

It begins with a few vacancies on a block, attracting arsonists, drug dealers and prostitutes. Property values plummet. Insurance skyrockets. People flee.

The blight spreads outward, consuming entire neighborhoods.

That’s why Michael Sanderling wasted no time when he saw a squatter trying to get into a neighboring abandoned house about a year ago.

“I walked over to my neighbor’s house and said we got to do something,” Sanderling told me on his block on historic Atkinson Avenue between Linwood and LaSalle, just west of Boston Edison.

And so began a block club dedicated to protecting the 40 homes – about five of them vacant – on a block lined with two-story homes built for the working-class in the 1920s.

“We’re going back to the old-fashion way of keeping our street safe,” Sanderling’s wife, Taunya, told me. “It takes a village. And that’s what we’re doing.”

Atkinson St. It’s not easy. Many of the surrounding blocks are overcome with vacancies and crime. A nearby liquor store attracts a steady stream of troublemakers. And when the sun goes down, neighbors must patrol the area to keep out thieves.

It’s the kind of place where you brag about hosting a block party in which no one was assaulted.

“We didn’t have a single problem,” Michael told me proudly of the last block party. “We had security at both ends of the street.”

Sanderling is a landscaper, so he mows lawns and trims bushes outside of vacant homes and those occupied by seniors.

“Everyone knows everyone; we look out for each other,” Michael told me.
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But Taunya warned, “If you’re looking to start trouble, don’t do it here.”

Steve Neavling

Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.

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