As John George remembers it, the Detroit neighborhood he grew up in was straight out of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. “We knew all our neighbors,” George, 60, told Detroit’s Metro Times. “On Christmas Eve, we’d all go to midnight Mass, and there’d be 300 people in our house at one o’clock to about five in the morning. The folks were just really good, hardworking people.”
By the ’80s, however, the old neighborhood was more Pottersville than Bedford Falls. Due in part to economic downturns and a nationwide drug epidemic, well-kept homes had been abandoned and kindly neighbors had fled to the suburbs. But not George. “Living in any city, it’s like being in a relationship,” he told Reader’s Digest. “Some days are better than others. But it was my home. And when I saw it deteriorating, I had two choices: I could leave, or I could stay and fight. I decided to stay and fight.”
When the abandoned home behind his turned into a crack den, the father of two grabbed some plywood and nails and began boarding up the house. After two neighbors stopped to ask what he was doing, they decided to help, with great results. “When the drug dealers came back, they turned around and went home,” says George. “That’s how it all got started.”
“It” is Detroit Blight Busters, or DBB, an organization of civic-minded volunteers dedicated to reviving the city they love, one abandoned house, one vacant lot, and one garbage-strewn park at a time.
In the 30 years since that first home rescue, an army of approximately 182,000 volunteers, along with corporate and private donors, has helped George demolish around 300 derelict homes, mostly in the poorer Northwest area of Detroit. They’ve also secured 400-some homes by boarding them up, thus keeping bad actors out. They’ve painted and renovated nearly 900 homes and built over 100 from scratch. According to Forbes, more than 1,000 Detroiters have been housed as a result of DBB’s work.
“I’m half Lebanese, half Italian, and 100 percent Detroit stubborn,” George told nationswell.com. “Once we get something in our heart and in our head, it’s almost autopilot.”
But that was only the beginning. In 2003, George also breathed life into a dilapidated square mile of Detroit by turning it into Artist Village, an area now filled with galleries, a performance space, community gardens, a coffee shop, and outdoor courtyards. Because this region of North Detroit was a food desert, George also persuaded a supermarket chain to move into the neighborhood.
“Blight is like a cancer: If you don’t set upon it, it will spread,” George told thehubdetroit.com.
And then there’s Halloween. In Detroit, October 30 was ruefully known as Devil’s Night, a period when all hell would break loose in the form of crime and vandalism. In response, George created a citizens’ patrol that would take to the streets, keeping an eye on suspicious behavior. He dubbed it Angels’ Night. What began with 12 neighbors on patrol in 1990 has grown to more than 60,000 citywide.
Rachel Woolf for Reader's Digest
George’s inspired ideas have not gone unnoticed by the city he loves. “John wants to show that there is still something to Detroit. That it’s still worth it,” says real estate agent Robert LaBute. And others are buying into it. “We’re seeing the trend of younger homeowners coming in.”
Is George proud of having boosted his once-ailing hometown? You’d better believe he is. As he puts it: “We are on the front porch of the greatest urban comeback story in this nation’s history.” Next, check out the most underrated cities worth a visit.