As a 50th birthday present to herself, Belva Davis bought her first home, a brick Cape Cod, in a friendly neighborhood ten miles east of downtown Detroit. The 72-block enclave, East English Village, was the kind of place where kids still pedaled bikes on the sidewalk and neighbors invited you over for parties. “It felt like a community, like when I was growing up,” says Davis, who moved there from a rental apartment in inner-city Detroit. “I didn’t hear gunshots. I didn’t hear people cursing. It was peaceful.”
Two years after moving in, the 52-year-old lost her job as a nonprofit administrator and fell $18,000 behind on her mortgage. Even after she found full-time work again, her mortgage lender refused to negotiate. “I told them, ‘I have a job. I can make payments,’ ” says Davis. “But nobody was willing to work with me.” In 2008, the foreclosure notice arrived in the mail.
It wouldn’t be the neighborhood’s first foreclosure by a long shot. Detroit’s economic woes had hit East English Village hard; month in and month out, 5 to 10 percent of the homes there sat empty. Usually people were too ashamed to say they’d lost their home until the moving van pulled into their driveway. Not Davis. At the next neighborhood association meeting, she grabbed the microphone. “I want to stay in my home, but the mortgage company isn’t listening to me,” she said. “Would you be willing to protest?”
For many longtime residents, it was what they had been waiting for. “We were just so glad someone was willing to stand up to what was happening to our neighborhood,” says neighbor Nancy Brigham. She and a handful of other residents helped Davis organize a series of protests against her eviction. They distributed flyers in the area and convinced the local newspaper and television station to cover the events.
In December 2008, locals waved signs in Davis’s yard during a snowstorm; come summer, the protest turned into a backyard barbecue. City council and neighborhood association members gave speeches about Davis’s plight. Another neighbor posted video footage of the protests and interviews with local residents on YouTube, attracting hundreds of views.
But the bank didn’t budge. Davis lived in fear. “One of the most devastating things was not knowing if you’d come home and all your stuff would be in a Dumpster,” she says quietly.
In fall 2009, she made a final push, asking neighbors to flood the bank president with e-mails and phone calls. On a sunny September Saturday, a few dozen of Davis’s supporters marched in front of a local branch, chanting, “Let Belva stay! She’s not going away!” At last, Davis got a phone call. The bank would modify her mortgage loan. She would get to keep her home. “I’m just glad I live in the type of neighborhood where people help each other,” says Davis.
These days, Davis spends more time scheduling the neighborhood book club than organizing picket lines. But if turning protests into block parties is what it takes to save her neighborhood, she’s all for it. “Not only in Detroit but all over the nation, neighborhoods are being devastated,” she says. “If more people would band together, people could stay in their homes. But one person can’t do that by herself. It takes a community of people.”
Plus, she says, laughing, “it’s certainly a way to get to know your neighbors.”