The House Next Door
February 14, 2014
Literally a stone’s throw from Harms Elementary School in bustling Southwest Detroit sits a cream-colored two-story single-family house.
Given its location next to the school, it’s not hard for one to imagine it being a prime location for a family with young children.
After all, Harms Elementary School is one of the eight best elementary schools in the state, and “counts doctors, lawyers and a past director of the FBI among its successful alumni.”
Despite this nicety, the house next door is a house in turmoil.
It’s been abandoned; windows broken; doors ripped from their hinges and in the backyard without a fence, a pile of trash and broken tree branches is threatens to spill out into the short dirt road that separates the lot from the school’s well-manicured playground.
Fortunately, help is on the way.
The Detroit Partnership
During Detroit Partnership Day, hundreds of FCA US LLC volunteers have joined forces with 1,500 college students from the The Detroit Partnership (DP) and several community organizations to do some spring cleaning – plant flowers, paint and remove debris in Springwells Village in Southwest Detroit and in the community of Brightmoor on the city’s northwest side.
“Chrysler’s involvement is a testament to its commitment to the city of Detroit,” Cassie Basler, executive director of The Detroit Partnership says. DP is a student-run service-learning organization at the University of Michigan that marshals the students and coordinates the annual cleanup effort each March. Since the initial DP Day in 2000, the organization has expanded to become a year-round service organization, giving students the opportunity to serve the community in a variety of activities, including tutoring and leadership programs.
On this day, FCA UC employees are working with four community service partners across the city to help make a difference. The company has also pitched in, donating over $4,000 in supplies, including rakes, shovels, gloves and gallons of anti-graffiti paint.
“This is bigger than a commercial or a check,” Basler explains. “This is a company, whose people are rolling up their sleeves to work with others in the community and ultimately help The Detroit Partnership create lasting and powerful relationships in the city.”
Earlier, as the cleanup at the house next door to Harms Elementary School gets underway, Irwin Danto toured the house to make sure there are no squatters or dangerous materials left behind. Finding none; workers fire up the air compressor and begin covering the windows with particle board. Minutes later, a man and a woman exit the house, apparently roused from some secret hiding place deep within the house.
Last spring, Danto started boarding up homes with the assistance of employees from Danto & Company, his family’s appliance and furniture store. His family has lived in the community for 73 years.
“It certainly changes the whole feeling around that particular block, when the homes are showing – at least someone – that they’re being taken care of,” Danto says.
“We’ve seen all kinds of problems in these homes. Some are burned beyond reason. We board those up as well, just so the fronts of them look like they’re being taken care of … like somebody cares,” says Danto.
Thus far, they have secured 55 homes and several apartment buildings. Unfortunately, the need seems endless; two homes across the street – one badly burned – look to be the next candidates for Danto and his team.
Meanwhile, Jennifer Lowenberg, a FCA US program manager, takes a break from carrying loads of trash from the backyard to the large green dumpsters positioned curbside at the front of the house.
“It’s important to reach out to the community and show our support … and do what we can to help everybody,” Lowenberg says.
“Especially, we’re a part of Chrysler’s Hispanic Employee Network (CHEN) so, that’s one of our goal’s this year is to really become more active in the community,” she adds.
CHEN is one of six Employee Resource Groups within Chrysler. The groups are not only an important part of the company’s diversity strategy; they enable their members opportunities to build personal and professional relationships, leadership development skills, as well as occasions to promote cultural awareness and inclusion both inside the company and in their respective communities.
“We want to keep that bond going and grow the community… and help out wherever we can,” adds Susan Alonzo, the FCA US coordinator for the cleanup. Springwells Village is a predominately Hispanic community.
As the work continues, Maria Stover, an assistant kindergarten teacher at Harms Elementary, makes her way over to the dirt road separating the backyard from the school’s property.
“This is an awesome thing going on in the community,” says Stover. “Working here and seeing what’s going on is a big difference for the community to see.”
By the end of the day, the crew will have achieved both of these goals, filling both dumpsters to their rims.
“It was an eyesore seeing all of this trash here, next to a school and next to a playground where the kids have to see it. So come Monday, we’re going to see an awesome reaction from the students.”
“So, we’re hoping and praying that this stay like this,” Stover adds.
When contacted in February 2014, Danto wrote in an email, “These destroyed homes are more than an eyesore they are a cancer. Yes, a cancer that is spreading unhindered. The message which they send to the community is to leave – not stay.”
“We have boarded up over 200 properties. There remain many thousands more in Detroit. We of course worry primarily about Southwest Detroit. My best guess is 600 to 800 structures that should be boarded up or better yet demolished.”