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July|August 2005
City of Blight By Geoffrey Gagnon
The Fourth Man By Margot Sanger-Katz
A Place to Crash By Aaron Dalton
A Man's Home Is His Castle By Elizabeth Austin
Cases & Controversies
The Prudent Jurist By William H. Simon

City of Blight

Detroit's new weapon in its war on eyesores.

By Geoffrey Gagnon

NOTHING SEEMS TO GET TORN DOWN IN DETROIT. The city's majestic old train depot, 18 stories of stone and shattered windows, sits near the famed 50,000-seat Tiger Stadium. Both are empty and neglected. Less than a mile away on Washington Boulevard stands the 33-floor Book-Cadillac Hotel. The world's tallest hotel in its heyday of the Roaring Twenties, in a stretch of town once dubbed the "Fifth Avenue of the West," has been rotting for the past 20 years.

In tens of thousands of buildings all over the city, the story is the same. Half a century ago, Detroit was the cultural and manufacturing center of the Midwest. It was emptied by race riots in the 1960s and factory closings ever since. Trees grow out of the windows and rotted roofs of stately old brick homes, relics of bygone opulence. At the city's core, pre-Depression skyscrapers fell victim to civic indifference and urban scavengers. So-called street miners stripped the interiors of shuttered edifices. Brass fixtures, wooden doors, plaster busts, and decorative brick were yanked from the inside; window glass was shattered from the outside. Vandals with spray paint looked for bare walls, the homeless looked for dry floors, and Detroiters looked the other way.

There's a word for urban decay on the scale of Detroit's: blight. Like most cities, Detroit laid down rules against blight a long time ago. City codes enacted in the mid-1980s sought to rein in a wide range of urban decrepitude. Trash heaps, junked cars, crumbling buildings, and the like were gathered under a roomy umbrella outlawing inner-city eyesores. The laws made everything from rat infestation to shabby yards criminal misdemeanors, punishable by fines and even arrest. But enforcement was spotty at best, in part because blight was the province of the 36th District Court, one of the country's busiest, whose docket was choked with that other Detroit cliché—violent crime.

Three years ago, when Kwame Kilpatrick became mayor, he vowed to fight the city's bad case of urban rot. The earringed young mayor, now 34, inherited a $75 million budget deficit that he hoped to reduce by encouraging downtown development. He tapped Medina Abdun-Noor, then a 29-year-old city attorney working in the 36th District, to come up with a solution to blight. As a lifelong Detroiter, Abdun-Noor understood the extent of the problem. She spent her third year of law school attending classes in (what else) an abandoned home downtown. Detroit College of Law had converted the house to a satellite classroom for students who refused to follow when the school moved out of the city.

After her appointment to Kilpatrick's staff, Abdun-Noor came up with a counterintuitive approach to stopping blight. She figured that the city's best shot at making punishments for slumlords and their ilk stick was to make the underlying offenses civil infractions. That would allow the city to remove blight from the docket of the 36th District Court. So Abdun-Noor pushed the mayor's office to punish blight as it would traffic violations—by issuing tickets to offenders.

Abdun-Noor borrowed from a program first tried in Chicago in the late '90s. In the Windy City, administrative tribunals that Chicago's mayor refers to as "quality of life courts" handle city nuisance cases ranging from illegal taxis to disorderly conduct. Abdun-Noor built from scratch a court to focus on blight—a place designed to keep offenses from getting swept aside. Unveiled this year, the Department of Administrative Hearings, which has a budget of $2.3 million, is Abdun-Noor's new Blight Court.

She also petitioned the Michigan Legislature to change state law to give her tribunal the strength it needed to squeeze unrepentant blighters. The court can enforce fines, ranging from $25 to $10,000, by garnishing wages and bank accounts. It's even got the legal power to hamstring blighters who flee to other parts of the state, by placing liens on properties outside the limits of Detroit.

The court has been up and running for six months, with three "hearing officers" —lawyers appointed by the mayor—judging cases in nondescript hearing rooms in a two-story office building. Until last winter, the brown structure was a vacant building. There are bars on all the windows. Across the street sits the landmark Renaissance Center, a cluster of glass buildings that were built to revitalize Detroit in the 1970s and are now the global headquarters of General Motors. When Abdun-Noor and her staff of 13 moved in, they salvaged a giant, though dusty, conference table that was left behind on the second floor. Her thrifty habits are also evident in the court's décor. It's not a pretty department, but so far it's effective. Blight Court is an exercise in swift justice—with an emphasis on swift. Hearing officers routinely dispose of a case in five minutes, with the three cycling through more than 300 cases a day. The 36th District Court slogged through half that number in a good week.

The price of speed is formality. Multitasking hearing officers with sunglasses perched on their heads swig drinks from Dunkin' Donuts cups as they swear in respondents while typing the records of their previous cases. A bright digital clock affixed to the front of the judge's bench faces the accused blighter and the accusing city inspector as if to remind them to keep it snappy. The cases that end up in court began out on the city streets where environmental inspectors cruise Motown in white pickups, snapping Polaroids and mailing tickets to busted property owners.

Many blighters don't bother to challenge their tickets, but on a morning this spring, the city's dragnet pulled in Jeffrey Jendrisina, who figured there must be some mistake. The husky-voiced Jendrisina came to court with a windswept tuft of gray hair and a clutch of glossy photos. In some of those photos stood Jendrisina's grinning daughter in front of a home she had just moved into—a small, brick, single-family house that her dad bought for her on the north side of town. Other photos showed a neat stack of black garbage bags filled with grass and leaves, lined along the curb in front of the daughter's house. It was the 3 by 5's of the plastic bags that explained why Jendrisina was spending his morning in court.

The city inspector was seated to Jendrisina's left in black work boots and a nylon jacket, and she had her own Polaroids. She consulted some dates on a piece of paper as she explained how the bagged grass had made its way to the street more than a week ahead of its scheduled pickup time. She considered the case open and shut. Illegal disposal of solid waste is a violation of a city ordinance. Jendrisina's own photos confirmed his daughter's offense. "But we're not the sort of folks who should be here," Jendrisina said, telling the hearing officer that he bought the fixer-upper in Detroit in order to help the city as well as his daughter. The bagged and neatly stacked debris represented a weekend of spring cleaning, not flagrant dumping. He was shushed by the judge, who admitted that the family had done wonders for the house.

Using twenties to pay his $140 fine, Jendrisina showed a bystander another picture of his daughter's yard—this one with a for-sale sign stuck in the lawn. "It's been broken into five times this year and the police have never showed up," Jendrisina said, explaining why they'd put the place up for sale. "It's just too unsafe." As he pocketed his photos, he said, "At least they're stopping blighters like me."

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