The land, the people
Hantz Woodlands begins, community negotiates change
By Zenobia Jeffries
The Michigan Citizen
DETROIT — Kathina Carey has mixed feelings about the Hantz Woodlands’ development in her neighborhood on the city’s lower east side.
Carey, a Detroit native, described how she’d single-handedly cared for her block on McClellan Street for seven years, using her own money to mow the vacant lots between abandoned homes, and feed homeless neighbors in the area who sometimes went for days without a meal.
She was relieved when someone wanted to make the area “more livable.”
Businessman John Hantz began his woodlands project in January clearing out, to date, 50 of the 150 acres he purchased from the city, after much public debate — thousands of residents protested Detroit City Council’s approval of the sale.
Project Manager Mike Score says they will plant 15,000 saplings May 17 on many of the cleared acres.
They expect to have about 500 volunteers to help. Score says 150 signed up in the first two days after the planting date was announced.
He says the project has been well received and residents are excited.
“This is what we were promising, and this is showing we’ll keep our promises,” he said. “Our neighbors aren’t bashful, (they) will ask us, ‘what are you going to do after you plant the trees?’ And we’ll talk to them about ideas, and see how they like them.”
Carey said, “It helps because I was tired of doing it by myself. They’re getting everybody excited about the development taking place.”
She said she’s also grateful that after losing her homes on McClellan and Goethe, Hantz, who acquired both houses through his land purchase from the city, sold them back to her.
But Carey is worried about what the new development may mean for most in the area who are already struggling.
“I feel like this is what’s going to happen to my people,” Carey said turning her attention to a pheasant running through the empty lot at the corner of McClellan and Goethe.
Through tears, she expressed her concern that the new development may mean displacement for many.
“It’s hard to sit back and see this happen. They own almost everything around here.” she said. “People are struggling and it’s been so hard. There are a lot of recovering addicts.”
Once an addict herself, Carey uses both her homes to help people in the area. She has turned them into rehabilitation centers — one for women and the other for men.
Her brother Robert Pearson has his own construction company, Standard Builders, and has been helping his sister rehab the homes.
“We raised $25,000 to get the work done,” Pearson told the Michigan Citizen.
He says the tree project is excellent for the area and expects to help the Hantz project in clearing the area next to his sister’s home.
Score says they’ve worked well with neighbors and some city residents who were once critics of the project have “come back to being his friend.”
“We’re not going to do anything that our neighbors don’t like,” he said, “because we’re driven by our mission statement, which is to make the neighborhood more livable and get our money back over time.”
Malik Yakini, a food justice advocate, has been a vocal critic of the Hantz project.
Yakini, executive director of Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, says it’s the framework of the Hantz project and others like it — “Gilbertville” and the Ilitch stadium — that is troubling, not the specific things Hantz is doing and whether they’re “good or bad.”
“My position is that the city selling him that amount of land is a dangerous precedent,” Yakini told the Michigan Citizen, “because it continues a century-long phenomenon of wealthy white men owning huge amounts of land and the majority of people being landless.
Yakini says the city of Detroit has a “tremendous opportunity” to rethink how publicly-owned land can be used for the public good instead of selling it off to wealthy individuals.
“We have to break away from the way cities have developed land in giving favor to the wealthy, and have ways to develop (that is) controlled by the community-benefitting majority instead of a minority,” Yakini said. “Clearly, we all want to see blight removed from neighborhoods. Hantz is not unique in that. We (all) want to see livable communities… There are other ways to do that besides selling land to wealthy individuals.”
DBCFSN is researching community land trusts where communities can own land and determine how it can be used for the common good.
He says the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative in Boston is an example of community-based planning and organizing revitalization that could work in Detroit.
The DSNI website says the 30-year-old non-profit organization was formed when residents of the Dudley Street area came together out of fear and anger to revive their neighborhood that was devastated by arson, disinvestment, neglect and redlining practices, and protect it from outside speculators.
“Creating a situation where people have voice and are determining their own destiny is the opportunity we have,” he says. “We have to stop doing business as usual, because business as usual contributes to the vast inequities in society.”