The Art of Restoration

A dedicated group of like-minded Detroiters are transforming an Old Redford neighborhood from blighted to bustling.
Photograph by Cybelle Codish

To call John George a true “artist” may be a bit farfetched — the co-founder of Motor City Blight Busters often uses the stroke of a sledgehammer in lieu of a paintbrush. Yet the sense of community his organization’s renovations have restored to an Old Redford block in northwest Detroit is nothing less than a masterpiece.

“Blight Busters has a bad habit of acquiring old dusty buildings and rebuilding them,” says George, who co-founded the nonprofit organization nearly 30 years ago. One dusty building, the ruins of an old strip mall tucked conspicuously beside the refurbished Redford Theatre on Lahser Road, turned out to be a Detroit diamond in the rough.

The shop was “rubble,” recalls George. “The windows were broken. The doors had bars. The floors were worn out.” Beginning in 2005, Blight Busters started a five-year, $350,000 effort to completely rehab the derelict space. Once the dust settled, the building was rechristened as Artist Village Detroit.

“Be in the Village on a Friday or a Saturday night and it is truly where the world meets,” George says. The Village includes an art gallery, garden, and performance stage, and also houses the Motor City Java and Tea House and the Public Art Workz initiative — fashionably turning the space into a communal hub of recreation. Other neighborhood businesses include Sweet Potato Sensations.

in the glow of the Redford Theatre’s marquee — an earful of jazz and poetry adds to the general razzmatazz that resonates through the neighborhood. “Having a strong neighborhood is so important to having a successful business,” says Bryan Richter, president of the Motor City Theatre Organ Society. The organization, consisting of a dedicated group of volunteers, sustains day-to-day operations at the Redford Theatre, which was built in 1928. That organization is another example of like-minded Detroiters uniting to restore and preserve the history of the Motor City.

“I immediately fell in love with the [Redford Theatre]. It was the most incredible thing to see this beautiful place in the middle of, what I thought at the time, such an awful neighborhood,” Richter says. “Through the [Motor City Theatre Organ Society], I realized the Redford Theatre was run by all volunteers. I made a call and was volunteering to do cleanup and security that week. I’ve been hooked ever since.”

With the help of the Organ Society and Blight Busters, area business owners were able to re-establish a small-business association, working in tandem to make improvements.

Artist Chazz Miller of Public Art Workz provides the restorative touch of public artwork — one that also functions as a welcome brigade. Along with Miller’s murals of President Barack Obama and picturesque scenes of activism painted on nearby abandoned buildings, there is a collection of wooden sculptures — life-size tigers, bunnies, and even former Detroit Piston Ben Wallace — that align the streets. The sculptures, crafted by renowned West Coast sculptor John Abduljaami, beckon visiting guests to ponder, “What is Artist Village?”

“When I brought the art to the table that really gave it a sense of closure,” says Miller, who offers free summer art classes for youth in his studio.

“Now that we’ve cleaned it up and we can really start beautifying with just paint and some cosmetics, you can really create the illusion that more is going on. And give people hope until something can actually happen.”

Alicia George began as a Blight Buster volunteer and ended up marrying its founder (John) in 2012. But prior to that, she realized her dream of opening a coffee shop, the Motor City Java and Tea House (it opened as part of the Artist Village in 2010).

“I saw the work that Blight Busters was doing and how it was affecting the neighborhood,” she says. “Once I became part of the fabric of this neighborhood, it just made sense that my dream would be here.” As for the sort of communal livelihood that has been restored to the Old Redford district, she says it is simply the fruits of a joint labor of love.

“It was built by love; it was built by the people. I could never take the credit for that.”