Look at this interactive map for insight into one of Detroit's biggest problems

Feb 19, 2014

The blighted buildings in Detroit have been a major stumbling block for decades.

How do you start revitalizing a city when so much of it is crumbling?

Current estimates put the number of abandoned buildings at somewhere between 78,000 and 90,000, but that's a guess. Nobody really knows the true number.

For the past several months, several dozen teams from a technology startup called Loveland Technologies have been slowly driving the streets trying to get a handle on this question. The teams have been snapping photos and uploading information about the buildings. They call their technology "blexting" - blending the words "blight" and "texting."

Here's Loveland Technologies' Jerry Paffendorf explaining how it works:

The company is part of the Motor City Mapping project. Information about a building's condition is added to the photo and into a database that also holds a lot of publicly available data from the city of Detroit and Wayne County.

City and county databases are clunky and difficult to access. Their interactive map is not.

Their goal is to daylight information that we can all interact with.

City and county databases are clunky and difficult to access. Their interactive map is not.

Alex Alsup, the Chief Products Officer for Loveland Technologies, talked about the goal of their website Why Don't We Own This? with Stateside's Cynthia Canty today.

"What we try to do is make a much more intuitive and responsive platform that presents that information clearly," said Alsup. "And isn't just a resource for looking at one data point in the context of one property, but really being able to see well, 'What's going on around that property? How is the neighborhood trending?'"

The goal, Alsup said, is to encourage more openness around property ownership in the city.

Taking the map for a spin

My Dad grew up in Detroit, so I thought I'd find out what information I could about his old house.

Here's a picture of Dad in front of his house on Lakeview Street. They lived in it from 1934 to 1957. The taller guy is Alfred Ahee, his neighbor from a Syrian family who lived across the street.

Photo on Lakeview Street in Detroit in the late 1930s or early 1940s.
Photo on Lakeview Street in Detroit in the late 1930s or early 1940s. (Dad's house is on the right.)
Credit Photo courtesy of Tom Brush

I was able to find his old neighborhood on Detroit's east side by zooming in using the interactive map.

I found his old address, and clicked on the parcel. Here's what it looks like today:

1138 Lakeview Street in Detroit, Michigan.
1138 Lakeview Street in Detroit, Michigan.
Credit WDWOT?

Their database shows that the city owns the plot now, and that the last time it sold was in 1968 for $11,850.

So like a lot of places in Detroit, bustling neighborhoods full of working class families are simply gone.

There are a few houses left on my Dad's old street, but many are abandoned or severely worn down. 

Here's what that area looks today with a satellite overlay. Can you tell where Detroit stops and Grosse Pointe Park starts?

Detroit's east side meets Grosse Pointe Park. The colored squares show the age of the buildings in Detroit.
Detroit's east side meets Grosse Pointe Park. The colored squares show the age of the buildings in Detroit.
Credit WDWOT.com

One of 380,217 parcels

The plot on Lakeview Street is just one of the more than 380,000 Loveland Technologies is documenting around the city for the mapping project.

The teams documenting the buildings are close to done, as Amy Heimerl reports for Crain's Detroit Business:

The team is completing the final "mosquito bite" surveying, as Carter calls it, zeroing in on precise properties it wants to double check. But by late this week, the Motor City Mapping Project should be complete. The task force expects to make its recommendations, based on the survey data, to Mayor Mike Duggan and Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr by the end of March.

So we're close to having a more precise count of Detroit's blight problem. But what then? You can list all the junk you have in your basement, but you still have to do something with it.

Monica Davey poses the challenging questions that the city faces in her piece in the New York Times:

How can a city of 139 square miles and once built for 1.8 million people comfortably hold its current 700,000 residents, and must it, in essence, shrink to survive? Which buildings are so ramshackle as to require demolition, and which should be restored and sold? How does a city wisely and quickly dispose of empty properties when ownership is tangled? And how does a place act fast enough and in an order that prevents new neighborhoods from slipping under even as worse ones are being saved?

Leaders in Detroit think of the mapping project as a baseline. A place to start. Their project is quantifying the problem for them. The Skillman Foundation has put up money to help the mapping project along, and Loveland Technologies is planning to use their app in other cities around the U.S.

Organizers behind this effort say they understand that blight is a moving target. It can spread. They hope that this is not a one-time data gathering effort. They hope to continually update their maps with new data gathered by people who live and work around the city.

H/T Lucy Perkins