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Cities that fall on hard times often face the staggering problem of abandoned properties. In Detroit, it's estimated that up to 40 square miles of land sit vacant. Add it up, that's an area larger than Miami. But some Detroit residents are using that emptiness to quietly reshape their neighborhoods. They're annexing vacant lots around them, buying them or just fencing the "blots" off.
Blots are properties between the size of a lot and a city block. The easiest way to find blots in Detroit is to just look for a very long fence.
"We're walking on the side of my house," says Kevin Garcia, a Detroit resident. "My lot extends corner to corner."
Garcia's immediate neighbor is emptiness. So far, he's annexed four of the vacant lots surrounding him. And he did it legally — he bought them.
"This lot here, I had a issue with the city of Detroit trying to obtain it," Garcia says. "It took me ten years of hard work and perseverance to get this from them."
Cities often hold onto land if they think there's potential for redevelopment.
"Pretty much, I've seen every structure on my block burn," Garcia says. "Unfortunately. It's got as bad as where I seen two burn at the same time."
Garcia throws shotgun shells on his front porch, to keep intruders away. He buried his dog in back after someone shot it. Still, Garcia says this neighborhood is a gem. There's space now. Lots of it. Behind the fence he's planted trees and shrubs: honey locust, Siberian elm, white pine, purple lilac.
"If I want to go to the park, I just go out here to the back yard," Garcia says. "I can pretty much enjoy everything that I can there, without the travel time."
Keep in mind that Detroit was built to be packed tightly with working class homes. But the city has lost a million people since the 1950s, more than half its population. That left gaping holes in the structure of neighborhoods. Blotters aren't waiting for the city to fix that.
"I call it an everyday remaking," says Margaret Dewar, an urban planning professor at the University of Michigan. "Every day there's a little step in this direction of remaking by people who are pretty invisible. But over time it becomes a dominant feature of the city."
Dewar sampled tax-foreclosed properties resold by the city over 20 years. More than a quarter were bought by the homeowner next door.
Take the house Paul Browne's family bought in 1925. Next to it are four lots, an oasis of fruit trees and gardens. But there's a catch.
"This one's actually a city lot," Browne says. "They want to sell it, more than willing to buy it off of them."
Turns out, the only lot the family actually owns is the one farthest from the house. They tried but failed to buy the middle lots years ago. So why put all this effort into land they don't own?
"Cause we live next door to it," Browne says. "If you go up the next block from here you'll see what it would look like. Just overgrown brush piles. Trash. Car parts. And it's only from stubbornness and perseverance that keeps it from becoming a debris pile."
In Detroit, Cleveland, New Orleans and many other cities, residents already get first dibs on adjacent empty lots. The idea is to stabilize neighborhoods and bring land back on the tax rolls. So for instance, some Cleveland homeowners can buy an empty side lot for as little as a dollar. In Detroit, it's as little as 200 dollars. But the city owns 60,000 parcels of land, most of it vacant.
"We haven't really promoted the program," says Rob Anderson, Detroit's new planning director. "I think that's why we have such small numbers."
Rob Anderson and his staff just started studying the adjacent lot program and how to expedite it.
"What I don't want to have happen is we promote it and we're not ready for an influx of interest," Anderson says. "I wanna make sure that people don't get bogged down once they approach us."
But people here already get bogged down in bureaucracy. It can take years for residents to buy the lot next door. Anderson says his new goal will be 30 days.
The story was produced by Changing Gears, a collaboration of WBEZ Chicago, Michigan Radio, and ideastream Cleveland.