Residents in Detroit’s Core City continue to organize against a proposed concrete crusher in their neighborhood. So far, city building officials have agreed, denying the project from moving forward.
But the property owner has until Jan. 3 to challenge the decision before the Detroit Board of Zoning Appeals. ProVisions, LLC wants to develop the 4.68 acre land at 4445 Lawton St.
Leigh Verdell has lived in Core City for 40 years, and her family has been in the neighborhood for three generations. Much has changed since the 1940s when her grandmother moved in.
“She will be 98 very soon and this is the house they always had,” Verdell tells WDET, pointing to the same home she calls her primary residence. “They had houses behind houses. It was trees. Everything was built up over here.”
Verdell’s family home used to be next to Maybury Grand Street until the block was removed to put in I-96. Industry took over, bringing a meat processing plant to the area. Verdell believes the plant and other activities caused pollution, forcing residents and businesses to leave Core City in the following decades.
“We had the trains, we had the traffic and Thorn Apple Valley, all the smoke was just running into the house,” Verdell says. “Numerous people, generations before us, died from cancer.”
Currently there are grass fields where rows of homes and other buildings once stood. Verdell and her family want to build community in their neighborhood — but a concrete crusher could jeopardize that growth.
“Even though it’s very few in between, they’re trying to drive us out. We don’t know if they want to buy up the property,” Verdell claims. “I can tell you, my mother owns eight lots over here plus her home, so you will have a hard time with that.”
As a group of protesters meet down her street, Verdell runs into her neighbor, Vanessa Butterworth, who is leading an outreach campaign to notify others about the concrete crusher. She says she just moved to Core City in July, but was able to get more than 1,300 people to sign a petition to stop the project.
“This is not an instance of NIMBYism (Not in My Backyard). This is an instance of environmental racism,” says Butterworth.
A concrete crusher is a machine that takes chunks of pavement, bricks and stones, and grinds them up for use elsewhere. Butterworth believes if the permit is approved, there would be a lot of construction vehicles, and trucks would take over the streets surrounding the five-acre facility adding harmful pollution.
“The fugitive silica concrete dust doesn’t just begin and stay here. It goes all across the city,” Butterworth explains. “Right now, Detroit has the worst air quality than any other city in the state.”
Andy Chae, who runs Fisheye Farms a few blocks away, worries that concrete dust could harm the produce he grows and sells to restaurants around the city.
“We were actually directed to this neighborhood by the Detroit Land Bank Authority,” Chae explains. “We just don’t want something that would be so intrusive and so toxic for our neighborhood.”
Core City has a long history of urban farming.
It was a program at the nearby Catherine Ferguson Academy, which used to be a public school for teen mothers and pregnant girls. Chrystal Ridgeway, who grew up and owns property in the area, says agriculture has always been a part of the neighborhood’s identity.
“The farms we had, I got collard greens from Mr. Spratt across the alley. My grandma grew tomatoes. We ate muscadine grapes off the fence,” Ridgeway recalls. “All of these people were migrants from the south.”
Ridgeway remembers old Tiger Stadium being so close she could walk to neighboring Corktown from Core City.
“I grew up using these streets for foot races,” says Ridgeway, adding that she wants to see Core City’s return as a bustling community.
“What I would love Core City to be is what it was. They want to develop this area to be residential, to have a strong tax base, to bring the facilities back, to improve the educational system. That’s what I want for Core City.”
Detroit city planners agree.
In its denial letter to the project, officials with the city’s Buildings, Safety Engineering, and Environmental Department say the concrete crusher is not in line with Detroit’s master plan for future land use in the area and endangers a nearby homeless service center.
“The Pope Francis Center Bride Housing is a 40-unit housing facility that is currently under construction, to the north of the subject property,” BSEED Director David Bell wrote in his denial. “This use is less than 300 feet away. Which could expose the campus to external emissions and environmental impacts.”
Still, residents in Core City are staying vigilant, hoping the debris stored at the site will eventually be cleaned up. In the meantime, many feel like they’ve made an important stand by asserting that Core City’s destiny will be shaped by those who live there, not by outside developers.
“Currently, [there’s] lots of open space,” Ridgeway says. “And I see it as lots of possibilities.”