Category Archives: Detroit MI – USA

Neighborhoods are the backbone of Detroit

If there’s one thing we’ve learned over the last two weeks, it’s that block clubs and neighborhood/community groups are really the backbone of Detroit and will drive its rebirth. These resident volunteers have stepped in where, for decades, the city has failed them — pouring in countless amounts of energy and much of their spare time. They board up vacant houses, they clear debris from open lots, they mow the abandoned lawns, they build community centers, they advocate to make sure their needs are heard.

But as with any grass-roots effort, these groups vary widely. Some have existed for decades and are well-organized; some are just starting out. Some are fighting to keep their neighborhoods stable; others are fighting for survival. And some neighborhoods don’t have any help at all.

On Friday we stepped away from our workroom for a few hours to literally get our hands dirty. We rallied approximately 40 more local employees from IBM and TheFrameworks to help clear debris and start building a community park for the Philip Street Block Club in the historic Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood, an area that has been hit particularly hard by the economic downturn of the last decade, when Detroit lost a whopping 25% of its population.

Here’s the SCC team with Philip Street Block Club president Roberta Bivens, center, purple shirt. Special shout out to DSE Detroit for the late-night delivery of our own Detroit-themed shirts the previous evening!

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Getting instructions from Roberta.

This was some hard-core debris clearing — lots of thick brush in the alley behind the lot!

SCC team member Charlie on his way to breaking the first of three power tools (on trees that had grown through metal fencing).

TheFrameworks team doing some heavy lifting!

Putting SCC team member Henry to work!

A big thank you to everyone who came out, and especially local IBM executive Donna Satterfield for her support!


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Finding value in old homes

Yesterday Charlie, Laura and I paid a site visit to the warehouse & headquarters of ReClaim Detroit, a social enterprise that takes homes slated for demolition and “deconstructs” them, meaning they remove structural elements that can be reused and/or recycled. We learned that in the majority of cases, this means lumber: floorboards, doors, frames, and support beams. Many Detroit homes built in the early half of the 20th century used old-growth wood that is highly valued and extremely difficult to find in modern construction.

Because of the high number of abandoned properties in Detroit and the length of time a home often sits vacant, things like metal radiators, copper pipes, etc. are typically removed very quickly by illegal scrappers, so there’s not much of that left for the deconstruction industry. Any furniture or other personal belongings left in the home is also typically of little value, in many cases due to exposure to the elements from broken windows, holes in the roof, squatting, etc. Every now and then a demolition or debris removal crew will find something of value (like a piano, or collectibles, or a vintage car) — but it’s unusual. There is some market for things like bathtubs, light fixtures, leaded-glass windows, and the like, but it’s uneven.

Part of the task of our IBM team is to figure out a way to integrate what ReClaim Detroit and other organizations like it (for example, Architectural Salvage Warehouse of Detroit) do into the process of demolishing and/or removing debris from homes owned by the Detroit Land Bank. The idea behind deconstruction is not only one that benefits the environment by keeping reusable materials out of landfill, but it also creates jobs down the value chain including people trained to do the deconstruction (building in-demand construction industry skills) and the people who refine & make things out of the salvaged wood. ReClaim and others are committed to training and creating jobs for Detroiters who have in the past faced barriers to employment such as low skills or criminal records.

Here’s an example of a “raw” material: interior doors. There are a lot of these! Exterior doors have typically been too damaged to be salvageable.

Much of the lumber needs to be de-nailed, which is a time-intensive, manual process.

Jeremy Haines, Sales Manager, and Craig Varterian, Executive Director, show us around the warehouse. It looks like a lot of lumber, but in reality it moves very quickly and there is currently more demand than they can regularly supply.

They get all kinds of lumber, such as this collection of floorboards, which they categorize and inventory.

Currently ReClaim sells most of its lumber with minimal processing, however they do have a millshop where Detroiters are trained to turn the wood into more finished products.

One easy and innovative use for some of the lumber is to make stakes to mark demolition sites around the city. In the past these stakes were made of metal, which meant they were often stolen for scrap — and created a safety risk for demolition & deconstruction crews who rely on the stakes to mark hazards.

But the bigger opportunities lie in more finished products, like this tabletop and cutting board. Beautiful!
Thanks to the ReClaim team for taking the time to show us around and sharing your insights with us!

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Detroit by foot

I’m loving exploring Detroit on my morning runs! Team member Emanuele, from IBM Research Dublin, and I have tried  out a different route every day. 

This morning we came across a mural by street artist FEL3000FT that says: “It takes heart to fight for something that so many consider a lost cause… Keep your heart true and your mind strong Detroit.”


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Spotted on my run: a lovely community garden on an open lot. There are a lot (no pun intended) of these cropping up all over Detroit, especially now that people can buy cleared side lots adjacent to their homes for only $100. It’s remarkable how willing the Land Bank has been to move quickly on bold new ideas that have a direct impact on communities. 

Fun fact: apparently sunflowers clean the soil from contaminants like lead that have leeched into soil under old houses. Meaning in another growing season (or several) the soil could again be safe for growing food!

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Downtown Detroit

Last night we stopped to admire the new Shepard Fairey mural in downtown on our way to dinner from the Detroit Land Bank Authority.  

Downtown is looking lively after 7pm on a weeknight!


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The White House & Smarter Cities Challenge Detroit

Today, as part of the Administration’s new Smart Cities Initiative led by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, IBM announced that it is deploying a Smarter Cities Challenge team in Detroit to help the city and the Detroit Land Bank Authority (DLBA) remove blight and build smarter Detroit neighborhoods. Through this initiative, a team of top IBM experts will spend three weeks helping Mayor Mike Duggan and the DLBA design a strategy for cost-efficient, sustainable removal, recycling and re-use of debris from abandoned and neglected properties, thereby allowing the DLBA to redirect its limited resources to making strategic investments in neighborhoods. The project will also receive a special grant of Twitter data, which will provide analysis of historical and current social media data to help tackle the issue.

You can read more about the White House’s Smart Cities Initiative and other commitments made by city leaders, academics and companies here:

Speaking personally, I’m thrilled to be spending the next three weeks bringing the best of IBM to this great city. Here we go!


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Detroit: start with art

This weekend I arrived early to Detroit for some final prep before the arrival of our Smarter Cities Challenge team. As a member of the IBM Citizenship staff, I usually manage our Smarter Cities Challenge grants remotely — but this one is different! I’ll have the privilege of working and living with our team of IBMers in the motor city for the full three weeks.

On Saturday I took a little detour to visit the famous Heidelberg Project, an outdoor neighborhood art project started in 1986 in part as political protest against the decline of Detroit neighborhoods.



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