September 6, 2010 at 1:00 am

Laura Berman: With video: Saving a piece of Detroit

Inventive teamwork guides urban reclamation effort

Reviving Spaulding Court
Reviving Spaulding Court: Reviving Spaulding Court

A year ago, it could have led a list of Detroit's scariest places: You drove by Spaulding Court with doors locked and foot on the gas pedal.

Today, the century-old faux Gothic apartment building is being stripped and renovated. It's the site of weekly neighborhood get-togethers and the focal point of a micro-loan charity drive that's getting contributions from across the nation.

Cleared of the squatters, drug addicts and gun-runners who took over the 20-unit building, it has become a project of Detroit's late-arriving frontiersmen and women -- a collection of artists, factory workers, software specialists and others who have joined to fix it, using modern ingenuity and old-style sweat.

On this still-desolate strip of Rosa Parks Boulevard, a few blocks from Motor City Casino, dozens of nearby residents show up for Thursday night "Soup at Spaulding" events -- $5-a-bowl fundraisers whose attendees vote on a neighborhood project to fund that week. (This week's chili will pay for a lead-testing kit for soil.)

The urban horror of six months ago is still an edgy place, but with the upbeat mood of a TV renovation show.

"This is the most exciting, dynamic neighborhood I've ever seen," said Jon Koller, who moved to the area 18 months ago. Koller, 25, a structural engineer, is the chairman of Friends of Spaulding Court, which has used the Internet and traditional donations to raise $50,000 for renovations since late last year.

That's not enough cash to rehabilitate 20 townhouses, or even to install a new roof. But it's enough, Koller said, to renovate two demonstration units in hopes of attracting more serious backing. They've boarded the vacant units, planted gardens, set up toilet and showers that work and begun stripping units.

One volunteer, Julie ("AJ Viola") Downey, a photographer and writer, arrived here from Chicago for the U.S. Social Forum and never left. Now she's working on the project and living temporarily in one of the units.

"We have a circle of trust here," said Downey, who likes the spirit of Detroit. "It's also a much less expensive city than Chicago."

By the time the residents convinced the county to sell Spaulding Court last fall, all the legal tenants had fled. Despite decades of neglect, the property retained its high-class stonework -- even terrazzo tile in the bathrooms -- but became officially uninhabitable, lacking heat, electricity and running water.

Government's role in the renovation is deliberately minimal. Koller applauds the Wayne County Nuisance Abatement Program -- which gained title and then sold the building for $1,000 last fall to the ad hoc "Friends of Spaulding Court" group.

But last week, after 10 years of wresting hundreds of titles from bad landlords and returning property to neighborhoods, the program was ended to save the cash-crimped county $1.3 million.

Spaulding Court's 10-person board includes Douglas Bennett, a Chrysler autoworker and next-door resident who is on volunteer security duty as he replaces aluminum siding at his 140-year-old house. He mows the lot next door "because no one else does."

What's happening at Spaulding Court is borne of grass-roots optimism, Internet-age ingenuity and more sweat equity than venture capital. There's also a decided spirit of adventure, of people tackling the future with their own creativity and hands.

Chickens strut in nearby yards; vegetables grow in greenhouses and open fields. Some neighbors tend bees. It's a new kind of city here, where a landmark of fear can be adopted by "friends."

"There aren't many laws that keep you from doing things here," Koller said. "If you want to build a 35-foot geodesic dome and grow vegetables, you can."

That's just what last week's Soup at Spaulding project winner intends to do."> (313) 222-2032

Jon Koller, president of Friends of Spaulding Court, works on the demolition of an apartment at Spaulding Court in Detroit. / Ankur Dholakia / The Detroit News
Brian Baker, left, and William McGee, both 14, carry trash out of ...
Windows remain boarded, but the Friends of Spaulding Court hope that ...
More Laura Berman