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Feighan: Showdown over Detroit home bonds neighbors

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

James Stallings of Detroit didn’t know neighbor Aaron Timlin until about a week ago. A showdown with a bulldozer has a funny way of bringing people together.

Timlin is the long-haired, full-bearded Detroiter — he bears a striking resemblence to Tom Hanks’ character in “Cast Away” — who recently stood down a bulldozer to stop it from tearing down an abandoned house in his neighborhood. Stallings, who lives two doors down from the house on 16th Street, watched as Timlin sat perched on the house’s roof before firefighters forced him down.

“I thought, ‘What the hell is he doing?’ ” says Stallings, 73, a deep-voiced grandfather with salt and pepper hair who has lived in his northwest Detroit neighborhood, Northwest Goldberg, for decades.

What Timlin was doing was taking a stand. Now, what started as an act of civil disobedience has brought together this largely African-American neighborhood. And while not everyone agrees the abandoned house with peeling paint, stray kittens and piles of broken furniture should stay standing, what they want, many say, is a say in the process. The house is owned by the Detroit Land Bank Authority.

“It’s about having the opportunity to have the debate, the discussion,” said Timlin, who now faces a charge of entering a building without written authorization. He and his collective, Closed Loop Economy, are now in negotiations with the land bank to buy the house and two others. He says they never knew the house was on the demo list until a contractor sprayed it with orange spray paint a week before the bulldozer arrived.

Stallings, for one, would “rather see someone inside the house” than an empty lot.

Timlin, whom I’ve known for decades through family friends, is no stranger when it comes taking bold action for causes he’s passionate about. In 2002, the artist and activist made headlines when he walked — yes, walked — from Detroit to New York in a milk carton-shaped box with the words “got art?” painted on it to raise money for a kids’ art program.

Timlin, the oldest of seven kids, says his flair for the dramatic was inspired by his parents, both artists. They taught their children about the work of Henry David Thoreau, Gandhi and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Sometimes “you have to take bold steps to make things happen,” he says.

Still, not everyone welcomed Timlin when he moved to Northwest Goldberg in 2014 after buying his house for $500 at a Wayne County auction. Timlin, who previously lived for 20 years on Kirby Street in the former Cass Corridor, said one former neighbor broke into his house last year and spray-painted racial slurs on the walls.

But it was a brush with a bulldozer that really bonded the neighborhood. When Timlin stood on the porch to hold off the bulldozer, it emboldened other neighbors to join him. Timlin says it would be one thing if the house was privately owned and the owner wanted to bulldoze it. But it’s not.

“The fact that it’s with the city of Detroit and these are city neighbors, there should be some kind of outreach or discussion,” says Timlin.

He envisions converting the house into a community space for neighborhood potlucks and movie nights. But first Timlin and his collective have to buy it. The land bank authority told them they’ll have to pay $2,000 for each house, plus asbestos removal costs. It’s approximately $10,000 to demolish each house. One supporter has started a crowd-funding campaign to help Timlin’s campaign.

“If they can put money into tearing them down, they can put money into renovating them,” says neighbor Gena Jennings.

Longtime resident and activist Yusef Bunchy Shakur says it’s not that residents are opposed to development. “We’re opposed to it being imposed on us,” he says.