MLK Day of service includes blight removal in Detroit, freedom walk in Royal Oak

Detroit — Before setting off to spend a chilly Martin Luther King Jr. Day collecting trash in front of a senior living home on the city's northwest side, volunteers with Detroit Blight Busters beamed as they watched an excavator tear down an abandoned building in Old Redford. 

"Sometimes before you build, you've got to destroy," said Blight Busters executive director John George, as the building he described as a "long-standing public threat on Grand River" came down. He said it had been vacant for at least 35 years.  

The nonprofit was joined by state Rep. Stephanie Young, D-Detroit, city councilmembers James Tate and Mary Waters, and volunteers who later went to the Greenhouse Apartments senior complex at Six Mile and the Southfield Freeway to clear its pathways of trash and remove plastic bags that were stuck in trees.

"It's the MLK Day of Service. Not a day off, but a day on," said George. "We're going to improve our effort to stabilize and revitalize this community forward." 

The events in Detroit mirrored others held in Metro Detroit Monday to honor the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

In Royal Oak and Berkley, the school districts held a joint virtual program with speeches by school officials as well as local, state and congressional leaders, many choosing to use King's own words to carry the message. 

The event, the fifth for the districts, also included a memorial freedom walk that set off from Royal Oak Middle School and the collection of donations for four area charities — Redford Brightmoor Initiative, Cass Community Social Services, Judson Center and Gleaners Community Food Bank — as part of a day of service in King’s memory.

“Given the days and times we live in, it is more important than ever to remember what Dr. King stood for and how so much of what he started remains to be done," Dr. Kim Martin, diversity, equity and inclusion coordinator for Royal Oak Schools, said during a keynote address. 

People join the MLK freedom walk in Royal Oak, Michigan, on a frigid January 17, 2022.

If King had lived, she noted, he would have been 92 years old this weekend.

"King said that anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider," Martin said. "This sentiment is crucial for times like this where in the country currently we have vilified each other, we have treated each other like outsiders."

The program featured two stirring recorded presentations by the Detroit Youth Choir. Other messages were shared from U.S. Rep. Andy Levin, D-Bloomfield Township, Royal Oak Mayor Michael Fournier, Berkley Mayor Daniel Terbrack and the superintendents of both districts. 

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson noted that King was often slandered for his "progressive and radical views" while he fought for justice, civil rights and voting rights.

"He responded by saying that the time is always right to do what is right," she said. "Today I hope that we all take a cue from Dr. King and recognize that now is another time to do what is right.

"Now, amidst a national coordinated attack on our democracy, we must stand up, organize, speak the truth and vote," Benson added. "We must exercise the rights Dr. King made possible."

In Detroit's Artist Village Monday, George touted a building across the street that will become a courtyard and neighborhood meeting spot attached to the Sunflower Art Center that George hopes to establish with Peter Cummings, a real estate developer and executive chairman and CEO of the Platform. 

Mary Waters, Detroit City councilmember at large, rakes debris in a vacant lot adjacent to the Greenhouse Senior Apartments on the Southfield service drive in Detroit.

Young, who represents Old Redford as part of House District 8, noted the narrative in the city has always been that so much has happened in the downtown, Midtown and Corktown.

"But I like for people to know that things are happening right in your town," she said. "Investments like this remind people that they matter, and that's why we're here."

George founded Blight Busters in 1988 to demolish, board up or renovate abandoned homes in the city, which the nonprofit works with funders like Cummings to do. 

George said he and Cummings want the new art center to be an extension of the Artist Village, and to expand its function as a community and studio space where education and youth programs are run by Blight Busters and artists like Charles "Chazz" Miller, who established the village and paints murals for the nonprofit. 

Charles "Chazz" Miller installs his "Art Changes Everything" piece inside Detroit Blight Busters Inc.

"When John and I met we talked about making this whole area like a campus for agriculture, for art, for music ... so that's what we've been doing on a small scale," said Miller as he rolled up giant sunflowers that he painted on fabric to staple on the side of the new building. "And so now, it's just time scale up." 

Tate addressed volunteers before the demolition and the senior home cleanup began, saying he found it valuable to be able to give back to the community on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. 

"We all have ... the ability to do our best to serve others, and not just look at what benefits ourselves but how what we do today affects everyone moving forward," he said.