Taking Back Detroit

Taking Back Detroit

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Renea, a single mother living with her four children and ailing father finally won her home after living without water for six months. She is a first time homeowner who rented this house for seven years from a slumlord who didn’t pay the taxes. She wanted to stay in this home because it’s her only chance for ownership, and she isn’t afraid of the hard work – she’s grateful to have a path to make her investment pay off in the long term. Photo Credit: Emilie Evans.

Sometimes, the hardest part of being a homeowner isn’t coming up with the funds to buy a place, but ensuring that once you own it, the roof actually works and the electrical wiring doesn’t barbecue your belongings. There are tens of thousands of vacant and neglected properties across the U.S., and at least as many people in need of stable housing — many simply need help navigating the challenges of acquiring and fixing up these places.

Brick + Beam Detroit and the Tricycle Collective are two organizations helping folks in need of safe, stable living situations by helping them become first time homeowners with the skills and resources they’ll need. Last month, The ToolMade Project and Craftsman jumped in to help put some tools into these new homeowners’ hands.

Kits full of "homeowner tool essentials" were given to six families in Detroit. Skip to the end of this article to see a guide I put together with Emilie Evans of Brick + Beam Detroit to give some overall tips to these homeowners. They have a lot of work ahead of them, but are beyond excited to get to it!

Kits full of homeowner tool essentials were given to six families in Detroit. Skip to the end of this article to see a list of the tools and a guide I put together with Emilie Evans of Brick + Beam Detroit to give some overall tips. These homeowners have a lot of work ahead of them, but are beyond excited to get to it. Photo Credit: Emilie Evans.

Let’s be real — nobody is born knowing how to sand and seal floors, repair wooden windows, and ensure that their adorable toddler isn’t ingesting lead paint chips like they’re Corn Flakes. That said, with an extensive and creative support system (full of people who can laugh and vent about the occasional catastrophes that come with rehabbing a home), anybody can learn.

The founders of Brick + Beam Detroit have created a community for building rehabbers of every skill and income level by hosting events, creating an extensive online platform, and sharing resources, stories, and whatever else is needed to help people to make their homes safe and comfortable. If homeowners are taught how to improve inexpensive, well-built, yet rundown properties, then the owners, the neighbors, the city…well, really, everybody wins.

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Charmelle lives with her mother and her 2-year-old boy. Her mom owned the house, but struggled to pay her property taxes and eventually lost it. The Tricycle Collective is now working to help Charmelle get her family house back so they can all stay together in the community they call home. The Craftsman tools and support from Brick + Beam Detroit will help to fix up and maintain their investment. Photo Credit: Emilie Evans.

For this project, Brick + Beam partnered with the Tricycle Collective to target families who were recently able to buy their own homes—homes that needed a lot of TLC. The Tricycle Collective works to help people renting from delinquent landlords to buy the properties they are currently inhabiting. There is a huge problem with absent landlords neglecting to pay the necessary taxes and bills, leaving their renters without basic services or security.

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Cassandra and Alex have three children and live across the street from Alex’s mom. They rented this home for years, and were thrilled to be able to finally buy it and have control over their space. And, of course, the kids love being across the street from grandma. Photo Credit: Emilie Evans.

In Detroit, renters have the option to buy their homes—for less than the cost of their rent—if the home goes to auction due to tax foreclosure. As Michele Oberholtzer, founder of the volunteer-run Tricycle Collective explains:

“People are often forced out of the city they’ve always lived in and it doesn’t need to be that way. A lot of Detroiters are caught in a cycle of eviction and deferred maintenance because of neglectful landlords. They have little stability as a result. On top of that, the actual houses deteriorate every time someone moves and it’s left vacant because houses often get scrapped. We spend more money demolishing homes when they’re vacant than we would just paying back taxes. It’s maddening. Homes without people and people without homes. There is an alternate fate if [these renters] just have a little more information.”

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Tiffany, a single mother of four, lives with her children and mother. The house has a leaky roof and needs a lot of work, but they are happy to have their own place, some stability, and numerous resources to help them fix up their home. Photo Credit: Emilie Evans.

In addition to helping renters navigate this process, the Tricycle Collective has fundraisers to help raise the actual funds needed to buy the auctioned homes, which often only cost around $500. Yes, a mere $500, combined with free rehab resources like those offered through Brick + Beam, and some elbow grease can end a cycle of instability and potential homelessness for thousands of families and individuals. Inspiring stuff.

Crystal- I think she's a single mother but I've never directly asked. has two sons. 1st time homeowner. Was paying rent to someone who didn't pay the taxes (a common theme) and was able to buy her home for $500- one month's rent. She works for the city and is a great woman.

Crystal is a first time homeowner who works for the City of Detroit and has two sons. She was paying rent to a landlord who neglected the property and didn’t pay the taxes. Once her landlord lost the property, Crystal was able to buy her home for just $500 – the cost of a single month’s rent. This has freed up finances and allowed her to take matters into her own hands. Photo by Emilie Evans.

To read more about Brick + Beam Detroit’s unique and powerful rehab community, check out the article I wrote about them last month here, and visit their website. For more information about the families impacted by the heroic work of the Tricycle Collective, click here.

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Bricks, Beams, and the Pillars of a Post-Industrial Renaissance

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Brick + Beam Detroit is a collaboration between the Michigan Historic Preservation Network, Detroit Future City, and Preservation Detroit. Victoria Byrd Olivier, and Amy Elliott Bragg, and Emilie Evans are the founders (L-R). Yes, all women, which makes this writer giddy.

So, I’ve noticed a bit of a theme recently. The ToolMade Project (TMP) has partnered with numerous organizations and amazing humans working their tails off in Rust Belt cities, though perhaps that’s not much of a surprise. Both the need and the efforts in this region have been so great. But, the work taking place in these cities is not merely triage. Economists, urban planners, architectural historians and other nerds obsessed with the built environment are hailing these cities as hotbeds of innovation as younger generations—those not old enough to have experienced the elevator drop of decline—see only endless potential in the sturdy industrial bones of these cities. All of the stories TMP has covered center on grassroots efforts with local buy-in and hardworking community members, and these efforts have manifested in different ways. Here are just a few of the strategies from recent blog posts that are shaking the iron oxide off the gears of progress:

  • Buffalo’s University Heights Tool LibraryThere’s a definite need to buck the overspecialization of trades and to make tools and resources more affordable and accessible to communities with few resources.
  • Detroit’s Americorps Urban Safety Program: Vacant structures need to be secured, lawns need to be mowed, art needs to fill boarded-up windows, and streets need to be cleaned up to make areas safe and to foster optimism in struggling neighborhoods. There may not be money from the city or state, but there are people willing to give their time and energy.
  • South Bend’s Historic Preservation Commission: Having a vintage home and some tools is an incredible opportunity, but most people weren’t born knowing how to rehab a structure and require some know-how. Free or inexpensive hands-on workshops are invaluable and empower individuals and the community as a whole.

This month, the TMP has partnered with yet another organization in that region—a group from Detroit—that is creating the bedrock for massive change by fusing many of these strategies. But before you get to hear about the groundbreaking work they’re doing, I thought it might be useful to give a quick and dirty history lesson about what the Rust Belt is exactly, and how these cities—cities with rich histories, ideal geography, and extraordinary infrastructure—experienced such a rapid and devastating decline. So sit back and soak in a little context.

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I love me a useful map. Credit: BJennings, 2010

The Rust Belt refers to a region of the U.S. formerly known for its industrial jobs, specifically, steel and automobile manufacturing. It also wouldn’t be a stretch to credit this region with having played a crucial role in winning the second World War, with Pittsburgh alone having produced one-fifth of the Allied forces steel from 1940 to 1945. While boundaries vary depending on the source, in general, the belt stretches across parts of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia and Wisconsin—areas that thrived because of their readily available coal, labor, and inland waterways. This “industrial heartland of America” was booming until the 1970s, when a number of critical things changed. And they pretty much changed all at once. The steel factories that were the bread and butter for a huge percentage of people were shutting down due to a combination of increased automation, the transfer of manufacturing to the West, several devastating free trade agreements, and the general decline of the steel and coal industries.

As you’d imagine, this created an industrial and economic free fall that changed the realities of hundreds of thousands of people. Specifically, the U.S. worldwide market share of manufactured steel went from 20 percent in 1970 to 12 percent by 1990, and employment in the industry dropped from 400,000 to 140,000 over the same period. The term “Rust Belt” was coined in the 1980s and became synonymous with economic decline, population loss, and urban decay.

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Many old homes in Buffalo, NY are vacant and slated for demolition. Fortunately, the city’s Urban Homestead program allows residents to buy these homes for just $1 each, as long as they agree to renovate and occupy them. Programs like these are crucial, but they need additional support from groups who will help homeowners navigate the work.

Needless to say, these cities are still struggling. Populations plummeted when many were forced to move elsewhere for work, and those who remain and are doing what they can do deal with the economic realities and vacant property issues. So it’s a darned good thing that so many organizations are stepping up, like Brick + Beam Detroit.

As I mentioned earlier, Brick + Beam is taking what many pioneering organizations are doing and going a step further. They’re not only educating residents about rehab directly, they’re thinking bigger and creating an infrastructure for a massive community forum with potentially endless resources available to rehabbers. 24/7. This makes a whole lot of sense because, well, maybe you really want to fix your wood windows before winter but oops(!) you missed the one class a year that is offered. What do you do next? Can you do the work yourself, or is there a reasonably priced contractor out there who will actually do the work well? Also, what in god’s name is a glazier point? They’re making resources (and moral support) free and accessible to all.

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Workshop instructor Jim Turner demonstrates a paint-scraping technique at a hands-on window restoration workshop. Photo credit: Brick + Beam Detroit

Brick + Beam began by holding monthly (mostly free) events for people wanting to know how to fix up their homes. But these aren’t typical lecture-style meetings. These events include incredibly well attended open mic storytellings (rehab stories!), panel discussions with local contractors to field their questions, and even a “fixer-upper supper club” that was held at the site of an active rehab project. As a result of these events and partnerships with skilled professionals, a community web is beginning to catalyze and rehabbers are sharing their tips (and, likely, minor catastrophes) with others in the same boat.

Brick + Beam put together a "Fixer Upper Supper Club" as a show, tell, and eat event. More useful and more tasty and the old "trick them into attending a meeting with cheap pizza" approach. Photo credit: Brick + Beam Detroit

Brick + Beam put together a “Fixer Upper Supper Club” as a show, tell, and eat event. More useful and more tasty and the old “trick them into attending a meeting with cheap pizza” approach. It’s also a great way to foster community. Photo credit: Brick + Beam Detroit

But beyond these events, they’re also creating a website that will serve as a hub for people interested in property rehab. This will be accessible at all hours as a result, and contain a Q&A forum, a resource library, and a map that shows where the forum members’ properties are located and what they’re working on. These concentrated areas will be “hot spots” that will reveal which neighborhoods are seeing new, concentrated investment–information that can be used in a number of ways. They’re also working on a “Launch Box” that will be stocked with how-to guides, stories, resources, and other goodies for first time homeowners.

The “Launch Box” was something that especially made my ears perk up. It seemed a perfect opportunity for a partnership, so TMP partnered with Craftsman this month to give a handful of homeowners some essential tools they’ll need to fix up their “new” vintage homes, as well as a cheat sheet of tool essentials. These kits were hand delivered last week and we can’t wait to hear (and see) the follow-up!

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The Brick + Beam launch party in 2015 brought people together to share their home rehab stories. As you’d imagine, many of these stories are filled with successes and mishaps, and create a wonderful sense of “thank god we’re not the only ones!” Photo credit: Gertrud Høgh Rasmussen

Some Rust Belt Sources and Resources:

The Democratization of Tools: How Buffalo Helps Communities Help Themselves

tl1*Note: Darren did such an amazing job summarizing the importance of these resources that many of the words in this post are his own. Thanks for making life so easy for both the people of Buffalo and also a gal in Chicago, Darren. All pics are of projects completed using the Tool Library’s resources.

Sometimes people take lemons and make Tool-Aid. Darren Cotton and his roommate were living off campus in the University Heights neighborhood of Buffalo and renting from an absentee landlord who didn’t exactly do much to keep the place up. So, instead of defaulting to complaining or complacency, they began doing a lot of the work around the house themselves, making incremental improvements and deducting material expenses from their rent.

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Check out the TedX Talk to learn more about where this initiative began here. 

Throughout this process, Darren and his roommates found themselves raiding their parents’ garages for things like hedge trimmers, power drills, paint rollers, etc. It quickly became clear that in order for people to create positive change through repairing their homes and improving their communities, they would require centralized access to tools and resources (without spending a fortune). A year later, the tool library was born thanks to Darren’s tenacity and a startup grant from the City of Buffalo.

 

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Photo courtesy of the University Heights Tool Library.

The mission of the University Heights Tool Library is to facilitate self-reliance, civic engagement, and grassroots reinvestment in neighborhoods by empowering residents to affect the positive change they want to see. The first tool library was created in Berkley, California in the 1970’s and there are nearly 40 of these around the country today. These low cost, high impact community resources have helped breathe life back into long neglected neighborhoods through the creation of numerous community gardens, the rehabilitation of a long neglected housing stock, and most importantly, through the empowerment of residents. Shared resources and collective action are a hallmark of tool libraries as is the importance of access over ownership in the new economy (e.g. I don’t need a drill, I need a hole in the wall.) In fact, the average drill is only used for 12 minutes during its lifetime (CRAZY).

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Photo courtesy of the University Heights Tool Library.

The University Heights Tool Library operates as an all-volunteer nonprofit organization. Membership is $10 a year and allows members to borrow up to five tools at any one time for up to one week, with an option to renew for an additional week. All membership dues are reinvested back into the tool inventory and are either used to repair current tools or to purchase additional tools based on the demand and number of requests from members.

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Photo courtesy of the University Heights Tool Library. 

From a small membership of a dozen or so neighbors and an initial inventory of about 100 tools, today the Tool Library has grown to nearly 550 members and over 1,600 tools, all of which can viewed online using their new inventory management system. When researching the possibility of starting one of these up in Chicago, I can tell you that overwhelmingly, we were told by other successful tool libraries that a solid inventory system and regular tool maintenance were the lynchpins to success.

2013-2014 Tool Library Stats

I’m not even sure what to add here. I mean, LOOK AT THESE STATS.

In addition to loaning out tools to individuals, the Tool Library draws much of its strength from partnering with block clubs and neighborhood organizations on projects that put their tools to work in the community – just a few of these are highlighted in the images above and you can see how they target the kinds of projects that really make a visible difference in a neighborhood. More on that in our follow-up blog when we show off the brand spankin’ new Craftsman tools that will be joining the inventory.

 

Deconstruction Pioneers: Rebuilding Homes and Hope at the Evanston ReBuilding Warehouse

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Some of the workforce training crew in a victory pose post-Craftsman donation. From left to right: Red, Doug, Lou, Eugene, and Brett. Lou opened the warehouse just three years ago and is incredibly dedicated to the trainees and expanding the program.

The Evanston ReBuilding Warehouse is a non-profit organization founded in 2011 by Lou Dickson, a retired general contractor who was fed up with all of the construction debris clogging up the landfills. Working in Chicago and in the North Shore suburbs, there was a neverending supply of perfectly good (often very high end) building materials being trashed due to a lack of alternatives and education for both contractors and homeowners. She began trying to change legislation and stockpiling materials from her jobs until she happened to notice some available warehouse space near her home and pulled the trigger. She has essentially created a mini empire since that first lease was signed, and has already expanded the space twice. Believe me, she could fill up the state of Texas with amazing architectural saves if given the chance. Lou, though petite and ever-smiling and polite with a British accent, is an absolute force to be reckoned with.

You want cabinets? We got cabinets! You want lighting fixtures! You can't find a place to rest your eyes without seeing a dozen of them.

You want cabinets? We got cabinets! You want lighting fixtures! You can’t find a place to rest your eyes without seeing a dozen of them. Mind you, this is only one aisle in this ever-expanding 13,000 sf warehouse.

There are nonprofits with a noble mission and then there are NONPROFITS WITH A NOBLE MISSION. I mean, there are so many missions at this place that you pretty much go straight to heaven if you buy a used bucket sink. Here’s what this now 13,000 SF warehouse space has accomplished since it began just 3 years ago:

  • Over 13,000 volunteer hours logged
  • Over 700 memberships
  • Hundreds of tons of building materials diverted from landfills
  • 7 paid staff members and 4 paid workforce trainers
  • 5 workforce training programs with 27 trainees, 5 currently in the program and 3 more joining next month (yes, all trainees are also paid, and paid above minimum wage)
  • 25 educational programming workshops for professionals and homeowners
  • Deconstruction projects throughout the county
  • First workforce training for Deconstruction certification in the county and a new training model in the U.S. that incorporates life skills such as tutoring in English, math, computer literacy, fiscal literacy, and nutrition, in addition to teaching the hard skills needed for certification
The warehouse and workforce training programs would never have happened without an incredible group of volunteers. Volunteers consist of contractors who Lou has ensnared to help out, local do-gooders, architects, a retired chemist, groups of high school students, university students, a pilot...people of all skill levels and backgrounds.

The warehouse and workforce training programs would never have happened without an incredible group of volunteers. Volunteers consist of contractors Lou has ensnared to help out, local do-gooders, architects, a retired chemist, groups of high school students, university students, a pilot…people of all skill levels and backgrounds.

The workforce training classes have focused on adults who are formerly or presently homeless, low-income, or ex-offenders having a difficult time reintegrating into the workforce. By addressing their behavioral, educational, and physical health challenges, those who complete the 7-month program have a very high success rate finding jobs and a level of economic and social stability. Other trainees have just been disappointed with the low-paying jobs and lack of meaningful work available after high school or college, and wanted to do some hard work that would eventually pay off both financially and ethically. All are welcome, and the retention rate has been exceptional.

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Dave, who started as a trainee and is not an Assistant Trainer, pulling nails on some historic wood flooring. The reclaimed flooring sells so quickly it sometimes doesn’t even make it to the warehouse floor before being claimed by a customer.

The warehouse sells an insane amount of architectural artifacts, tubs, sinks, toilets, flooring, plumbing fixtures, and whatever else was able to be diverted from the waste stream and all staff and overhead is paid for by the sale of these items. The workforce training, on the other hand, relies heavily on grant funding. Things like tools are obviously top priority, so ToolMade put together a list of items they use most often on the site and Craftsman delivered big time. Deconstruction is one of those wonderful jobs where someone can literally start a business with just a good tool bag of what they need. This is the tool bag we put together for each of the workforce trainees, based on what they need most to take apart homes:

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Most of the loot. With these tools, each workforce trainee can show up on a job site after completing their certification with the Evanston ReBuilding Warehouse and be taken seriously.

Any contractor will tell you that you never want to show up on a job site without tools. Even if you’re hired for a quick job and are more than competent, it unfortunately lessens your credibility with others on the job, and other times can prevent you from getting work in the first place. The 2014-15 graduates will literally leave the program like deconstruction superstars, saving incredible building materials with a full arsenal of both incredible and appropriate skills and tools. Lemme tell you, that makes a difference.

It costs almost $17,000 for each trainee to go through the program. Well worth it, certainly, but please consider a donation to the Evanston ReBuilding Warehouse. Every cent will go towards workforce training because staff and overhead is covered by sales at the warehouse, but there is not a surplus. See how you can help here: http://evanstonrebuildingwarehouse.org/donate/

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Checking Back with Historic Green in New Orleans

A very happy crew, just after receiving their shipment of donated tools in their Kansas City office.

A very happy crew, just after receiving their shipment of donated tools in their Kansas City office.

Last month, we were able to donate a kickin’ little arsenal of tools to Historic Green, including:

These tools were based on the needs of this nonprofit, which is dedicated to helping under-resourced communities rebuild existing homes, community buildings, and outdoor spaces in a way that preserves cultural heritage and focuses on sustainability in both Kansas City and New Orleans. For more on Historic Green, check out last month’s post here.

Historic Green in New Orleans (Photo: Matt Kleinmann Photography)

Historic Green in New Orleans (Photo: Matt Kleinmann Photography)

I caught up with the crew after their most recent New Orleans trip, which, appropriately, overlapped with GreenBuild this year. According to Jeremy Knoll, the architect who pioneered the Historic Green nonprofit, they have done an astonishing amount of work in New Orleans, especially on the “Center” project. For this project, they have helped the CSED (Center for Sustainable Engagement & Development of New Orleans) with a wide variety of initiatives over the years, including:

  • 50+ home renovations/weatherizations
  • Playground construction/restoration
  • Community centers
  • Rain gardens
  • Community gardens
  • Supporting garden education spaces
  • Bayou access and restoration projects, and
  • Several design-build projects. Wow.
Historic Green in New Orleans (Photo: Matt Kleinmann Photography)

Historic Green in New Orleans (Photo: Matt Kleinmann Photography)

The affordable retrofit demonstration house — the house they are working on in these pictures — represents the culmination of a lot of their efforts over the past several years. It will act as a new center for their operations where they can stage project materials, train and manage volunteers, and demonstrate affordable home renovation and green living strategies to area families through ongoing programs.

Historic Green in New Orleans (Photo: Matt Kleinmann Photography)

Historic Green in New Orleans (Photo: Matt Kleinmann Photography)

For this house, Historic Green helped them to clear the lot of overgrowth, build a new roof (deck to shingle), deconstructed the bathroom, re-built the garage/shed, installed a rain-garden, re-structured and decked the front porch, re-built portions of the floor, removed the non-historic car-port, provided LEED Certification advisors, helped to develop an insulation strategy, and did research about the history of this (originally) 1880’s cottage in the Lower 9th Ward to help with permitting and decision-making about what elements to restore or ignore. One of their Board Members also helped them to put together and launch this a kickstarter campaign, which (if successful) will complete the construction budget for the project.

Historic Green in New Orleans (Photo: Matt Kleinmann Photography)

Historic Green in New Orleans (Photo: Matt Kleinmann Photography)

Obviously, this is, er, not a lazy crew. So, if you’re up for supporting these efforts and undoubtedly more, please consider donating to Historic Green’s efforts. These nonprofits are what stabilize neighborhoods and foster stewardship in the most meaningful and immediate ways, truly.

If you've ever done volunteer work on a site in New Orleans, you understand how important this picture is. (Photo by Historic Green)

If you’ve ever done volunteer work on a site in New Orleans, you understand how important and happy-making this picture is. (Photo by Historic Green)

 

Historic Green: Sustainable skill-building from New Orleans to Missouri

Historic Green volunteers working in the Lower 9th Ward in New Orleans. They currently do most of their work through partnerships in New Orleans and Kansas City, Missouri.

Historic Green volunteers working in the Lower 9th Ward in New Orleans. They currently do most of their work through partnerships in New Orleans and Kansas City, Missouri. (Picture taken by Historic Green)

I have a major soft spot for historic buildings and community outreach initiatives. These two things go together like peanut butter and jelly. Yin and yang. Captain & Tennille. Yep. A colleague recently pointed me to a group in Kansas City, Missouri that understands this perfect union all too well and has taken it to a level that very much deserves to be recognized, celebrated, and supported.

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Yes, there was much work to be done. Some challenges are larger than others, but hey, somebody’s gotta just pick up the tools and get to it. In this case, people are doing it for free, which should, assuming you’re not a cyborg, make your heart explode.

Historic Green is a nonprofit dedicated to helping under-resourced communities rebuild existing homes, community buildings, and outdoor spaces in a way that preserves cultural heritage and focuses on sustainability. They started up in 2007 as a response to Hurricane Katrina. More than 85% of New Orleans’ existing homes were listed on the National Register of Historic Places, homes with rich histories and deep cultural significance, and the need for help and environmentally responsible action was too great to ignore. They started “Spring Greening,” an annual greening event in the Lower 9th Ward’s Holy Cross neighborhood, a neighborhood I’ve been lucky to work in quite a few times myself with the same goal of making the neighborhood viable and sustainable. Here is a draft video recently completed as the first part of a series of videos they are producing around the New Orleans project.

Fixing brick piers, 2012 (Picture taken by Historic Green)

Repointing brick piers. (Picture taken by Historic Green)

Now, to be clear, “sustainability” has become such a buzzword that it has become woefully detached from its intended meaning. The term can be downright cringe-worthy because people now use it interchangeably with unsustainable practices and materials in an effort to market these things as being environmentally-friendly for one reason or another. In the case of Historic Green, the term really does have chops. Historic Green is focused on making utility costs affordable, making buildings healthier, and teaching those who are living in these places how to maintain their buildings and act as stewards to the community at large. Sustainability is about how to realistically keep people in buildings so they don’t end up abandoned and it’s also about educating a population on how to care for these buildings so they will last. Sustainability is about people — it has little to do with recycled content and green gizmos that don’t even function properly without an education component.

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Restoring original wood sashes. (Picture taken by Historic Green)

Obviously, it was a no-brainer to reach out and ask if they needed some tools — naturally, they did. The crews are currently working in both New Orleans and in their home city of Kansas City, in its Green Impact Zone. Both projects involve an historic home being fully renovated using affordable and replicable methods, and will feature restoration of historic detailing and carefully measured energy efficiency improvements. Swoon.

So…the tools have been shipped! Stay tuned for updates on what tools are most useful and how they are used in a project focused on restoration, efficiency, and community. I’m very much hoping to carve out time to drive down there and get my hands dirty with this crew. Yep, it’s gonna happen. 

The gorgeous historic home that will be brought back to life using big hearts, lots of sweat, and some shiny new Craftsman tools. (Picture taken by Historic Green)

The gorgeous historic home that will be brought back to life using big hearts, lots of sweat, and some shiny new Craftsman tools. Look at those piers!!! (Picture taken by Historic Green)

Saving South Bend

One of around 1700  vacant homes in South Bend whose fate is yet to be determined. (South Bend Times photo by Greg Swiercz)

One of around 1700 vacant homes in South Bend whose fate is yet to be determined. Sure would be a shame to see you go, good lookin’. (South Bend Times photo by Greg Swiercz)

South Bend, Indiana is, like many Rust Belt cities in the Midwest, marked by de-industrialization and population decline. The economic shocks of past decades—attributed to factors like the transfer of manufacturing to the Southeast, the decline in steal and coal industries, and good old globalization—have left a lot of these cities without jobs and well, without as many people. So, South Bend found itself with more homes than could be filled, currently around 1700 vacant properties, which apparently must either be smashed to bits or rehabilitated. Well, guess which is usually cheaper?

A home is demolised in a Near Northwest neighborhood. The demo is part of the city's push to address 1,000 vacant homes in 1,000 days. (South Bend Times photo by James Brosher)

A home is demolished in a Near Northwest neighborhood. The demo is part of the city’s push to address 1,000 vacant homes in 1,000 days. It might be worth arguing that if we addressed all of our issues by turning them into tiny obliterated hunks of waste, we might not quite be addressing the root cause. (South Bend Times photo by James Brosher)

Here’s the thing—it’s not the building stock’s fault that there was an exodus. In fact, the buildings in many of these cities, which once boomed with jobs and industry, are generally pretty extraordinary, laid out in well designed planning grids with accessible and centralized main streets. They are walkable and human-scaled and downright handsome. These historic structures are also unequivically the greatest assets these cities have to offer. They hold their resale value better (think long-term), are made with incredible old growth wood and other materials that are no longer available, and will, quite frankly, easily last another century if they are just shown a little TLC. This is simply not the case for new construction which tends to be out of scale, made with inferior materials, and ages about as well as acid-washed jeans.

Local residents learn the basics of power tools through a Restore Michiana workshop. Empowering people to fix up their homes and neighborhoods is a slick and useful way to help save your city.

Local residents learn the basics of power tools through a Restore Michiana workshop. Empowering people to fix up their homes and neighborhoods is a slick and useful way to help save your city. (Photo by Restore Michiana)

So, it was a no-brainer for ToolMade to support a group in Indiana that is working to empower homeowners by offering workshops that help them repair and restore their buildings. South Bend’s aggressive demolition program is already in the works and is set to span the next three years, so if the local government doesn’t see the value of preserving more of its built environment, it’s time to educate and put tools in the hands of residents who want to fight for their history and quality homes and neighborhoods.

Pad sanding like a boss.

Using a pad sander like a boss. (Photo by Restore Michiana)

To help fill the knowledge gap and teach homeowners and contractors how to work on these buildings, people like Elicia Feasel and Steve Szaday create and run workshops through Restore Michiana. This group is the result of a partnership between Indiana Landmarks and Historic Preservation Commission of South Bend and St. Joseph County. Why the partnership? As Steve puts it, “every house has a story, even if it was no more than Billy’s Grandma’s house…and if we can teach someone enough to give them the courage and skills to save that house by doing some of the repairs themselves, we have successfully made a difference.”

Hardware 101.

Hardware 101. (Photo by Restore Michiana)

The workshops are lead by experts in specific fields and are refreshingly cheap—usually around $25-30 for a whole day, sometimes with pizza included! In the past two years alone, hundreds or locals and contractors have taken classes through Restore Michiana. Lectures have been given on a topics like how to research your home’s history, historic paint colors, and historic masonry care. Hands-on workshops have focused on plaster repair, wood floor repairs and refinishing, and the upkeep and repair of historic wood windows.

"Life leaps like a geyser for those who drill through the rock of inertia." -Alexis Carrel

“Life leaps like a geyser for those who drill through the rock of inertia.” -Alexis Carrel (Photo by Restore Michiana)

The program is self funded and all of the fees are used up to print flyers, buy supplies, and help reimburse equipment rentals and or logistical costs. Some local hardware stores have helped by providing basics like glazing, chemicals, wood fillers, etc., and all of the tools that were used on these workshops were either brought in by guest experts or are a part of the Restore Michiana’s personal home stash of tools. This unfortunately meant that all the tools had to be shared, even with 15-20 people in a class. That’s limiting and frustrating if you’re itching to get some hands-on know-how.

If you want to save your homes, resources, neighborhoods and possibly even souls, you must provide pizza. It is the #1 rule of organizing.

If you want to save your homes, resources, neighborhoods and possibly even souls, you must provide pizza. It is the #1 rule of organizing. (Photo by Restore Michiana)

The May class was a day-long Intro to Power Tools workshop for people having little to no experience using tools. The focus was on learning the basics of sawing, routing, sanding, and drilling, and took place at one of the most enduring and unique properties in St. Joseph County, the Birdsell mansion. The building is a Local Historic Landmark built in 1898, and currently available for lease (yes, sure, this is a plug. Preservationists ain’t nothing if not resourceful).

Thanks to the support of several concerned groups, more of these classes are going to happen going forward. If we want our neighborhoods to improve, we have to get out there and get our hands dirty.

Thanks to the support of several concerned groups, more of these classes are going to happen going forward. If we want our neighborhoods to improve, we have to get out there and get our hands dirty. (Photo by Restore Michiana)

Several sponsors, ranging from hardware stores to Habitat for Humanity to real-estate groups to the local pizza spot underwrote/sponsored the event. ToolMade donated several items including a much-needed Craftsman Lithium-Ion 3-Piece Combo Kit (a drill, circular saw, work light, extra lithium battery, circular saw blade and a multi-chemistry charger), a Compact Lithium-Ion Battery Pack, and an ever-useful pad sander. The best news? Because the Power Tools was so well attended and now has more of the needed tools, there will be more of these classes going forward. Not bad for a crew working on a shoestring budget that is also conducting a number of other classes, often dragging in tools from their own garages. And so, I am left with no choice but to bust out the old Margaret Meade quote to wrap this one up: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” I know, but come on, it’s just so damned true.