If there is a single block that has come to epitomize Flint's struggles with economic decline and population loss, as well as the Genesee County Land Bank's efforts to deal with blight and abandonment, it's the 1600 block of Jane Avenue on the city's east side. Although it is just one of more than 400 blocks in Flint that are more than 50 percent abandoned, it became a handy visual aid for many journalists, including me, to illustrate Flint's problems. Here are a few of the photos I took for "The Jane Avenue Blues," a slide show that accompanied a profile of Dan Kildee, the former land bank chief who now runs the Center for Community Progress, that was published in Slate.
Arson is a byproduct of abandonment in Flint, and Jane Avenue had more than its share of fires. David Harris of The Flint Journal reported on the street in January:
A single east-side block of Jane Avenue between Minnesota and Iowa avenues was the hardest hit in the city, with 20 arsons last year.It's not much consolation, but Flint is not alone. Adam Geller, covering nationwide arson trends for Insurance Journal, reported:
What once was lined with houses is now just barren land on the north side of the street.
All that’s left is a burned-out shell of a house. The rest of the charred homes have been bulldozed away and the sites filled with dirt.
The bark on the trees is still black from the fires. The houses on the south side of the street remain standing but are dilapidated.
“They burned the whole block,” said Allen Willard, 53, who lives in the only occupied house left. “I used to wake up at 2 or 3 a.m. I’d open my eyes, and I’d see flames (reflecting) on my bedroom wall. A house a week started going down.”
Fires in vacant homes rose 11 percent to 21,000 in 2006 — the latest year for which figures are available — while all home fires rose just 4 percent, the National Fire Protection Association reported in April. More than four of every 10 vacant building fires were intentionally set, the group reported.
Some of that is arson for financial reasons. But in neighborhoods of sagging homes worth little, fires are often set by vandals, the homeless or people seeking revenge.
The threat grows as empty homes multiply, said John Hall, the NFPA’s division director for fire analysis and research. Vacant homes nationwide topped 19 million earlier this year, up from 15.7 million in 2005, according to the Census Bureau.
“The best way to prevent vacant building fires is to prevent vacant buildings,” the NFPA concluded.
Or eliminate the buildings altogether. When I was in Flint last month, I drove down Jane and discovered that nearly every house had been demolished. It's probably the best solution for the block at this point, but it's still hard to get used to the new view that's created when an entire block disappears.