Emily O'Reilly stands in a vacant lot about the size of a football field on Detroit's northeast side. The grass is overgrown and broken branches hang from dead trees. Old tires, a rusted ironing board and scraps of wood have been dumped at one end of the property.
"That has to be cleaned up," says O'Reilly, pointing at the junk heap.
The rotted trees also will have to be cleared, as well as the two scorched and abandoned homes that stand beside the lot, she says.
The 23-year-old woman, who looks more like a 12-year-old with her petite build, freckles and curly red hair, peers across the field describing her plans for this and the six other Detroit lots that she recently bought at a state land auction.
Many developers are buying up city property and laying plans to cash in on Detroit's economic boom. O'Reilly is not one of them. She has set her sights on a more humble vision.
"I thought with a few trees and a bench and some flowers, it will look cared for and loved, rather than abandoned and run-down," says O'Reilly about the vacant lot that she intends to turn into a neighborhood park. This is her plan for each of the parcels purchased with money saved working as a bartender. She currently is setting up a nonprofit organization called the Green Team to raise money to buy lots across the city. While concrete pours and steel beams rise during Detroit's renaissance, O'Reilly's mission is to ensure that parts of the city remain green.
"As the city comes back, I would like to see that a lot of it stays green and lush and nice," she says.
Keep it simple
O'Reilly says she came up with the idea to purchase the lots after getting fed up with seeing so much vacant land go unattended in Detroit.
"There is so much vacant land in the city," she says.
Abandoned lots do saturate the city. According to the Planning and Development Department, there are about 11,000 city-owned lots where homes and businesses once stood. Many are located in dilapidated neighborhoods where owners failed to maintain the property and pay their taxes.
The properties O'Reilly purchased last spring from the state, which obtained them because taxes were not paid, are located in northeast and southwest Detroit.
According to Junell Calloway, who lives across from one of O'Reilly's lots at Alexandrine and Mount Elliott, the land has been vacant for more than 10 years.
"There used to be houses there," says Calloway, who has lived in the neighborhood 34 years.
O'Reilly explains her plans for the lot to Calloway and asks what she would like to see in the vacant space.
"I don't know," she says.
O'Reilly coaxes a laugh out of Calloway when she suggests that the longtime resident host a barbecue at the new park next summer.
"Oh, no," says Calloway, smiling. "That's too much work."
O'Reilly, who grew up in the suburbs and moved to Detroit four years ago, insists that the residents help determine how the parks are designed.
She says that a nearby lot on Kirby is usually crowded with teens playing football. When O'Reilly asked them how they envisioned the park, they suggested erecting two goal posts. A portion of the field will be set aside for spectators.
Another property will have playground equipment because children tend to gather there, she says.
"You don't want to build anything that won't be used because you didn't pay attention to what the community really wanted," explains Jeff Klein, a landscape designer. He offered his services to O'Reilly for free when he heard about the project.
"We are trying to keep the designs simple," says Klein, who is 26 and lives in Detroit.
He describes a corner section of one lot where a strip of grass is worn away from foot traffic. Rather than repair it with grass seed, he plans on putting in a permanent path "because that is where the people go."
Klein says he chose to work on the project because he loves Detroit.
"I think what I like most about it," he says, "is that it is completely a grassroots project and a way I can contribute to my community. It's ... just a good-hearted project."
Last September O'Reilly received the deeds to the seven properties she bought at a May auction for merely $200 and $300 each. She is raising money to landscape the parks with benefits such as the dance party she held Dec. 3 at the Old Bohemian Hall in southwest Detroit. Several local musicians and DJs performed at the party for free; the event raked in $2,000.
When her organization's nonprofit status is approved, O'Reilly intends to apply for grants and turn to corporations for donations.
"All it takes is a few pear trees and apple trees and some flowers to make them look cared for," she says. "I think that changes attitudes."
O'Reilly's enthusiasm seems to buoy Georgia Green's spirits. Green is 71 years old and has lived in Detroit for more than 25 years. She says that the lot across from her house at Burns and I-94 has been vacant for years. When O'Reilly tells her that she intends to clean up the abandoned land and turn it into a park, Green smiles.
"What would you like to see there?" asks O'Reilly.
"Flowers. I love flowers," says Green. She points to a patch of chrysanthemums near her porch. "We can share flowers. I'll give you some of mine."
O'Reilly smiles, thanks her and walks off the porch.
"When are you going to put a park there?" asks Green, who shouts from her screen door.
"Next spring," answers O'Reilly.
Green beams. "Beautiful!"
For more information about the Green Team's efforts, contact them by e-mail.