Kevin Johnson: Busting Blight for Detroit

Volunteers can make the difference between a non-profit organization wanting to help and actually being able to deliver on the dream.

Kevin Johnson has volunteered with Detroit Blight Busters, formerly Motor City Blight Busters, for more than 25 years.

In that time he’s painted over graffiti, hand-demolished buildings, smashed concrete, cleared vacant lots filled with debris, and rebuilt walls and porches. He’s also acted as staffer, staff, supervising armies of volunteers who come from all around the country to work in northwest Detroit week after week.

“Somebody’s got to do it,” Johnson said, adding that he’s been inspired by founder John George and by the other volunteers who donate their time and considerable expertise to the effort to maintain his hometown.

It all started with a chance meeting at the grand opening of the Farmer Jack at Seven Mile and Telegraph. Johnson was passing out free baskets of food to the first 100 customers and Blight Busters founder, John George, was in that number. Seeing a kindred spirit, George invited him to join in cleaning up, boarding up and improving the environment in the community.

“I lived in the neighborhood with my family, three young children at the time, and I saw what they were doing to clean the neighborhood up and stabilize it,” Johnson said.

“They had a building at 17405 Lahser that it took us years to renovate. I’d been a handyman all my life but I learned a lot working with Blight Busters.”

The admiration is mutual. George called Johnson “one of the most dynamic human beings I’ve ever met.”

“He’s an incredible support,” George said. “He has a kind heart and he’d give you the shirt right off his back.”

Johnson said it’s especially gratifying to serve the elderly. They may go out to clear a lot then see an older person on a porch that needs repair and take care of that too.

This spirit of service impressed his 33-year-old son, Kevin M. Johnson. The engineer and auto parts developer for Aptiv, a global auto parts company, still volunteers with Blight Busters as well.

“When I was 12, I was helping, sweeping debris, filling trash bags and dumpsters,” he said.

The younger Johnson is developing a mentoring project for African-American males, saying he wants youth to benefit from his father’s message – “you are responsible for your surroundings and your circumstances.”

Years ago when the senior Johnson was a waiter at the Summit restaurant, that used to be atop the Renaissance Center, a customer from England wrote management that the quality of service and conversation Johnson delivered made him a diplomat for Detroit.

Now 60 and retired, Johnson enjoys riding his bike around downtown, playing chess in Campus Martius and says he wants to continue being an ambassador for the best that Detroit has to offer.

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