Pontiac neighbors seek new beginning for General Motors historic district

Concerned residents from a Pontiac neighborhood established by General Motors nearly a century ago spent their Earth Day close to home this year. With the help of other local volunteers, they engaged in a cleanup they hope will help kickstart the revitalization of a historic district now beleaguered with blight.


GM built the 261-home, 61-acre General Motors Modern Housing neighborhood between 1919 and 1926. Located off Perry Street between Montcalm and Glenwood Avenues, not far from downtown Pontiac, the automaker set up the residential area to provide housing for workers and their families during a time of rapid industrial expansion. Buffered by Oakland Park, the culturally diverse neighborhood sits across from what was once an auto factory and is today home to GM’s Global Propulsion Systems Pontiac Engineering Center.


Despite its fascinating history, the district has seen its fortunes sink in past decades. While a good number of residents keep up their homes and lawns, signs of blight are hard to ignore: sunken porches and home exteriors scarred by fire dot the landscape, piles of trash clog up alleyways and vacant lots. Improperly pulled tree stumps and missing street signs also signify a neighborhood that’s fallen off city government’s radar for many years.


Around 40 local volunteers turned out on April 22 to do something about this situation. Using rakes, shovels and a front-loading tractor, they filled three huge dumpsters with carpeting, auto parts, and other debris. The cleanup, sponsored by the GM Modern Housing Neighborhood Association and partially funded by the City of Pontiac's Neighborhood Empowerment Fund, targeted a two-block section of the neighborhood. Organizers plan to have more cleanups on a quarterly basis.


When Metromode caught up with Barry Scott, a 67-year-old mechanic who’s lived in the neighborhood for 22 years, he was helping clear out a big pile of tires and other trash from a back alley.


"This has been a long time coming," he says. "The whole neighborhood's coming together...to clean up the neighborhood and make it look like it used to."


Landlords Tamara Orza-Ramos and her husband McArvin Rodriguez decided to come help out because they own a house on Oliver Street. They're excited to be part of the cleanup, and not simply because it's likely to bring up property values.


"We all benefit from this,” says Orza-Ramos. "Not only we as landlords but the residents of the neighborhood. They feel safer. It was an eyesore before, and now it’s prettier.”


Tim Travis, the owner of Pontiac's Goldner Walsh Garden & Home nursery, came up with the idea for the cleanup. As a historic preservationist, he's taken an interest in the neighborhood—so much so that he's fixing up a Dutch Colonial home that's been boarded up for ten years. Having prior experience with other historic home restorations in the city, he's determined to do it the right way.


"These homes need to be saved," he says. "I'm looking at the long-term and doing quality workmanship and restoration on this one house, in particular, because I think it will set the stage for how these homes should be restored."


While Travis thinks the homes are generally in good shape—“built like fortresses” are his words— until recently he felt the neighborhood had not been very “cohesive.” However, he sees the formation of the neighborhood association this past year and the turnout at the cleanup as promising signs that bode well for the future.


Vibrant Past, Hopeful Future


Back in 1919, when construction on the neighborhood began, business was booming for GM, which had two divisions—Oakland Motors and GMC Truck—headquartered in Pontiac. The district was built under the guidance of Pierre du Pont (then Chairman of GM's Board of Directors) to accommodate a growing workforce during a housing shortage. The DuPont corporation, GM's largest shareholder, had direct involvement in the undertaking and experience working on similar ventures like GM's massive 950-home Civic Park project in Flint.


DuPont commissioned William Pitkin of Boston to lay out the streets and the New York firm of Davis, McGrath, and Kiessling to design the homes. Arranged in eight-repeating patterns, the neighborhood’s two-, three- and four-bedroom houses are constructed of all-stucco, all-brick or combination of both.


“They brought all of their industrial might to the building of this community," says Dayne Thomas, a 71-year-old neighborhood resident who also chairs the Pontiac Planning Commission.


“All of these houses were built with slate roofs, hard oak floors, double-hung windows with oak millwork and plaster throughout,” he continues. “100 years later, my home still has all of its original materials. These materials are unavailable and unaffordable today unless you're building a multi-million-dollar custom home.”


Thomas remembers the neighborhood of his youth as a well-maintained place with streets covered by a lush tree canopy and surrounded by local shops where local merchants knew residents by name; now only a few trees dot the streets, derelict homes mingle with orderly ones, and the diverse mix of neighborhood businesses he once knew is gone. It’s a state of affairs he blames on absentee landlords, and to a lesser degree, the impact of deindustrialization and the foreclosure crisis.


Born and raised in GM Modern Housing, Thomas left Pontiac in 1980 to undertake what he calls a "corporate odyssey" across the U.S. and Asia-Pacific. In 2009, he left a job with an affiliate of Toyota Financial Services in Houston to return home and care for his 92-year old aunt who was in failing health. She passed away in 2011, but realizing that the Modern Housing district was at a “tipping point” and seeing that he could play a role in efforts to revitalize Pontiac, he decided to stay and do his part to help out.


“I like to say, I came back to give back,” he tells Metromode.


Neighborhood action


In addition to his work with the planning commission and efforts to establish a local vineyard and orchard, Thomas now co-chairs the General Motors Modern Housing Steering Committee with Oakland University professor Gottfried Brieger. Also counting Pontiac Councilwoman Doris Taylor Burks and representatives from GM and the Oakland County Treasurer’s Office among its members, the group is dedicated to making the district "a welcoming and inviting place to live and play."


To this end, the committee has developed an eight-point revitalization plan. It’s objectives include engaging residents; replacing missing street signs; installing historic signage; improving code enforcement; resolving forestation and landscaping issues; rehabbing and restoring vacant homes (possibly while providing unemployed local residents with vocational training); reimagining Oakland Park; and finding grant money to make improvements.


The committee’s efforts have already borne some fruit. It’s helped spur the creation of block clubs and the neighborhood association, which recently applied for 501c3 nonprofit status. And, since last November, six of an estimated 20 vacant, derelict houses have been sold. Plans are also underway to remove unsightly stumps, replant 46 trees and a host a June picnic to gather ideas for the redevelopment of Oakland Park.

Conner, a local block club captain and retired GM production worker, is pleased with the direction the neighborhood is heading. At the Earth Day cleanup, she told Metromode that a burnt-out garage that’s been bothering her for a decade has finally been scheduled for demolition by the city. And, beyond that, she’s overjoyed to be working together with her neighbors for the betterment of the community.

"I'm very proud of what we've been doing and what we've got accomplished so far,” she said. “We're only a year into it, revitalizing this particular neighborhood," she says. "I know we can't look backward, but we can always look forward."

Read more articles by David Sands.

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