Listen: Chris Lambert in conversation with Stephen O’Doherty
Detroit was once the beating heart of American manufacturing, in particular, it was the home of the car industry. Fords and Chryslers no longer roll off the assembly lines. The jobs have gone, the factories are abandoned. Empty too are many of the houses, foreclosed by banks but simply unsalable. Many people have taken flight too, leaving a city that had been home to their families for generations.
How does a formerly great city find a place in the world when the industry that had sustained it is gone? You call in pastor Chris Lambert and his non profit Life Remodeled. In 2017 he mobilized 11,032 volunteers in six days. They started work on a Community Innovation Centre, repaired 53 homes, boarded up 534 vacant houses and removed weeds and rubbish on 367 vacant blocks.
Detroit’s mistake – relying on just one industry
Detroit was once the fourth largest city in the United States. Home to the ‘Big Three’ car companies, Chrysler, General Motors and Ford. Detroit was so synonymous with car making that it became known as ‘Motor City’. It was Detroit that churned out the big gaudy, gas guzzling, American cars of the fifties and sixties with their flashy tail fins and gleaming chrome. The industry fell victim to many problems. Automation took many of the jobs. Racial tensions that boiled over into serious riots in 1967. The oil crisis of the 1970’s saw the popularity of big cars fall.
The big car companies couldn’t or wouldn’t pay American wages when labour and materials were cheaper in developing countries. Finally, people were only as patriotic about their transport as their hip pocket could bear. The secure work on the line, building cars has gone, probably forever.
Abandoned buildings all over town
On a par with the iconic New York Grand Central Station, the huge Neoclassical Beaux-Arts style Michigan Central Station has been closed since 1988. Its hundreds of broken windows stare out at the surrounding rubbish and weed choked vacant lots. The station is just one of the architecturally significant buildings shut up and left to decay in Detroit.
The city is dotted with overgrown vacant lots where proud little working class homes once stood. The neighbouring weatherboard buildings are rotting and burnt shells, falling into decrepitude. The factories have broken windows and breached wire fences. There are homeless people, squats and crack houses.
From prosperity to municipal bankruptcy
The years of prosperity generated by car manufacturing helped create the wonderful architecture of Detroit. Much of it has been abandoned, neglected, ruined and then demolished. The gorgeous Michigan Theater is reduced to a shell with a few remaining architectural details making it an unusual car parking garage. In 2013 the situation was so dire the City of Detroit became America’s largest municipal bankruptcy with an estimated debt of about $US 20 billion. The city has just this week taken a step toward regaining full control of its finances having been released from active state oversight of its finances.
A pastor who “liked the other six days better than Sundays”
Chris Lambert had been a pretty devout child who for a time turned his back on Christianity. It was during time he spent in Australia, in Wollongong NSW that he attended a church. The sermon that day was about a man who had turned from God in his life. The then 22 year old was inspired to turn his life around. He returned to the United States left his business studies course and went to a seminary where he met Andrea, now his wife. The couple worked as missionaries is Liberia and eventually returned to Andera’s hometown of Detroit. They started a church but Chris wanted to contribute more.
“Basically I was always more passionate about the other six days of the week than I was about Sunday,” he says. “When I started a church I never wanted it to be just about a one-day-a-week event, and that’s what eventually led me to start Life Remodeled.”
Extreme makeover, supersized
Inspired in part by the television show “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” Life Remodeled has grown from building a single house from the ground up in six days and beautifying the surrounding neighborhood with 500 volunteers in 2011 to recently completing a third Detroit Public School-based neighborhood makeover at Denby on Detroit’s east side with 10,700 volunteers.
From the initial modest-yet-significant project – building a new house for a single mother and her four daughters, to a trio of $5 million projects in the last three years, Life Remodeled is gaining a reputation as a difference maker in Detroit counting more than 300 businesses, churches and community organizations as regular partners. Word of the amazing difference Life Remodeled makes to individuals and neighbourhoods is spreading throughout the United States and beyond, inspiring church groups from other states to take part in the annual project.
Life Remodeled takes volunteering to the next level
Life Remodeled founder and CEO Chris Lambert succinctly describes what the organization looks for in choosing projects – significant need and radical hope. The annual projects Chris Lambert runs through the non profit see thousands of volunteers in bright green Life Remodeled shirts swoop in and give their all in a six day all out effort. Much of the work has involved ‘blight removal’; securing abandoned buildings and clearing overgrown vacant land. The result is neighbourhoods becoming engaged with and caring more about their community as well as reduction in crime and antisocial behaviour.
A big heart for good makes for big numbers
To get an idea of the enormous scale of what Life Remodeled undertakes each year just consider the numbers for their work in 2017. They began renovating and repurposing the former Durfee Elementary Middle School building. In addition they repaired 53 homes, boarded up 534 vacant houses and removed blight on 367 blocks. To achieve all that, Life Remodeled mobilized 11,032 volunteers in six days.
Going Beyond Blight Removal
2017 was the 50th anniversary of the 1967 ‘Detroit uprising’ a five day explosion of racial tensions. To commemorate progress that has been made since then and a reminder that there is always more to do Life Remodeled will have a three year focus on working in the neighborhood surrounding Central High School. This is the location of the city’s first public high school, in the community where Detroit’s civil unrest began. In the past, Life Remodeled made one year commitments to neighborhoods.
Dufree Community Innovation Center
Due to the fact that Central High School students previously occupied less than 20 percent of their school building, the school was consolidated into one building. The school district then invited Life Remodeled to lease the Durfee building for just $1 per year. In the building Life Remodeled has created The Durfee Community Innovation Center. It is a space for nonprofit organizations and for-profit businesses to co-locate, share resources and achieve greater collective impact.
The Center is about encouraging entrepreneurship, employment, education and community. It exists to create substantial and impactful opportunities for Detroit children, families and single adults, while advancing collaboration among the eight major sectors (arts, business, education, faith-based, government, human services, media and philanthropy) in both the city and surrounding suburbs.
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