"OK, let 'er rip."
That’s the call from city Property Maintenance supervisor Larry Duncan to Danny Spells, the bulldozer operator who’ll demolish two dilapidated buildings at the corner of West 52nd Street and Hopkins Avenue on the city’s westside.
1010 W. 52nd St., the smaller of the two, will go first. It’s boarded up, with significant portions of the roof and exterior disintegrated. Extensive termite damage is visible in wall studs as well as foundation sills, some of which are so degraded they seem to melt into the topsoil.
Spells expertly maneuvers the bulldozer, first taking down the rear of the house with the bulldozer’s claw, then driving onto the resulting debris to swing the claw down on the front of the house.
Wood is no match for steel, and within ten minutes the deed is done. Spells rolls over to 3604 Hopkins Avenue, about forty feet away.
This house has suffered extensive fire damage in the kitchen area at the rear of the house. The flames clearly reached well into the attic area, rendering much of the rafters into carbonized strips. The heat was so intense that a nearby city garbage container is partially melted.
Whoever lived here left most of their things after the fire. The house, which is completely open to anyone willing to negotiate its rotting and burned infrastructure, is still full of furniture and personal possessions.
Spells swings the bulldozer’s claw through a flimsy fence separating the two properties. He begins demolition at the rear of the house. When that’s done, almost as an afterthought he swings the claw through a couple of small outbuildings in the backyard.
Then he takes the bulldozer up onto the crushed rear of the house. After specifically targeting the chimney, which falls to the ground with a whump, he begins taking out the front of the house in earnest.
A few well-placed blows from the claw and the facade of 3604 Hopkins comes down onto itself. The only reminder of the home’s former life is a large electric wire spool, colorfully painted and converted into a table. It stands poignantly amid the debris of the now-destroyed front porch.
Last Thursday’s demolition at 52nd and Hopkins is part of the city’s ongoing “Operation Clean Sweep” program. In an effort to cut down on urban blight in the city’s more disadvantaged neighborhoods, Clean Sweep targets a certain area of town every other week for a day of intense attention.
Half a dozen buildings have been demolished in the last two Clean Sweeps, with about 16 tons of garbage and rubble being removed.
Demolishing dilapidated buildings is only the most camera-friendly aspect of the program. Additionally, overgrown lots are cut, derelict vehicles are towed, and firefighters walk to every house in the targeted area, giving away smoke detectors.
While a certain amount of bureaucratic do-goodism is always inherent in such a program, Clean Sweep also puts the onus on property owners to take more personal responsibility for the condition of their property.
“It’s not just about cleaning up neighborhoods. It’s about getting people to change behavior in neighborhoods,” says City Manager Michael Brown.
“We’ve been told by public and elected officials to end the stereotype of Savannah as a ‘pretty lady with a dirty face,’” Brown explains. “We’re cleaning up the face and helping people to keep it clean. It’s not acceptable what’s out there.”
Pauline Haywood, who has 12 years of prior government experience in neighborhood work, is the coordinator of the program, now in its second year.
“We go out six weeks in advance and do an initial conditions report on what the area’s like,” she says. “All owners are notified about what violations they have and the length of time they have to correct them.”
For example, with something as minor as an overgrown lot, the owner will be given ten days to cut the grass.
“But if we go in six weeks later and the lot is still overgrown, we cut the grass and the owner is billed for it,” says Haywood. “Either way, it has to be done.”
Demolition of dilapidated property is of course more complicated. Contrary to some public opinion, the demolitions do not involve the city gaining eminent domain over the properties in question, which remain in the hands of the original owner after the demolition is complete.
“These are cases of buildings only being demolished for health and safety reasons,” says Michael Brown. “This is not a case of taking something to reuse it.”
“We go through all the proper channels,” says Larry Duncan, Property Maintenance supervisor for the city’s westside.
“We contact the owners and give them a certain amount of time, usually 60 days, to respond and decide what they want to do, if they want to address the problems themselves,” he says.
Sometimes the city gets a waiver from property owners, which allows the city to execute the demolition with less paperwork and legal effort.
“The waiver’s actually the easiest way to go – and that’s what this is,” Duncan says, referring to this West 52nd Street corner.
The cost of the demolition -- usually about three or four thousand dollars -- typically is billed back to the property owner, Duncan says, often in the form of liens on the property.
“It’s appropriate and legally necessary,” says the city manager about billing property owners for the city’s work.
“We’re representing the taxpayers. Why should the city go clean up private property for free?” he asks.
Brown says there “are mechanisms down the road by which liens can be excused.” He says most often the case by which this can happen is for affordable housing to be built in the same location.
“The quid pro quo is actual construction of affordable housing,” Brown emphasizes. “Not planning, not deciding, but actual construction has to begin -- and only then are these things forgiven.”
Despite the cost factor, more often than not, city officials say, owners of blighted property are only too happy to see city demolition crews go into action.
“It gives homeowners the opportunity to have the city do it for them. A lot of people don’t have the financial wherewithal to take on something like that themselves,” Duncan says. “Some people say, ‘I’d rather have you do it.’”
Duncan says a common scenario with dilapidated buildings in Savannah is that an elderly homeowner dies and leaves the property to relatives who may not have the finances or the inclination to do anything with the vacated property.
That in fact is the case with the two properties at 52nd and Hopkins, which is directly across from the school board’s Adult Education Center.
“I’m glad that homeowners have this option,” Duncan says. “It’s going to enhance the community. It helps with security concerns. It’ll help with safety issues, with this school so close. And it’ll cut down on illegal activities, because now nobody can get into these houses, which have basically been wide open.”
It takes some time to put all this in motion, says Haywood, explaining the reason for Operation Clean Sweep’s typical six-week window for action in each targeted area.
“We have to be diligent in contacting the owners and going through all the proper steps, and that takes time.”
A visual inspection of the target area identifies blighted properties that may be candidates. Then, a structural evaluation is made to determine whether demolition is the best route.
“Some places look like they need to be torn down when really they may not need to be,” she says.
Brown -- who primarily credits the vision of Assistant City Manager Israel Small for Operation Clean Sweep’s initial adoption -- says the targeted buildings “do not have merit, and no one’s arguing they have merit. In Savannah we’re almost alone in saving structures that have merit -- we’re almost out there by ourselves. Most cities tear down and then ask questions. But these are structures that do not have merit. They are a blight upon the community.”
Eventually, Haywood hopes that Operation Clean Sweep will prompt more proactive efforts from the community to give makeovers to blighted areas.
“We’ve been doing Clean Sweeps for less than two years now. We want to get to the point where more people are contacting us first.”
The next Clean Sweep is this weekend, Aug. 26, in the Midtown area.
For Michael Brown’s part, he gives no truck to criticisms that the program is heavy-handed and goes too far.
“I don’t think we’ve gone far enough,” he says bluntly. “I’ll gladly apologize to anyone who thinks we’re going too slow.”
Tearing down houses is the easy part. Building communities is much harder.
That’s why the city also has a program called “Not In My Neighborhood,” which works together with Operation Clean Sweep to try to make lasting change in blighted communities.
“Once we get work done in the neighborhoods, Not In My Neighborhood is the sustainability part of it,” says Pauline Haywood. “The next part is, once you get it clean, how to keep it clean.”
Nathaniel Glover is the city’s Neighborhood Services coordinator.
“Our purpose with Not In My Neighborhood is to bring the community onboard – churches, businesses, neighborhoods,” he says. “If we can get the church to clean up their exterior, and the school to clean up their area, and the businesses to do the same, we’ll cut down on a lot of this blight. We want to get everybody together and trying to make a difference.”
Echoing any number of community activists over the years, Glover says fighting apathy is a constant struggle.
“People have a lot more power than they think they do. They just have to exercise it,” Glover says. “That’s the challenge, and that’s the fight.”
Haywood says residents are beginning to be more active with Clean Sweep’s aim, “particularly in areas where we’ve got active youth groups” doing things like cutting grass.
She says in her experience with neighborhood work, community involvement is cyclical.
“It really depends on the situation. There’s no one thing that gets people all worked up. It depends on what the situation is in that neighborhood,” she says.
“And it’s not just Savannah that’s like that. That’s how it is throughout neighborhoods -- sometimes they work hard, and then go into a lull, and pretty soon come back again.”
Haywood says while the work can be frustrating at times, “I always believe that things are going to get better -- and they are. The goal is that everybody will be part of it and it will become an everyday part of their lives. That’s my vision,” she says.
“If people continue to see things happen that they’ve wanted to see happen for some time, they’ll begin to see that they can make things better themselves.”
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