'It's About as Dangerous Here Now as It Is in Mexico'

It took decades of work for this immigrant to buy his family a house in Detroit. Now he wonders if it will be the last one standing on his street.

DETROIT—The city of Detroit is tearing down derelict homes at an astonishing pace: around 200 a week. The demolitions, paid for with $52 million in federal funds, are part of the city's plan to clean up some salvageable neighborhoods. On Ewers Street in southwest Detroit, Miguel Galván Patiño has seen about a half dozen foreclosed or abandoned houses on his block crumble and burn. The 55-year-old Mexican worker bought a bungalow for his family here five years ago with $18,000 saved from his income as a sidewalk paver. Since then, city contractors have torn down the house next door, and two homes across the street are on the demolition list.

On a recent Wednesday morning, Patiño watched as a hydraulic shovel scooped up pieces of a house four doors down. He talked to National Journal about how his American Dream is changing as Detroit emerges from the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. This interview was translated from Spanish and edited for length.

(RELATED: Detroit Is A Dream Come True for Iraqi Refugees)

Why did you move to Detroit from Mexico?

I was coming here on-and-off for 32 years to work. One of my friends moved here first and said there was a lot of work for us. I work with cement—cementing sidewalks, driveways, all that. At first it was great; there was a lot of work and it paid well. I would come and return to Mexico so I could be with my family, and then I was able to move my family here five years ago when I bought the house. Lately [the work] has been decreasing, but we're already here, so that's that. Maybe things will pick up this year.

How has Detroit changed?

It's changed a lot. Before there was so much work and it was well-paid; now the city is falling apart. It's very different now. But at least it's better than Mexico. Over there, you can't find any jobs.

Why did you move to this street?

I was renting a house nearby when the real estate crisis hit, and I had the opportunity to buy this house. It cost about $18,000. The street was nice; there weren't any burned-out houses. Everything was stable. Only later did people move away and the houses started to burn down.

Did that surprise you?

Yes, of course. If this crisis doesn't end soon, we won't have a street anymore. Too many houses are falling apart.

Did you see any of the houses burn down?

Yes, some of them, but only after the firefighters showed up. Our house was far enough away [from the one next door] so that fire didn't spread to our house.

That one happened almost two years ago. The house was beautiful. In fact, I came to see it once but it wasn't for sale at the time. Then the owners left; I don't know why.

(RELATED: The Detroit Entrepreneurs You Never Hear About)

What is it like to see so many houses falling apart on your street?

You can't help but start to worry. It looks ugly and trashy. But now that they are demolishing some of the houses, the street is starting to look better, cleaner. The city had sent us a notice that said they were going to try to sell these neglected homes, but I guess most of them didn't sell.

What do you like about being a homeowner?

I like our house and the yard to look clean and cared for. I like that it has space for several cars, and I put up this fence to protect it. Crime is a problem, like everywhere else, and I don't want anyone to break in. It's about as dangerous here now as it is in Mexico, but you just need to keep an eye out and use common sense.

Do you think the city is doing enough for your neighborhood?

It seems like the city is paying more attention to us, trying to make the city cleaner. You can tell that they are going around trying to get rid of the filth.

Do you wonder if you will be the last one person living on this street one day?

Who knows? It's a possibility. You never know what's going to happen, right? We might move away one day, too. We don't have plans to do that right now, but maybe someday we will.