DANVILLE – The house on South Buchanan Street had been a familiar site in Danville’s Rabbittown neighborhood for decades. But in recent years, it had been empty, its windows boarded up. Early one morning in April, a city employee operating a Caterpillar excavator knocked it down in a matter of minutes, while a second employee used a high-power water hose to keep down the dust. Then, the debris was carried away in a truck, the contents wrapped in large 10-millimeter plastic sheets, to keep any possible asbestos or other hazardous materials from leaking out.
The razing of this particular house was just one of many houses and other vacant buildings torn down by the city of Danville as part of a multi-year demolition program. The program targets long-vacant buildings that have fallen into disrepair, the result of a loss of jobs and population in the east-central Illinois city.
Timothy Dixon came out to watch the final moments of a house where he had spent a lot of time growing up.
“I’m not no emotional person,” said Dixon, as he recorded the demolition with his phone. “But you know, it’d be nice if we could still have it here.”
The house on South Buchanan Street once belonged to Dixon’s grandparents. He remembers visiting his grandmother there often until her passing, and living there for a time himself. Dixon says his sister owned the house in 2017, when an electrical fire reduced it to a shell.
“It’s something that’s been in the family for decades, half a century, as a matter of fact,” said Dixon.
The city of Danville acquired the house on South Buchanan Street in a delinquent tax sale, just as it acquired most of the 355 buildings it’s torn down as of the end of 2020.
Tracy Craft with Danville’s Public Works Department supervised the demolition. He has supervised the demolitions of many houses for the city, including ones that once stood on vacant lots located next door, across the street and around the corner from the Dixon house. Craft says the demolitions have the support of the community, who want to see the derelict houses removed.
“They really want ’em done,” said Craft. “We get ‘thank you’ all the time, or we get, ‘Why couldn’t this been done sooner’?”
Most of the buildings slated for demolition this year are located in the south and central areas of the city, where workers once lived close to the factories that employed them. All of the buildings, and the ones already demolished, were considered too damaged to save. And for Mayor Rickey Williams Junior, their demolition has been a necessary step towards Danville’s future growth.
“We have a great excess of housing in our community, a lot of which has become abandoned and dilapidated,” said Williams. He says the shutdown of factories by companies like General Motors and General Electric has reduced the job market in Danville, and with it, the city’s population. Danville’s population peaked at more than 42,570 in the 1970 Census. But in 2019, the Census Bureau estimated the population at just 30,479. As the city’s population shrank and businesses closed, many houses and other buildings were shuttered and abandoned.
Williams says getting rid of those blighted buildings frees land up for redevelopment and eliminates structures that could collapse or attract crime. He cites one example from 2015, when Scot Eisenhauer was Mayor of Danville and Williams served on the City Council. He says squatters were congregating at vacant commercial buildings on West Main Street downtown, next door to the David Palmer Arena.
“So people were getting propositioned and solicited as they came out of meetings,” said Williams. “Several years ago, we worked with Mayor Eisenhauer to purchase all those properties and get them demolished. And now we have a beautiful green space that welcomes people to town, instead of what looks like blighted drug properties.”
The demolition program has continued with strong support from the Danville City Council. Alderman Jim Poshard represents Ward Six on Danville’s north side, a newer section of the city that currently has no buildings slated for demolition. Poshard says the derelict buildings have impacted the city’s property values, and he’s glad to see them torn down.
“It’s just something that you can only neglect and put off for so long,” said Poshard, who was elected to a full term in the April 6 election. “And then you just have to rip the Band-Aid off and just go with it and do something about it.”
Danville’s demolition program is not unique, not even for central Illinois, where Decatur and Peoria also have building demolition programs. But could any of the buildings Danville has torn down in the last five years have been saved? That question is raised by newly-elected Alderwoman Tricia Teague. She agrees that once they’re beyond reasonable repair, the buildings have to go.
“But I also believe that some houses have gone into disrepair because of the poverty in the community, and because people have not maybe been aware of the assistance that might be available to them,” said Teague, who represents Ward 4 on Danville’s east side.
Teague says future blight could be prevented if more Danville homeowners knew about home repair and weatherization programs offered by the city and by the local Community Action Agency, where she is a board member.
Meanwhile, the city of Danville’s demolition program continues, with 46 buildings on the teardown list for this year. And Timothy Dixon, while mourning the loss of his late grandmother’s house, says he hopes the city will get around to tearing down an empty house next to his own.
“Because the property value will go up,” explains Dixon. “And it just don’t look good next to my house or anybody else’s neighborhood house. So I think they’re doing a good job trying to clean up Danville a little bit, trying not to make it look so ghost-townish.”
Tearing down buildings costs money. Danville spends an average of $12,500 to demolish a house, a cost that also includes environmental safeguards. In the case of the house on South Buchanan, debris from the house was carried away in a truck, the contents wrapped in large plastic sheets to keep any possible asbestos or other hazardous materials from leaking out.
The city of Danville passed a 0.5% sales tax increase in 2016 to help pay for the demolition program. Additional funding comes federal and state grants, including a program for demolishing abandoned houses, offered by the Illinois Development Housing Authority.
In addition to houses, some of the buildings demolished by the city were once familiar structures, such as the Harwal Hotel in downtown Danville, the old Lincoln School building and the former Lincoln United Methodist Church building (both on West Williams Street).
Mayor Williams says he thinks Danville could see new growth in just a few years, thanks in part to the demolition program.
“I actually think that Danville is becoming and will be a community of choice within the next five to seven years,” said Williams. “So I expect that our population will soon grow substantially.”
For now, he says there are still hundreds of blighted houses and dozens of commercial structures in the city that he thinks need to go. A few dozen are owned by the city, and those that are not scheduled for demolition are expected to be torn down in the near future. But Williams says the rest of Danville’s blighted buildings are in private hands.
Follow Jim on Twitter @WILLJimMeadows.