June 18, 2014 at 1:00 am

Head of North End nonprofit working to rebuild a community

Khalilah Burt Gaston aims to put the North End neighborhood on the same playing field as Midtown. (Marney Rich Keenan / The Detroit News)

If you looked at the city 10 or even five years ago, you’d be hard pressed to find neighborhoods competing for cutting-edge status.

But, Khalilah Burt Gaston has politely thrown down the gauntlet. These days, the North End, the neighborhood that runs east of Woodward and north of I-94, is no longer content to be stepchild to its adjacent hipster enclave, Midtown.

“I’ve always seen this neighborhood as the next big opportunity,” says Gaston, executive director of the Vanguard Community Development Corp. Vanguard is a nonprofit founded in 1994 by Bishop Edgar Vann II of the Second Ebenezer Church to revitalize the once-proud home of auto barons and wealthy elite in the Boston Edison and Arden Park districts.

“We love what’s going on in Midtown and we want to leverage the momentum” Gaston says. “But we want to do it in a way that preserves the cultural and historical relevance of the North End.”

At 37, Gaston is a relatively young community developer. “I keep reminding people Sue Mosey (her counterpart in Midtown, a 20-year veteran) was young once, too.”

With a master’s from the University of Michigan in urban planning, Gaston spent 15 years selling commercial real estate in the city, followed by positions at Downtown Detroit Partnership and the State of Michigan Land Bank. In April 2012, Gaston took on the mission of stewarding new interest in the neighborhood and reshaping its future.

Because Gaston lives in Arden Park with her husband and 3-year-old daughter, she’s more invested in her work.

“When we talk about the expansion of Delores Bennett Park, that’s the park we take our daughter to. Or when I talk to the principal of Loving Elementary School about wanting my daughter to be able to walk two blocks to Loving, it’s because that school anchors our neighborhood. It’s not just my vision, it’s our vision.”

When plans for the M-1 rail street car were announced, Ga­ston began consulting with de­velopers interested in mixed-use projects that will help re­build the North End’s commercial corridors on Woodward, East Grand Boulevard and Oakland. She’s also juggling an influx of new residents and businesses involved in urban agriculture, as well as families who purchased homes from the city’s land bank auction.

She welcomes all, she says, but with a dose of cautious optimism.

“The perception for some is that this is going to quicken gentrification,” she says, “but we want to take advantage of this in a way that increases property values, provides access to jobs and and offers more workforce development opportunities.”

Still, Gaston says the new emerging Detroit must coalesce with the old.

“Of course we want to attract residents in Detroit, but we also have to recognize those residents who have stayed and made a significant contribution to the city, as well. It’s not an either or conversation.”

To that end, Gaston recently reached out to Michigan Roundtable and New Detroit, and plans to host conversations about “neighborhood revitalization and racial reconciliation.”

“The reality is when people move into an area like the North End, they think the condition of the neighborhood is an indictment on the people who live here. They don’t realize that this is the result of decades of broken systems. This neighborhood is a manifestation of our collective social ills. The challenge is to help reverse 40 years of historical turmoil.”

How do you accomplish that? Gaston smiles broadly.

“You do it little by little, block by block, by having conversations with residents who have been here 30 years and people who just moved in.”

mkeenan@detroitnews.com