Highland Park ‘eco-village’ brings basics back to block

Ian Thibodeau
The Detroit News

Highland Park — Shamayim Harris wants to turn her devastated block in Highland Park into an oasis.

The woman known to friends and volunteers as “Mama Shu” wants to create a self-sustaining eco-village called Avalon Village on the stretch of Avalon between Woodward and Second.

Her plan would turn vacant lots into basketball and tennis courts, urban gardens and stores operating from shipping containers. Project manager Gerrajh Surles, former director of the Highland Park Department of Public Works, is hiring workers to renovate abandoned houses for an after-school program, a place for holistic medicine and a home where those who will work in Avalon Village can live.

To help realize her vision, Harris has raised more than $243,000 through a Kickstarter campaign — the second-most successful civic design campaign ever, according to a Kickstarter spokeswoman. The lead singer of the indie-folk band Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros donated another $100,000.

“We’re trying to do some good things in Highland Park,” said Harris, 50, pointing to open lots where she wants to clear brush. She knows which neighbors take care of their properties, which houses have squatters and which need to be torn down.

Harris was moved to action after her 2-year-old son, Jakobi Ra, was killed by a hit-and-run driver a few blocks away from where she now lives. Jakobi’s death in 2007 ignited something in her.

“I said, ‘I’m doing it. I’m just going to take a block and redo everything.’ ”

Six months after Jakobi died, Harris set aside her doubt and fear and bought her house on Avalon. She paid $3,000, pulled together from personal funds and with help from a friend.

It houses the Moon Ministry, a “pluralistic and non-sectarian charitable organization” Harris started in 2001. Harris is director of the ministry, which she said helps her neighbors “nurture self-knowledge, self-enhancement and self-realization” through community events. The Moon Ministry is a registered religious organization and 501(c)(3) nonprofit.

She became the first female chaplain of the Highland Park Police Department, a volunteer position she still holds.

In 2011, she ended her 17-year career as a registrar with a charter school and began planning Avalon Village more seriously. To support herself, she sells shea butter, candles, incense and oils through the Goddess Marketplace she established in her living room.

Harris bought 10 other properties on Avalon, and plans to acquire six more. Some are in her name, others are owned by her ministry, she said.

Jakobi Ra Park — a few benches and a fire pit on a vacant lot next to her house — was one of her first projects. She put a solar-powered streetlight from the nonprofit Soulardarity cooperative in front of her house to replace one the city tore out in 2011.

By September, Harris said she and her team will have finished work on the Homework House, which will hold a small library, tutoring programs, a computer lab, kitchen and recording studio. The Goddess Marketplace, a storefront where female entrepreneurs can sell their goods, will move out of Harris’ living room and into a shipping container storefront in the lot next door.

In her vision, the remaining phases would bring recreation into the mix, add private security posts at both ends of the block and create a halfway house so men who work on the block will have a place to live. A restaurant she’ll call the Blue Moon Cafe would go inside a dilapidated former auto repair shop on the corner of Second and Avalon.

Donors stepped up to help after Avalon Village was featured on a local television news report. The fundraising got a boost when CBS News correspondent Steve Hartman featured Avalon Village in his “On the Road” series in early July.

Project manager Surles estimates the total cost of the project will be $3 million. Surles, who co-owns Highland Park-based Ako Building Corp., provides Harris with guidance. “It’s not a pipe dream.” he said. “It’s definitely doable.”

The plan, he said, is small compared to some projects he worked on with the city. Construction work is being done by paid professionals. Volunteers handle the landscaping.

Surles got involved five years ago when he was still working for Highland Park. He and others with construction experience helped Harris design Avalon Village and put together a plan. Funding for the project only recently started coming together, but Surles said “a lot of people have been on board for years helping her fine-tune things.”

Avalon Village attempts to overcome problems caused by a rapidly shrinking tax base, an abysmal public school system and rampant blight and neglect throughout the city. Harris said she wasn’t going to wait for developers to reach the neighborhood. And the city can’t be counted on to deliver, she said.

“People need to say ‘I ain’t got to live like this and I won’t live like this,’ ” she said.

Shamayim ‘Mama Shu’ Harris want to bring safe parks, a place to study — and hope — back to her rundown street.

Highland Park Mayor Hubert Yopp supports the project, according to Marli Blackman, Highland Park press secretary. Blackman said the mayor thinks Avalon Village “is a good asset to the city.” But the mayor declined to comment further.

Surles said based on his experience as a city official, the project fills in gaps the city can’t afford to fill: “This attracts a positive narrative to the entire city.”

Mac Johnson, 63, is helping build the project. “It’s a ‘Goliath’ type of job,” said Johnson, who worked close to 40 years in construction. Avalon Village brought him out of retirement.

“Maybe the city can learn something from her,” Johnson said.

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Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau