On Neighborhoods Day, Detroiters 'want to be part of something'

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — Yusef Shakur says his west-side neighborhood has lost its middle and elementary schools, seen few blighted homes demolished and has a gas station "that doesn't even serve gas."

But on Saturday, Shakur said, hundreds of area families are expected to gather there for live music, food and giveaways as part of Neighborhoods Day, an annual citywide effort to showcase community strengths and offer support services to help fill voids. 

Dwight Roston, youth ambassador at Church of the Messiah, shows the vegetables he picked in the Detroit church's garden Wednesday in preparation for a food giveaway this weekend on the 13th Arise Detroit Neighborhoods Day.

"Make no mistake about it, our neighborhood still functions as a war zone because of the conditions. But we transform our neighborhood into a peace zone to get an idea of what hope feels like,” said Shakur, 46, who heads the community empowerment group Restoring the Neighbor Back to the Hood. "They can sit down and just relax. That luxury is not granted to everybody in this city.”

More than 200 community groups and organizations throughout the city are slated to take part in this year's community service day with beautification projects, health fairs and festivals.

Since it began in 2007, more than 2,200 community improvement projects have been held in connection with the event organized by Arise Detroit, said Luther Keith, the city-based nonprofit's executive director. 

Each neighborhood sets its own agenda for the annual event including efforts to combat violence, cultivate urban gardens and offer arts and cultural programs and health and job fairs.

"They are doing this because they have hope. They want to be part of something," Keith said. "They believe in their city, they know about the problems but want to be part of the solution."

Shakur’s group works in conjunction with more than a dozen block clubs on community engagement and interventions to reduce crime. His organization has spent several years working to rehabilitate an abandoned house on Ferry Park Street to serve as a neighborhood center and it has distributed thousands of backpacks and supplies to schoolkids in the nearby Northwest Goldberg community. 

“This is what’s right about Detroit, people taking ownership,” he said. “There’s creativity, drive and love that doesn’t get talked about.”

In Detroit's Islandview neighborhood, grassroots efforts have brought low-income housing, job opportunities and a community garden to residents, said Barry Randolph, pastor of the Church of the Messiah on E. Grand Boulevard.

Jalen Tobias paints the ceiling of the Church of the Messiah workforce development center on Wednesday.  It will be dedicated in honor of DaMarkkus Washington, 17, who was killed last month in a drive-by shooting in southwest Detroit.

The church this weekend will host “Islandview Rising,” an event featuring its 84-member marching band, neighborhood tours of housing, parks and gardens and a cleanup around the church grounds. 

Through its nonprofit housing development corporation, the episcopal church has created 200 affordable housing units, an employment and health center and a local Internet provider that employs community youth in jobs that pay up to $17 per hour, Randolph said. 

The neighborhood, he said, had been a “blank spot” decades back. But the grassroots movement of local community organizations changed all of that.

“We want the regular, average Detroiters to know that a lot of development, job creation and entrepreneurship is ... coming out of the neighborhoods,” he said. “This has been done by Detroiters who have been living here, not new Detroiters.”

Islandview is among the areas targeted under the city’s Strategic Neighborhood Fund, a philanthropic partnership that's redeveloping community corridors in certain sections of the city. Some, including Shakur, have been frustrated with the revitalization effort, arguing it hasn’t extended to the city’s weakest communities. 

Ray Solomon II, general manager of Detroit’s Department of Neighborhoods, said the strategic neighborhood initiative is one effort employed to lift up city communities. The city also has expanded the reach of its demolitions to more neighborhoods and for “the ones we have not gotten to, we’re working on a plan.”

The neighborhoods department, Solomon said, works to support and establish neighborhood block clubs and offers workshops on financial literacy and home ownership. 

“We've done a lot, but the mayor does understand we have a lot more to do,” he said. “We are servicing the neighborhoods.”

On Neighborhoods Day, he added, the city and its department act as partners for various events.

Members of the Northwest Detroit Cougars Youth Association Football and Cheer teams cleaned up sports fields behind Bates Academy as part of ARISE Detroit's Neighborhoods Day in 2016. Above, Cougars C-Team Cheerleaders Kaitlyn Henry, left, 8, of Farmington Hills, and Autumn Gilmore, 7, of Warren, pick up trash.

The Rev. Carl Zerweck III co-founded the west-side nonprofit Rippling Hope. The group works with about 40 block clubs on beautification and repair projects for elderly and low-income residents year-round. It's done about 2,500 over its eight-year history, he said. 

Zerweck said his neighborhood, near Wyoming and Interstate 96, is outside the federal Hardest Hit Fund boundaries and has been plagued with blight and abandonment. 

This weekend, they will be hosting a rummage sale, cookout, free paint distribution for household projects and a meet-and-greet with adoptable cats and kittens through a nearby shelter. 

"People need hope. Hope comes from the fact that volunteers show up to paint somebody's front porch or clean up somebody's fence line," he said. "That gives people a sense that somebody beyond their community cares about them."

Ryan Myers-Johnson is overseeing a series of activities in Old Redford around the Artist Village on Lahser. The executive director of Sidewalk Detroit said her organization works to incorporate public art into Detroit's neighborhoods.

On Saturday, the area will put on its seventh Sidewalk Detroit Performing Arts Festival with dancers and street art performances in alleyways, courtyards, storefronts and community gardens. 

"The goal is to redefine how people feel on these streets," she said. "It gives a sense of power, joy and safety as a pedestrian in Detroit."

A full list of events can be found on the Arise Detroit website.