American Riad project starts to transform near-empty Detroit street

Louis Aguilar
The Detroit News

A nearly abandoned Detroit street has become the focus of an international real estate plan with a new ownership model, Islamic-inspired architecture and a goal of thwarting gentrification. 

A hint of the project's distinct style began to emerge this summer. That's when a two-story canopy made of bright stainless steel was built on a vacant lot where a home once stood. The columns and roof are inlaid with intricate geometric shapes that resemble fine lace. The light flows through in kaleidoscope patterns.

Children and families often play in the clean new space. Poets and musicians perform there. A wood-burning pizza oven built next to the canopy is open to residents in the North End neighborhood. 

It is the first phase in an estimated $1.1 million plan to restore six apartments, six storefronts, and two single-family homes on the 900 block of East Euclid Street.  The street is now mainly empty, unused land. 

Nineteen of 32 vacant parcels are owned by the Detroit Land Bank Authority, property records show.  Six structures have been demolished since 2016, records show.

Red Jazz Shoe Shine owner David Boggon talks with Dwayne Richardson, left, in the shoe shine shop on E. Euclid and Oakland in Detroit.  A part of Euclid is being developed into a mix of art incubator, communally-owned housing and business development.

"I know a lot of people have moved; a lot of stores gone, too. But people haven’t forgotten,” said David Boggon, owner of Red Jazz Shoe Shine, which opened in 1949 and is the last store left on Euclid.

On a recent weekday night, three men visited the tiny shop within one hour and all three said they have been customers for decades. The building at Euclid Street and Oakland Avenue is where the apartments and storefronts will be restored. The canopy/communal space is next door.

Boggon said he would “get dizzy trying to name everybody” involved in the project. “But, I’m telling you, it just shows a lot of people see the opportunities here."

The development is called American Riad (ree-ODD), which is an Arabic word that means garden. Hundreds of people from other states and nations have worked with Detroiters to get the project to this point. An internationally acclaimed Syrian architect is overseeing design of the rest of the development. 

These houses are part of the American Riad - a community development  made of mix of community artists, east coast academics and African architects.

The Riad project was created when three East Coast artists met members of a North End group called Oakland Avenue Artists Coalition.  The East Coast artists work with communities around the world.  At one point, they were U.S. Cultural Ambassadors to Morocco, which means the trio were appointed by the State Department.

The Oakland Avenue artists group aims to find ways to celebrate the neighborhood’s cultural heritage and history.  Many Motown musicians grew up or lived in the North End, including Aretha Franklin, Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross and the Four Tops. Plenty of other artists have called the area home since then. 

“When we met members of the Oakland Avenue (arts group), there were asking all these local artists to come up with ideas for restoring buildings,” said John Ewing, one of the East Coast artists. “They were trying to get creative ideas how to rehab them using arts and culture.”

The fact that the community had an idea it wanted to pursue is what helped attract the trio of East Coast artists, said Christopher Robbins, a sculptor and professor at Purchase College, State University New York.

“We don’t approach a community with a set idea, we prefer to listen to what the community wants and determine if we can help,” Robbins said. 

The other East Coast artist involved is Maria Carmen del Montoya, a professor at George Washington University in Washington. The trio formed a group called Ghana Think Tank to work with communities in a host of countries. 

“I would say it’s a development tapping into different resources of the community, and also using the attention Detroit seems to get from many people outside of Detroit,” said Keviyan Richardson, one the many members of the Oakland Avenue artists group involved in the Riad project. “They hear about the empty streets and vacant buildings, and I think, a lot of artists and urban planners, architects, understand that’s a lot of resources not being realized.“

Together, the two groups have enlisted dozens of other organizations, ranging from artists from Morocco and Indonesia, a Texas mosque, a handful of major foundations, two East Coast colleges, and many Detroit non-profits and over a hundred local volunteers.

Artist Joseph Hurd works on the stainless steel Arabesque-style canopy with islamic patterns built as a communal meeting space in Detroit.

One of those involved is Syrian architect and author Marwa Al-Sabouni,  who has refused to move from her native city of Homs even as it was ravaged by civil war. Her 2016 memoir "The Battle for Home," which gained international acclaim, argues Syria’s architecture played a role in the war itself because too many people were living in isolated ghettos. She argues the government must not repeat the mistake when it rebuilds.

“I am hoping to create order and rhythm and harmony” in the design of the Detroit Riad, Al-Sabouni said in a telephone interview with The News. The plan is to create physical entrances that better link the canopied open space with the buildings next to it, which include two single-family homes and the corner building that has storefronts and second-floor apartments.

Al-Sabouni, 37, hasn’t visited Detroit and may never get to see her work on Euclid Street because of current U.S. travel restrictions against Syrians.

The Oakland Avenue artists group “love the design,” said Joseph Hurd, an artist involved in the project.  “One of our goals is to reduce social isolation by creating a more communal space.” 

Design isn't the only unique aspect of American Riad. It’s going to use a rare model of ownership in Michigan called a community land trust, which is a nonprofit that buys land and takes steps to make sure the rents of buildings — rental housing, owner-occupied homes, businesses — remain permanently affordable. The board of the trust collectively controls the land. Some land trusts also cap the amount of money the land can be sold to prevent speculation. 

The community land trust is being formed now for the Riad project.

So far, $400,000 of the $1.1 million of funding has been raised. Supporters and funders so far include the state of Michigan Economic Development Corp., DTE Energy Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Detroit Justice Center, and Creative Capital. 

Lights that meld from color to color illuminate the steel arabesques that create a shared courtyard on Euclid Street in Detroit.

Restoration work has begun on the abandoned single house next to the canopy area. The Ghana Think Tank bought the home three years ago from the city's Land Bank for $3,600, records show. This spring, work is slated to begin on restoring the corner building, which is 8,100 square feet, records show. 

Another local non-profit, Central Detroit Christian Community Development Corp, is also helping, particularly on the building with the storefronts and second-floor apartments.

Getting a traditional bank loan for affordable housing remains a big challenge, said Central Detroit Christian founder Lisa Johanon."You can take vials of blood from my arm and it would be less painful," than getting a loan, Johanon said.  

But the area is seeing a growing number of private speculators willing to pay cash for properties, she said. That has resulted in some long-time residents being forced out due to higher rents. The Riad project may be on a nearly empty street, "but people do realize that higher rents are happening in the area," Johanon said.

Twitter: @LouisAguilar_DN