Westland to be honored for new community center

Kyla Smith
The Detroit News

Westland – A national community development award is the latest sign of revitalization in Westland’s World War II-era Norwayne neighborhood after decades of decline.

The award, to be given to city officials Jan. 22 in Washington by the National Community Development Association, recognizes Westland for renovating the former Jefferson-Barns Elementary School into a community center that opened last summer.

Now known as the Jefferson Barns Community Vitality Center, the once-vacant school bustles with boxing lessons, financial literacy classes and other activities.

The reuse of the school, which sat vacant for five years, is another tangible sign of the neighborhood’s revival – and a point of pride for residents.

“People have told me they wanted to move, but after the center opened, they have reconsidered,” said Joanne Campbell, Westland’s community development director. “This is a testament that the city and the neighborhood are moving into a positive direction and good things are to come.”

In the past several years, officials and neighborhood residents in Norwayne have worked to tear down dilapidated homes, built a community garden, and obtained recognition as a Michigan Historic Site.

The efforts come in a district that fell upon hard times after the boom times of World War II, when Norwayne was born.

The subdivision was developed hastily in 1942, as officials rushed to build housing for thousands of workers producing warplanes at the Willow Run Bomber Plant and other armament factories.

The new neighborhood featured two elementary schools, open green spaces and stores.

However, in the decades after the war, home ownership declined, rental properties became prevalent and dozens of homes were demolished due to fire or deterioration. By the 1980s, many began calling the area “Shacktown.”

Westland Mayor William Wild, who was born in Norwayne, made it his mission to spearhead the neighborhood’s rebirth.

“My parents lived in Norwayne, so it’s a project that is close to me,” Wild said. “It’s the oldest neighborhood in the city and the heartbeat of the community.”

The former Jefferson Barns school was renovated last year when the city received a $600,000 loan from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. The loan is expected to be repaid in 12 years from Community Development Block Grant funds.

The new center is 52,000 square feet and includes the Norwayne Boxing Gym, with a state of the art boxing ring, founded by Jeff Styers, a former Norwayne resident and amateur boxer. All classes are free and participants receive tutoring assistance.

The Learning Lab, funded by a Michigan State Police grant, will teach students about computer coding and provide homework assistance.

The Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency, a countywide agency that helps low income individuals, teaches classes on financial independence at the center.

“We wanted to make sure we still provided free afterschool activities for the kids,” Campbell said. “There is strong sense of resurgence in the community and you can tell that people want to work together to help bring the area back.”

Campbell and Wild will travel to Washington to accept the Audrey Nelson Community Development Achievement Award. Westland is one of 16 recipients.

Besides the federal funding, the Jefferson Barns center was awarded a $175,000 state grant to build an athletic complex with two baseball diamonds, basketball court, a play structure for handicap children and a pavilion. Construction for the complex will begin later this year.

Joan Hanawalt, who has lived in Norwayne since 1973, volunteers at the center’s library.

“I enjoy meeting all of the people that come through here daily,” Hanawalt said. “It’s nice to see young people that are excited about reading and learning. I try to encourage them as much as I can.”


(313) 222-1855

For more information:

Jefferson Barnes Community Vitality Center, 32150 Dorsey Street, Westland, MI 48186