by Marge Sorge
January 30, 2016
Vista Partnership has one goal … revitalize a 20-block area in southwest Detroit. Not just revitalize it, but do it in a way that offers the neighborhood economic opportunity, social equity, resident planning and partnership.
The big question? What’s the best way?
The answer. Ask the people who live there.
So about 15 months ago it sent a team door-to-door to ask residents to fill out a Community Asset Questionnaire that asked what the neighborhood needed and the issues the community faced. More than 700 residents in that 20-block area, which includes Hubbard-Richard, Hubbard Farms and Corktown, responded, and about 125 of them were done in Spanish.
Not only did they respond. Many got involved. Nearly 50 percent of the residents signed up for work groups to focus on four areas … community and economic development, public safety, arts and culture and education.
“We wanted to approach change in a different way,” says Dan Pederson, director of the Vista Partnership, an initiative of Southwest Solutions and several community partners. “Rather than being like some developers coming in and saying ‘I hope you like it,’ we wanted to find out what the community would like to see. We wanted the community voice to help us create and implement.”
What residents don’t want is adult entertainment, pollution and factories. Asthma is already an issue here. What they do want are more green spaces, more residential areas and more businesses.
That means dealing with one huge issue … abandon buildings.
Vista has already solved the problem for a couple buildings. The old St. Anthony’s (Lithuanian) Church on Vernor was purchased by Southwest Solutions Housing and Vista moved in. It also renovated a building across the street that belonged to the church. The congregation moved on when the church merged with another church in Southfield.
Pederson, who lived in southwest Detroit for 20 years, says the goal is to turn the 4,000-square-foot building into a meeting place and revenue center. Graduations, training sessions, concerts, family gatherings, CPR classes (the American Heart Association donated the dolls needed for practice) and a holiday fest last December have been held there. There’s also a Zumba class (more about that in an upcoming blog).
That takes care of two buildings, but in this neighborhood – from W. Grand Blvd. to the Michigan Central (train) Station to Vernor to Bagley – 100,000 square feet of building space is unoccupied compared with 300,000 square feet of occupied space. In addition, one-third of the land is vacant.
“Our goal is to activate those buildings with community-driven input,” Pederson says.
To do that Vista has to figure out way to get some of those buildings out of the hands of speculators, who are not doing anything with them and “want to walk away with a barrel full of money,” he says. Three or four of those dozen or so speculators own big areas in southwest Detroit.
“We need those speculators to put money in or get out of our way,” Pederson says. “Our goal this year is to get our hands on more property and land and work with the community to get the right things in there.”
One of those things is space for entrepreneurs, specifically commercial space for woman who currently work in their homes. Vista is working with ProsperUs and the Build Institute on the project.
It’s a challenge, but this neighborhood is up to the task and the city’s district managers are very helpful. Streets are being swept and there are more working street lights.
“We are making very good strides and we are working with city government on critical needs and good progress with community engagement,” Pederson says.
Residents have already created three pocket parks. There’s one by Honey Bee market where you’ll often see birthday parties going on, kids playing and people just enjoying sitting on the benches watching.
Mike’s Park by the Matrix Theatre is the passion of a neighbor named Mike who started planting trees there 10 years ago.
The park at 24th and Bagley has picnic tables that seat 30, a badminton court and gardens growing produce for the neighborhood. Volunteers are needed to tend the garden come spring and summer.
This is a high-energy, very cool neighborhood that knows what can be accomplished by pulling together. They are far from done. There are more green spaces to cultivate. More buildings to renovate. More businesses to bring in. You’ll see new programs at the Matrix Theatre, more festivals, more parks and a walking map to connect those parks.
It’ll get done, thanks to the commitment and passion of its residents.