Detroit Revitalization Fellow: Owiso Makuku

Owiso Makuku has worked on community revitalization projects in many places, many of which draw comparisons to Detroit.  

In New York City--her gritty, multicultural hometown where street smarts count--she was director of concessions for the New York City Department of Transportation, helping the city to generate revenue at the same time as enlivening public spaces such as Municipal Plaza in lower Manhattan and Fordham Plaza in the Bronx. 

In the Dominican Republic--a nation dealing with poverty--she was a Peace Corps volunteer teaching organic gardening techniques to women’s and youth groups. 

In the Boston region--which suffers steep income disparities between communities--she promoted affordable housing initiatives for the highly affluent city of Cambridge, as well as earning Masters Degrees in both Architecture and City Planning from MIT.   

Yet the place that she feels comes closest to Detroit is none of the above. "Detroit would probably compare itself to New York, but I think it’s more like Burlington, Vermont," says Makuku, who worked there for 8 years in a variety of capacities on waterfront development, affordable housing, land use planning, economic development and zoning projects. 

Burlington is a college town of 42,000 known for New England charm, innovative public policies and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. To most folks, the only thing it shares in common with Detroit is proximity to the Canadian border.

Makuku stresses that Detroit does not feel like a small town, but that it shares with Burlington the deeply rooted "middle American Dream of living in a single family home." Once upon a time Detroit was a beacon of the good life for working class families--black and white--around the country. Helping to revive even a portion of that promise is what lured her here from New York. 

In August 2011 she moved here to join the Detroit Revitalization Fellows program -- a Wayne State University project funded by Kresge FoundationFord FoundationHudson-Webber Foundation, the Skillman Foundation and Wayne State, that matches rising professionals with organizations working at the forefront of Detroit revitalization efforts. 

She worked for her first year in the Mayor’s Office focusing on operational issues, economic planning and bus rapid transit while exploring ways to rethink many assumptions about municipal governance.

Since August 2012, she has been working in New Center, with the State of Michigan, in the Governor’s Office of Urban and Metropolitan Initiatives, helping to develop an Urban Agenda for Michigan, a renewed focus on the importance of Michigan’s core cities.

She lives in Lafayette Park and spends as much time as possible exploring the city. "I really like the sculpture honoring the Underground Railroad in Hart Plaza because it creates a great 'moment' on the waterfont--it's well sited and really makes you think," she says. "And Campus Martius, which I like even more after going ice skating there. As I skated around looking at the city and all the different people using the space, I thought 'this is so positive.'"

"When I am out driving around the neighborhoods," she says, "I sometimes stop and contemplate what people have done to make their house a home. How someone did an elaborate paint job or planted flowers in the yard or on the block."

Her biggest Detroit surprise so far is how "unexpectedly friendly people are." Even more friendly than in cozy Burlington. "Hands down, Detroit’s biggest asset is its people."

Jay Walljasper, author of The Great Neighborhood Book and All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons, is a Senior Associate with Citiscope and Senior Fellow with Project for Public Spaces.
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