Brightmoor: 'Feisty' Neighbors Use Hope, Innovation to Face Struggles
may be the most distressed place in Detroit. It may also be the most hopeful.
many respects it reflects the many blighted areas of Detroit: crime,
poor educational options, retail disinvestment, neglected yards,
overgrown abandoned lots with burned out, boarded up and otherwise
dilapidated houses, many with two or three lots separating them. Yet,
like many areas of the city, it reveals a tenacious social
infrastructure that is determined to renew the four square-mile area of
Northwest Detroit. There are good schools, neighborhoods with neat
brick homes, community-based churches, a community health center,
well-maintained and appointed parks, and public art.
may view Brightmoor as it once was in the early 20th century -- a place
where working class families could own a house and live their lives in
modest comfort. The area once housed primarily white factory workers
from the South and rural Michigan. Now, urban planners have a vision
for a new Brightmoor – restored neighborhoods, new schools, a
technology park, urban homesteads and farms, new retail shopping.
a community of about 20,000 with an average household income of $35,888
that's struggling to overcome the seemingly overwhelming effects of
blight; trying to retain population, create safe environments for its
young, keep quality education within reach, and find stores willing to
is a place for people with a sense of the American frontier -- a risky,
sometimes dangerous place with considerable opportunity to start over.
The real estate is dirt cheap. There is plenty of green space. A
freeway is nearby, but you wouldn't know it. The rest is left to be
made or discovered. It's not a place for the needy. It's a place for
tough, creative thinkers, builders, and people with endurance. In
short, it's a microcosm of neighborhoods throughout Detroit, but one
with a distinct sense of place.A historical presence
the heart of Brightmoor, a small empty old house sits on two empty
lots. Unlike other abandoned houses in the area, this house filled with
a sense of local history and potential for the future. Informally known
as the "Taylor Model House," the house is named after Burt Eddy Taylor,
an associate of Henry Ford I and residential developer of Brightmoor in
the 1920s. It is a tiny, wood frame habitat of under 500 square feet in
remarkable shape, according to historian Matthew Daly who has
researched the area.
"These houses were designed to get
modest-income people to buy homes," which like other residential
developments in the city shifted the population from the dense core to
create "a galaxy of houses" in a "low rise city," Daly says. The houses
in Brightmoor were simple wood frame structures on cedar pilings with
outhouses. Many were located on double lots, like the Taylor Model
House, designed to allow home owners to build larger homes to replace
their initial investment. That never happened in Brightmoor. The Great
Depression hit, sending Taylor's finance arm into bankruptcy and
causing many in Brightmoor to lose their homes.
Taylor Model House received Detroit historic designation this spring
and is destined for restoration and conversion into a museum. The empty
lot will become a "spirit garden," featuring lawn sculptures, a
"talking fence" oral history project, and creative landscape art.A 'feisty' community
has a distinct identity beyond being an urban district of Detroit. It's
actually a "very feisty, committed little community," notes Mary Banks,
executive director of the Brightmoor Alliance
"It was a place built for working folks…inexpensive housing to begin
with." There were 4,000 houses and 11,000 people in Brightmoor when it
was incorporated into Detroit. "We were a little city," Banks says.
may not have much in the way of a commercial district, but the
Brightmoor area has personality – Scotty Simpson's Fish & Chips,
Sonny's Hamburgers, Sweet Potato Sensation, Paulie's Hardware Store –
as well as a post office, a community health center and physician
office, and is close to the Redford branch of the Detroit Public Library
, the historic Redford Theatre
, the Northwest Detroit Farmers' Market
(June-Oct.) and the Grand River business district, including Metro Foodland.
defines this community, however, is the sheer number of organizations
that are committed to its survival: Nearly 50 organizations comprise
the Brightmoor Alliance, including the Northwest Detroit Neighborhood Development
community development corporation, which has developed single family housing in the area.
As many as 200 residents attend community meetings and upwards to 2,500
people come out for Brightmoor's annual May Day parade. Like other
communities that develop organically and are absorbed by larger
municipal entities, Brightmoor maintains a strong identity.
some degree, the community reflects values espoused by early residents
from the American South and rural Michigan, according to Rev. Jerome
Warfield, Pastor of Mt. Vernon Baptist Church and chair of the
Brightmoor Alliance. "When those folks came to live in that
neighborhood, they brought with them a spirit of determination… a
spirit of not quitting. That spirit is still there. It permeates
throughout the community."
Rev. Warfield, whose church sponsors
the May Day parade and other community services, says he's "90 percent
certain" that Brightmoor will experience a revival as a working class
community. "You'll see a brand new Brightmoor in seven to eight years."
The area loses over 100 residents a year, according to Al Bogdan, an urban planner and principal of AAB Development Strategies, LLC
who conducted a study of Brightmoor funded by Local Initiatives Support
Corporation. www.lisc.org/ However, Brightmoor is gaining advocates
who envision a renaissance, beginning with its young people. Dennis
Talbert, president of the Michigan Neighborhood Partnership
moved to Brightmoor in 1992 while serving as pastor of the Rosedale
Park Baptist Church Youth Ministry (located in Brightmoor). Talbert
moved from a comfortable suburban neighborhood in Southfield because he
believes a minister should live in the community he serves. The impact
of the move left him in "shock and transformation," he says. "It was
also a great awakening."
shocked me was the nature of the love, not only from my neighborhood,
but also from the kids in the community who thought it weird for a guy
who was a television producer, who has the kind of friends that I have,
would move into this neighborhood. I raised half the children in this
Talbert, an African American, immediately bonded
with his neighbor, a white man who traces his lineage to the area's
original Southern homeowners. "I have the best neighbor in the world,"
Talbert says. "I travel in my position... I'm gone sometimes a week,
two weeks, and my neighbor watches over my house as if it was his
house. … We don't have much in common… (except) a concept of neighborly
old fashioned values." The white population of Brightmoor ranges from
10 to 15 percent, he says.
One of his protégés, Kourtney Rice
Neloms, was actively involved in the youth ministry prior to earning
master's degrees in Social Work and Urban Planning from the University
of Michigan. She has settled in Northwest Detroit and continues her
youth work in Brightmoor. There is a unique, inexplicable source of
energy in Brightmoor that fuels its endurance, she says. "It may be the
can-do spirit that exists in the neighborhood that keeps people there.
It's beyond explanation. … I really feel that the investment being made
in the children in Brightmoor is really going to pay off big in terms
of the survival – not just the survival of Brightmoor, but Brightmoor
growing and thriving." Good schools amid transition
has lost public schools and will continue to lose more. One school is
thriving, however – Samuel Gompers Elementary School. It has won state
and national blue ribbons for excellence, the Michigan Golden Apple
Award, and a Skillman Foundation
designation for high performance. The school, which employs a holistic
approach to education, operates well beyond the normal school day,
engaging parents and members of the community.
residents, says Principal Bobbie Posey-Milner, "are very passionate.
They love this community." However, the community needs to be
stabilized, she says. "You have a good school and a great neighborhood
working together. Why not tear down block by block and build affordable
housing for our parents? People have respectable jobs -- Sears, the
cleaners, McDonald's -- some way we should be able build places where
people can live, send their children to school, and have a community."
Public Schools has proposed construction of a new PreK-8 school in
Brightmoor, replacing three existing elementary schools. City
Mission, a Christian organization, sponsors an elementary school as
well. The school features small classrooms, personalized attention, and
tutoring, says Jeff Adams, development director. Adams, who moved from
Rochester Hills to Brightmoor, says the community is "trying to come
back. ... People are taking more pride in their lawns and their
housing. You're seeing a lot of residential gardening." But the schools
need to improve "dramatically," he says.The Skillman Foundation
has made an extraordinary commitment to the children of this community
and five other areas of Detroit. It's estimated that the foundation
will invest over $10 million in Brightmoor as part of its "Good Neighborhoods" program
, along with additional support from other foundations.
excited me most about working (in Brightmoor) was the self pride and
resiliency," explains Robert Thornton, Skillman program officer. Nearly
a third of its population is young people, he says. "Brightmoor is a
special place, in spite of all the challenges it has." The foundation
has completed the first phase of its 10-year program in Brightmoor,
which involves "quiet conversations" with community leaders and
community meetings. "The community engagement is on a level I have
never witnessed in my years in this town," he says.
One of the
Skillman Good Neighborhoods projects is the Detroit Neighborhood Arts
Workshop. A collaboration with the College for Creative Studies, the
workshop recruited young people in Brightmoor to help design a mural on
the abandoned Guardian Building at Fenkell and Burt roads. Chazz
Miller, founder of the Artist Village
on the nearby Grand River/Lahser retail strip, painted the Guardian
mural. On an adjacent vacant lot, Miller worked with community
residents to create a part with flower boxes, a path of wood chips and
solar-powered brick pavers, which illuminates the park at night.
art "gives you a sense of humanity," Miller says. "It helps young
people appreciate the property around them. Art has a way of calming
people, giving them a sense of peace." Many of the kids on Brightmoor
go to his Artist Village to learn about art and just to hang out, he
says.Green acres in its future
some respects, Brightmoor is reverting to the landscape that its
developer, Burt Eddy Taylor, found in the early 20th century --
farmland adjacent to a riverside forest. Few areas of Detroit have a
139-acre park with a recently constructed 1.5-mile nature trail along
the Rouge River -- Eliza Howell Park -- with smaller, well-appointed
recreational areas Stoepel Park, and an evolving greenway linking the
Green space is one of Brightmoor's assets and a foundation
for its future, many believe. For example, community gardens are
thriving here. Riet Schumack initiated Brightmoor's first neighborhood
garden in 2006, which has grown to 11 contiguous lots, including a
community building converted from a vacant house. There now are four
other community gardens. Schumack works her neighborhood's gardens with
children, ages 9 to 17 and markets the produce at the Northwest Detroit
Farmers' Market, Avalon Bakery
, and other venues.
LISC study recognizes the value of green space, in terms of a less
dense environment, and proposes a new landscaped technology park to
replace the largely vacant land of the original Brightmoor development,
relocation of viable homes to strengthen residential streets
surrounding the proposal technology park, and creation of space for
homesteading, according to Bogdan. The plan allows for live-work environments and small farms that are atypical for urban areas.
an excess homes and diminishing housing values, Bogdan believes that
Brightmoor needs large-scale reduction of the housing stock before the
existing housing, and new housing, will become marketable. The
Brightmoor plan includes these recommendations:
- Create an
"opportunity area." Residents on blighted streets will be relocated to
better streets with vacant houses. Infill housing will be developed
through a planned process. Bodgan differentiates between "scattered
site" development and the recommended dense infill. The plan proposes
moving newer houses that are scattered among abandoned houses to
streets that are more intact.
- Create a "next economy tech park"
suburban-style landscaped tech park. About 1,000 houses need to be
demolished or relocated to make way for this development.
- Assemble properties in a land bank to allow for large-scale land-use changes.
homesteading: A low density area would be made available for people who
assembling property and entertain proposals from people on large areas
for use for agricultural or other entrepreneurial uses.
John O'Brien, NDND executive director, believes in the principles of the plan, particularly that it's a "patient plan." Brightmoor's
future, he says, "is not entirely of our making. A new economy is
emerging. Our flexibility in adapting to this new economy will be key.
This isn't going to be easy. But over time, the resilience (of the
community) is attracting like-minded people that are willing to be part
of this pioneer process of building something new."
development corporation has built or renovated 300 homes in Brightmoor,
with 100 more planned. Renovation has begun on the 24-unit Rouge Woods
Apartments, which is designed to provide low cost supportive housing
with on site social work services.A new frontier
is not a place for the faint of heart. For those with a passion for the
urban adventure -- living within a community remaking itself -- this is
the right place. Where else can you own a three-bedroom home, in good
condition, for under $10,000? People living in Brightmoor tend not to
complain about the lack of amenities. Instead, they accept it as
reality and focus on their assets, a sense of community, and hope.
Ball, walking along the Eliza Howell Park nature trail one day, found
two Asian women picking herbs by the side of the Rouge River. She
thought she was in another place. It is.
Dennis Archambault lives in Detroit and writes for Model D. Send feedback here
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Brightmoor neighborhood clown park
Resident Sue Persenski in front of her aunts house, which she now owns
and lives in. She has been living in this neighborhood her whole life.
She's talking about how she mows the high grasses of abandoned homes
next to hers.
Taylor Model House
The future neighborhood community center
Abandonded lot turned into spiraled shaped community garden / reading center; The Garden Of Remberance
Principal Bobbie Posey-Milner with Gomper Student using new computers purchased witht the Skillman Foundation grant
Overhead touchscreen / interactive projector purchased with the Skillman Foundation grant
Chaz Miller Mural
Brightmoor Community GardenAll photographs by Detroit Photographer Marvin Shaouni Marvin Shaouni is the Managing Photographer for Metromode & Model D.