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Detroit by district: It starts with a village











North Central Detroit, which will elect a City Council member in the fall as part of District 2, contains a diversity of well-known neighborhoods. There's stately Palmer Woods, the Palmer Park apartment district, and the solidly middle class Sherwood Forest and Green Acres neighborhoods. At the south end of the district, however, is a neighborhood with a lower profile. 
 
The 100 or so odd blocks in this area has come to be known as HOPE Village, a place-based community planning and development initiative of Focus: HOPE.
 
Focus: HOPE is one of Detroit's most storied civil and human rights nonprofits. It promotes multiculturalism and racial harmony through core services of workforce development and providing basic needs assistance to families. The group has been doing this important work since 1968 out of its campus on Oakman Boulevard, and around the metro area.
 
Now Focus: HOPE is focusing services and attention on the 100 blocks around its campus with the goal of making the area "a safe, strong, and nurturing neighborhood where children and their families can develop to their full potential." Since the inception of HOPE Village, the organization has had a larger focus on targeting its services to its immediate area and steering neighborhood residents into a workforce development and basic needs assistance programs.
 
Partially modeled on the famed Harlem Children's Zone, the HOPE Village Initiative is a holistic approach to targeted community development. Residents of the area are given priority when enrolling in Focus: HOPE's workforce development programs including machinist and IT training. Focus: HOPE also serves as a conduit for resources available to residents and block clubs in the area.
 
"HOPE Village is a small enough area where we can demonstrate an impact, then we will be able to take it to a larger scale," says Stephanie Johnson-Cobb, manager of community involvement and safety at Focus: HOPE. And Johnson-Cobb has a vested interest in seeing this initiative succeed. She has lived in the target area her entire life.
 
Johnson-Cobb first got involved in Focus: HOPE through her involvement in the neighborhood as a resident. Around 2000, she realized she wanted to help her neighborhood return to the way it was when she was growing up--a great place to raise a family. She led the reactivation of her block club, organizing it around the cleanup of the local playground at Ford-LaSalle Park. Now the group works with Focus: HOPE to maintain and program the park, and has expanded its efforts to develop and maintain a community garden at Linwood and Kendall Streets.
 
At the time, Johnson-Cobb was working in the banking industry and on the path to becoming a teacher, but she found a calling in community development. She was referred to a job posting at Focus: HOPE, applied, and got the job. She has worked there for the last six years. In that time, the HOPE Village Initiative launched and now has been in the implementation phase for the last three years.
 
Roughly 95 percent of the HOPE Village area falls within the newly-created Council District 2, though a small section of the area is in Highland park and a few other blocks are in Council Districts 5 and 7 due to the strange boundaries drawn in this area. This is a challenge community development organizations were forced to deal with when the new Council District lines were introduced. Many place-based initiatives already in effect were cut apart by district lines. Luckily for Focus: HOPE, the vast majority of the HOPE Village initiative area, which predates the district lines, is within a single district.
 
A big part of the HOPE Village Initiative is to provide support to existing block clubs within the area and help create new ones where there has been a lack of neighborhood leadership historically. The Oakman Boulevard Community Association is a long standing neighborhood group in the area that partners with Focus: HOPE, its neighbor to the east in maintaining the historic Oakman Boulevard median. 
 
The Ford-LaSalle Block Club had gone defunct for some time before Stephanie Johnson-Cobb helped revive it in 2000. Recently, Johnson-Cobb and the HOPE Village Initiative have helped residents establish the Dexter-Fenkell-Linwood Block Club in the north section of the neighborhood.
 
Village is the right word to describe the initiative area, especially if you are driving around with Ms. Johnson-Cobb. During a tour of the area, she pulls over frequently to greet her neighbors, stopping by Shelly's Smoking Sausages cart for a brief chat with the owner and saying hi to people sitting in Ford-LaSalle Park. She points out the laundromat on Oakman within which is located the famed Panini Grill, a neighborhood sandwich stand currently undergoing renovation. The owner puts out cafe seating on the sidewalk, adding to the area's sense of place.
 
On the drive, Johnson-Cobb pulled onto Clements Street and pointed to a strange house angled differently than the rest on the street and slightly set back. This was the James Smith Farm House, a log cabin now covered in aluminum siding that possibly dates back as far as 1830, nearly 86 years before this area was even annexed by the city. It's possible that this unassuming structure is one of the oldest standing in the city of Detroit. 
 
Unfortunately, the home is no longer occupied and has recently become open. Two women sitting on the porch across the street said that there might be dogs inside. Stephanie said she was with Focus: HOPE and would call the Humane Society. She has hopes of securing and preserving the structure through the HOPE Village Initiative.
 
Within the HOPE Village area, the character of the neighborhood can change from block to block. Oakman Boulevard is the site of stately homes and beautiful plantings. The Ford-LaSalle area is a more working class neighborhood. Across the Lodge Freeway in the Highland Park portion of the HOPE Village area is a more challenged area, plagued with high vacancy ever since it was ravaged by the tornado outbreak of 1997. Yet the northern part of this area recently has seen the first new construction in nearly 40 years with the development of a senior housing complex by Presbyterian Villages of Michigan and the recent renovation of the landmark Bell Telephone Building by the Neighborhood Service Organization.
 
Johnson-Cobb sees some universal challenges that community development organizations are facing throughout all the districts. Safety and foreclosure are problems throughout the city, and District 2 is no different. The HOPE Village Initiative and the dedicated people at Focus: HOPE like Johnson-Cobb are working tirelessly to address those challenges, and with the help of residents, they will succeed. One thing is for sure--it will take a village.

Matthew Lewis is spending the next six months exploring and reporting from Detroit's new council districts.

All photos by Matthew Lewis

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