37 Minutes in MorningSide with Kelley Marks

It is a sunny afternoon in the East Side Detroit neighborhood known as MorningSide, one of the largest and oldest communities in the city. The neighborhood had aged relatively well. until the foreclosure crisis dealt the area a blow mighty enough to shake its foundation. Plywood encased homes started showing up on block after block.

But on this sun-drenched day on Kelley Marks' block, there is much reason for hope. The street is buzzing with activity. Forklifts and compact tractors flit up and down the street moving building materials and supplies to the half-dozen homes in various stages of construction. Work crews scampered about helping nudge a few homes closer to completion.

Marks, 31, is the president of the MorningSide Neighborhood Organization, and her block is ground zero of a massive building effort by Habitat for Humanity Detroit. Model asked her for 37 Minutes to show us around and talk about what's going on in MorningSide.

Habitat for Detroit

Three years ago, Habitat launched a plan to build dozens of homes in MorningSide, including the one Marks and her husband, Christopher, moved into in December 2006.

"In 2005 I was a volunteer for the (former President) Jimmy Carter work project. Habitat for Humanity International did a blitz build (on the west side) with 30 homes, and my sister was actually a recipient. That was the first time I participated in a major volunteer project and I liked it so much the following year I volunteered for Habitat Humanity Detroit," said Marks, who was a stay-at-home mom with a preschooler at the time.

That experience changed her life, because while serving as a volunteer someone suggested she apply for a home through the program, which she did. She was surprised when her application was one of the ones selected.

The first time she and her husband drove down Maryland to take a look at where they would be living, what greeted them was a succession of vacant lots overwhelming block after block. She recalls looking at each other and wondering what they had gotten themselves into. But while they knew they were in for an adventure, regret was never part of the conversation that day. In retrospect, that drive was the springboard upon which Marks leapt into community leadership.

She has a strong personality. She is outgoing, energetic and outspoken. She is equally comfortable at organizing neighbors who want a stronger community as she is at challenging those that want to disrupt the peace on the block.

While putting in the 250 hours or more of sweat equity, and attending financial literacy and homeowner workshops, as Habitat requires, she got to meet her future neighbors and learn about what community developers and businesses in the area were doing to create positive change.

Getting to know the neighbors, those other soon-to-be Habitat home owners who would inhabit her block once construction wrapped up, was especially beneficial because they were able to start organizing themselves before they closed on their mortgages.

"We began to form a coalition. We were excited, like this is what we are going to do on our block, and this is what we're going to do with our street," Marks said.

'Now it's serious'

They also studied the history of the area, including taking a look at why there were so many abandoned homes. That is when she learned about the MorningSide Neighborhood Organization. The group had helped revitalize the area after a mortgage scandal over a decade ago resulted in many people in the area losing their homes. She decided that once she moved in she would get to work.

"Now it's serious. Now I'm here. I have a 4-year-old daughter. I live next to a structure that looks like as if the wind blows it will topple down on my home," Marks said. "I cannot have the privilege of purchasing a brand spanking new home on the East Side of Detroit, in the middle of this foreclosure chaos, and act as if I don't have any responsibility of trying to make a difference in this community."

Asked if she realizes that most people don't necessarily think like that, her response is a blunt "really?"

One of her fist projects was to rally neighbors together to close down a drug house on the block, which they did within a year, she said. The owner of the home rehabbed it once the dealers were gone, and Marks said she offered to help him select the next tenant.

"I realized I made an investment in this community. That because my house sat here I knew that I had certain rights, and that I was backed on that by the codes that the city lays out," she said. I have a responsibility as a property owner in the community and so did everybody else. I kind of took it personal, and make it my business to even watch the abandoned homes that I don't own."

Marks is encouraged by the neighborhoods upside and believes there is much hope for the community. Being on Maryland and seeing the new homes being built across the street is invigorating. She has seen eight new homes go up on her block since she moved in – not something most people in urban areas can say. There are 18 now, by her count.

"This is what gives me hope. This is what constantly inspires me that change can come, and what I try to do is grab hold of these new people now, these new homeowners. Because that is how I got bit," Marks said.

Engaging people to be involved on their block and in their neighborhood is a mission for Marks now. She wants the new residents to understand they have both a right and duty to care about what happens in the community that extends beyond the four walls of their home. Detroit would be better off from an outbreak of this type of sentiment, an infectious sense of community obligation.

She started going to MorningSide's meetings in 2007 and got increasingly more involved in the organization. By the following year, her interest in becoming an activist was peaking, but she was also finishing her degree in speech pathology at Wayne State University and didn't have the time to make that commitment, with clinical work added to her schedule. When she learned that the new residents in her part of the neighborhood haven't had a strong presence in the organization, she decided to run for a board seat, which she won. "One of my goals is trying to bridge that gap in participation," said Marks.

Earlier this year she was elected to lead the board. "My vision for MorningSide is for us to be the organization to be a resource in this area for revitalization ... to continue the revitalization project, to work with the other organizations and committed partners that have committed to helping us rebuild our community, to push it through and make it happen," Marks said.

Her vision also includes making sure that every one of the 19 streets has a block club and getting more residents involved in the organization on an ongoing basis.

'I want to move back there'

The neighborhood group won a grant earlier this year from Community Legal Resources as part of a vacant property initiative to deal with the abandoned homes in the area. The organization is using those funds to clean up the neighborhood, cut lawns on abandoned properties, board up dangerous vacant homes, and paint colorful murals on boarded up houses. "I want MorningSide to be attractive. I want people to eventually say 'I want to move back there,'" said Marks.

Last year, the MorningSide board attracted the attention of candidates for all of the offices in the city of Detroit. A forum for city council candidates drew 14 of 18, one mayoral contender and four charter commission candidates, and 200 residents came out to hear what they had to say. "We've been able to make a lot of noise, and people were listening. MorningSide has a buzz now. When I introduce myself to the new city council president he said 'I need you,'" Marks said.

She has already been in touch with all of the new city council members and the mayor about their campaign promises. They had better be listening when she calls in those markers. Marks has already called officials about the promises they made and she will hold each of them accountable.

"This organization doesn't move without a lot of community involvement," Marks said. "It takes a lot of grass roots, it takes a lot walking and talking and meeting people getting your ear to the ground to know what's going on in our community."

Rodd Monts is a freelance writer and contributor to Model D. Send feedback here. Check out his blog, too: 3 Mile.

Our last 37 Minutes was in the Villages with Dian Van Buren. We've also spent 37 Minutes in Southwest Detroit. Want us to spend 37 Minutes with you in your neighborhood? E-mail us here.

All Photographs © Marvin Shaouni Photography
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