Detroiters often say that Detroit is a place where everyone knows everyone. If we live in a small world, then Detroit may be the vastest, tightest universe of them all.
Before working as project editor for Model D's On The Ground series
in the North End, I assumed I had no connection to the neighborhood. Though it was just a step away from Boston Edison and Hamtramck, and I had taken a few late night trips to the event space O.N.E. Mile
on Oakland Avenue, I didn't know what to call this place where familiar faces from all over the city gathered to dance, talk, sing, and share a safe space.
But then I started talking to my relatives who know Detroit neighborhoods more intimately than I do. My grandmother Sanual Mixon laughed when I asked her if she knew anything about the North End. "Yes," she said, "I grew up over there."
She remembers having strict instructions to only go as far as Delmar and Lynn when visiting friends in the neighborhood. She remembers learning from the nuns at St. George elementary school, one of the many buildings that was removed to make room for I-75.
The North End had been right up the street for my whole life, but it was even closer to home than I initially thought.
I was excited by the opportunity to document what the people
and the place
felt like now. Though I cherish every interaction I've had in the North End, and don't pretend to know all the ins and outs of this thoroughly complex neighborhood, I took away (at minimum) three very important lessons. Detroit, pay attention.
1. Build what you want to see
You can't get a real sense of any neighborhood simply by driving through it. Every neighborhood arises from the residents who live, work, play, and contribute to the land around them. Time after time, I encountered North End residents who identified a need and used their resources to bring it to life. Take Phillis Judkins's
safety patrol, Malik Yakini and the Detroit People Food Co-op, Jamii Tata's
KAN bookstore, or Steven Harris's
Rebound Construction for example.
After years of planning, meeting, working and creating together, many pillars of the community are finally gaining recognition and getting the support that they need. Everyone that I met in the North End was working to bring a new idea to life. From very tangible goods like books and healthy food, to the intangible yet essential access to technology
, including the internet and cryptocurrency.
By the time the North End got the city's attention, the community was already doing their own thing and doing it well. Instead of banking on outside support, the North End's overlapping networks supported and encouraged each other.
2. Believe in your neighbors
I couldn't have written the stories for this series without the network of North End residents who gave me recommendations, meetings, and introductions. These were people who had been working meaningfully with one another well before I even knew what the North End was. Every block has its own personality and residents stay on top of what's happening—who's moving in or out and what's being developed.
Community activist and artist Halima Cassells
As the city changes, it's easy to retreat into our homes and hold on to the familiar, but the North End made space for it all and set a precedent of hospitable, reliable neighbors. In this way, their prideful past lays the groundwork for a thriving future
3. Hold others accountable
My biggest apprehension about this project was figuring out a way to intentionally and respectfully tell a story of a neighborhood that was quite obviously not my homebase. Luckily, everyone I interviewed took me to task. Every resident, organizer, entrepreneur, artist, and brilliant person I met in the North End demanded a reciprocal honesty. The North End residents that I met made it clear that they only wanted to engage with those who were as staunchly dedicated to preserving and furthering the neighborhood for the better. The North End challenged me to be patient and responsive to a community that is meticulous about protecting their legacy.
With all of the shiny newness that Detroit can expect in the coming years, it is important to stay curious, vocal, and visible. After all, we want Detroit to look like Detroiters.
John Collins at Submerge Records
So, North End, thank you for being a consistently legendary place that allows people to locate themselves and their stories in a sprawling city. Thank you for keeping an emerging journalist accountable and being patient with my sometimes redundant questions and requests. I thank the changemakers that line every block for inviting me into living rooms, kitchens, and even onto roofs—although I wasn't brave or coordinated enough to accept the latter.
Experiences like this give me hope for the city as a whole, because the neighborhoods are brilliant, the neighbors are talking, and I hope, that soon the land will listen.
This article is part of the "On the Ground" series, where a journalist is embedded in a neighborhood for three months to provide regular coverage.
Support for this series is provided by the Kresge Foundation.