Citizen innovation, area history on display in Northeast Detroit tour

Tourism may not be one of the subjects to come to mind when most people talk about Northeast Detroit. But that could be changing.

An initiative called Create Northeast Detroit (Create NED) recently launched a bus tour of the area encompassing Detroit's District 3 council district, and everyone who took it was treated to a number of innovative, grassroots efforts at community development.

Create NED, a collaboration between the Restore Northeast Detroit (Restore NED) coalition, The Work Department, and Allied Media Projects, works with residents to use art, design, and technology to improve their neighborhoods and share the results with the broader public.

Embarking from Detroit's oldest bar, the 2 Way Inn, more than 50 people packed a tour bus to get a firsthand look at community-led revitalization efforts and learn about the area's rich history. The tour covered a lot of terrain, looking at the wealth of gardens and urban farms, murals, parks, and other projects that hundreds of community organizations, block clubs, churches, and businesses have spearheaded to enliven and uplift Northeast Detroit.

"We hope the tour shows how people were empowered to do things on their own without major money coming into the city or into the neighborhood, but taking the responsibility to beautify, do their gardens, do the murals," says Karen Washington, one of the Restore NED organizers working on the project. "We're doing creative things in Northeast Detroit."

The Village of Norris

House in the Village of Norris

The tour kicked off (and wrapped up) in the Village of Norris, a neighborhood that was once its own town before being incorporated into Detroit. Established in 1873, the village was founded by Philetus W. Norris, an explorer, politician, and Civil War spy who also happened to be the second superintendent of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming and wrote the park's first guidebook.

Norris drained Connor Creek and brought a railroad to his village. He also built the 2 Way Inn, originally the town's jail and general store, as well as a Victorian two-story frame house where he and his family lived. Although the house, which is now on the National Register of Historic Places, has been severely damaged by fire, an effort is underway by the Nortown Community Development Corporation to restore and transform it into community and educational center.

"We are blessed that the National Park Service believes that this project has great merit," says Pat Bosch, executive director of the Nortown CDC and a member of Restore NED. "They're going to be working with us as we restore it, so that our urban youth can understand the importance of conservation and one man's work at Yellowstone and bring that same spirit back here."

Seed Time Market

Seed Time Market

The next stop after the village was District 3's Seed Time market. Walking into the parking lot of the Shield of Faith church where the outdoor farmer's market was taking place, the group experienced a festive scene filled with canopy tents and a sound system offering a mellow R&B soundtrack. About a dozen vendors were on hand selling produce, flowers, honey, jam, hot food, and various craft items.

"I'm hoping it will bring more awareness for healthy living because this is our first one," said Gloria Davis, a member of the church who helped make the market a reality. "We want to reach out to the community and surround them with love in this mini-market."

Yvette Whitlock, a neighborhood resident who was selling her own homemade knit hats called the market "refreshing."

"I got to meet a lot of people," said Whitlock. "What I'd really love is if someone would donate a building, so we can all get together and sell our crafts."

Pingree Farms

Mural at Pingree Farms

After that, the group traveled to
Pingree Farms, a rather unique urban farming operation that coexists alongside Milton Manufacturing, a 350,000 square foot facility that makes parts for the defense, automotive, aerospace, heavy truck, rail, agriculture, and energy industries.

Named after a former Detroit mayor who championed urban agriculture, Pingree Farms is comprised of 10 acres of farmland as well as a petting zoo area where livestock like chickens, rabbits, goats, sheep, and cows are kept. Neighborhood residents are allowed to pick up vegetables and eggs for free.

Jim and Shelly Green, the owners of the manufacturing complex, began the farm operation by tearing town abandoned burned-down homes and replacing them with cropland filled with tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, eggplants, corn, and other vegetables. They also started keeping farm animals at the facility on the down low. Although the city eventually found out about the illegally-harbored animals, a deal was worked out that allowed them to keep them in exchange for using the operation in an educational capacity.

Pingree Farms now works with schoolchildren from the EAA schools and Jalen Rose Academy charter school as well as 4-H youth to teach them about caring for animals and growing food.

"It's just amazing stuff," says Jim Green. "The first time they get off the bus, they're holding their nose, and they can't stand it. By the time they leave, they're in the pen wrestling with them and shoveling—it's an unbelievable transformation."

The farm is also affiliated with the Wayne State Veterinary School and Jewish Vocational Services, which brings special needs adults to the farm to learn life skills.

Talking Dolls

Performance of "Movement Memory Maps"

For the final stop on the tour, the group traveled to
Talking Dolls, an art space located in an old toy warehouse on Davison near the Mt. Olivet Cemetery. A combination artist's studio, performance area, and community space, Talking Dolls is dedicated to fostering alternative urban discourse and supporting social change.

At the time the tour bus rolled in, Talking Dolls was screening a video installation called "Movement Memory Maps" that featured changemakers from across the country talking about social justice work related to prisons, domestic violence, and more. The installation, which was screened in an unusual geometrically-shaped "pod," is part of a multi-tiered production called "Beware the Dandelions" that also includes community engagement events and science fiction-themed performances that hold a mirror up to contemporary society.

"'Beware the Dandelions' is inspired by [Detroit movement leader] Grace Lee Boggs who lived on the East Side and died last year," says Ilana "Invincible" Weaver who's involved with the production, "She inspired people to support small-scale community-based change, which is used as a metaphor in 'Dandelions.'"

Community Concerns

On the flipside, tour guides also raised concerns about several local development projects.

One of these is the I-94 Industrial Park near Van Dyke and the I-94 freeway. The park is home to a new Linc trucking logistics center. The 500,000 square-foot facility is part of the Moroun family's Universal Truckload Services and expected to bring 150 jobs to the area. Flex-N-Gate, an automotive supplier that could employ up to 750 workers is also slated to open a plant at the park. In spite of the employment opportunities these new ventures offer, some residents are worried about how increased truck traffic may impact the community.

Another source of anxiety is the nearby expansion of a U.S. Ecology hazardous waste processing plant that sits near the border of Detroit and Hamtramck. Plans call for the facility to increase its storage capabilities tenfold, from 64,000 gallons to nearly 666,000 gallons. Although U.S. Ecology told the Detroit Free Press there have been "no adverse environmental impacts" during 40 years of operation on the site, Mark Covington, a community activist and farmer involved with the nearby Georgia Street Farm, says the expansion is raising eyebrows for many in the community.

"The residents don't want to be around the pollution," he says. "The city allows them to have twenty dumps per day, up to 300,000 gallons a day. There's chemicals including arsenic, chromium, lead, mercury ... It can end up in the sewer system."

Tour guides also raised concerns about potential plans to expand the city's Coleman A. Young International Airport and build a new Wayne County Jail in the area which, if implemented, could displace people from their homes and disrupt urban gardening projects.

If the immense scale of these new and proposed commercial projects seem in marked contrast with the small-scale community efforts highlighted on the tour, that's no coincidence.

Jenny Lee of Allied Media Projects, who also participated in the tour, said the organizers were interested in sparking conversation on just that topic.

"All of the visionary, resident-led organizing that we saw on the tour is done in spite of the harms that industrial development has wreaked upon the neighborhood and the lack of support we've received from the city government. "

This is a conversation that's likely to continue in Northeast Detroit and beyond, as more tours are in the works. 

All photos by Nick Hagen.

Read more articles by David Sands.

David Sands is a Detroit-based freelance writer. He's covered the news for Huffington Post Detroit as an assistant editor and worked as a staff writer for the transportation news site Mode Shift. Follow him on Twitter @dsandsdetroit.