Rooted in Community: Meet the local developers emphasizing residents, empowerment

Detroiters know just how much of a comeback the city has made in the last decade.

Since making national headlines after filing for bankruptcy in 2013, Detroit has seen new private investments like the opening of Little Caesar’s Arena in 2017, boutique hotels and the recent development of Michigan Central Station, and the in-progress 1.5-million-square-foot mixed-use Hudson’s Site on Woodward. The city has also welcomed major brands like Google, Gucci, and more. Some of those changes, like the $185 million project that added 65,000 new LED streetlights around the city, were even visible from outer space.

Despite those improvements, some residents remain concerned about Detroit’s rapid growth. What does development mean for a city with a 33.2% rate of poverty, per the 2021 census, compared to 11.6% nationally? And are there ways developers can continue contributing to Detroit’s growth while serving the city’s residents and communities in better – and more equitable – ways?

“Detroit has quite a lot of racial trauma, places that have been disinvested in, I think, and systemically harmed. We have a history of communities being dismantled and torn apart by developments. So how do you prevent that?” asks Ryan Myers-Johnson, director and founder of Sidewalk Detroit, a nonprofit that works to advance racial equity through art, engagement and collaborative design with residents in the city.

Ryan Myers-Johnson is the Director and Founder of Sidewalk Detroit. Photo: Supplied / Community-Rooted Development.Last Thursday, Myers-Johnson had the opportunity to find answers to that question as the moderator of “Community-Rooted Development,” a virtual panel discussion hosted by Allied Media Projects, a nonprofit focused on media-based organizing, as part of its AMP Seeds fall series. Featuring perspectives from three Detroit developers working to meet the needs of local communities through their projects, the event focused on finding ways to better serve residents through development – a concept that is perhaps more important for Detroit now than ever before.

“Detroit has been undergoing a great deal of growth and change in the past 20 years and is coming back – even more so right now. We're also facing a real shift in the housing market,” Myers-Johnson says. 

Because of those changes, Myers-Johnson says identifying and adopting the right development practices is critical for moving forward in a healthy way without leaving residents behind.

“I think we're at a critical juncture where we can start to do things, or continue to do things, differently that really elevate community power and protect culture, protect neighborhoods, and don't just kind of continue to perpetrate these systems of harm,” Myers-Johnson says.

The LOVE Building. Photo: Nick Hagen.

Responding to needs in the community

For Jeanette Lee, interim director of the LOVE Building, an upcoming hub for creative community and social justice in the Core City neighborhood, the idea of community-rooted development is about meeting the needs of residents in receptive ways.  

“We've been saying that the LOVE Building is an experiment in community-rooted development. And by that, for me, it means development that is responsive to community need,” Lee says.

Jeanette "Jenny" Lee poses at the development site fo the LOVE Building. Photo: Nick Hagen.

The development, which Lee says was purchased after the owner of Allied Media Projects’ former office space listed that building for sale at too high a price for the organization to buy, will eventually be home to AMP, Detroit Community Technology ProjectDetroit Narrative AgencyDetroit Justice CenterDetroit Disability Power and Paradise Natural Foods – all organizations on a mission to improve the city in different ways.

“We're all social justice, community-rooted organizations. And at the same time, we didn't want to presume that that meant we were going to know exactly what the neighborhood we were moving into needed or that what we have to offer automatically would meet those needs,” Lee recalls.

To make sure the LOVE Building – and the organizations it would eventually house – were serving the local neighborhood effectively, AMP launched a voluntary community benefits agreement process in the spring of 2020 amid the pandemic. Working with a couple of dozen residents, community leaders, business owners, and organizations in Core City, the organization was able to identify specific community needs and ensure the building’s features would address them.

In addition to office spaces, other LOVE Building features will include wi-fi and charging stations through a partnership with DCTP, a 1500-square-foot multipurpose room, and community-oriented programming like classes and educational opportunities for Core City residents.

“A lot of intention has gone into the design of the space to kind of anticipate users of the building who are often excluded from other types of community spaces because they're just not accessible,” Lee says.

According to Lee, that deliberate design process wasn’t without challenges. In addition to unexpected delays caused by pandemic-related supply chain issues, other changes were also made during construction as new needs in the local area were identified. Those included the addition of a second elevator and a full backup generator to mitigate the effects of the city’s frequent power outages, which disproportionately impact low-income and minority neighborhoods.

The LOVE Building, which is currently under construction, is expected to open in early 2023.

Empowering residents through food sovereignty

For some developers, like Malik Yakini, co-founder and executive director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, a grassroots anti-capitalist food security/sovereignty organization that operates a 7-acre D-Town Farm, community-rooted development is about adopting practices that empower local residents and serve communities in better ways – including economically.

Malik Yakini is co-founder and Executive Director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network. Photo: Supplied / Community-Rooted Development.“Being involved in cooperative economics is a way of pushing back against the concentration of wealth that happens in a capitalist system,” says Yakini, who is spearheading the opening of the Detroit Food Commons, a 34,000-square-foot development where the Detroit People’s Food Co-op will be housed in the city’s historic North End.

The concept for the cooperatively owned grocery store, which reached a 1,000 member milestone in 2020 even before opening, has been in the works since 2010, when Yakini says DBCFSN began working on the concept almost daily with a focus on helping Black Detroiters gain more control over the city’s food systems.

“We're concerned, clearly, about people not being hungry. But we're more concerned about empowering people to shape and control the food system that provides their food,” Yakini says. 

Despite being in the planning stages for over a decade, the project broke ground earlier this year after a lengthy process of building up support and funding while overcoming challenges to getting development off the ground.

One of those challenges included focusing too much on real estate early on – a mistake Yakini says future co-op developers in the city can avoid by organizing a core group of planners that are aligned with the project’s values from the beginning. According to Yakini, other obstacles included “capitalism, white supremacy and patriarchy” – particularly when it came to securing funding for the $21+ million dollar project.

“There are clearly certain limitations built into how people perceive the capacity of Black communities in general; of nonprofits and small grants to nonprofit organizations in particular. There’s all kinds of assumptions built into the financing system that are rooted in notions of racism and of class. And so, you know, the bottom line is it's easier if you're a white person in an area to get financing and get a loan than it is if you're a Black person in the city of Detroit,” Yakini says.

In 2020, some of those limitations became less burdensome for Yakini in the midst of a pandemic that opened the public’s eyes to the fragility of the nation’s food system. Yakini says societal demands for racial justice in the wake of the killing of George Floyd that year also made a difference.

“There was some assessment, some internal assessment inside of many of these organizations and again, that caused some money to shift to projects that were rooted in racial justice and economic justice,” Yakini says.

The Detroit People’s Food Co-op, which broke ground this April, is expected to open in June 2023. 

The Alley Project: Studio Luevanos. Photo: Courtesy of The Alley Project.
Fostering community through art and development

As the co-founder of Inside Southwest Detroit, a collection of initiatives promoting youth and community development; The Alley Project, a community-driven indoor-outdoor art environment; and Young Nation, which offers youth mentoring and projects, Detroit native Erik Paul Howard has dedicated much of his life creating innovative public spaces where local residents can connect and strengthen bonds within the community.

8869 Avis transformed an empty building and lots into a Plaza and Market space. Photo: Courtesy of The Alley Project.Some of Howard’s projects have included 8869 Avis, an arts-led, place-based development that offers neighborhood residents a “portal … to the wider world of art and culture”. Other initiatives include Studio Luevanos (which hosted weekly art workshops and met neighborhood needs for affordable artist studios), an outdoor classroom constructed in 2021 as a response to the pandemic, and TAP Community Gardens, as well as other participatory design programs.

For Howard, those projects were a way to utilize his inherent talents and passions while organically meeting the community's needs – in particular, the need for human connection.

Erik Paul Howard attends a Southwest Detroit festival with his son. Photo: Rosa Maria Zamarron.

“A lot of the work of the Alley Project and Inside Southwest Detroit is about the frequency and depth of unlikely relationships that are formed because they activate dormant community assets that used to sit locked in the cabinet. When people meet each other, they're able to talk about what they need together and then kind of put their resources in service to those things,” Howard says.

When it comes to meeting the needs of local communities, where residents might have unaddressed needs while remaining unaware of the resources available to them, Howard says creating spaces where residents can forge bonds and establish relationships with their neighbors is important.

“To bring the community together with community – as opposed to doing something in the community or to the community – is really important. You know, nothing in community happens without community,” Howard says.
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Read more articles by Erin Marie Miller.

Erin Marie Miller is a freelance writer and photographer based in Metro Detroit whose work focuses on people and small business. Inspired by the genre of New Journalism, she is passionate about connecting people to their communities through meaningful storytelling.