This Moroccan-style housing and community space hopes to bring people together in the North End

This article originally appeared in Creative Exchange

A "riad" is a traditional Moroccan style of housing featuring either a house with an interior garden or town houses built around a central courtyard. The latter promotes a community of neighbors regularly engaging and interacting with each other in pleasant, shared public spaces—a style that isn't as popular in America, with its more private and insular style of housing.

The folks behind American Riad want to change that. As a collaboration between the international collective Ghana ThinkTank, the Central Detroit Christian Community Development Corporation, the NorthEnd Woodward Central Organization, the Oakland Avenue Artist Coalition, and Affirming Love Ministries Church, American Riad is a multi-year project rebuilding the corner of Oakland Avenue and Euclid Street in Detroit's North End through housing development, skill-sharing, and public art.

In partnership with Ghana collective think tanks in Morocco and Indonesia, two Muslim-majority countries, they are creating a full riad with a central courtyard filled with art, gardens, and public space for gatherings, performances, and workshops.

The project is already well underway, and was also recently awarded a 2017 Knight Arts Challenge Detroit grant.

Artist rendering of the completed American Riad

For Ghana ThinkTank members Christopher Robbins, John Ewing, and Maria del Carmen Montoya, their interest in Detroit started a few years ago on a project that didn't end up working out. Through it they became familiar with Detroit's North End and saw the vibrant creative community already hard at work in the area, and wanted to contribute.

As each of them have spent significant amounts of their lives living in different countries and among different cultures, experiencing first-hand how a western outsider's well-intended "help" imposed on a culture can often do more harm than good—what Robbins refers to as "American hubris"—they didn't want to replicate paternalistic solutions on a city where narratives of "rebirth" often omit the realities of economic disparity.

Meeting Ulysses Newkirk created an entry point for the Ghana ThinkTank. A North End business owner and active member of the Oakland Avenue Artist Coalition, Newkirk helped them get involved on the ground with community development work that was already happening in the neighborhood. The Oakland Avenue Artist Coalition had been working towards creating a sustainable arts economy and redeveloping Oakland Avenue through public art projects and events. 

"In using art to address some conditions and issues that couldn't be handled through the regular, regulatory political system and then having all them [from Ghana ThinkTank] come in with something already ready to go and just needing a place for it was really exciting," Newkirk says. "Their idea addressed the local expression from a global perspective. Instead of calling out to the conditions of the North End, the Riad addresses them and says, 'Let's come up with a solution.'"

Ulysses Newkirk working with some visiting students on the assembly of part of the American Riad prototype

"Detroit is this place where new models are being created—like with the urban farming movement—and there is all this rethinking about how U.S. capitalism has to work," says Robbins. "There's so much of that going on here. We haven't been anywhere else with that kind of energy. ... If you look at the blocks being resilient on their own, it's block associations with a small core of neighbors working together."

A portion of Riad's canopy, the centerpiece of the courtyard, has already been constructed. The structure has been in use since last summer, with community and art events activating the space and getting neighbors involved.

"Phase one is bringing in the arts first," Robbins says. "Then comes the rehabbing and financial protections on the residential side, ensuring everything is affordable in perpetuity—people can't flip it or make money speculating on it. We're working on legal protections so the town homes can't be gentrified and people priced out. The bigger picture is creating a land trust and the Equity Co-op."

The residential component will start with the renovation of an existing 12-unit building and the addition of two single-family homes. The existing building—known as "the Row"—will have retail space on the ground floor, where the Red Jazz Shoe Shine Parlor is currently located, with six residential units on top. The courtyard will also have an edible garden and the group hopes to eventually have a micro-orchard in the vacant lot across the street.

"This idea of developing the courtyard and communal area first, then going to individual residential units after is really important to us," Ewing says. 

Moroccan and Indonesian ThinkTank members working on art for the gable of one of the houses as part of a wood-working workshop at American Riad

They're currently working on getting the funding to be able to hire Syrian architect Marwal al-Sabouni to design the full riad complex. Her recent memoir, "The Battle for Home," outlines her ideas on how architecture and design mirror community identity and cultural philosophy. Colonial Western design is about segregation and separation, preventing neighbors from interacting daily while creating and reinforcing the concepts of "otherness" and, thus, outsiders and enemies. Traditional Islamic architecture, on the other hand, promote togetherness. She makes the argument that Syria's segregated built environment helped contribute to the tensions that led to the ongoing civil war.

The team behind American Riad want to take her theories on built environments and apply them to Detroit.

"Her theories crystalize what makes a neighborhood," says Carmen Montoya. "There is already beautiful architecture here, even the structures that are abandoned. A riad is not just about a beautiful structure, but all of the cultural programming and outreach to make this work together is going to give people a place to stay and dwell. It's hard to have community if you don’t have neighbors."

The canopy has already become a hub of events and activity, including educational workshops teaching valuable skills. Teams from partner think tanks in Indonesia and Morocco have led workshops on DIY water filtration and woodworking, and the Riad has become a place where local area students come to learn hands-on, with skills-based workforce development training being a major focus.

"One of my favorite things about this project is the relationships being built with the students and how they've interacted with the people in neighborhood," says Newkirk. "They have helped create community in ways that politics and other efforts have not worked. We've been drawing people from all over the city to actually participate in events. For some reason the students create some kind of magic."

All photos courtesy of the Ghana ThinkTank. 

Read more articles by Nicole Rupersburg.

Nicole Rupersburg is a former Detroiter now in Las Vegas who regularly writes about food, drink, and urban innovators. You can follow her on Instagram @eatsdrinksandleaves and Twitter @ruperstarski.
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