At the corner of Oakland Avenue and Euclid Street in Detroit’s North End, on a sunny Thursday in June, about a dozen people are buzzing around a lot where scaffolding and construction netting are strewn about. A few folks are fitting wooden planks together, while others are welding together a series of wide umbrella-like structures that cast dappled imaginative shadows on the ground 20 feet below.
If you’ve passed by the area over the past few summers, you’ve likely seen smaller prototypes of the project and its intricate Islamic patterns come and go. But the project, which has been six years in the making, is now closer to becoming reality, and this fall, the American Riad and its seemingly out-of-place sculptural canopy will become a permanent neighborhood hub for international arts, culture, and housing justice.
In North End, with its proximity to Midtown, there’s hope that the neighborhood’s rich history won’t be erased amid rapid development and corporate interests. And that’s where the riad comes in. By virtue of its collaborative design and construction process, it aims to serve as an example of a Detroit revitalization project that’s not backed by big budgets or commercial investments, but by local artists, nonprofits, volunteers, and established residents instead to keep it authentic, local, and socially inclusive.
A Moroccan-Inspired Future
American Riad is introducing a residential concept that rethinks the traditional American home and challenges socially isolating aspects of the American neighborhood. Photo by Nick Hagen.
A “riad” is a Moroccan style of housing featuring either a house with an interior garden or townhouses built around a central courtyard. In Moroccan culture, the courtyard serves as a community gathering place that promotes neighborly discussion and community engagement—two components that are often lacking in American communities ruled by the single-family home.
In North End, several Detroit music legends once owned homes in the area, and to date, most residents continue to live in the same style of housing. American Riad, however, is introducing a residential concept that rethinks the traditional American home and challenges socially isolating aspects of the American neighborhood.
“This neighborhood has a rich history,” says Ulysses Newkirk, a Detroit artist, writer, poet, and member of the Oakland Avenue Artists Coalition (OAAC) – a grassroots community organization dedicated to transforming Oakland Avenue into the North End’s art corridor. “We’re trying to give it a rich future, too.”
Part of that future involves constructing a new type of residence that will be owned not by private investors but by community members themselves, through the establishment of an equity co-op that give partial ownership to residents and a land trust.
In addition to the courtyard that will serve as a public space for gatherings, workshops, gardening, and art displays, American Riad, a collective of artists, designers, and nonprofits, has also worked with the Detroit Land Bank to secure the two properties adjacent to the courtyard lot: an abandoned house and a mixed-use development that’s currently home to the North End’s oldest business, Red Jazz Shoe Shine Parlor.
When the project’s completed, the buildings will comprise eight residential units and six units of small business space. Central Detroit Christian CDC, which works to empower Detroiters and bolster communities through education, employment, and economic development, has helped to secure the properties as affordable housing, guaranteed in perpetuity through the legal and financial protections of the land trust and co-op.
As a result, American Riad will resist real estate speculation and prevent flippers from cashing in on potential profits. In addition, residents of the space will always have an individual say in how the property and rent rates evolve moving forward and who will be able to live there.
“This area is going to be the next extension of Midtown,” Newkirk says. “But it’s not Midtown. It’s not downtown. This can be something the neighborhood actually owns and maintains. It’s the North End, and everyone’s welcome to come.”
With portions of the riad canopy already in place (and built by a team of volunteers from organizations like OAAC, CDC, and others), visitors will likely be invited to enjoy the space this September. Over the next two years, the project will continue to add elements like edible gardens, a fountain, and an outdoor kitchen.
As expected, constructing a towering, one-of-a-kind Islamic-inspired riad in a traditionally Christian Detroit neighborhood has caused longtime residents to ask questions about authenticity and the neighborhood’s future. But, Newkirk says, the riad presents an opportunity for the North End to grow as a culturally inclusive community and to attract new life.
“Currently, we have a one-mile strip [on Oakland Avenue] with less than 12 businesses,” Newkirk says. “If we’re going to retain people in the neighborhood, this is a good place to start.”
Answers From Abroad
SUNY Purchase College Alum Kat Ermont works with OAAC Artist Jide Aje on the American Riad. Photo by Christopher Robbins.The notion to construct a riad and sculptural park in Detroit — and address issues of social isolation, gentrification, and cultural diversity in the process —originated around 2012 when artists John Ewing, Carmen Montoya and Christopher Robbins, core members of the cross-cultural problem solving collective Ghana ThinkTank, asked one of its think tanks in Morocco how they’d solve a variety of social issues faced in the U.S.
The Moroccan group pointed to America’s disjointed homes, apartment buildings, and architecture as sources of social division. Their suggestion: Take a cue from Moroccan housing and build something more communal; make it easier for neighbors not to be strangers.
“For a lot of people in America, a single-family home isn’t separate enough,” Robbins says. “They want to build a fence around it too.”
With the concept for the riad in mind, Ewing and Robbins visited Detroit for another project. While in town, they met Newkirk, who explained the area’s history as a black cultural arts hub and OAAC’s existing efforts to revive the area through arts festivals, the construction of a new community park, and other creative projects. He plugged the visitors in to the arts community in the North End and connected them with another key American Riad project partner, Central Detroit Christian Community Development Corporation.
Since that initial rendezvous, the project has grown into a wide-reaching public art project that’s attracted so many collaborators championing arts, culture, diversity, and equality. Partners near and far include the North End Woodward Community Organization, a nonprofit dedicated to job development; SUNY Purchase College, which has sent groups of art and design students to work on the riad and help create prototypes for the past three years; and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which provided a $135,000 matching grant — a large portion of the project’s $300,000-plus price tag— through the 2017 Knight Arts Challenge. More funds have been provided through a $50,000 crowdfunding campaign matched by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation.
Despite the geographical differences, the project’s primary focus is to foster community connections in Detroit.
“The main point of the project is to give people ownership of the space [through the co-op],” says Raphael Zollinger, a lecturer in art and design at SUNY Purchase who oversees the groups of students working on the project. “It’s also a bit of a political statement to [have] a piece of Islamic culture in the middle of the city. Once it becomes a part of your neighborhood, it becomes a part of your home.”
For his part, Newkirk hopes the sense of home that the North End is building can set an example for other projects in the city and inspire neighbors to meet, discuss, and work together.
“A lot of us grew up with such a disdain for heavy labor,” Newkirk says. “I’m mostly hoping that this project shows our young people that they can do stuff like this, and I hope it convinces our elders that it’s a good direction to go in.”
This article is part of a series where we revisit stories from our On the Ground installment and explore new ones in the North End. It is supported by the Kresge Foundation.
All photos by Nick Hagen except for photo of Kat Ermont and Jide Aje, courtesy of Christopher Robbins.