Brightmoor: 'Feisty' Neighbors Use Hope, Innovation to Face Struggles

Brightmoor may be the most distressed place in Detroit. It may also be the most hopeful.

In many respects it reflects the many blighted areas of Detroit: crime, poor educational options, retail disinvestment, neglected yards, overgrown abandoned lots with burned out, boarded up and otherwise dilapidated houses, many with two or three lots separating them. Yet, like many areas of the city, it reveals a tenacious social infrastructure that is determined to renew the four square-mile area of Northwest Detroit. There are good schools, neighborhoods with neat brick homes, community-based churches, a community health center, well-maintained and appointed parks, and public art.

An optimist may view Brightmoor as it once was in the early 20th century -- a place where working class families could own a house and live their lives in modest comfort. The area once housed primarily white factory workers from the South and rural Michigan. Now, urban planners have a vision for a new Brightmoor – restored neighborhoods, new schools, a technology park, urban homesteads and farms, new retail shopping.
It's a community of about 20,000 with an average household income of $35,888 that's struggling to overcome the seemingly overwhelming effects of blight; trying to retain population, create safe environments for its young, keep quality education within reach, and find stores willing to serve them.

Brightmoor is a place for people with a sense of the American frontier -- a risky, sometimes dangerous place with considerable opportunity to start over. The real estate is dirt cheap. There is plenty of green space. A freeway is nearby, but you wouldn't know it. The rest is left to be made or discovered. It's not a place for the needy. It's a place for tough, creative thinkers, builders, and people with endurance. In short, it's a microcosm of neighborhoods throughout Detroit, but one with a distinct sense of place.

A historical presence

In the heart of Brightmoor, a small empty old house sits on two empty lots. Unlike other abandoned houses in the area, this house filled with a sense of local history and potential for the future. Informally known as the "Taylor Model House," the house is named after Burt Eddy Taylor, an associate of Henry Ford I and residential developer of Brightmoor in the 1920s. It is a tiny, wood frame habitat of under 500 square feet in remarkable shape, according to historian Matthew Daly who has researched the area.

"These houses were designed to get modest-income people to buy homes," which like other residential developments in the city shifted the population from the dense core to create "a galaxy of houses" in a "low rise city," Daly says. The houses in Brightmoor were simple wood frame structures on cedar pilings with outhouses. Many were located on double lots, like the Taylor Model House, designed to allow home owners to build larger homes to replace their initial investment. That never happened in Brightmoor. The Great Depression hit, sending Taylor's finance arm into bankruptcy and causing many in Brightmoor to lose their homes.

The Taylor Model House received Detroit historic designation this spring and is destined for restoration and conversion into a museum. The empty lot will become a "spirit garden," featuring lawn sculptures, a "talking fence" oral history project, and creative landscape art.

A 'feisty' community

Brightmoor has a distinct identity beyond being an urban district of Detroit. It's actually a "very feisty, committed little community," notes Mary Banks, executive director of the Brightmoor Alliance. "It was a place built for working folks…inexpensive housing to begin with." There were 4,000 houses and 11,000 people in Brightmoor when it was incorporated into Detroit. "We were a little city," Banks says.
It may not have much in the way of a commercial district, but the Brightmoor area has personality – Scotty Simpson's Fish & Chips, Sonny's Hamburgers, Sweet Potato Sensation, Paulie's Hardware Store – as well as a post office, a community health center and physician office, and is close to the Redford branch of the Detroit Public Library, the historic Redford Theatre, the Northwest Detroit Farmers' Market (June-Oct.) and the Grand River business district, including Metro Foodland.

What defines this community, however, is the sheer number of organizations that are committed to its survival: Nearly 50 organizations comprise the Brightmoor Alliance, including the Northwest Detroit Neighborhood Development community development corporation, which has developed single family housing in the area. As many as 200 residents attend community meetings and upwards to 2,500 people come out for Brightmoor's annual May Day parade. Like other communities that develop organically and are absorbed by larger municipal entities, Brightmoor maintains a strong identity.

To some degree, the community reflects values espoused by early residents from the American South and rural Michigan, according to Rev. Jerome Warfield, Pastor of Mt. Vernon Baptist Church and chair of the Brightmoor Alliance. "When those folks came to live in that neighborhood, they brought with them a spirit of determination… a spirit of not quitting. That spirit is still there. It permeates throughout the community."

Rev. Warfield, whose church sponsors the May Day parade and other community services, says he's "90 percent certain" that Brightmoor will experience a revival as a working class community. "You'll see a brand new Brightmoor in seven to eight years."

The area loses over 100 residents a year, according to Al Bogdan, an urban planner and principal of AAB Development Strategies, LLC, who conducted a study of Brightmoor funded by Local Initiatives Support Corporation.  However, Brightmoor is gaining advocates who envision a renaissance, beginning with its young people. Dennis Talbert, president of the Michigan Neighborhood Partnership, moved to Brightmoor in 1992 while serving as pastor of the Rosedale Park Baptist Church Youth Ministry (located in Brightmoor). Talbert moved from a comfortable suburban neighborhood in Southfield because he believes a minister should live in the community he serves. The impact of the move left him in "shock and transformation," he says. "It was also a great awakening."

"What shocked me was the nature of the love, not only from my neighborhood, but also from the kids in the community who thought it weird for a guy who was a television producer, who has the kind of friends that I have, would move into this neighborhood. I raised half the children in this neighborhood."

Talbert, an African American, immediately bonded with his neighbor, a white man who traces his lineage to the area's original Southern homeowners. "I have the best neighbor in the world," Talbert says. "I travel in my position... I'm gone sometimes a week, two weeks, and my neighbor watches over my house as if it was his house. … We don't have much in common… (except) a concept of neighborly old fashioned values." The white population of Brightmoor ranges from 10 to 15 percent, he says.

One of his protégés, Kourtney Rice Neloms, was actively involved in the youth ministry prior to earning master's degrees in Social Work and Urban Planning from the University of Michigan. She has settled in Northwest Detroit and continues her youth work in Brightmoor. There is a unique, inexplicable source of energy in Brightmoor that fuels its endurance, she says. "It may be the can-do spirit that exists in the neighborhood that keeps people there. It's beyond explanation. … I really feel that the investment being made in the children in Brightmoor is really going to pay off big in terms of the survival – not just the survival of Brightmoor, but Brightmoor growing and thriving."
Good schools amid transition

Brightmoor has lost public schools and will continue to lose more. One school is thriving, however – Samuel Gompers Elementary School. It has won state and national blue ribbons for excellence, the Michigan Golden Apple Award, and a Skillman Foundation designation for high performance. The school, which employs a holistic approach to education, operates well beyond the normal school day, engaging parents and members of the community.

Brightmoor residents, says Principal Bobbie Posey-Milner, "are very passionate. They love this community." However, the community needs to be stabilized, she says. "You have a good school and a great neighborhood working together. Why not tear down block by block and build affordable housing for our parents? People have respectable jobs -- Sears, the cleaners, McDonald's -- some way we should be able build places where people can live, send their children to school, and have a community."

Detroit Public Schools has proposed construction of a new PreK-8 school in Brightmoor, replacing three existing elementary schools. City Mission, a Christian organization, sponsors an elementary school as well. The school features small classrooms, personalized attention, and tutoring, says Jeff Adams, development director. Adams, who moved from Rochester Hills to Brightmoor, says the community is  "trying to come back. ... People are taking more pride in their lawns and their housing. You're seeing a lot of residential gardening." But the schools need to improve "dramatically," he says.

The Skillman Foundation has made an extraordinary commitment to the children of this community and five other areas of Detroit. It's estimated that the foundation will invest over $10 million in Brightmoor as part of its "Good Neighborhoods" program , along with additional support from other foundations.

"What excited me most about working (in Brightmoor) was the self pride and resiliency," explains Robert Thornton, Skillman program officer. Nearly a third of its population is young people, he says. "Brightmoor is a special place, in spite of all the challenges it has." The foundation has completed the first phase of its 10-year program in Brightmoor, which involves "quiet conversations" with community leaders and community meetings. "The community engagement is on a level I have never witnessed in my years in this town," he says.

One of the Skillman Good Neighborhoods projects is the Detroit Neighborhood Arts Workshop. A collaboration with the College for Creative Studies, the workshop recruited young people in Brightmoor to help design a mural on the abandoned Guardian Building at Fenkell and Burt roads.  Chazz Miller, founder of the Artist Village on the nearby Grand River/Lahser retail strip, painted the Guardian mural. On an adjacent vacant lot, Miller worked with community residents to create a part with flower boxes, a path of wood chips and solar-powered brick pavers, which illuminates the park at night.

Public art "gives you a sense of humanity," Miller says. "It helps young people appreciate the property around them. Art has a way of calming people, giving them a sense of peace." Many of the kids on Brightmoor go to his Artist Village to learn about art and just to hang out, he says.

Green acres in its future

In some respects, Brightmoor is reverting to the landscape that its developer, Burt Eddy Taylor, found in the early 20th century -- farmland adjacent to a riverside forest. Few areas of Detroit have a 139-acre park with a recently constructed 1.5-mile nature trail along the Rouge River -- Eliza Howell Park -- with smaller, well-appointed recreational areas Stoepel Park, and an evolving greenway linking the two.

Green space is one of Brightmoor's assets and a foundation for its future, many believe. For example, community gardens are thriving here. Riet Schumack initiated Brightmoor's first neighborhood garden in 2006, which has grown to 11 contiguous lots, including a community building converted from a vacant house. There now are four other community gardens. Schumack works her neighborhood's gardens with children, ages 9 to 17 and markets the produce at the Northwest Detroit Farmers' Market, Avalon Bakery, and other venues.

The LISC study recognizes the value of green space, in terms of a less dense environment, and proposes a new landscaped technology park to replace the largely vacant land of the original Brightmoor development, relocation of viable homes to strengthen residential streets surrounding the proposal technology park, and creation of space for homesteading, according to Bogdan. The plan allows for live-work environments and small farms that are atypical for urban areas.

With an excess homes and diminishing housing values, Bogdan believes that Brightmoor needs large-scale reduction of the housing stock before the existing housing, and new housing, will become marketable. The Brightmoor plan includes these recommendations:
  • Create an "opportunity area." Residents on blighted streets will be relocated to better streets with vacant houses. Infill housing will be developed through a planned process. Bodgan differentiates between "scattered site" development and the recommended dense infill. The plan proposes moving newer houses that are scattered among abandoned houses to streets that are more intact.
  • Create a "next economy tech park" suburban-style landscaped tech park. About 1,000 houses need to be demolished or relocated to make way for this development.
  • Assemble properties in a land bank to allow for large-scale land-use changes.
  • Promote homesteading: A low density area would be made available for people who assembling property and entertain proposals from people on large areas for use for agricultural or other entrepreneurial uses. 

John O'Brien, NDND executive director, believes in the principles of the plan, particularly that it's a "patient plan."  Brightmoor's future, he says, "is not entirely of our making. A new economy is emerging. Our flexibility in adapting to this new economy will be key. This isn't going to be easy. But over time, the resilience (of the community) is attracting like-minded people that are willing to be part of this pioneer process of building something new."

The development corporation has built or renovated 300 homes in Brightmoor, with 100 more planned. Renovation has begun on the 24-unit Rouge Woods Apartments, which is designed to provide low cost supportive housing with on site social work services.

A new frontier

Brightmoor is not a place for the faint of heart. For those with a passion for the urban adventure -- living within a community remaking itself -- this is the right place. Where else can you own a three-bedroom home, in good condition, for under $10,000? People living in Brightmoor tend not to complain about the lack of amenities. Instead, they accept it as reality and focus on their assets, a sense of community, and hope.

Mary Ball, walking along the Eliza Howell Park nature trail one day, found two Asian women picking herbs by the side of the Rouge River. She thought she was in another place. It is.

Dennis Archambault lives in Detroit and writes for Model D. Send feedback here.

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Brightmoor neighborhood clown park

Resident Sue Persenski in front of her aunts house, which she now owns and lives in. She has been living in this neighborhood her whole life. She's talking about how she mows the high grasses of abandoned homes next to hers.

Taylor Model House

The future neighborhood community center

Abandonded lot turned into spiraled shaped community garden / reading center; The Garden Of Remberance

Principal Bobbie Posey-Milner with Gomper Student using new computers purchased witht the Skillman Foundation grant

Overhead touchscreen / interactive projector purchased with the Skillman Foundation grant

Chaz Miller Mural

Brightmoor Community Garden

All photographs by Detroit Photographer Marvin Shaouni Marvin Shaouni is the Managing Photographer for Metromode & Model D.
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Read more articles by Dennis Archambault.

Dennis Archambault is a Detroit-based freelance writer.