Detroit by district: Restore the 'Moor

Located in a nondescript office building on Telegraph Road in Northwest Detroit are the offices of the Brightmoor Alliance. Though the space is somewhat uninspiring, the work that Alliance staff is facilitating is anything but. Joe Rashid, Brightmoor Alliance's Community Engagement Specialist, took time out of his busy schedule to fill me in on the process they are undertaking to create a community driven land use and quality of life framework they are calling Restore the 'Moor. He also showed me some of the innovative things already happening in the neighborhood.
The Brightmoor Alliance is a coalition of fifty organizations dedicated to mobilizing resources to make the Brightmoor neighborhood in Northwest Detroit a more vibrant community. Joe Rashid is dedicated to making sure that residents are the driving force behind the Alliance's work, stating that the number one issue in Brightmoor is not blight or crime, but community engagement.
Rashid, though he has only been with the Alliance a short time, has strong ties to the community. A lifelong Detroit resident, Rashid grew up playing baseball in the Grandmont-Rosedale Little League, which plays games all around the Brightmoor area. His aunt with whom he spent a lot of time as a kid lived right next to Hope Park.
It's clear that Rashid has an attachment to the place and its residents. "Really, Brightmoor is Detroit's most innovative neighborhood," he points out.
This is hard to dispute. If you are able to look past the physical manifestations of Brightmoor's ailments--the blight, vacancy, and illegal dumping--you can start to imagine a place that has the potential to provide its residents with a quality of life not found elsewhere in the city of Detroit. 
Residents have been working on turning neighborhood liabilities into assets for years. In the Neighbors Building Brightmoor (NBB) area, for instance, the setting is pastoral, even idyllic, thanks to the work of residents like Riet Schumack, founder of NBB. A series of vacant lots have been transformed into the Brightmoor Farmway, a neighborhood scale series of garden parks cared for entirely by residents.
Rashid pointed out that the NBB area is very similar to other areas in greater Brightmoor, but has one major difference--it's virtually free of illegal dumping. A lot of this has to do with the neighbors uniting to take ownership of managing the vacant land. A vacant home has been transformed into a community message board. Public art is found throughout the area. Beautiful hand carved and painted signs adorn the scattered garden sites.
The signs are are the work of the Brightmoor WoodworkersDetroit Community High School students who participate in an after school program in the school's woodshop. Detroit Community, which is housed in a repurposed factory, is the only high school operating in Brightmoor, and programs like sign making make it a true center of community activities.
Brightmoor has seen its six neighborhood elementary schools consolidated into a single school, Gompers Elementary. Though the newly constructed Gompers is a beautiful facility, the closed school buildings remain vacant, leaving huge footprints of dereliction on Brightmoor's neighborhood fabric. "What do you do with a 25,000 square foot vacant school in the middle of a neighborhood?" asks Rashid. That's the kind of question that will be put to residents during the engagement process for developing the Restore the 'Moor framework.
Brightmoor is a unique geography composed of about fourteen distinct neighborhoods. Much of the area is verdant, with more trees than one would find in other Detroit neighborhoods. Its topography is also more varied, thanks to the Rouge River running throughout the neighborhood.
The traditional Brightmoor core is a subdivision that was the brainchild of real estate developer B.E. Taylor, who purchased these undeveloped "moors" of Northwest Detroit in the early 1920s with the idea of developing and selling homes to auto workers coming to Detroit from Appalachia. The homes Taylor built were essentially shacks advertised as "the poor man's path to comfort."

The idea was that these workers would have a small shelter that could be added onto as they saved wages. Eventually, the homes would be suitable enough for the workers to bring their families North to live in them. To this day, certain blocks feel rural, as if the Appalachian workers brought their West Virginian villages along with them. Apart from its commercial corridors, the area hardly feels urban.
Of course, this has only been exacerbated by the economic forces that have exerted themselves on the neighborhood. Over the decades, the core Brightmoor area has been hit hard by abandonment. Certain blocks have a calm, yet wild feel to them. Yet this is nothing new. Brightmoor has been a low-density community since the time of its development.
There are also solid, stable neighborhoods in the Brightmoor area, such as the Castle RougeEliza Howell, and Miller Grove neighborhoods, which are composed of tidy brick homes similar to those found in many of Detroit's inner suburbs.
The Brightmoor Alliance is working hard to engage these communities and get them to buy into and contribute to a common vision for the greater neighborhood. Using a toolkit created by the Community Development Advocates of Detroit (CDAD), Rashid is leading the engagement process of Restore the 'Moor. His goal is to engage at least 2,000 residents (roughly ten percent of Brightmoor's population) through a series of community meetings.
"This work is meant to empower residents to influence what they want to see in their neighborhood. We're also trying to manage expectations. We can't add new housing everywhere. We need to get people excited about innovative land uses," says Rashid. Residents also have the opportunity to align their framework with Detroit Future City, a city-wide framework that is entering the implementation phase.
Brightmoor already has an engaged community, as a visit to its 89-year-old community center demonstrates. While there, we ran into Rev. Dennis Talbert, who volunteers to run the community center and works closely with Brightmoor Alliance's Director Kirk Mayes (whom Talbert refers to as "The Mayor") to raise the money needed to keep the center running. "If you give us five grand, we'll name our new pocket park after you," Talbert joked to me. The pocket park is adjacent to the community center and will eventually feature a butterfly habitat.
As I talked with Talbert, Brightmoor Alliance's Director Kirk Mayes pulled up in a car with John George of Motor City Blight Busters, a nonprofit that does a lot of work in Brightmoor demolishing blighted houses, and Jeff Adams, a Brightmoor resident and CEO of an agricultural startup called People, Planet, and Profits. Adams is working on building this L3C company so that it will employ Brightmoor residents in agricultural pursuits such as aquaponics.
Meeting people like these certainly gives credence to Rashid's claim that Brightmoor is Detroit's most innovative neighborhood. The innovation will only ramp up as the Brightmoor Alliance continues its work engaging the community.

Matthew Lewis is writing a monthly series on the city's new political districts. Model D's partner for the series is Community Development Advocates of Detroit (CDAD).
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Matthew Lewis is a writer and former managing editor of Model D. He's currently the communications officer for the New Economy Initiative.