How one community group is using vacant lots to build a healthy 'hood

In Detroit, connecting the dots between vacant neighborhood lots and creative community spaces may be a prescription for a healthy community, in more ways than one.

Lisa Johanon, president of the Central Detroit Christian (CDC) Community Development Corporation serving the Piety Hill district between New Center and Boston Edison, is developing a network of pocket parks in empty lots that are unsuitable for real estate development. She convinced the Kresge Foundation to invest in a three-year development initiative, and most recently to fund the purchase of outdoor exercise equipment.

CDC has been rebuilding its corner of the city through residential and community-based retail development, but like many areas of the city, the neighborhood has been plagued by abandoned lots, which have hastened the disintegration of the area's sense of community. And like many neighborhoods in Detroit, Piety Hill has been plagued by personal and property crime, compelling residents to stay locked up in their homes, not only socially isolated, but physically inactive.

Recalling a series of outdoor aerobic exercise stations installed on Belle Isle when she was a child, Johanon wants to connect the community through various exercise stations on empty lots. By walking or running from lot to lot and completing the various exercises, residents will not only get to know their broader neighborhood better, the CDC will begin to create a culture of health.

There are 300 vacant parcels in Piety Hill, "but you can only have so many gardens," Johanon says, and CDC has already built several of those. Through a $110,000 Kresge grant, CDC has redeveloped seven lots of varying size--though all are less than 50 square feet, which is a minimum requirement for residential development--installing a piece of all-weather exercise equipment and basic landscaping.

Antoni (Ricky) Sailes, owner of Brickart, the landscaping firm selected for the project, lived in the neighborhood for five years as a child. "It didn’t look very good [at the time]," he recalls. "There were a lot of abandoned houses." Though more people lived there then, there were more house fires and crime. Sailes has been involved with CDC for over 30 years, originally as a member of Johanon's Youth for Christ group.

The work of CDC has been well-received in the neighborhood, he says. "The people are starting to take more pride in the neighborhood...People are using the (exercise) equipment. They have a group that goes through and exercises in the neighborhood. It’s working. The neighbors are getting more involved."

Sailes has tried out all of the equipment, preferring the chest and leg press equipment the most.

Johanon is a seasoned community developer who knows the "if you build it, they will come" adage can be very erroneous. "You have to promote it." There have been community meetings, encouraging block club participation.

There are signs that the community is ready. Nicole Perry, a longtime resident of the area, sees it as a way of "connecting the dots" for neighbors who may not venture beyond their individual blocks.

"I think it’s phenomenal because we don’t have to go outside our neighborhood for exercising purposes," she says. "Maybe you ride the bike on Gladstone and bench press on another street." Perry belongs to a suburban health club, but having the exercise equipment in the neighborhood gives her an option other than driving to her gym, Planet Fitness in Southfield -- at least during the warm weather months.

"I like the idea of repurposing vacant land," says Perry, who is president of her block club. "To be able to put something there is really exciting and helps the neighborhood revitalize blighted areas.”

She expects that the CDC will maintain the lots, but also sees the potential for residents to become stewards of the new amenities. "As a block club, we will maintain it anyway," she says. "If there is a lot that’s not cut in the neighborhood, as a block club we do cut it. We want to keep it nice."

Recently, CDC conducted an assessment of needs in the neighborhood. The top two items identified were a fitness center and a laundromat. Johanon says the lot develop partly answers the need for a fitness center. As for the laundromat, CDC recently opened "Fit and Fold" in a building the corporation owns on Second Avenue. In a creative twist, she says exercise equipment is installed alongside washers and dryers to give people an opportunity to get aerobic workout while waiting for the wash.

Health is integrated with the CDC vision for redeveloping the Piety Hill neighborhood. With ongoing support from the Kresge Foundation, an abandoned gas station has been converted into community meeting space, a commercial kitchen attached to Peaches and Greens has been built, and a basketball court has been constructed next door. Cooking classes are now being held in the new kitchen, and a canning class will follow. Eventually, a greenhouse is planned for the Peaches and Greens area, along with a rooftop garden.

The fitness lot development flows from the CDC’s emphasis on fresh produce and community well-being. "We’re already encouraging healthy eating; we might as well promote fitness, especially in a neighborhood riddled by violence and fear," Johanon says. "People don’t get out. It’s easy to become obese."

Dennis Archambault is a Detroit-based freelance writer.

All photos by Marvin Shaouni.
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Dennis Archambault is a Detroit-based freelance writer.