Detroit veteran works to help his neighborhood see itself differently

On an unseasonably cold May morning, Ron Matten is talking with a young man who has been squatting in a nearby house. Matten had given him a coat and warm clothing this past winter, and now he’s trying to convince him to come to a community workday.


The workday is to support Matten's initiative in Dexter Linwood Cordon, an eight-block area where he has installed a butterfly habitat and is working on an extensive community garden/gathering space that he hopes will connect the neighborhood with a ribbon-like path: the Cordon.


This young man is just one of the “demographics” that Matten says he is trying to reach, a terminology that inspired the name Demographic Inspirations for his community development organization. To hear him tell it, this whole project – which he envisions growing from placemaking into a housing project for veterans and a community center – stemmed from his investment in a two-family property in the area.


It also stemmed from Matten's need to do something with his retirement. But the scale of the project doesn’t look much like anybody’s idea of retirement, and it’s clear that Matten has been working hard to make something happen in this area since he acquired his property in 2006. Dexter and Linwood Streets bound the area on the west and east and the Lodge Service Drive and Fenkell on the north and south.

Volunteers from Life Remodeled help out at the Dexter Linwood Cordon community gardens. Photo by Nick Hagen.

In many ways, Matten’s project prefigures the work that the City of Detroit is doing with the Fitzgerald Revitalization Project. His vision – born from his ideas and the community engagement of groups like Focus Hope – looks to connect neighbors through greenways and open space, turning the neighborhood’s blight into an asset and creating sustainable development that can help some of the underserved demographics that Matten is concerned with.


It's clear that Matten is going to need some help to make this project a reality. After years of planning and small victories, he’s now making moves to secure the funding and partnerships necessary to make the Dexter-Linwood Cordon happen.


Matten’s eight blocks fall within a 100-block area that the education and community-development nonprofit Focus Hope organization has been referring to as Hope Village.

“In 2010, we as an organization decided that we would like to see our mission fulfilled outside of our campus window,” Stephanie Johnson Cobb, a community development specialist at Focus Hope, says. According to Cobb, widespread poverty, unemployment, and low educational attainment characterized the mostly African American neighborhood. Cobb, who lives in the area, says that Focus Hope’s goal was to turn the area into a “safe, supportive environment” like the strong, middle-class neighborhood it had been only a few generations ago

Much of the community engagement that Focus Hope did on the 100-block project focused on issues like blight removal.


We were able to engage folks around creating a strategic vision and plan, and Mr. Madden's project fits into that,” Cobb says. “… his butterfly garden and his larger vision to help redevelop eight blocks of the Fenkell Dexter area is an example of how we feel community members and partners can help revitalize this neighborhood.”


Matten’s perspective on community-development evolved out of his career in the Air Force and the Michigan Department of Corrections. It’s perhaps ironic, but with the Department of Corrections, he saw how institutions could meet basic needs.


“You’re going to get housing, food, clothing and medical as well,” he says. Although he’s starting with a “placemaking” effort to beautify the neighborhood and engage the community, he sees the project growing into something bigger that creates ownership. “I’m an advocate for people having something,” he says.


Matten’s Air Force experience was also the inspiration for the cordon that he says is “a way of delineating a space where you're going to focus your energy.”


Right now, the project consists of a butterfly garden and shelter on Fairfield Street. A Detroit Future City Lot Grant was used to create this space, featuring native perennials that provide food for pollinators and help sequester rain-water during storms. Matten says the butterfly garden has already become a popular destination for children who can “get lost” in the abundant growth of black-eyed Susans and other flowers.


In a six-lot area on the same block, he’s begun breaking ground to install a community garden with the help of volunteers from Motor City Makeover and Life Remodeled. In addition to the garden, this space will house a small basketball court, gazebo, firepit, and hoop-house, all of it connected to a large rain garden across the alley and the cordon running through the neighborhood.


Enterprises like these are now popularly referred to as placemaking. In Matten’s view, this means “creating a space to bring in people to congregate, to enjoy, to celebrate whatever type of events that you want. Placemaking, to me, is a safe place for people to come to and have fun.”


But it’s clear that for Matten, placemaking can’t just look to improve a neighborhood by adding amenities without addressing the core problems affecting the population. One of these issues is housing, and as an Air Force veteran, Matten is especially interested in providing opportunities for other vets to live here.


He’s looking at the possibility of tiny homes inspired by projects like the Cass Community Social Services’ Tiny Homes Detroit project to provide housing. In his view, this will have a positive effect on the neighborhood overall.


I think that as a veteran that they will focus a lot more on making sure where they live is good,” he says.


Matten is also looking at the possibility of powering infrastructure here with solar panels, something that could make it more adaptable to power system failures. Plans for the footpath utilized solar-powered lights for safety. He has also worked with the Sierra Club on rainwater catchment projects, and some of the lot improvements he’s implementing could serve as green infrastructure to prevent flooding in the neighborhood. In these ways, the eight blocks represent something more than an individual placemaking effort, but a vision of what urban living could look like in the future. “We want to expose people to a different type of living,” he says.

Ron Matten (left) and partner Mario Halley at Dexter-Linwood Cordon Community Gardens. Photo by Nick Hagen.


Matten sees the initial plan for the Dexter-Linwood Cordon rolling out in four stages with each stage covering two blocks. Right now he has a Patronicity campaign going to cover the first two blocks, which includes the community garden and other projects on Fairfield. If he can meet his goal of raising $50,000, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) will double that amount. Of course, Matten already has partners in Focus Hope and Detroit Future City who could also provide support.


Bringing this project to life could create a very different image of the city for those who live here or in other underserved areas of Detroit.


“It helps people look at their neighborhood differently when their neighborhood reflects something positive to them,” Cobb says. “We’ve come through a period of time where our communities became severely blighted. … With Ron and what he's building, it presents a very different opportunity for people and how they can see themselves.”

This article is part of "Detroit Innovation," a series highlighting community-led projects that are improving the vitality of neighborhoods in Detroit, while recognizing the potential of residents to work with partners to solve the most pressing challenges facing their communities.

The series is supported by the New Economy Initiative, a project of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan that's working to create an inclusive, innovative regional culture.

Read more articles by Brian Allnutt.

Brian Allnutt is a Detroit-based writer and a co-owner of Detroit Farm and Garden.
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