Detroit by District: Linking generations in Southwest

In Detroit, we hear a lot about making the city more appealing for young professionals. The "live, work, play" mantra of the GIlbert companies and other so-called "placemakers" is a constant refrain in the news around the economic development happening in Detroit's Downtown and Midtown neighborhoods. But placemaking is about more than fulfilling the desires of the young professional class. One community organization servicing most of City Council District 6 and Southwest Detroit is thinking about placemaking from a different perspective.

"We are committed to building communities where people can age in a place," says Phyllis Edwards, Executive Director of Bridging Communities, Inc., a community development organization that connects all generations in Southwest Detroit around issues of quality of life. "Walkability" is a core tenet of placemaking, but Phyllis Edwards reminds us of its importance to people of all generations, not just young professionals. "Walkability is a key issue, whether you are five years old and walking to the playground, or 75 and walking to the pharmacy or church."

An aging population is something that communities in Detroit and around the country must plan for (and indeed are already facing) as the Baby Boom generation grows older. Yet there is relatively little public discourse about planning for this issue. Detroit Future City, the strategic framework document that will serve as the foundation of future planning exercises in the city of Detroit, only mentions the concept of aging in place one time in passing.

It is for this reason that Bridging Communities and nine other neighborhood nonprofits joined together under the umbrella of the Community Development Advocates of Detroit to launch the McGraw Resource Stop, a physical location where seniors can connect with all of the resources available to them in the neighborhood.

One of the most impressive programs run by Bridging Communities is the Unity in Our Community TimeBank. A time bank is an exchange of talents and services between community members who trade time for services instead of money. It's a great way for elderly residents to get help from their neighbors doing things they might not physically be able to do or can't afford, such as yard work, as well as feel valued in the community by sharing their talents through things like preparing meals or simply giving advice.

"Since its launch in 2010, our time bank has grown to be the largest in Michigan," says Phyllis Edwards.

Bridging Communities also runs a youth employment program, which hired 24 neighborhood high school students this summer to work on community development projects. To be considered for these jobs, youth are required to volunteer their services to the time bank. Their work generally brings them to the aid of their elderly neighbors.

Bridging Communities' core services include family and senior housing development, well being checks on elderly residents, food deliveries, holiday remembrances, connecting seniors to resources, and general community planning. The hub of this work happens out of the Bridging Communities offices on McGraw Street in what has come to be known as the Claytown neighborhood (bounded by Junction to the east, Wyoming to the west, John Kronk to the south, and Warren Avenue to the north). This new identity, which celebrates the brickmaking heritage of the area, was derived from a community planning process led by Bridging Communities and the Detroit Collaborative Design Center that began in 2005.

In addition to community planning and connecting residents with services, Bridging Communities also connect residents with each other by putting on events like their Movies on the Green series and an annual holiday festival.

"It's important that we merge the generations," says Edwards. "It's about everybody living in harmony." Everything they do at Bridging Communities is done in three languages: English, Spanish, and Arabic. "We have the most diverse elder community in the city of Detroit."

Elswhere in Southwest Detroit, another partnership is underway to create connections between the generations. Congress of Communities, a community development organization focused on youth, in partnership with the Southwest Detroit Business Association's (SDBA) Business Improvement District (BID), launched a program called the Social Media Apprenticeship, which connects neighborhood youth in Southwest Detroit and local business owners to help establish social media presences for those businesses.

This summer four high school students living in Southwest Detroit participated in the program overseen by Sarah Carlson, an AmeriCorps Vista employee of Congress of Communities. The program's first client was the West Vernor & Springwells Business Improvement District, an entity created when business owners along those corridors voted to pay additional taxes to receive specialized services administered by the SDBA. Available services include trash pickup, graffiti removal, and general technical support.

"Marketing is one of the most popular services requested by businesses in the BID," says Rob Linn, Southwest Detroit Business Association's BID Manager.

According to Linn and Carlson, business owners in the BID generally lacked any social media presence and were missing out on opportunities to connect with new customers. Connecting youth community members who are adept at social media with older business owners was a perfect opportunity to educate both parties. Owners learned the importance of social media while the kids got to know more about what it is like to run a small business.

"This program is helping change business owners' perception of youth in the neighborhood," says Carlson.

This series explores the newly-formed Detroit Common Council districts and continues each month until the General Election in November. Our partner for these reports is Community Development Advocates of Detroit. 

Read more articles by Matthew Lewis.

Matthew Lewis is a writer and former managing editor of Model D. He's currently the communications officer for the New Economy Initiative. 
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