How a cross-cultural coalition is making a 'Dream of Detroit' real in one Motor City neighborhood

Things are looking up in Detroit’s Dexter-Linwood area these days. Neighbors and stakeholders have been working together to improve the area, rebuilding once-blighted homes, and planning a new commercial kitchen-restaurant.


All of this is thanks in no small part to the work of an organization called Dream of Detroit, which has roots in the area’s Muslim community.


“We’re trying to combine community organizing with housing and land development to revitalize this neighborhood here on the west side of Detroit,” says Dream of Detroit Project Director Mark Crain.


Dream of Detroit has been fixing up homes, sponsoring entrepreneurship training, encouraging resident-friendly development, and hosting an annual street fair for several years, It's also been working with coalitions like Live Free Detroit and the Coalition to End Unconstitutional Tax Foreclosures to address issues like public safety and housing policy.

Waverly Street. Photo by Stephen Koss.


The nonprofit, which identifies itself with the slogan “A Detroit Revival Engaging American Muslims,” services a 10-block area near and around the Muslim Center Mosque and Community Center on West Davison. Situated between South Glendale Avenue, the Davison Freeway, 14th Street, and the John C. Lodge Service Drive, the neighborhood has no formal name, though some residents call it Longfellow in reference to a local school that was demolished in 2016.


The Muslim Center, an inclusive religious center with a predominantly African-American congregation, has been a vital part of the neighborhood since its founding in 1985. The late Imam W. Deen Mohammed, son of Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad, established the mosque. Following his father’s death in the late 1970s, Muhammad disbanded the original Nation of Islam and reconstituted it into an orthodox Muslim movement that later became known as the American Society of Muslims.


Omar Peterson, a member of the Muslim Center’s board and a retired construction worker, spent a lot of time in the area growing up. Although it was once home to a prosperous Black middle class, Peterson says the area has endured its share of struggles in more recent times.


“This was a tough area, especially during the '80s, when the crack epidemic came around,” he says. “So the Muslim Center has been a beacon in the dark for this neighborhood.”


Neighbors here persevered through the 1967 riots, a tornado that touched down in 1997, and the wave of foreclosures that swept the area during and after the Great Recession. While some residents, often those with longstanding family connections there, have stuck around and done their best to maintain the neighborhood, many have left for elsewhere. At one point, the area had as high as a 40 percent vacancy rate, according to Crain.

The Muslim Center. Photo by Stephen Koss.


In addition to issues like blight, vacancy, and an exodus of local businesses, the neighborhood has also had to contend with obscurity. The area was so off the map for local city planners in 2013 that it was designated as an ecological innovation zone by Detroit Future City when the nonprofit released its strategic framework for the Motor City.


“They had written this area completely off," says Teresa Clarington, President of the Longfellow Block Club. “They had done away with this area.”


Launched last May, the Longfellow block club has sponsored neighborhood cleanups, held a job fair, hosted a talk with Mayor Mike Duggan and even established a volunteer citizen’s patrol for the neighborhood.


Clarington is excited about what two new grants awarded to Dream of Detroit will mean for the area. One, a $25,000 grant from Islamic Relief USA will be used to build a playground at Glendale Avenue and 14th Street. Another, a Kresge Innovative Projects: Detroit grant for $35,000 will go toward drawing up plans for a commercial kitchen and walk-up restaurant on Woodrow Wilson Street.


Although Clarington is a Christian who attends the Greater Quinn AME Church on Rosa Parks north of the Davison Freeway, she and other members of the Longfellow Block Club enjoy a strong working relationship with the mosque and Dream of Detroit. And that spirit of collaboration has her feeling “really good” about the direction the neighborhood is headed.


“I know Mark personally. He takes great pride in leading Dream of Detroit,” Clarington says.


Making the dream real


Dream of Detroit came together seven years ago due to the meeting of two groups — one from within the city and one from outside. Neighborly Needs, a charitable organization led by elders from the Muslim Center and another nearby congregation, Masjid Wali Muhammad, had begun to purchase vacant homes on Waverly Street to renovate them and provide homes for local families. Then the Indus Community Action Network (ICAN), a philanthropic group of Pakistani professionals from the Canton-Ann Arbor area, found out about their work.


ICAN's membership, particularly founder Dr. Waseem Ullah — whose father endured homelessness during the partition of Pakistan — became interested in seeing the rehab work succeed. So in 2012, the two groups joined forces, establishing Dream of Detroit as a nonprofit to help revitalize the community around the Muslim Center. Crain came on board just as the first house — eventually rented to and sold to a single Detroit mother named Nadirah Abdullah — was being completed. He found the project attractive both because of the transformative potential it held for a unique Detroit neighborhood and the intriguing cross-cultural coalition that was developing around it.

Waverly Street. Photo by Stephen Koss.


“For me, what was important was seeing this connection between this Pakistani Muslim group and a Black Muslim group,” he says. “To see these communities coming together very intentionally was inspiring!”


A native of Detroit, Crain attended middle and high school at Cranbrook in Bloomfield Hills and later relocated to the Chicago area to study at Northwestern University where he double majored in political science and Black studies. During college, he converted to Islam, in part due to the example of a Pakistani Muslim friend. After graduation Crain, deciding to pursue a career that combined his interests in Islam and social justice and got a job with the Inner City Muslim Action Network (IMAN); it's there he met his future wife Hazel Gómez, a fellow community organizer.


After two years with IMAN, he got a job with the Obama campaign running the digital programs for its African American and People of Faith divisions. Crain followed that up getting hired by MoveOn.Org, where he still works, and in 2013 decided to relocate back to Detroit with his wife and two sons. Already an acquaintance of Dr. Ullah, a supporter of IMAN’s work in Chicago, he was quick to lend a hand with Dream of Detroit upon his return to the Motor City.


Now serving as the organization’s project director, Crain has found himself working along a capable and eager team of people, including Thaddeus Shakur, one of the founders of Neighborly Needs; Mansur Blackmon and Ali Suleiman, two Ford engineers who’ve purchased homes in the neighborhood; Namira Islam of the Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative; and, of course, his wife, Hazel, who’s been active with faith-based organizing and coalition work.


Since beginning its work seven years ago, Dream of Detroit has planted more than 100 trees in the neighborhood, helped Dream and community members acquire more than 20 parcels of land, and rehabbed eight homes. In addition to opening up housing for community members, several of the units are being used by organizations like Project Homecoming, which operates a transitional home for Muslim former inmates, and INDUS, which runs a house on Waverly Street that functions as an artist residency and exhibition space, most recently for the group Halal Metropolis.


Dream of Detroit also sponsors entrepreneurship training at the Muslim Center, conducted by ProsperUS Detroit. Their collaboration began in 2016, and since that time Dream of Detroit has hosted six cohorts, with a total of 51 people graduating from the program.


That experience, in turn, has led Dream of Detroit to begin planning on what the organization is tentatively calling the Dream Kitchen and Restaurant. The establishment will be built from shipping containers and feature a commercial kitchen for local food entrepreneurs and a restaurant facility that local food businesses will be able to use on a rotating basis.


In another effort to help out local vendors, Dream of Detroit has also been hosting a street fair on Woodrow Wilson Street since 2017. This year’s event will take place on Aug. 24 and feature halal food, workshops, sports competitions, medical screenings, and performances by artists like Lu Fuki and Divine Providence, Bayan, Seydi and Hardcore Detroit. The nonprofit has been sponsoring the fair in the hopes that it will give exposure to these vendors and help residents and visitors envision what Woodrow Wilson Street might be like if it were lined with businesses again.
Right now, the nonprofit is also working to add solar lighting to an alley by the Muslim Center's parking lot as well as a colorful mosaic designed by Halal Metropolis to the fencing there. Going forward, it's also interested in obtaining more property so it can establish a scattered-site housing co-op for the area, which Crain believes can help "create a sustainable affordable housing stock and mitigate potential spikes in value that displace current residents." Dream of Detroit has already taken the initial steps to make that venture a reality.
"We've incorporated the entity and have the first two properties that will be a part of it," says Crain, "but it'll really come to life, God-willing, as a part of our plan to scale our housing work."


Neither the housing component of its work or its other efforts are intended to be exclusively Muslim, and the organization is dedicated to encouraging development that meets the needs of existing residents.


Crain hopes that Dream of Detroit will help community members and others from around the region who care about Detroit find common ground in uplifting the diverse and vibrant neighborhood surrounding the Muslim Center.


“We want to see a thriving neighborhood and a healthy community,” he says. “We want to say, ‘You know what, that love you talk about for Detroit? Dream can be a vehicle for you to materialize that love!”

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.
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Read more articles by David Sands.

David Sands is a Detroit-based freelance writer. He's covered the news for Huffington Post Detroit as an assistant editor and worked as a staff writer for the transportation news site Mode Shift. Follow him on Twitter @dsandsdetroit.