For this Detroit developer, building generational wealth fuels her dreams

For Sharnita Johnson and her siblings, the party store where their father, Kenneth Johnson, worked behind the counter for 40 years was like a “seventh sibling.” 

Fenwood Market sat on the corner of Fenkell and Linwood from 1969 until the early 2000s. The elder Johnson bought when the neighborhood had just endured racial protests, the impact of which has persisted for decades. 

The market was, according to his daughter, the last Black-owned party store in Detroit. She’s renovating the property to honor her father while preserving a financial future for her family’s next generation and celebrating a neighborhood where many families have been for years. 

The property is in HOPE Village. Named for its proximity to Focus: HOPE, the neighborhood's borders are approximately Dexter to Hamilton in Highland Park and Davison to the Lodge Service Drive. 
Property under renovation at Fenkell and Linwood in Detroit's Hope Village neighborhoodAccording to a previous article on the area, Debbie Fisher, executive director of Hope Village Community Development Corporation, says that 79% of people who live in the neighborhood are renters. But homeowners have been in their homes for generations. 

In 2016, the community did a plan and vision for the area, and the neighborhood adopted the name HOPE Village at that time. Today, the neighborhood is in the midst of a revitalization effort for homes and homeowners, and they have also partnered with Sharnita Johnson to help her revitalize the building that her father left her when he died in 2016. 

“I call it a reverse inheritance,” she says, “My father had other properties that went to my other siblings, and I got this building. I call it a reverse inheritance because right now, it’s costing me more money than it’s worth.” 

But, perhaps Mr. Johnson recognized the creative streak in his youngest daughter. Sharnita is a program officer for the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation in New Jersey, where she supports funding for the arts. She, maybe more than any of her other siblings, could see the potential in the building. 

‘This is my family’s legacy’

The 12,000-plus-square-foot property at Fenkell and Normandy was originally six storefronts and several three-bedroom apartments above. Johnson plans to reconfigure the upstairs space to smaller apartment units, and she is envisioning creative options for the street level. 

“I want to bring it online as a creative space, artist live-work space, a collaborative kitchen for food entrepreneurs, and affordable housing,” she says. “I don’t think people need three-bedroom apartments anymore, so I plan to reconfigure them to meet the needs of the market.”

The project’s working name is Fenwood Market and Maker’s Space, which she has only recently begun renovations on in the last few years. 

For Sharnita and her brother Stephen Merriweather, renovating the property their father purchased in Detroit's Hope Village neighborhood is a mission that honors not only his legacy but provides a future for their family’s next generation.  

“This is my family’s legacy. My dad was on this corner for 40 years and raised six kids with this business,” Sharnita says, “One thing my dad always said was, ‘Well, at least you can say you always know where I am.’” 

Kenneth Johnson stood behind his counter for 40 years, often joined by his children and other family members. Several decades into work at the business, he started selling fish dinners on weekends. Sharnita says that to this day, residents drive by and ask if they are going to start selling fish again. One of her brothers later opened a fish restaurant in Rosedale Park. 

“My father knew all his customers, their kids, and grandkids,” Johnson says, “I grew up with kids in this neighborhood.” She said that the renovation process has been, at times, emotional. 

“It was hard to even go into the building for a long time. But, I’ve dedicated my time to it and I recognize that my emotions and memories are a part of the work.” 

Emotions and memories won’t be enough to power her dream. It is also going to take a lot of money. How much has not yet been determined, but she hopes to raise several hundred thousand. 

Aside from the market, the building once housed a social club, motorcycle club, and even a dry cleaner. Right now, it is boarded up as she and her brother painstakingly clean and prepare it for the massive renovation. The building is in decent shape. It has been cleaned of its former plexiglass, coolers, and racks where Better Made once sold potato chips. One of her first missions is to replace the plain, dusty boards with murals as a signal to the neighborhood that progress is coming. 

“I just started to think of myself as a developer,” Johnson says, “At first, I was thinking, ‘I’m just cleaning up my dad’s old building. But, now I say I AM a developer!’” 

Getting in on the change

Johnson is working with Hope Village CDC, Hamilton Development Corporation, and Detroit Collaborative Design Center — which provided her with inspirational renderings of what the property could be. She says that when she showed them to her family, many of them shed tears. 

“The Store,” as it is called in her family, is an opportunity for Johnson to create and share her wealth across generations. As the youngest of her siblings, and the only one without children, she treasures her 27 nieces and nephews, many who now also have children of their own. 

They have asked her, “Auntie, can we…” regarding ideas for the space, to which she replies, “Baby, you can do whatever you want to do.” 

“We (African Americans) don’t transfer wealth often. So I want to have a legacy for my dad, but also for my nieces and nephews. When I bought my first house my parents couldn’t help me with a down payment. I want to stop that cycle in my family,” she says. 

Hope Village CDC is helping her find funding options for bringing her dream to life. 

“We’ve been walking alongside them as they start to think about project design and making sure that there is a community engagement process that happens after they get some of the pieces in place,” says Fisher of Hope Village CDC. 

“We have a number of ideas about how to do that,” Fisher says. “But we are really at the early stages. We want to be there for them. Right now, we are providing moral support and trying to connect them with people that we think can help them put the development piece together. We will also be working with them to try to get grant funding to make sure there is a good stream of dollars to do the community-building work that they envision.” 

Fisher says, “I do think generational wealth is important, particularly for Detroiters who have been here forever. They should have the opportunity to pass that along and have more access to equity.” 

Generational wealth has been defined as “assets passed down from one generation to the next. This includes property, cash, and life insurance. 

In a TED X Grand Rapids Talk, Johnson talked about her experience growing up in Detroit and how narratives about the city have impacted her life and career experiences. 

“My parents moved from public housing into a middle-class neighborhood, and we’re so proud of what they were able to provide for their children.” She referred to the store and the entire property as her father’s “corner of the world.” 

Narratives also shape investment in communities, she says. She wants people to know that Detroit is more than “ruin porn and Midtown.” 

“I don’t see a lot of us (African Americans) getting in on the change,” she says of Detroit’s resurgence, which has often been shaped around young, white developers and investors in the city. “People tell me that (my project) is a heavy lift, but the money is out there. It’s out there for other people, so it's out there for us.” 

Johnson says that pre-COVID, she and Stephen would often see lots of children walking home from the nearby Thurgood Marshall Elementary School. She envisions a place where the kids can stop by, see beautiful art, and be engaged in a special space in their own community. 

“This is where everybody was, this is where everybody congregated,” Johnson says of her childhood in the market. “This space was a family member in so many ways. We have to do something with this building, we have to do something with this legacy.”

This is part of the Block by Block series supported by FHLBank Indianapolis that follows minority-driven development in Detroit. 
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Read more articles by Biba Adams.

Biba Adams is a regular contributor and project editor for Model D. Formally Model D's Editor at Large, she is a longtime journalist whose work is fueled by her passion for people and her native Detroit. Find her on all social channels @BibatheDiva.