It's hard to keep count of how many times Phillis Judkins comes up in casual conversations about the North End. It's just as hard to keep count of her frequent and vibrant laughs if you're lucky enough to meet the dynamic mentor, leader, serial entrepreneur, and neighborhood pioneer.
A former accounts receivable professional, Judkins moved to the North End neighborhood in 1987, taking over her parents house after they passed. She's done a lot in those 30 years, and is showing no signs of slowing down. While some of her peers are settling into cozy retirement, the 70-year-old Judkins is transforming her family's house into a command center for her various community initiatives.
Shortly after moving in, Judkins was appointed street captain by her block club—a wise decision. She soon after started the North End Neighborhood Patrol, recruiting the first few members directly from her front porch.
"I was sitting outside one day and the guys just kept walking by," Judkins recalls. "I said, 'Where are you guys going?' They said, "We just out here, there's nothing to do, and we can't get a job. I said, 'What? We need you guys.'"
Since then, the North End Neighborhood Patrol has grown to about 35 members who undergo an extensive background check and training to volunteer a few hours a week keeping an eye on their neighborhood.
Community members with cars volunteer to patrol the neighborhood with one person driving and another keeping a daily activity log. The North End Neighborhood Patrol ensures that residents get to public transportation safely and have also developed a Safe Route to School Program in cooperation with the Detroit Police Department, monitoring schools and the surrounding area at the beginning and end of the school day.
Organization for the neighborhood patrol takes place as the Safe House, a blue and white property on King Street owned by Judkins. More than just a gathering place for safety patrollers, the Safe House also includes three rooms for North End residents facing homelessness.
The North End Neighborhood patrol does more than just patrol. "When we first started it, I noticed that we couldn't see down the alleys," says Judkins. "So we started doing cleanups in the neighborhood and focused on the alleys because if we can't see down the alleys, how are we going help you?"
The North End Neighborhood Patrol does not take combative measures—instead their goal is to create trust in the neighborhood by holding residents accountable and providing opportunities for them to get involved.
Safety is only one of the ways Judkins is trying to impact long-term change in her neighborhood. A lot that is less than a mile away from the Safe House is slated to be the headquarters for 4Ward Phoenix
, an after-school education group Judkins started when she discovered that her grandson was not learning cursive in school. The program has expanded into a youth development program featuring coding, dancing, woodworking, and electrical workshops.
4Ward Phoenix's latest endeavor is the creation of a miniature golf course. The goal is to transform the vacant lot, with a handmade sign bearing its name and logo, into a self-sufficient and children-run putt-putt golf course where the 4Ward Phoenix kids can learn business and basic math while gaining a new sense of independence.
The Safe House
Site of a future putt-putt golf course
In many ways, Judkins is working to recreate the kind of neighborhood that she had growing up in Grandmont Rosedale in northwest Detroit. The ninth of twelve children, Judkins never had to search for friends and stuck close to her siblings. Her house was close enough to the famed Olympia Arena to charge concertgoers for parking on their property when The Beatles performed their last show in the summer of 1966. She has fond memories of trick or treating for hours and returning with candy from the family homes and dollar bills from apartment dwellers.
Judkins knows how to harness the diversity of experiences, income, and capabilities in a community and this is what has made her an irreplaceable element of the North End.
And she's trying to purchase even more properties, but the process has run into some obstacles. She manages to fund her initiatives on a case-by-case basis, finding third-party organizations that appreciate her vision and will pitch in with grant money. For the most part, Phillis takes care of the daily work, maintenance, and unexpected expenses of her initiatives.
Even in the face of challenges, Judkins continues to invest time, energy, and hope into this community. Her work serves as a necessary reminder that a community can change on its own terms—moving from person to person, from block to block, from one great idea to the next.
This article is part of the "On the Ground" series, where a journalist is embedded in a neighborhood for three months to provide regular coverage.
Support for this series is provided by the Kresge Foundation.
All photos by Bree Gant.