A place to be yourself: Why this Detroiter is building an ADA-compliant community treehouse

A blue sign stands in the middle of the land located at 223 Manistique Street on Detroit's eastside. Written in white, it reads "Manistique Kids Community Treehouse." Grazed by the first fallen leaves of autumn, a maple and cottonwood tree stretch out from the ground, high above the neighboring homes and into the cloudy afternoon sky.

Across the street sits a home covered from porch to lawn in Halloween decorations, from pumpkins to skeletons and everything in between. It's just a few blocks off Jefferson Avenue — far enough away to put the noise of passing vehicles out of earshot. With the exception of the occasional breeze or bird chirping, the neighborhood is quiet.

It's the type of setting that brings a sense of stillness and peace.

From the front door of the home emerges Tammy Black, who breaks the silence with an energetic "Hello." Black, a native of Detroit, has lived here for the last six years. The piece of land across from her home will be the site of the Manistique Community Treehouse Center, a 400-square-foot, ADA-compliant treehouse for occupational therapy, counseling, and education that she's hoping will come to life next summer.

Nurturing in nature

The idea for this project came to Black at the end of 2015. A mother of six children, each of which has special needs, she thought a lot about the challenges the world would give them for being different. For the past three decades, she's worked with special needs children and has a master's degree in mental health counseling from Capella University.

Through her work with Creative Empowerment Counseling Services, she already puts her counseling services to work. With the Manistique Community Treehouse Center, though, she sought to create a space where those who are considered special needs could learn in a different way — a space where everyone, both with and without disabilities, would be free of judgement to be themselves.

Admittedly, part of her inspiration to have this space take the form of a treehouse came from watching the show "Treehouse Masters." She also liked the relaxing essence of a treehouse, and how it brings people closer to nature.

"In a treehouse, the only thing that matters is your self-confidence and creativity," Black says. "When you're out here in nature, you're in a space where you can just be yourself. Nothing else matters."

Tammy Black leaning on boards that will be used for the Manistique Community Treehouse Center
In May, the Manistique Community Treehouse Center was one of 18 Detroit neighborhood projects to receive a portion of $1.5 million in grants from the Kresge Foundation. Once the city's zoning process is complete, they will break ground and start to build.

Black is not looking to just serve people in the neighborhood — she wants the Manistique Community Treehouse Center to serve the whole metro Detroit area. She says they will not turn down anyone, whether it's seniors, veterans, individuals, groups, or families.

"We're giving people the opportunity to create things, start their own business, and learn about greening and growing," Black says. "We have horticultural therapy, where people can go out and garden to take down their stress level and reduce depression and anxiety."

Rendering of the Manistique Community Treehouse Center
In addition to the horticultural therapy, other programs that will be offered at the center include entrepreneurship, mentoring services, healthy food preparation and education, creativity and arts programming, sustainability and green technology, and personal finances and budgeting.

Connecting the community

Black also serves as president of the Manistique 200-300 Block Club, which is how she met Betty Mills.

Mills, who is vice president of the block club, has lived in the neighborhood since the 1970s. She's been part of the Manistique Community Treehouse Center since the beginning, and she serves as event planner for the senior activity group at Creative Empowerment Counseling Services.

"Our focus is to encourage seniors to 'keep it moving' by coming together for fellowship, support, traveling, and resources to enhance their lifestyle," Mills says. 

The Creative Empowerment Garden, next to the treehouse
She's currently working on a project in collaboration with the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History to spotlight seniors in the community. 

That project, titled the Shine-A-Light Ribbon Cutting, will take place on Oct. 20 from 7 to 9 p.m. in the Creative Empowerment Garden, which is part of the treehouse just a few parcels away. The event will be the grand opening of a solar-powered outdoor movie theater and feature images of long-time neighborhood residents talking about their years in the community and their thoughts on the treehouse project.

When the treehouse opens, the garden will become an additional place for therapy and programming, and Black says neighbors will be able to have events there, too. 

In early August, a storm knocked out power along Manistique Street. While waiting for it to restore, many residents used the solar power installation at the Creative Empowerment Garden as emergency electricity to charge their devices.

This is just one of many ways Black anticipates the Manistique Community Treehouse Center and the Creative Empowerment Garden will bring the community together. 

Ultimately, Black wants the treehouse and outdoor garden to be places of relaxation, where mental well-being is prioritized and nurtured, and where people will know there's no bias toward how they feel. She's humbled by how much support the project has gotten from the community and organizations, such as the Southwest Waterfront Association. 

"I feel empowered, and I think our community feels empowered," Black says. "Since we're having so many issues right now with mental health, I think to have this right in our community, and be community driven, it's a great thing — and our neighbors think it too."

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.

Photos by Anthony Lanzilote

Read more articles by Kristen Davis.

Kristen Davis is a journalist and 2017-18 Challenge Detroit fellow. 
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