With democratic budgeting, Live6 takes a nontraditional approach to community engagement

Residents of Detroit's Livernois-McNichols district came to the Live6 Alliance's final Speakeasy of the year on Nov. 24 eager to discuss the future of their neighborhood. Held at the newly opened Detroit Sip Cafe, the event followed more than a year of outreach and meetings with local stakeholders.

That night, they would finally have a community vote on how best to spend $40,000 in public safety grant funding. 

The gathering also came during a time of transition for the Live6 Alliance; the planning and development nonprofit recently decided not to renew the contract of acting director Lauren Hood, who's been the driving force behind its community engagement efforts—though it's possible she'll continue working with Live6 in a consulting capacity. 

Located on McNichols (Six Mile) just a skip-and-a-jump away from Livernois, Detroit Sip served as a fitting site for the community meetup and vote. Owner Jevona Watson originally started the cafe as a community space and has hosted numerous events linked to Live6 there, even prior to the official opening of her business. 

"Live6 has really been instrumental in much of the underground success that Detroit Sip has had," she says. "They've been very good about steering events in my direction, so I can showcase all the good things that are happening and also show people the potential of the neighborhood."

Watson envisions the the cafe as a catalyst to bring together area residents, local business people, and students from Marygrove College and the University of Detroit Mercy. Similarly, Live6, has endeavored to draw together local residents and stakeholders to make them part of the conversation about revitalization of the Livernois-McNichols district, an area that encompasses the Bagley, Fitzgerald, Martin Park, and University District neighborhoods of northwest Detroit. 

Live6 was founded in 2015 through a partnership of community, philanthropic, and city stakeholders led by the University of Detroit Mercy. Envisioned as a "conduit" between participating institutions like the U-D Mercy, Marygrove College, the Kresge Foundation, the philanthropic wing of JPMorgan Chase, and surrounding communities, Live6 certainly has a lot of issues to tackle at the moment. 

The Livernois-McNichols area is in now the midst of a two-year development project known as the Fitzgerald Revitalization Project, which had its official groundbreaking on Oct. 17 this year. Funded by a $4 million grant from Reimagining the Civic Commons (a national philanthropic initiative), matching funds from the city of Detroit, and a $20 million pledge over four years from the Kresge Foundation, the initiative will involve the creation of a new park named after Ella Fitzgerald, the construction of a community center that will house offices for Live6, the Detroit Collaborative Design Center, and city of Detroit staff, and the rehabbing of 115 vacant homes. A greenway connecting U-D Mercy and Marygrove is also in the works. 

That's a lot for residents to take in, but Live6 has committed itself to keeping community members in the loop as the changes take place—and has taken a rather unique approach to doing so.

Speakeasies and community budgeting

To date, Live6 has hosted 12 Speakeasy events focused around issues linked to the nonprofit's organizational goals, which include: real estate development, business attraction and retention, placemaking, residential stabilization, and public safety.

Although the word "speakeasy" might conjure up images of Prohibition-era nightclubs, in the context of Live6 it has a more literal meaning. Live6's Lauren Hood came up with the idea for the Speakeasies during a brainstorm session with a friend as an anything-goes way to engage community members.

With development and gentrification being such contentious topics in Detroit at the moment, it shouldn't be surprising that Live6, and even Hood herself, have found themselves targets for criticism during the Speakeasies. But, then again, that's an understandable consequence of the environment Live6 has tried to foster.

"Lots of  times when you have conversations, people are policed and have to watch what they say," Hood says. "It needed to be a forum where people could say what's really going on."

In an effort take this engagement one step further, Live6 has also embraced a participatory budgeting approach to address public safety issues in the Livernois-McNichols area. This decision, which led to the Nov. 24 vote, emerged out of conversation between Hood and Maureen Annway of Invest Detroit, a community development bank that's active in the city. Invest Detroit had embarked on a community budgeting project in Southwest Detroit and that intrigued Hood enough to try something similar. She convinced Live6's Executive Board to let the community decide on how to spend $40,000 in public safety funding. And then the real work began.

Assisted by Invest Detroit, Live6 held several speakeasies on the topic of public safety to brainstorm ideas and flesh them out. After some further research on what these suggestions would cost and what it would take to make them a reality, they were formalized and put up for a vote before community members. 

Assessing priorities

That vote took place the Friday after Thanksgiving when a crowd of about 25 local residents got together at Detroit Sip to discuss and vote on how to best spend Live6's public safety grant money. 

Those in attendance were given a sheet of paper listing different options they were asked to prioritize, which included: blight removal, bike racks, community shuttle services, self defense classes, neighborhood patrols, boarding up homes to prevent squatting and drug use, engagement with property owners, lighting for local alleys and businesses, cleanups along the Livernois and McNichols corridors, speed bumps and radar speed trackers, and renovating and reopening a local community center. 

Renee Allen, a local art teacher who grew up in the neighborhood, appreciated the aims of the event. "I've been to several Speakeasies … and the ideas are needed for this area," she said. "I definitely would like to see more of this."

As for the proposals, she was enthusiastic about the prospect of reopening the community center, which closed after a fire in 2015, as well as cleanups and better lighting.

The speakeasy was Daniel McMillon's first time at a Live6 event. He moved to the neighborhood from Brooklyn two years ago and now operates an adult daycare center in the area. A big supporter of rebuilding the Maggie Lee Community Center, he feels it's important that neighborhood residents have a say in how the public safety funding is spent.

"I think the voices in the community are needed," he said. "The powers that be should definitely take that into consideration before making decisions. We don't want to waste money on what you think we need, we want to spend money on what's definitely needed."

Next steps

The votes themselves were counted after the meeting, and the results are now in.

The event's participants decided to allocate $20,000 for a six-week pilot program to remove blight along the McNichol's Corridor, renovate the Maggie Lee Community Center (which still needs to undergo a cost assessment) and fund the lighting of local alleys and businesses. (Live6 is looking into participating in the Detroit Police Department's Project Greenlight, a program that combines lighting and the use of real-time cameras to reduce crime, as well as using solar lighting for alleys.)

Invest Detroit, the Detroit Collaborative Design Center, and the city of Detroit Planning and Development Department now need to sign off on the proposal. A team from the Reimagining the Civic Commons program will then implement the projects. 

With Hood stepping out as Live6's acting director and a replacement expected to be appointed in January, there's still a lot up in the air, both with the public safety initiative and the organization's community engagement efforts. But despite the uncertainty, it's clear that folks in the neighborhood will be keeping a keen eye on what happens next.

"It's a little bittersweet to watch the baton be passed," says Detroit Sip's Watson. "But, on the flipside, I'm excited that new things are happening, combined with a little fear of the unknown."

"I just hope that [the public safety initiative] really does come to fruition sooner than later," she adds. "I don't think we can afford to wait."
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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.