Resilient Neighborhoods: This East Side community center is on a path to reopen after years in limbo

Many older residents of Detroit's Gratiot Woods neighborhood have fond memories of the three-story building that stands at 5710 McClellan Ave. 

For years, it served as a community center, a gathering place for youth, and a hub of activity for local residents. The building first opened its doors in 1940 as a gymDPCA Director John Thorne and activities center connected to a Catholic Church parish. Then, in the 1970s, it found a second life as the only urban 4H Club in the United States. Unfortunately, it closed down in 2010, due to a lack of funding and the retirement of its long-standing director who was suffering from health issues. 

Now through a partnership between Terry Payne, a local entrepreneur, and the Detroit Catholic Pastoral Alliance (DCPA), the building is getting another opportunity to serve the Gratiot Woods area as a community center.

"We're hoping that, when the doors open, we'll be able to serve about 3,000 people a year," says DCPA Executive Director John Thorne. "And there will be opportunities for community members to use the space for programs they might have."

Renovation and Collaboration

The effort to bring back the facility, which has been renamed the Brighter Detroit Community Center, began with Payne, who may be better known as the owner of the Payne Landscaping company and They Say, a popular Detroit restaurant. 

Payne grew up on the city's East Side and had a lot of great experiences at the 4H center, including playing basketball at the gym and volunteering there as an adult.

"I started going to the community center in 1974, when I was 10 years old," says Payne. "I was raised up in the gym and going to the urban gardens. It made me a better person and made me go in the direction I'm going now."

Knowing what a difference spending time there meant to his life, he wanted to make similar opportunities available again to youth in the area. Payne bought the former community center in 2015, choosing a new name for it since it was no longer affiliated with 4H. Several years of vacancy had damaged the facility, however, so he couldn't reopen it right away. The gym floor had buckled from the heat being out, so Payne had to fix that up. He also converted the lights in the gym to LED lighting, added a weight room to the third floor, and fixed doors throughout the space.

By 2018, though, Payne started running low on funds for the renovation. He eventually ended up getting in touch with DCPA, a nonprofit dedicated to serving the Gratiot Woods neighborhood formed by a group of local Catholic priests interested in promoting community healing following the 1967 riots. 

Shortly before the pandemic started DCPA signed on as a codeveloper with the project and agreed to oversee programming once the facility is complete. The Terry Payne with 4H basketball jersey nonprofit has a prior history with the facility, having invested in an outside renovation that included building basketball hoops, playground equipment, a small football/soccer field, and a community stage back in the early 2000s when it was still run by 4H. On Sept. 15 at its annual Harvest Dinner, DCPA kicked off its $2,500,000 Raising Hope fundraising campaign to complete renovations of the building and offer programming there. 

Some of the biggest changes coming with the renovation involve installing a new roof and making the facility ADA-compliant by doing things like adding an elevator and modifying the bathrooms. Responding to community input, the co-developers will also be outfitting the building with a computer lab, audio and video recording studio, computer lab, and WiFi. There's also a large room on the first floor that the DCPA hopes to use for movie nights and other events that are being held outdoors right now.

As for regular programming, plans are underway to feature an after-school program, as well as activities for seniors and classes focused around cooking, audio and video media skills, graphic design, life skills, and financial literacy. Thorne is particularly interested in the possibilities the recording studio will open up for local youth.

"We have some musicians in the community that want to teach them at the recording studio,"
 He says. "The kids will be able to do voice-overs, but also record the history of the seniors in the community. So we'll have a living history"

'Good for our Community'

Thorne isn't the only one excited about the opportunities that the Brighter Detroit Community Center is bringing to the neighborhood. Tammara Howard, 52, is aTammara Howard (center) with local youth lifelong Gratiot Woods resident who runs the Belvidere Community Youth Block Club and the youth nonprofit What About Us, Inc., and serves on DCPA's board. She spent time at the community center as a youth and feels its reopening will be a real boon for the community.

"It will be a nice place for the children to be able to do after-school activities," she says. "Some people don't have computers, so they can do their homework there, and they'll also have fitness and nutrition classes there. I think it will be real good for our community."

Steven Dearing, a retired dance teacher who lives in Gratiot Woods, is also enthusiastic about the reopening.

"I think it'll keep our kids enjoying positive things in the community," he says.  "It'll give them a place where they can meet other peers [and give] seniors a place where they can go have activities."

Forward Momentum

Right now, DCPA is focused on raising money for the project with its fundraiser, which will involve a combination of events, grant writing, online crowdfunding, and reaching out to longtime organizational supporters. Thorne estimates that the process will take between a year and a year-and-a-half after which the developers will start concentrating more on the actual renovations. As of yet, they don't have an exact timeline for when the Brighter Detroit Community Center will be open to the public. 

Despite the hurdles, Payne is thankful to be collaborating with DCPA on the project and happy it's moving along. And he's looking forward to that day in the not-too-distant future when Gratiot Woods residents will once again have a community center to call their own.

"There's a lot of great stuff we did [there] when we was kids that they don't have today," he says. "I want to give kids and [others in the neighborhood] somewhere to go and to let young people experience some of the great things that we did growing up."

Resilient Neighborhoods is a reporting and engagement series that examines how Detroit residents and community development organizations are working together to strengthen local neighborhoods. It's made possible with funding from the Kresge Foundation.
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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.