Resilient Neighborhoods: How a Cody Rouge nonprofit is moving forward with the power of block clubs

For many years, the area of Detroit's Cody Rouge neighborhood where Greenview-Wadsworth Park now sits languished as an eyesore, thanks in no small part to the presence of an abandoned school building on the site, once known as Harriet A. Marsh Elementary. Thankfully, things have been looking up lately.

Detroit Public Schools shut down Marsh Elementary in 2005. And not long after that, a fire ravaged the facility. For a long time, the area mostly just sat there, an uninviting green space with a few trees and some scraggly overgrowth.
"The city named the park. But Cody Rouge [Community Action Alliance] played a big part in getting the park."

The situation began to improve, however, in 2015, when the City of Detroit demolished the old school. And as things stand now, it's undergoing an extensive renovation. Mary Marsh, a longtime resident of the Southfield-Plymouth community where the park is located, couldn't be happier about the new outdoor community space.

"We are very excited about the park," says Marsh. "It's somewhere we can go in the neighborhood and where little kids can play."

These days the grass is mowed regularly at Greenview-Wadsworth, and there are now benches and picnic tables, as well as community garden beds where local residents can grow vegetables. Plans are also in the works to install a basketball court, walking path, pavilion with picnic table and grill, playscape, art space, and tool and equipment shed. Beyond that, around 20 trees will be planted at the park and there's an area that will be designated for youth sports activities as well.

Besides being a local resident, Marsh is also president of the area's local neighborhood organization, the Plymouth-Southfield Community Association. Last year as a result of the pandemic, her group used the park as an outdoor meeting space. They're planning to do so when the weather perks up this year as well. So, for her neighborhood group, the renovation there is a real blessing.

As Marsh sees it, there's a lot of credit to go around for fixing up the park. The City of Detroit cleared the old building away, mowed the grass there for two seasons after that demolition, reached out to citizens for input, and designated Greenview-Wadsworth as a park. The nonprofit Motor City Grounds Crew, which helps beautify and maintain parks around the city, has also been quite involved there; they've adopted the park and maintained it for the last few seasons, brought in volunteers to remove overgrowth and install benches and other structures on the site, and facilitated youth sports there. They are actively working with other partners to develop the grounds.

That said, though Marsh is especially thankful for the support of a community nonprofit known as the Cody Rouge Community Action Alliance.

"The city named the park," says Marsh. "But Cody Rouge [Community Action Alliance] played a big part in getting the park." 

Building community

Plymouth-Southfield Community Association certainly isn't the largest neighborhood organization in Detroit. It covers a 14-block area between Stahelin Road, Southfield Service Drive, Capitol Street, and Plymouth Road and has a regular membership of about 20 people. As a small Northwest Detroit neighborhood association, it's been helpful to have a partner group like the Cody Rouge Community Action Alliance.

In the case of Greenview-Wadsworth Park, the Alliance helped raise the visibility of Marsh's neighborhood, connected them with Motor City Grounds Crew (with whom the Alliance has a working relationship), and helped secure a $10,000 grant from ESPN/Under Armour and LISC for the renovation. As an organization dedicated to working with local residents, businesses, and organizations to improve life in Cody Rouge, doing this sort of thing is the reason the Cody Rouge Action Alliance exists. 

The Alliance was founded in 2007 as one of six community nonprofits established by the Skillman Foundation through anCody Rouge CCA doing census outreach during a food giveaway. initiative focused on stabilizing neighborhoods and assisting communities so they can be places where children and families can thrive. After two years of support from the foundation, Cody Rouge Community Action Alliance became an independent nonprofit. Over time, it also broadened its initial focus on children to include post-high-school young adults, seniors, and eventually families, while also holding strong on its community development commitment to helping to make Cody Rouge a viable, healthy, and livable neighborhood.

Assisting Cody Rouge takes many forms for the Alliance. One important aspect of its work has to do with revitalization, which involves efforts like blight removal, home repair, lighting improvements, food assistance, and keeping residents in their homes through property tax abatement and other programs.

Beyond that, much of the organization's work is centered on engaging with the community. Working with local youth has always been central to this focus. Each summer, the nonprofit actively works with the citywide youth jobs program, Grow Detroit's Young Talent, to find internships and paying community service projects for young people  

The Alliance also has a Youth Council made up of teens from the ages of 14 to 18 years old who either live, work, worship, or attend school in the neighborhood. The council allows teens to sharpen their leadership and public speaking abilities and to network with city officials, corporate partners, and community activists. It also engages its young participants in impact projects like sending holiday care packages to local families as well as helping to guide community planning and youth-led community services projects. 

"It's been great having a youth perspective, especially in the community planning aspect," says Charday Ward, the Alliance's youth development coordinator. "When [developers] need youth input as far as parks, streets, and art projects in the neighborhood, our youth are able to participate and give their perspective. It gives them fresh ideas and a fresh perspective from their point of view."

Several members of the youth council also sit on the Alliance's Executive Board, a concrete example of the importance that the nonprofit places on youth voice. 

For a long time, the nonprofit also had an active Faith Alliance that brought together local churches and religious leaders to help address problems in the community. 

At the moment, the Faith Council isn't as active as it used to be, due to a variety of factors including the pandemic and the passing of several local pastors. But it did play an important role in helping the Alliance build bridges to the community in its early years as well as helping to coordinate advocacy around concerns like issues with the local school system. With pandemic-related rent and foreclosure protections set to expire soon, however, the Alliance is eager to rebuild that coalition to help address a looming housing crisis.

Neighborhood unity

Beyond its work with youth and faith organizations, though, the Cody Rouge Community Action Alliance also has a very strong relationship with local block clubs and community associations. It wasn't always that way, though.

Dr. Patricia Butler, the Alliance's Director of Community Development and Outreach (and former Executive Board president), recalls that it took several years for many of Cody Rouge's local groups to know one another and work together. 

"We wanted to enter into a covenant agreement, and that took a lot of meetings," she says. "So we ate every time we met, because food does something to you. It just erases all the hostility. And they began to meet and it formed this core group. And to this day we still work together."

This coming together allowed the Alliance to elect a volunteer executive board and also spurred the formation of a coalition called the Neighborhood Partners, composed of the leaders' area block clubs and community groups. 

Through the Neighborhood Partners, the Cody Rouge Action Alliance now has a very strong partnership with neighborhood organizations. Through this relationship, the Alliance allows the smaller groups to have a greater voice on local issues and allows access to an infrastructure that gives them greater access to grant money and other resources. On the other side of things, through its connection to local organizations, the Alliance has gained in-depth access to information about local neighborhoods as well as the ability to mobilize volunteers from many different areas of Cody Rouge when needed.    

"The well-to-do neighborhoods in Detroit had large corporations helping them, like Henry Ford Hospital. We didn't have all that. All we had was each other," says Dr. Butler. "We share information and help one another."

That access to data and volunteers comes in handy when another nonprofit approaches the Alliance with a project that might benefit the community. It was also helpful during the recent census effort, allowing the Alliance to make sure every house in the area was contacted.  

Mary Marsh is certainly a fan of what the Alliance brings to the table. In fact, when asked about the nonprofit's relationshipAngy Webb with local groups like hers, she describes the Community Action Alliance as the "backbone" of Cody Rouge.

"Everything Cody Rouge does, [Executive Director Kenyetta Campbell] involves all the community associations and block clubs in it. For the Motor City Makeover, we do our own cleanup. They supply all the supplies we need and give us volunteers. They include us in everything that's going on."

Arthur Edge is president of the Far West Detroit Civic Association, a 58-year-old organization that serves about 1,300 homes in an area that roughly falls between Rouge Park, Warren Avenue, West Parkway Street, and Joy Road. He says his association is always willing to lend a hand to them when they can and appreciates how the Alliance keeps in touch with groups like his. 

"It's made a great impact," he says. "Because the Alliance wants to know what the communities want, and they try to get those issues addressed. So they'll be talking to us on what may be needed to make all these communities better in the Cody Rouge area."

Angy Webb is also grateful for what the Alliance working in tandem with the Neighborhood Partners has meant for her community. She's the president of the Joy Community Association, a 20-year-old Cody Rouge neighborhood group. In her view, the Alliance helped bring the community together while providing services local residents need. 

"We've done projects like our job program, where we've tried to help people find employment. So we've done a couple job fairs in the community.  We've done community cleanups, [and] not just in each of our own areas. If we had somebody that didn't have much help, we share the responsibility of helping them."

A future to celebrate

The Alliance is working on a sign program that would allow each neighborhood to have its own special sign. Each one will feature iridescent lights, so that even at night people will be able to know which Cody Rouge neighborhood they're in. The
"If you're going to have a party, you have to clean up the house, right?"
project will also feature two gateway signs to notify passersby that they're in Cody Rouge.

Marsh, in particular, is excited about the project, and holds it up as an example where the Alliance could get grants for the neighborhood associations that they may not have been able to secure on their own. 

"It's going to say 'Cody Rouge,' then it's going to have our block club on it," she says. "That's in the process right now. It got a little cold, but they said they would fix it up in the spring." 

Cody Rouge is also gearing up for its 15th anniversary next year. While there's a gala celebration in the works for August 2022, the first order of business will be cleaning up and beautifying Cody Rouge for residents. That's sure to take some effort, but with the support of funders and the area's many block clubs and neighborhood associations, Dr. Butler is confident the Alliance will be able to make that happen.

"We're going to clean up Cody Rouge," she says. "If you're going to have a party, you have to clean up the house, right? We're going to try and make Cody Rouge pretty, just a pretty place to be."

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.

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.
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