‘A touchstone for neighborhoods:’ How community-based initiatives are reimagining public spaces

In the wake of COVID-19, Detroit businesses and community groups have been creating opportunities to rethink outdoor space to stimulate the local economy and build community.

 

Nonprofit group Live6 has been supplying restaurants along the Livernois corridor with patio furniture and decor through their new program Livernois Outdoors. Seven restaurants along the Avenue of Fashion were given outdoor seating to safely seat customers outside this summer.

 

Live6 focused on the Livernois corridor because of the construction project that removed the median and expanded the sidewalks last year. Because the construction slowed down traffic and caused some temporary closures, these businesses were just starting to recover when COVID-19 hit.

 

“With these new sidewalks, we wanted to gift these seven restaurants patio furniture so that they could have seating outdoors for their customers,” says Caitlin Murphy, Live6 civic commons coordinator. “We knew a lot of businesses were sort of cash strapped during the pandemic due to loss of sales for several months. And so we just wanted to provide a one-time gift that would hopefully drive clientele to their businesses.”

 

In total, Live6 donated about 70 sets of patio furniture and decor for these businesses to have outdoor seating. Narrow Way Cafe, Kuzzo’s Chicken and Waffles, Good Cakes and Bakes, Yoshi Hibachi Grille, Noni’s Sherwood Grille, Baker’s Keyboard Lounge, and Durden’s Food Truck all received furniture through this project.



 

 

The idea for the project came out of hands-on relief work Live6 was involved in the area. After the construction last year, Live6 saw a need to fill the new space to stir up business for the area.

 

“[We] saw that now we have these double-wide sidewalks in the neighborhood,” Murphy says. “With the idea that, you know, people would be like gathering outdoors, there's room for people to bike in, people to just walk from their neighborhood onto the corridor. And so really from early on in the pandemic, [we were] seeing these brand-new 26-foot wide sidewalks empty.”

 

Since gifting restaurants patio furniture, Live6 has been contacted by several other businesses along the corridor, such as the beauty boutiques, for furniture to allow clients to gather at their businesses. Murphy also hopes to recreate this project after the streetscape project on McNichols is completed.

 

“We’re really hoping to, next season, sort of replicate the process and do it on Six Mile, as well as figure out what are some solutions for the other businesses which are not restaurants or eateries … [This is] a placemaking project, and placemaking is one of our core pillars at Live6,” Murphy says. “The idea with that is to really look at places, new or old, and create situations for people’s quality of life and experience of the neighborhood to be enhanced.”

 

In Southwest Detroit, a resident-led effort created a meeting place at the neighborhood store Bodega Cat on Scotten Avenue, a place that can get overlooked when it comes to placemaking.

 

During the pandemic neighborhood resident Serena Daniels frequented Bodega Cat down the street from where she lived for groceries and convenience items, and she realized the need to create a meeting place for the neighborhood.

 

“As summer approached, and there was a lot more talk about the idea of creating patio spaces at restaurants and bars, I started looking at Bodega Cat thinking, ‘this is a great community,’” she says. “These stores, it’s one of those spaces that’s overlooked, but it’s kind of a touchstone for neighborhoods.”

 

The store has a large parking lot where neighbors would tailgate in, so Daniels approached the owner to talk about getting donations to turn the parking lot into a meeting place. After getting the green light, Daniels asked the neighborhood for donations of used patio furniture, umbrellas, and decorations, as well as a fundraiser to reimagine Bodega Cat’s outdoor space. They received several item donations and raised nearly $1,500 for the project.

 

The bodega had already been attracting attention this summer for its outdoor look with the addition of a large mural celebrating the late marine Vanessa Guillen, commissioned from Freddy Diaz. With this already on the mind of the owner and the community, Daniels found the addition of patio furniture to be a natural move to creating a true gathering place.

 

“If you know anything about Southwest Detroit, the community is really close-knit,” Daniels says. “I mean, if you lose your dog, people are there watching out for you. If you need a plumber or you need help fixing your house, all it takes is reaching out to your neighbors figuring it out together. And so that’s very much in line with what we saw with this effort. I will say that I was somewhat pleasantly surprised with the fact that people did actually donate money in addition to being willing to donate their used items because I know how difficult it is with people being unemployed or underemployed … it just kind of restores your faith.”

 

On the east side, the E. Warren Development Corporation saw a community need to stimulate business with local vendors whose events and markets got canceled due to the pandemic. On Aug. 13, they started the East Warren Farmers’ Market for the neighborhood businesses to sell safely.

 

Executive Director Joe Rashid says how the idea came out from surveying the neighborhood and local business owners, both of whom wanted to see a market in the area. Initially a four-week pilot project now extended through mid-October, the market runs on Thursday afternoons at Kensington and Warren and has grown to feature more than 30 food and clothing vendors as well as local farms and producers offering fresh produce.

 

“People have been really receptive and excited for it,” Rashid says. “A lot of people said, ‘like I just felt like everything shut down during COVID, and it’s so exciting to be able to actually look forward to this every Thursday.’ So, it’s something that has allowed us a really great opportunity that way.”

 

Many of the business owners involved in the market did not have a brick-and-mortar location, and relied on large events and markets to sell their product. Business owner Sarah Feldman says her business Bespoke by Feldman has been positively impacted by the introduction of the market to her neighborhood.

Bespoke by Feldman's sales table at the East Warren farmers market.

 

“[When] COVID hit, all of my shows and events that I had lined up got canceled,” she says. “So I had to find a way to kind of reinvent and think about what it was that I was doing to meet the need.”

 

A resident of East English Village, she’s been involved with neighborhood meetings since moving to the community in 2018. Then she heard about the farmers market.

 

“Joe reached out and suggested that I joined, so I did and I thought it was a great opportunity for us to add back in a community element, because I think that was one of the things that had been really missing since COVID hit,” she says.

 

According to Rashid and Feldman, the market has kept several thousands of dollars in the local economy and highlighted east-side businesses.

 

“So far, over $15,000 has been spent at the market in five weeks,” Rashid said. “And so if you look at that, that’s $15,000 that would be spent on Amazon or going outside of our neighborhood. We have a lot of spending power within our neighborhoods. But, we’re just beginning to realize the potential of our retail continuity on the corridor. And so, I think it’s had a tremendous impact.”

 

Going into fall as temperatures drop, Rashid and the E. Warren Development Corporation are exploring how to continue the market.

 

“Most vendors and most people aren’t going to want to come out and shop outdoors, but we have only a limited number of people that could actually come indoors … We might have to look at multiple storefronts, and only allow five people in or something like that. But we can figure out ways to adapt and be able to work together and none of this is done in a bubble. It takes a village approach. it doesn't happen without the vendors without the community.”

Read more articles by Lauren Karmo.

Lauren Karmo is a reporting intern for Issue Media Group. A student at Oakland University, she is passionate for creative storytelling and the journalism world. Follow her on all social media @laurenkarmo.  
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