As a black woman raised by activists during the civil rights era, Edythe Ford has faced circumstances unimaginable to most.
"I've been chased by police dogs, [shot at]," says Ford. "One time we were running in Mississippi during a protest, I was about 7. I had my aunt's hand and then her hand was gone. They later found her three blocks away where she'd been hit by the water from a firehose.
"They took us to jail of course, and we got out and just started back again."
Things have calmed down for Ford since the political turbulence of the 1960s and '70s, and while she no longer risks her life at protests, she has never ceased fighting for what she believes in. Now in her late 50s, Ford has invested her energy in getting resources to the east Detroit neighborhood where she lives.
Ford's run with the 48214 zip code has been long and arched. She was raised just off the once-vibrant Mack commercial corridor near Van Dyke, watched it burn during the 1967 uprising, left for the suburbs, and came back for good in 2012 after getting her master's in history from Wayne State University. Blight was rampant and the poverty rate was high. She was then thrust into the role of neighborhood squeaky wheel.
"My grandmother used to be the neighborhood busybody, and she had a bachelor's degree in nursing, and I guess people used to go to her because she was the smart one in the neighborhood," explains Ford. "[So] when I came back to the east side after living out in Birmingham, all the elderly neighbors on the block saw me moving in and they started coming down and said, 'You know you gonna help us because that's what your grandma used to do.'"
Ford started with simple things — sending volunteers to cut the lawns of older residents, getting the cellphone numbers of local patrol officers so she could call them directly on crimes. Then, a few years ago, her efforts gained financial backing from the Mack Avenue Community Church Development group that is working to revitalize the neighborhood holistically, and she was hired as its director of community engagement.
Residents now go directly to Ford whenever they have problems, but Ford has grown to rely on them too: Neighbors have to do their part to keep blight at bay and, occasionally, help her fight for city services.
"Sometimes I might have 20 neighbors call on a crime, all at one time, and that makes the [police] come out," Ford says. "If we have an issue and we're not getting service, 12 of us may show up at the parks department or general services and ask how come we can't get this fixed."
Ford and her community's indefatigability have paid off. Last month, after a six-year fundraising effort, the MACC Development group opened one of the first new businesses along the stretch of Mack left depleted since the riots — a laundromat that will include a coffee bar with cups that cost $1. And in the true spirit of holistic revitalization, the business offerings were determined after Ford solicited input from community residents.
The build-out of the site, which will double as MACC's headquarters, cost a whopping $1.5 million.
"I remember one guy said, 'You know, they don't want us to have anything out here in the hood, but I love you guys because you're not giving up.' And it happened," she says.
"You gotta go out there and you gotta fight ... that's just how I was raised."
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