The way Ajara Alghali sees it, Detroit's Livernois-McNichols neighborhood just wants what any other community has.
"[It could be] a restaurant, Simply Breakfast, it could be a coffee shop, it could be a community meeting place," she says. "The needs of this community are not any different from the needs and wants of any other community."
Alghali is program manager for the Live6 Alliance, the organization trying to help shepherd development in the area. So calling out the name of a breakfast restaurant planned for the McNichols strip, or the coffee house Detroit Sip, or the planned new location of a Biggby Coffee on Livernois is what she does.
She hits the nail on the head about what people in the neighborhood want — the good things they see in other communities. Hopefully Alghali can be an agent to help make that happen.
It's been a winter of change at Live6. Founding director Lauren Hood has moved on and a new team has moved in. Executive Director Cecily King has a background in real estate development and leads a four-member staff. That staff is more focused on the ins and outs of property management and business development.
In the past, the focus has been more on getting acquainted with the neighbors and vice versa. Now Live6 staffers seek more tangible results. And after more than two years on the scene, folks in the neighborhood want to see some movement.
The big move in the neighborhood that people can see isn't even a Live6 project. Inside the neighborhood's residential area, Ella Fitzgerald Park is taking shape. It's about as tangible as things come, and is part of the Fitz Forward residential part of the city's effort to nurture the area's development.
The size and scope of the park is impressive for the neighborhood. The 2.5-acre area is being fitted for a basketball court, a picnic and barbeque area, a multipurpose field, a playground, a bike repair station, public art, and a few other things. The park is the centerpiece of a greenway-bike path planned to stretch from Livernois Avenue to Greenlawn Street. The art is being created by Hubert Massey at the nearby Marygrove College.
That's something Mayor Mike Duggan will be able to point at and say he's done something in the neighborhood. And I've got to admit that the park speaks to a vision that has to include developing more in the area around it. That's the job of Century Partners, the company that won the city contract to rehab homes, demolish others, find a purpose for each of 311 vacant parcels in the neighborhood, and build the park.
Just a half-block away there's a burned-out roofless hulk of a house that looks like it may just collapse before anybody gets around to tearing it down. That one and others have to go if Fitz Forward or Live6 are to make any sense.
Sure, the kinds of things we're seeing in this area indicate gentrification — a greenway, bike repair station, and coffee shops are more common in Midtown than the northwest side. But that's fine if that's what the people want, and if development doesn't devolve into a fight between natives and newcomers.
This is a neighborhood where the median household income was $24,485 in 2016, according to citydata.com. It's probably not much different today. So it's going to take more than a park to turn this area around. Rehabbing residences and removing blight have to come along too.
That's what Gaston Nash, who lives a street over from the park, is looking for.
"I try to look for the stuff that's close by me," he says. "Behind my place there's a house that looks to be closed down. They're supposed to clean up individual lots. I haven't seen that in my part of the neighborhood."
Nash has talked with Fitz Forward representatives at community meetings, but after two years of talk he's taking a wait-and-see attitude. He's also engaged with Live6.
"My question for Live6 is, how are you going to make Six Mile the place that people want it to be?" he says.
That's a good question, and a lot of folks are pondering the answer. While development along Livernois still needs to pick up to connect with the resurgent Seven Mile intersection, McNichols is still pretty empty. That said, the potential for McNichols to develop into a unique village is much higher because there are fewer ensconced interests — and the strip is more pedestrian-friendly than Livernois.
Live6 will be courting more of that community feeling this summer when it moves from the University of Detroit Mercy campus into a storefront on McNichols. It will be sharing the space with the Detroit Collaborative Design Center, various city of Detroit staff, and community groups. The space is called HomeBase and community meetings can take place there.
"We're in the process of place making, creating places in the neighborhood where people can congregate and get to know each other," says Alghali.
That's a step, and there are thousands more to be taken. Folks around there need jobs, to go along with everything else. Some of that is considered in the proposal that Century Partners made for the city contract. It calls for local hiring using Detroit-based contractors and workforce training opportunities through Reclaim Detroit and Green Collar Foods.
That's nebulous enough language — no promises are made to people who live in Fitzgerald. But if nobody in the neighborhood gets a job, it will be noticed and there will be complaints. Too often, the real money on these projects is made by people with no connection to the community. And with a $7.5 million contract, somebody around there needs to get a job.
"The people here want to see youth development and job training," says Alghali. "In collaboration with Fitz Forward, maybe that can be a reality where individuals can learn in the housing redevelopment initiatives."
I give props to the city for getting the park off the ground. But it's still early in the process and there are still many ways it could go awry. Right now I'll believe in the good faith of the city in seeing this through.
According to information at theplatform.city, the project is still in its design phase. The next phase is construction. That ought to be very visible.
There are lots of plans over the next few months. Will people respond and come out to the outdoor market on the Avenue? Will businesses participate in Light Up Livernois, keyed to the citywide Detroit Design Fest in September?
If people become engaged, then those events can be considered successful. If not, it will be a longer and harder fight to breathe some life into this community than anyone imagined.
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