Stir It Up: Fitzgerald neighborhood calls comeback question

Apr 12, 2017 at 1:00 am

It was an unseasonably cold rainy afternoon late last week when I cruised the intersection of Grove and Prairie streets. There were vacant lots on three of the four corners there, and the streets were gray and deserted.

The neighborhood is ravaged. There are 40 lots on Prairie north of the Central Park intersection, and only 24 of them have standing structures. Six of those look uninhabited or beyond rehabilitation. By and large it was an uninspiring gray montage of a lost Detroit neighborhood.

The corner of Grove and Prairie is called Central Park, at least that's what's on the city's Fitzgerald community revitalization plan map. It's the main feature of a green walkway that stretches about three-quarters of a mile from Livernois to Marygrove College — right past the corner of where I used to live.

The day before I drove by there, Mayor Mike Duggan showed up with neighborhood boosters, and the news media gathered at Central Park for the announcement of the developer selected for the Fitzgerald neighborhood revitalization effort by the city. It's been well over a year in the planning, including numerous neighborhood meetings, pop-up events, and a search for developers. Now Duggan promises that residents will begin to see the progress quickly as vacant lots are cleaned up and repurposed, and houses are either rehabbed or torn down.

It's crucial for the neighborhood, and Detroit as a whole, that the optimism of the announcement turns into the reality of meaningful development. This effort is important at so many levels. This is the city's first strategic foray into a residential neighborhood since Detroit's highly touted turnaround has taken off. Downtown and Midtown have exploded with investment and development, but can that kind of initiative work in a residential neighborhood?

This specific neighborhood is going to answer a lot of questions about the city's intervention. Fitzgerald borders on the more stable Bagley and University District neighborhoods, and is bookended by the University of Detroit Mercy and Marygrove College. If the city can't shepherd this area back to vitality, then what hope is there for other neighborhoods that lack these stabilizing influences?

The Fitzgerald neighborhood is the defining project that will answer the question of whether Detroit truly comes back, or will remain a wilderness dotted with a few shiny, moneymaking islands.

Stephanie Harbin, a 47-year resident and president of the San Juan Block Club, is counting on it working.

"I see it going in a positive direction," Harbin says. "With this revitalization project, we can't help but go forward from the conditions of our community. It needs some fresh life brought back into it. This revitalization team has shown that they are committed."

Harbin has been plugged in and committed, from involvement in community meetings to pop-up events. There was a meeting at Bethune Elementary School where six developers presented their proposals to some 200 residents. Harbin believes that the city and developers paid attention to what they heard from residents along the way.

"I feel that they did listen to me because of the housing situation," Harbin says. "They were more or less overlooking it, and not really putting their attention on how they would redevelop these properties. I expressed to them we need residents. We need bodies back into this community. We need housing. Now they are going to refurbish 114 homes instead of looking ... to tear them down. So I feel they did listen to residents for this project."

In addition, there are zero interest loans available for homeowners in the neighborhood to fix up their houses as the development takes place around them.

It's a calculated bet that this will work. City planning director Maurice Cox has said on more than one occasion that "we're writing the book" on this one — meaning that there is no model to follow in re-creating Detroit. And that is definitely what is going on here. Times have changed, and there is no going back to what we used to be — no matter which iteration of which reality you want to reference. If successful, this may well be the model that other Rust Belt cities follow to turn their fates around.

It's literally that big and the stakes are that high. But the steps to get there can be very small. San Juan Street is just a block over from Prairie. Harbin references the red and white signage near the McNichols and Puritan intersections, noting that you are entering the San Juan Block Club community — a half-mile stretch with no cross streets.

"It brings in a sense of not coming in here with a lot of foolishness," Harbin says. "There is a barbers college on the corner of McNichols, so there are people around."

It's a start. In addition to housing people, there needs to be jobs, transportation, education, and all the other stuff that characterizes vibrant neighborhoods. You can't get it all at once, but these are goals that in the long run will signal if it was worth the money and effort to rehabilitate houses.

Another piece of this effort, the Live6 Alliance, is working on community engagement with the initiative, in addition to strengthening the business corridors along McNichols and Livernois avenues.

"There are fears and concerns that big time developers are going to hold out for the highest dollar and leave houses empty," Lauren Hood, executive director of Live6, says. "Change makes people cautious. Some are concerned about changing the social makeup of the neighborhood. Although some people are very happy."

Harbin is one of the happy ones. "Who wants to continue to look at abandoned homes or vacant lots full of debris?" she asks. "Those residents who may have that negative thinking do not attend the meetings. I wish they would at least attend one or two meetings. It's not something to push people out of the community."

This stuff is going to be in the spotlight in coming months, partly because Mayor Duggan is running for reelection this year. He got a bunch of streetlights put in (there still aren't enough of them) and shortened response time for things like police calls, fire trucks, and EMS. That stuff is good, but we live in a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately kind of world, and Duggan will need to point to something in the neighborhoods to show that the city's agenda is moving forward beyond the central city.

I've been waiting some 40 years to see something like this come around. Over the past week there were three evenings of performance celebrating the old Chess Mate coffee house at the new Detroit Sip, just a few blocks away from the old location. It was something new connected to a notable old institution.

Hey, maybe this thing will work.

The Government Apprentice show has moved into some interesting territory lately. Two contestants, presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner and alternative evil Shrek Steve Bannon, seem to be fighting it out for the most favored apprentice position. Bannon was recently demoted and, according to some reports, was nearly fired.

I never watched The Apprentice but this government version has me sitting on the edge of my seat.