Ground zero for the 1967 civil disturbance is becoming ground zero for neighborhood transformation thanks to involved citizens and the Detroit Planning and Development Dept.
A standing-room-only crowd at a recent Rosa Parks/Clairmount Community forum sought a hundred ways to preserve historical buildings and increase density of homes and retail.
With the renovation of the now-shuttered Herman Kiefer property in the works and the city’s $1.6 million in planning and design work for the Rosa Parks/Clairmount neighborhood and three other target communities, the wish list has a real chance of being fulfilled and sustained.
The most vocal concern at the meeting, held at the Joseph Walker Williams Recreation Center, was a desire to restore Hutchins Park so neighborhood kids can play baseball and elders can play checkers under shade trees. Those attending said they want streets safe enough so children can walk to the park and they hope abandoned buildings like Hutchins School will be renovated.
“When I was a kid we had four baseball diamonds. I played softball almost every morning. I kissed boys in the cubby hole. Now I’m fighting to bring the life back to this neighborhood so kids can run, breathe and play, not smoke weed in their basements, staring at PlayStation every day.” -Renee “Nee-nee” Gunn.
The meeting brought long-time and newer residents of the neighborhood. Citizens met with Detroit’s planning and development team and representatives of Chicago-based Gensler Consulting led by Andre Broomfield, to help rebuild the sparsely populated neighborhood from the inside out.
“When I was a kid we had four baseball diamonds. I played softball almost every morning. I kissed boys in the cubby hole. Now I’m fighting to bring the life back to this neighborhood so kids can run, breathe and play, not smoke weed in their basements, staring at PlayStation every day.” ,” says Renee “Nee-nee” Gunn. She is the first official story teller in a series of city and neighborhood conversations that will happen monthly in this south central sector of Detroit.
Agencies, historical societies and film producers are training their attention on this west side community in the shadow of Motown Museum which was the scene of the largest civil disturbances during five days in the summer of 1967. In the ensuing years most of the shops disappeared, schools were shuttered and numerous homes fell to neglect. Out of the ashes a determined community emerged and wishes to be known.
“To keep young adults here, to give them a chance, we need safety and security, education in career opportunities, destinations people can walk to,” Broomfield says. His vision includes murals on buildings, renovation of historic houses, new construction, scales of open spaces and families walking baby carriages and pets through the streets.
Broomfield’s polling of residents found 63 percent favor redeveloping Herman Kiefer, a $143-million investment that could become a small hotel and indoor skate park. The investor, New York-based Ron Castellano, has spent numerous hours with residents learning their dreams. He also took on maintenance of 300 empty lots and 100 vacant homes near the Hamilton, Taylor and Pingree.
Mildred Robbins stood up to praise Castellano for listening and involving neighbors in his plans. “They will help us build a more solid community,” she told the audience. Others called it a pipeline for job seekers.
Some residents expressed a jaded concern that hope would come and fall apart a few years later. The Farmer Jack’s Plaza in the neighborhood then called Virginia Park, was built after the ‘67 rebellion and lasted only a decade before being shuttered. But the townhouses and subdivision built in the 1980s and 1990s look fresh and occupied.
“We’re bringing ideas to the table that never were thought of before,” says planner Vince Keenan. “Together we will create entities that breathe and evolve with time. The community engagement process helps assure our ideas are sustainable.”
Sharon Calmese, who lives in the neighbor-hood with her children and husband Frank, is optimistic. She is an active member of a block club and her roots in the Rosa Parks/Clairmount district goes back to her father, who raised seven children.
I want this neighborhood to come back for my children. I want it to flourish so children can go outside and play,” Calmese says.
Violence isn’t a daily problem, but certain events sting her soul.
Her 11-year-old grandson had just come in from playing basketball in the neighborhood when a car full of young men shot up another car on the street. One man died. From that point forward everyone drives – even a block away.
One respondent hoped Rosa Parks Boulevard would go back to its earlier name – 12th Street, because, beyond the five days in that fateful July, it was a thriving retail community and a destination for much of Detroit. But others like honoring the civil rights champion with a street name.
The Detroit Planning and Development Department hopes to address the safety and security needs with increased public safety, aggressive efforts by the Detroit Land Bank to demolish some structures, boarding up the open school buildings and rebuilding a retail and residential community.
They may not get a Wal-Mart, but they will see stores that could thrive in this determined place and let 12th Street rise again in glory.
Lead photo by Michelle & Chris Gerard