It was one of the most frightening moments of Lester Parnell’s life.
After pulling into his driveway with his family and getting ready to enter the house one evening he noticed his 1-year-old toddling between a mother raccoon and her baby.
An abandoned house on Artesian Street next door to his home had long been a breeding ground for the animals. He’s complained to the city, but now the animals, known to carry rabies, were a potential danger to his little boy.
“That’s a wild animal and it’s unpredictable,” says Parnell. “I was calm. I went to pick him up.”
Thankfully, his son was unharmed, but the raccoon problem would have to be dealt with decisively and immediately.
Parnell calls it “a blessing” that he met Reggie Davis, deputy manager for Detroit’s District 1, as Davis made morning rounds in the neighborhood a short time later. In about six weeks the animals were contained and the “raccoon house,” as it was known among neighbors, was razed.
Whether it’s extreme cases like raccoons or more typical, but significant, resident concerns, District 1 Manager Stephanie Young and Davis have become known in the community for hands-on action and fast follow-up.
A dynamic duo whose energies seem to mingle as they work together, they represent an area of the city that includes high-profile neighborhoods like Brightmoor and Grandmont Rosedale, and landmarks like the Old Redford Theatre. Bordered by Eight Mile Road, Telegraph, Ardmore, and the Southfield and I-96 freeways, the district is characterized by active resident involvement and some of Detroit’s more innovative business and artistic ventures.
Young, a pastor, and Davis, a former religion student in college, say they view working on behalf of citizens as part of a spiritual mission that extends beyond civil service.
“You’re not going to be in the office behind a desk,” says Young. “Our work is in the field.”
A quick glance around the cramped space the pair occupies on the Coleman A. Young Municipal Building’s 11th floor appears to confirm Young’s words. There are no family photos, coffee makers or even landline phones. Aside from a few recent copies of TheHUB, a map on the wall identifying each city district, and a pair of women’s shoes (flats), presumably for long days Young spends on the move, the room could almost pass for a storage closet.
Young says a typical morning begins with a check of the day’s schedule, and then the pair leaves the office shortly after arriving. Equipped with laptops and mobile phones, they work out of their cars often well into the afternoon and evening while making house calls to neighbors who need assistance. One hundred home visits a week is “on the low side,” she says.
Concerns can range from nuisance abatement to legal issues and a variety of inquiries, many of which Young and Davis attempt to tackle without giving citizens the task of contacting another city department. Young, who has lived in the district since 2009, and Davis, a 25-year resident, say the work of public service in their own community is fulfilling.
Davis says helping Mayor Mike Duggan campaign in neighborhood barbershops “where they were supposed to spend 30 minutes and came out four hours later” helped inspire him to seek a position working in District 1.
“His campaign slogan was, ‘Every neighborhood has a future,’” he says.
If Davis’ name rings familiar it’s likely because he spent years on Detroit airwaves as popular radio personality “DJ Reggie Reg.” He says he felt a divine “calling” to leave radio in 2009 and successfully ran for the Charter Commission.
“If you compare all the other districts, none can say they are the rural district with creeks and parks, and probably more deer than anyplace else except maybe Palmer Park,” says Davis, who describes District 1 as a unique mix of nature and urban scenery.
Conversely, more debatable among District 1 nature lovers are homeowners who maintain bee farms, goats, chickens, and rabbits on their property. A handful of residents who raise livestock and cultivate land were among citizens who prompted a series of recent public meetings and a pending proposal that could make city farming legal. The proposal is scheduled for consideration in February.
Young says she appreciates resident opposition to backyards resembling zoos, but she visited a farm in the district and she urges the public to keep an open mind, despite preconceptions.
“I want to take away the ignorance,” she says. “I was out there the other day and I didn’t smell a thing. You wouldn’t know there were goats back there.”
Other challenges facing the community include ongoing concerns about crime in areas like Brightmoor, but Davis calls the most recent “Devil’s Night” arson report evidence of victory. Of 11 intentionally set fires, once a headline-generating epidemic in Detroit on Oct. 30, he says there was “not one in Brightmoor.”
Thanks largely to philanthropic support by the Kresge and Skillman Foundations, these days “all kinds of money get poured into Brightmoor on a regular basis,” Young says.
Meanwhile, entrepreneurs tend to thrive in District 1 as family-owned restaurants like Sweet Potato Sensations, which attracted a recent visit by presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, seldom lack patrons. Homeowners in Grandmont Rosedale, Young’s neighborhood, enjoy public murals and easy access to cafés and a bookstore.
“You’ll see people walking in our community, which is something people look for when they search for housing,” he says.
It’s one of the things that attracted Parnell.
Relieved that he no longer contends with raccoons, Parnell says he has been working his way through the remnants of blight left behind when the infested house was torn down, but he still feels confident he can call on District 1 reps for backup. In fact, Davis has Parnell’s number saved into his cell phone.
Young and Davis’ speed dial commitment is one thing that makes Parnell say he’s glad to call Grandmont 1, a subdivision near Lyndon and the Southfield Freeway, his home. A brick mason, he says he’ll continue renovating the three-bedroom “diamond in the rough” that drew him and his family into the district from Highland Park.
“We put a lot of pride into this home and into this neighborhood,” he says. “We’re Detroiters.”
Photos by Paul Engstrom