Few people have called Fountain Court home as long as Robyn Ussery has.
Her parents Roger and Blanche Ussery have lived for decades at what board members say is the largest black-owned cooperative in Detroit, even watching some of their grand- and great-grandchildren raised there.
Concern and determination by residents and leadership, including board President Jerome Rayford, are part of what’s helping Fountain Court Co-op celebrate 50 years of creating and maintaining affordable housing. The vision of college students to transform the former site of St. John Nepomucene of Bohemia Catholic Church into what’s soon expected to be a fully occupied, mixed-income property is being recognized through the end of this year.
Hands-on effort by residents and board members, like the time Rayford left his office to install a common door in Robyn Ussery’s building, has helped Fountain Court Cooperative sustain itself. Hoping to reach maintenance when she dialed for management, Robyn soon found Rayford in the hallway. He finished the task in minutes.
“He’s a working president,” she says. “He’s not one who just gives orders.”
Rayford, who moved to Fountain Court near the edge of Southwest Detroit, minutes from downtown in 2011, became board president in 2016 and was reelected this year. After caring for his mother until she died of breast cancer, Rayford says he decided to channel his energy and grief from “missing mom” into efforts to improve the property. He first served as vice president.
“I said, ‘Here’s a chance to roll the ball and see how far I can get with it,’” he recalls. “In a lot of ways, the Cooperative saved me.”
A handful of residents moved into Fountain Court and never left. Henry and Sylvia Wynn married in the same unit where they’ve remained for almost five decades –the joke goes, for the honeymoon, she made dinner and he went to work at Chrysler. Fifty-year resident Catherine Leonard is the only person to ever live at her address. Hatsuko Stroman and her husband Fred, a war veteran, were early residents, too. Hatsuko remains at Fountain Court and a one-acre lot adjacent to the leasing office will be transformed into a park and community garden, in Fred’s memory.
Having weathered the nationwide housing crisis in the first decade of 2000 and surviving deterioration in the neighborhood, a celebration is appropriate, Robyn Ussery says. There were times when Fountain Court was written off as unlikely to survive, but the homes – built in the 1967 rebellion’s aftermath – reflect Detroit’s history of rising from ashes, she adds: “That hopefulness going on in the city, we literally embody that.”
Regular events like Fountain Court’s upcoming Halloween celebration and Thanksgiving’s meal and turkey distribution to every resident help create a sense of community, Rayford says. Annual “Health Day,” promoting wellness programs, and “Family and Friends Day,” featuring free food and entertainment for residents and non-residents alike, increase the cooperative’s eclectic appeal. The first-ever Fountain Court tree-lighting will be held this holiday season.
Training to familiarize themselves with housing and co-op leadership have helped Rayford and board members greatly reduce the property’s debt, even while showcasing recent building renovations and parking lot upgrades. Rayford says his background in finance and business administration, plus Midwest Association of Housing Cooperatives (MAHC) certification as a cooperative director, all benefit his efforts. He taught a class about conducting effective board meetings at MAHC’s conference in Las Vegas.
Living at the half-century-old property is as fulfilling as helping to lead it, he says.
“I have a vested interest here,” adds Rayford. “I love Fountain Court. My heart is here.”
Lead photo: Fountain Court residents enjoy scenic views of Southwest Detroit and
downtown, especially during spring. Photo by Robyn Ussery