There is a seed germinating from the darkness
Little things are poking up and seeing the light
Big things are making haste
The people are coming together in love, not in fear
– John Knowles, “A Rising in Detroit”
John Knowles’ idyllic childhood on Princeton Street in northwest Detroit was like a scene from a Norman Rockwell painting. His days were filled with bike rides, swimming and outings with his Boy Scouts troop.
“The neighborhood was gorgeous,” says Knowles. “It just felt good. It was peaceful.”
Knowles, 65, hopes today’s youth in the city’s Livernois Avenue and McNichols Road area can experience the community as he did.
An ongoing collaboration between some of Detroit’s most influential academic institutions, philanthropic agents and residents could grant his wish.
The Live6 Alliance, an initiative targeting four primary neighborhoods in the Livernois-6 Mile (McNichols) Road swath of Detroit’s northwest side, was launched in 2015 with a $700,000 seed investment by the Kresge Foundation, Detroit Corridor Initiative, Detroit Economic Growth Corp. and University of Detroit-Mercy (UDM). Live6 goals include community, business and cultural revitalization. New and expanded opportunities for entertainment, entrepreneurship and affordable housing are all planned for the collaboration.
There is concern in the neighborhoods that corporate influence could turn Live6’s target areas into a sort of Midtown West, with the negative connotations of gentrification in Detroit’s Midtown. But Lauren Hood, acting director of the Live6 Alliance, says her job is addressing resident interests at every stage of development. “If you live there you want to keep things like they are as far as the culture,” she says.
What’s needed in neighborhoods is a boost to the landscape that includes homes and business, says Hood, who’s excited to contribute to the community where she attended grade school and spent time at her grandmother’s house.
Stable blocks, like his family’s on Princeton – which produced a doctor, an engineer, and even an FCC commissioner – are more needed than entertainment, Knowles says. Even today he remains active with Princeton Street Block Club, though his sister lives in the family home, and he resides in a nearby west side neighborhood.
“I don’t think we really had any (philanthropic) foundations involved in this community,” he says. “If Live6 can show success, it opens the door for others to help us address our needs. There’s a saying, ‘Principles remain the same. It’s the variables that change.’”
SAME CHARACTER, MORE CHARM
With that in mind, Hood is protective of the character of the area, its dedicated residents and entrepreneurs. The same respect afforded major Live6 institutions, she’d argue, is due to Lucki’s Cheesecakes and landmarks like Eric’s I’ve Been Framed Shop and art gallery, with its iconic, multi-colored Barack Obama image on the building.
“We want to take the culture here and bring that out,” she says. “We want ‘Mrs. Jenkins’ Shortbread’ to open before we want a Jimmy John’s.”
Hood doesn’t mean to suggest a major chain wouldn’t eventually be welcomed, but the first stage of Live6 is about encouraging small businesses and entrepreneurs to take advantage of grants and other program resources.
There’s also another practical reason for preserving the community’s character.
“You’re not going to make this a distinctive place by putting the same things here that are everywhere else,” Hood says.
Those kinds of distinctions are what ultimately attracted Joe Marra to home ownership on Ohio Street. An ex-Marine and professional tree trimmer from northern New Jersey, his only connection to Live6 territory was that his first-generation American dad earned a scholarship and graduated from University of Detroit in the 1940s.
“The major thing was that I got tired of the East Coast,” says Marra. “I’d been priced out of New Jersey.”
LOVING WHERE YOU LIVE
After traveling through Virginia, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Chattanooga and other stops around the country, he spent six weeks in Detroit in 2011.
“I absolutely fell in love with the place,” he says. “To me Detroit has all the advantages of the city without the obnoxious parts, the crowds, the noise, the pollution. I’ve got friends who’ve got deer in their backyard and they’re 15 minutes from downtown.”
“The people in Detroit are much, much, much friendlier than the people on the East Coast,” he says. “It’s the only city I’ve ever been sad to leave.”
After first renting in Jefferson-Chalmers, Marra learned about the Ohio Street house near Marygrove College last year. He snatched up the “flipped” property within a week.
Now between tree-trimming work, Marra spends his days developing a 20,000-square-foot commercial space on 6 Mile, which includes a former Winkleman’s, the now defunct department store chain founded in Detroit. He also volunteers cleaning alleys and trimming overgrown lots.
“He lives there and he walks the walk,” Hood says. “He told us he gets offers on his space for things like marijuana distilleries and he tells them, ‘No, I don’t want that in my neighborhood.’”
Hood hopes to work with Marra and other Live6 participants to open storefronts devoted to fitness and entertainment in the neighborhood.
Part of Live6’s “placemaking” efforts, which include marketing and organizing the community, is a social media and oral history project that will interview residents about their lives and connections to the neighborhood. Modeled after the “Humans of New York” multimedia concept, Live6’s effort will tell stories about both long-time residents and newcomers like Marra.
One candidate could be Marra’s octogenarian pal Clyde “Champ” Calvert. He currently regales Marra with tales of growing up with singer B.B. King in Memphis and memories of the legendary mob-owned restaurant that once sat across from Marra’s building.
Knowles is another candidate. A retired barber and business owner, he recently took up poetry and performs spoken word pieces, some inspired by his love of the community. Unlike when he was a young man catching such acts as Joni Mitchell at the Chess Mate, a hip spot at the corner of Livernois and 6 Mile where there’s now a McDonald’s, today he has to leave the neighborhood to share his poems with a crowd.
Live6’s direction will come from residents, block clubs “and others who want to contribute to what’s happening,” says Laura Trudeau, managing director for the Community Development and Detroit programs at The Kresge Foundation.
“The goal in Live6, as elsewhere in the city, is to build on the assets in the neighborhood, and no asset is more important than the residents themselves, the folks who’ve stuck it out through some of the city’s hardest times and want to see better days where they live,” she says. “That’s why engagement of the community is so important. Live6 depends on understanding the community as a prerequisite for attracting investments that make sense for the community.”
University of Detroit-Mercy grad student Samantha Szeszulski and her boyfriend blend in well with their mostly older neighbors. They bought a three-bedroom house on Prairie Street and are already happy with the move. She knew she and her boyfriend “had made the right decision” when Live6 was announced in an e-mail to UDM students.
Between studying in the college’s Detroit Collaborative Design Center, Szeszulski volunteers and supports Hood in the Live6 campaign.
She says grassroots efforts will galvanize the campaign to progress.
“It’s a key step in getting what might currently be (solo) organizations to collaborate and work together,” she says. “I’m excited to see what the new additions to the neighborhood will be.”
Editor’s Note: To contact John Knowles email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos: Paul Engstrom