Ten years ago Shamayim (Mama Shu) Harris lost her two-year-old son, Jakobi, when he was killed by a hit-and-run driver on Rhode Island Ave. in Highland Park.
She decided the best way to create a memorial to Jakobi was to help turn some of that city’s most blighted blocks into an eco-village. She started out by bidding on a house at 24 Avalon at an auction. Her winning bid was $3,000, much more than she had, but it worked out. Dollars from a friend in Chicago and a $46 income tax check made up the difference.
A determined woman, Harris continued to raise dollars for her project, now called Avalon Village, an eco-village in the heart of Detroit.
Money came in from XQ Project, the Big Sun Foundation, a nonprofit founded by members of the music group Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros and a Kickstarter campaign raised $243,691 raised from 1,511 backers. Help also came from comedienne and talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres.
Now the Michigan Land Bank has deeded seven properties to Harris to help the revitalization continue, further strengthen the area and create a safer place for residents.
“We are happy to continue working with Mama Shu and Avalon Village as she proactively rebuilds and revitalizes her neighborhood in Highland Park,” says Josh Burgett, Michigan Land Bank director. “Land Banks all over the state are working hard to put properties back to productive use and continue Michigan’s resurgence.”
With these seven properties, the Michigan Land Bank has now worked with Harris on 11 properties since 2016. By redeveloping Avalon Village, the quality of life for the residents and neighbors has been improved, says Harris.
“Partners like the Michigan Land Bank help us continue to strengthen our community,” she says. “These seven properties will help us take Avalon Village from blight to beauty faster and more efficiently than we would have been able to do on our own. We are building a sense of pride for the people who live here and are working hard to make this a better, safer place; one property at a time.”
Harris started the project by cleaning up her yard and surrounding vacant lots, then slowly began acquiring property as part of her vision. Today, Avalon Village owns 30 properties on Avalon Street between Woodward and Second, including a park, a Goddess Marketplace for women entrepreneurs and a new village headquarters donated by DeGeneres.
A former blighted home is also being transformed into “The Homework House” to give students of all ages a safe place to study and socialize after school.
Other projects up and down the block are ongoing or in the development phase.
Harris wants to transform an abandoned gas station at the end of her street into the Blue Moon Café, which will be used for community dinners. A greenhouse would be right next to the café. The plan is for it to grow the food served in the restaurant.
She would also like to turn an abandoned house on the other side of the street into a home of homeless men that would help them get their bearings. Plus, there are plans for a healing center to teach yoga and meditation.
In Mama Shu’s words, “Highland Park needs a kick start.”
In Celtic mythology, Avalon was an earthly paradise generally described as a land of plenty where eternal spring, health, and harmony reigned. That’s Mama Shu’s goal, and her plan is taking shape.
Helping revitalize communities across The Great Lakes State, the Michigan Land Bank has put more than 100 properties back to productive use since the beginning of 2017.