For the last four years, Detroit’s Fitzgerald neighborhood has been undergoing a profound transformation. For decades, the neighborhood suffered from disinvestment, as businesses closed and neighbors left. Today, what was hundreds of vacant lots and a mostly-shuttered commercial corridor on McNichols Road (also known as 6 Mile Road), contains a nationally-celebrated community park, newly rehabbed homes, construction on a half-mile long greenway and the beginnings of a commercial corridor coming back to life.
In 2015, the Fitzgerald neighborhood transformation — a transformation supported by foundations, local non-profits, community advocates, neighborhood residents and the City of Detroit — was in its initial planning stages. One thing that became clear in during the planning stage was the lack of places to host community meetings in this Northwest Detroit neighborhood. Since all of us doing civic commons work understand the importance of authentic civic engagement, we know that authentic community conversations are difficult to host if all of a neighborhood’s civic spaces are boarded up or abandoned.
This lack of community space came to a head three years ago when one of my organization’s first tasks was to host a homebuyer resource fair in Fitzgerald, connecting participating banks with local “block club” leaders. Connecting neighborhood leaders to bank staff seemed like the simple task of scheduling an event, until we found out that there was no place to book such an event. After decades of disinvestment, the McNichols corridor was nearly vacant of businesses and most buildings were boarded up, with the exception of liquor and hardware stores and a barber college. The physical infrastructure of the commercial corridor was destroyed and worse yet, it had negatively impacted the social infrastructure. There was no place for the everyday activity of neighbors meeting neighbors, and the important local organizing for change that neighborhood leaders do. There were no functioning civic assets that welcomed and connected everyone — no libraries, no community centers, not even a coffee shop.
Though two universities sit at either side of the Fitzgerald neighborhood, we worried the renters that were our target audience for the event might be reluctant to attend a community event on a college campus, so we decided to hold the homebuyer resource fair on a vacant lot at the corner of San Juan and McNichols streets. Tents were erected and folding tables and chairs set up. Underwriters and bank executives came from the suburban outskirts to congregate on this vacant lot, looking to fulfil their Community Reinvestment Act requirements to serve residents in the neighborhood, and to let local renters know that plans called for the rehabbing of one hundred nearby homes.
While the vacant lot worked for the homebuyer fair, it was clear that if we were going to transform an entire neighborhood and commercial corridor, we would need a welcoming space to host meetings, provide information and to become a hub for genuine community engagement. Thus HomeBase — an abandoned retail space reimagined as a place of gathering and connection — was born.
Neighborhood HomeBase is a storefront community gathering place, and more. Its purpose is to promote design and engagement within the neighborhood as well as serve as a meeting place for community organizations. It is the home of the Live6 Alliance, the neighborhood’s community development organization, and the Detroit Collaborative Design Center, a non-profit architecture firm that’s affiliated with the University of Detroit Mercy. It’s also a place for City of Detroit staff who are working on the Fitzgerald revitalization to work in the community and directly with local residents, embedded in the neighborhood rather than in a faraway city office. Additionally, there are desks and shared meeting rooms for local block club groups, non-profit community organizations and other local partners.
HomeBase opened in April of this year with much fanfare. Speakers at the inaugural open house included Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, the CEO of the Kresge Foundation, Rip Rapson, the President of the University of Detroit Mercy, Dr. Antoine Garibaldi, local block club leader Stephanie Harbin and the Executive Director of the Live6 Alliance, Cecily King. All speakers reaffirmed that HomeBase was and is designed to be a collaborative space, providing opportunity for synchronizing efforts, streamlining process and fulfilling a shared goal of restoring the Livernois commercial corridor back into a vibrant epicenter of small business and neighborhood activity.
What other cities can learn
Even though we have been working together on HomeBase for three years, it still feels like the work is just beginning. However, we have learned some important lessons about creating authentic civic spaces that are relevant for city staff, advocates and neighborhood leaders in other cities:
Open early: HomeBase was conceived after the initial planning for Ella Fitzgerald Park and greenway had started. Because of this timing, our set of cross-sector collaborators were always hampered by the fact that we had no place to meet, no place to store materials, and no place to work. For example, we had to carry all of the supplies we needed in the trunks of our cars because we lacked a permanent storage space. In addition, we had difficulty scheduling events up until HomeBase’s opening because we used various unfinished commercial spaces to accommodate our on-going and active programs. If HomeBase had been constructed first, our meetings and programming would have been less difficult and had greater impact. Ideally, the HomeBase development should have preceded all other construction work in the neighborhood. One benefit: not having a place to settle into pushed us to meet neighborhood residents where they were, and this nomadic form of civic engagement may have helped to solidify the value of the revitalization efforts for members of the surrounding community.
Expect evolution: As the project moved forward, leadership changed and operational expectations of the space grew, ultimately allowing for HomeBase’s overall strategy to evolve. When the project was first conceived it was thought to be a design center where residents could come and learn about the project unfolding and co-create the future vision for the neighborhood along with the City and other active non-profit organizations. By the time that HomeBase opened most construction in the neighborhood was complete or underway. Now we are shifting our focus to building a set of educational and engaging programs that bring neighbors together and connect them to the resources that they need.
We had to be nimble because we were doing something new: building a community space that housed local non-profits staff, City of Detroit staff and trying to work collaboratively on a truly transformative project. Navigating this was challenging for everyone working on the project at that time. This transition was so impactful that it delayed construction timelines by months, and stretched initial budget expectations. In retrospect, we would have had a more cohesive team had we not been amidst transition, but things do change, and are often beyond immediate control.
Keep communications clear: As a result of these changes, inconsistent messages about when HomeBase would be opening, and the center’s function remained unclear to some stakeholders and residents. As we were navigating new relationships in a longstanding community and working to gain the trust of local residents and vendors, being as transparent as possible helped solidify confidence among neighbors who didn’t always have reasons to trust people from outside the neighborhood. One of the ways that we are working to keep communications clear is by hiring local residents to be Ambassadors to HomeBase. We have four people on staff who greet people when they walk in, assist with scheduling and promoting events, and serve as a resource connecting their neighbors to the information that they speak.
Looking back on all that has been accomplished thus far, it is clear there are things we could have done differently. However, now that we are all co-located at HomeBase we have the ability to work and coordinate efficiently amongst stakeholders for the overall benefit of the residents.
We are still in the early stages of operation but have already seen a tremendous amount of interest and support for HomeBase. On a daily basis -visitors stop by inquiring, “what is this place, and how can I get involved?” The goal of HomeBase is simple and evolving, to serve a population, to convene all organizations and partners who share common interests around neighborhood stabilization, and to act as a connector for the residents and local community associations to one another and to the resources they need. We are looking to solidify a set of educational programs and events including financial literacy workshops and another homebuyer resource fair. We are currently hosting a wide range of community planning meetings and setting up opportunities for engagement across the public and private sectors.
At HomeBase, we are developing an innovative approach that embeds key city and citywide nonprofit staff, alongside community groups in an unimposing neighborhood hub, while at the same time directly serves residents as a flexible storefront gathering space for local meetings, events and programs. HomeBase not only provides the aptitude to align resources so that we can sustain the work that we have begun in Fitzgerald, but also offers a model for neighborhoods across the city seeking an effective way to collaborate on revitalization efforts.
Caitlin Murphy is the Civic Commons Coordinator for the Live6 Alliance, a community development organization in Northwest Detroit. She also oversees the operations of Neighborhood HomeBase, programming public events and resource distribution.