The Karasi Development: Honoring Ancestors’ Stories

By Diane Proctor Reeder

“We have a civic covenant with this community.”

This was Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s promise in 1967 when he came to Detroit to view the aftermath of the Rebellion, and consider how the African American community could achieve transformation. Those words resonated with a young Ray Johnson, who was at that time serving as Executive Director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Johnson is now a renowned educator and founder of Detroit’s Paul Robeson and Bates Academies, where he not only educated young African American students, but empowered them to believe in themselves and their particular brand of genius.

Fast forward to 2015, when new product marketing expert Katrina Lockhart decided that this sacred site at Rosa Parks Boulevard and Clairmount, which had once bustled with economic and social activity, needed to be nurtured back to life. In the 1950s, Katrina’s father had come here from the cotton fields of Georgia to give his family a better, safer life.  Born in this community, Lockhart, like Johnson, has spent her life here and has been a strong advocate with and for her fellow residents.

Serendipitously, the two entrepreneurs had crossed paths when the four nephews Lockhart was raising attended Bates Academy. When she spoke with one of her now-adult nephews about her vision for a renewed Rosa Parks district, he immediately suggested that she reconnect with Johnson, who was by then finishing up a long tenure as Chairman of the Neighborhood Services Organization (NSO). Johnson had played a key role in NSO’s development of another challenged Detroit neighborhood, helping bring to fruition a $51 million project in the area anchored by the old Michigan Bell Building on Oakman Boulevard. When Lockhart and Johnson reconnected, Johnson saw Lockhart’s vision immediately and agreed to partner with her. They formed Karasi Development, LLC. , and went to work.

Since that initial agreement, Karasi has amassed about two acres of land, parcels including and adjacent to “Ground Zero” of the ’67 Rebellion on Rosa Parks and Atkinson.  Named the Boston-Edison & Atkinson Business District Project, it will launch with Unity Square, an educational/cultural arts center and greenspace for community activity.

“This development is not “business as usual,’” says Johnson, who remembers when the National Guard tanks aimed their guns at his father’s barber shop on Linwood and Burlingame. “We must start with telling the story of our ancestors, and that includes all the people who historically walked these streets and lived in these homes,” explained Johnson. The educational/cultural arts center will be housed in a now-boarded up building on Atkinson that Karasi now owns and will feature rich and diverse cultural activities to re-energize, engage and empower residents.

Phase Two of the development will be a combination of affordable housing and community-based commercial development. “We are excited that the owners of the Blue Nile restaurant (a popular Ethiopian-owned establishment in Ferndale that closed its Detroit doors due to economic pressures) have agreed to open a new restaurant here that will feature the food of ten African nations,” said Johnson. The commercial development will also feature shared working spaces for local entrepreneurs to gather, network and grow their businesses.

Phase III is a fulfillment of Johnson’s vision to bring educational excellence to a community sorely in need of such in the wake of the Detroit Public Schools debacle. Johnson is planning to develop a new early childhood/elementary school, where he will be free to use the strategies that propelled his former students to excellence and most importantly, to excel in their post-high school education and ultimately their chosen professions.

The Lockhart/Johnson team has already secured commitments from financial, business, and educational institutions to invest in the area with sorely needed services. Cultural partners include civic organizations and individuals such as the legendary Detroit artist Hubert Massey, who designed the beautiful tribute to heroes of the African Diaspora on the floor of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. Massey has agreed to create an historic mural on the large brick home, now abandoned and boarded up, that will serve as the cultural center. “It will remind residents of the significance of their history and give hope for the future,” says Johnson.

Lockhart and Johnson are especially proud of the work they have done to engage community residents in the planning process, especially people like 100-year-old Mrs. McLaughlin, a longtime resident of the area. She was involved in the Virginia Park development completed in the 1980s under the late Mayor Coleman A. Young’s leadership, after which the Karasi project is modeled. “No one has come in since Virginia Park to do something like this,” Mrs. McLaughlin says. Then she smiles as she re-imagines her neighborhood. “I would like to see a beauty shop here.”  

“We surveyed residents and they told us they wanted neighborhood amenities like nice restaurants, shared workspaces and more places to live,” explained Johnson. That resonated with Lockhart, who spoke of going into tiny spots in Birmingham and Grosse Pointe and thinking, “There’s no reason why our community can’t have beauty like this.”

“Our mission is to restore the economic fiber of local communities,” says Johnson. He and Lockhart are now working with the City of Detroit Planning Department, the Detroit Land Bank, and area foundations to secure the needed approvals and funding to continue. They will also reach out to Detroit residents and solicit small community investors.

Lockhart and Johnson insist that this new development is a foil to the troubling gentrification that they see throughout Detroit. “This development is a line in the sand, calling forth a new urban agenda,” says Johnson.

For more information, contact Karasi Development at karasidevelopment@gmail.com, and view their YouTube video by searching for “Karasi Development.”

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