Riverwise Editorial

Stories of human resolve and resilience, captured in the midst of sweeping political change in Detroit, bring us a deeper understanding of the kind of community we are and the kind of community we want to become. As people fashion new ways of living and being, we see the possibilities of a future that is rooted in justice and compassion for one another.

Our sense of urgency has been heightened since our first publication. With the release of this, our second issue, we hope readers will think of Riverwise as a source of information and connectivity that they can expect on a regular basis. We’re a little bit closer to having a permanent place in the current media landscape. For the Riverwise collective, participating in and watching this creative endeavor come to life, from conception to reality, was nerve-wracking, but thoroughly gratifying. We are especially grateful for the responses, ideas and conversations that followed our first issue. Dialogue regarding our mission and identity is our highest priority.

In our first offering, we scratched the surface of several themes we intend to explore further. There are many stories of dedicated citizens taking it upon themselves to solve social and economic injustices, and such stories emerge daily as the resolve to do for ourselves spreads throughout Detroit communities.

The feedback we received from our first issue has been overwhelmingly positive. We thank you for your responses and ideas. We’ve heard powerful testimony from elders who were community activists in their youth, and elders who have just recently become politicized. We’ve reached young folks and students through teachers who have introduced Riverwise magazine into classroom settings. One of the most powerful comments we’ve received, due perhaps to the magazine’s attention to the past, present and future, is that it’s a “multi-generational” publication.

There is a new political intensity in our country and city. More than ever in recent history, people are seeking something to hold onto that will help them regain their political footing. We, the people of this city and country, are again facing basic questions of what values should guide our actions, who benefits and who suffers from the choices we make, and are there other ways to imagine our future? Riverwise is hoping that shining a light on people taking control of their own neighborhoods will provide a focus that we all need to create caring communities.

One such neighborhood is located near Wyoming and Grand River, where we held a Riverwise Community Conversation at the end of April. Community members joined Birwood block club officials and local activists working to strengthen their neighborhood and the people who live there.

Linda Gadston, from Family Hood, Inc., spoke about her efforts to create an organic, outdoor classroom for students in the neighborhood of Noble Elementary. Her plans include starting a wood-shop and a seasonal growing program that ensures something will be in bloom year round.

Also in attendance were recent transplants to the neighborhood, Carl and Robin Zerwick. They operate an organization called Rippling Hope, which combines a faith-based approach with grassroots organizing. They have partnered with block club volunteers and the city of Detroit in their efforts to restore vacant homes.

Norma Chriswell, from Woman to Woman Table Talk (W2W), encouraged all to attend the W2W annual summer outdoor family event which provides needed supplies for families in addition to entertainment and food. This program is one of many throughout the city that are emphasizing a sharing economy.

The Riverwise conversations have revolved around topics like visionary organizing, the role of non-profits and community organizations, how re-establishing communities is a return to historic social norms, and the importance of telling our own stories. Daily choices, actions and efforts to make life better for ourselves and our neighbors make a difference. They remind us that we are part of a broader community with invisible ties that reach beyond our particular blocks.

The increase in political activity emanating from historic Detroit neighborhoods is a subject that we cover in Riverwise issue two and will continue covering throughout the year. We understand the paralyzing social and economic crises we face, and an increasingly corrupt and callous government apparatus is not new. What is new is the willingness of neighborhood communities to respond in imaginative and thoughtful ways. No one will make the future we need but us. Increasingly, it is people throughout our neighborhoods who are addressing injustices like water shutoffs, inadequate street lighting, school closures and home evictions. Consciously and unconsciously we are shaped by the efforts for liberation that flow through our city. The Montgomery Bus Boycott is more than a memory. It evokes the possibilities of what people do as they act to change oppressive systems and empower themselves in the process.

Tawana “Honeycomb” Petty’s, “We Are the Opportunity In Our Crises,” uses a personal and historical narrative to take an even closer look at the evolution of the liberation movement of the 1980’s. Increasingly, communities are organizing around social injustices with the support of one another instead of waiting for institutional or political bodies to respond.

Through her budding organization, Between The Lines, Yvette Venson is using her intensely poetic personal story to provide support for residents in her housing complex. Beyond material support, she hopes to put herself and others back on the track to seeking out their life goals and creative ambitions.

Two feature articles put a diverse cultural stamp on our second Riverwise offering. Gwi-Seok Hong, Shane Bernardo and members of the Detroit Asian Youth Project remind us that cultural appropriation and population displacement are not all Black and White. They take a nuanced look at race relations in a rapidly changing city, through the eyes of the Chinese-American community.

Mayté Penman describes her personal account of the attack on undocumented workers and immigrants in Southwest Detroit, and points out the powerful healing value of Indigenous drum and song ceremonies that Latinx communities are turning to again.

In keeping with Riverwise’s coverage of contested land, place and remembrance, our Sacred Sites centerfold features the work of spoken-word artist, Khary Frazier. His insightful take on the structural demise of his childhood neighborhood brings a unique perspective on how, in the process of removing so-called ‘blighted’ structures, we’re also removing precious memories.

Diane Proctor Reeder’s article reports on the new plans underway for the site where the ’67 Rebellion began.
The Karasi Development, a project designed by two Detroiters who grew up near the site, will go beyond the usual housing and commercial district, by soliciting input and direction from neighborhood residents, ensuring that their historic memories of the community are represented in the proposed cultural center.

With this second issue, and the many to follow, comes responsibility. Massive cranes are everywhere you look in the downtown area, manifesting building projects that are being greenlighted with no public knowledge. Decisions are being made by powerful forces to reshape our city as smaller, whiter and wealthier. But there is an equally powerful swell of activity in Detroit neighborhoods by folks who have taken upon themselves the job of creating new communities. We won’t allow this activity to go unnoticed. It signals a transformation to a society built on values that are beholden to people, not power and privilege.

We Have Each Other: Turning to Indigenous Ceremony for Strength and Vision

Photo by Julianne Lindsay

By Mayté Penman

“They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.” – Mexican Proverb

In 1990 I immigrated to Detroit  from northern Mexico, where I had the fortune to meet sisters who come together to practice Indigenous ceremonies as a way not only to preserve our identity and culture, but as a way to heal ourselves. We are learning through the practice of nahuatl songs, Aztec dance, inipis/temazcal, vision quest and moon dances. We share our personal struggles and experiences while we break bread, pray, honor our ancestors and celebrate our community as part of our extended family. We search for unity, love and self-determination, recognizing that the healing of a single person causes a ripple effect, and becomes the catalyst for the community to be healed and empowered so we can address the many issues we need to address collectively.

I am part of Huehueyolotl, which is a Mexika women’s ceremonial drum group and part of a larger group, the Kapulli Tekpatl. The mission of Huehueyolotl is to help our Indigenous-descended community heal from the harmful effects of the colonialism that started in 1492, by recovering, protecting and offering sacred Indigenous songs, with an emphasis on songs in the Nahuatl language. Nahuatl is a language that has long been widely spoken by members of many Indigenous nations in the area now known as Mexico, and continues to be spoken today.

The work we do in our ceremonial drum group is very important because it helps us to decolonize and heal. By singing our sacred songs, we reclaim our worldview, language and connectedness, and are uplifted. This gives us the strength to deal with the communal effects of anti-immigration, which are breaking our families and leaving many of our loved ones powerless, disheartened and demoralized. Through the songs, we learn and gain strength, as our ancestral teachings are embedded in the songs.

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When I first arrived in the United States, people talked openly about their immigration status. Organizations, churches, banks, and schools provided aid. It was difficult living in the U.S.; however, we hoped for this to be temporary since home was what we had left behind. We had compassion for each other and knew that each individual had their own story to tell, and we were not alone in our struggles because we knew we had each other.

For undocumented immigrants, life is constant uncertainty. People take whatever opportunities they are afforded. Accustomed to living day by day, they take whatever chance they get to work, to make some money to pay for bills and save what is left over. The future is unclear and uncertain, there is no idea what it will hold, and it is understood that even though one day things may be “normal,”  the next day you could be deported. Living in a place that is not welcoming feels and looks like living in the shadows, living in the dark.

Things became progressively worse for the immigrant community during 2006, when the government introduced the legislation known as H. R. 4437 that prohibited any aid to “illegals” (word used without making a distinction between the person and the actions). Anybody who hired, supported or provided any type of help to an immigrant would have to pay a fee or go to jail. As a result of this, thousands of people mobilized in massive demonstrations across the country, including Detroit. This marked the way many of us decided to step up, participate and be active in the political arena. The 2006 demonstrations woke up the sleeping activist in many of us newcomers. We felt that united, we could make a difference.

Many people in Detroit organized themselves to provide trainings to immigrants about what to do in case  they were stopped by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). This work extended to Macomb, where I used to live. In both areas, Macomb and Wayne County, community organizers provided “Know your Rights” training, which was intense, emotional work.

In the process of this work, I realized that what we were doing was only covering the surface of the real problem. People don’t want to leave their home countries and leave behind their loved ones. People come here because they are forced to. U.S.-Mexican relations have always been fraught with injustice; however, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) exacerbated the issue, displacing individuals in Mexico and forcing them North. Many people lost their jobs and small businesses and entrepreneurs went bankrupt. This was a difficult time for Mexico, evidenced by the middle class, who also began to travel to look for jobs. They were trying to survive or pay for loans, which skyrocketed with the devaluation of the Mexican peso. There was a time when only unskilled workers came to the USA. Now we had a group of folks with college degrees who came to work as laborers. Most importantly, this migration changed the face of agriculture in Mexico, making rural livelihood nearly impossible and forcing people into cities and northward into the U.S.

I realized that until we collectively support the local economy and workers have decent wages, nationally and across the world, we won’t see the change we want. Immigration is not new and it is not something that just happens to two or three countries. It is a global problem that is rooted in a history of colonialism, which displaced and removed indigenous people from their land. Formerly colonized countries continue being disenfranchised and weakened by contemporary neoliberal powers. As we healed from our colonial history, it became necessary to use the same community-based healing to resist current neocolonial exploitation.

The anti-Immigration forces took a sharp turn when, during the 2016 elections, then-presidential candidate, Donald Trump, expressed how he felt about minorities, particularly about Mexicans. Discrimination has always been a part of our lives, but when he openly attacked Mexicans, he validated the opinions of those who had previously hidden their bigotry.

The Latino community organized and began to boycott businesses that supported Trump. However, we wanted to believe this was temporary, a really bad joke that eventually would come to an end because, thinking rationally, how could we have a President who is openly racist? How could we support someone who is so interested in building walls, instead of looking for ways to connect with others?

And on November 8th the reality hit — and hit big time! And ever since then, it has been a nightmare.

Since the election, people have been intimidated, even in schools. Our youth are being harassed by other youth. People are being detained, and when it happens, they are not held at local jails, they are transferred to different states. Moving detainees to other states leaves their families powerless, making it more difficult for them to get legal support and increasing travel expenses.

There is a deliberate effort to “break” the community. Now, many families are being separated.  More than ever, women are seeking ways to prepare themselves for they know their lives are on the edge. It has become evident that building relationships with other ethnic communities is essential. Many community organizers and activists are assisting families to understand the importance of having a system in place and to be prepared, to organize their assets, if there are any, and most importantly, to have a person who will take care of their children in case parents are taken.

In the midst of the situation, and right after the elections, many activists and community organizers in Southwest Detroit rallied around a call from Mary Luevanos to acknowledge our angst and do something, to go back to the healing practices and traditions of our ancestors by planning an intentionally symbolic night, a memorial to “grieve democracy” as we knew it.  Ismael and Amelia Duran, Eliza Perez-Ollin, Oscar Chapa, Peter Velazquez, John Cummings, Bianca Suarez, Mary Luevanos and I organized this gathering for our beloved community at El Garage Cultural. We must recognize the need for comfort and the healing of our wounds. We know our community is resilient; people unite, organize and mobilize.

This was not a representation of a specific group, organization, or nonprofit agency. This was the work of folks who were willing to come together and work intentionally to create a safe space for healing. This was an opportunity where we could bury our hate, our fears, recognize our anger and transform our energy into something positive.

We created an actual casket, wrote all the things we wanted to let go of and deposited them inside the casket. We made a procession and burned all our fears and anxieties, and then we wished for a better future. We celebrated our indigenous roots with our traditional Nahuatl “cantos” by Huehueyolotl, honored our creator and blessed the four directions with the Aztec dance led by our brothers in Kalpulli Tekpatl.  We honored our mother earth, our Pachamama. As we used traditional songs and dance, we asked for strength as we began to move forward. God knows we needed it then, and we need it now!

We opened the space for more songs and poetry, remembered that our gente—our people—had been in this path before and had been weakened, but not defeated. We knew we needed to strengthen ourselves by using healing symbols and medicine to invoke feelings of love, peace, and tranquility, to reclaim our humanity and to remind ourselves that we must preserve our dignity in difficult times. We broke bread, hugged, cried and laughed, and most importantly, we acknowledged that despite our struggles, we are not alone. We confirmed that we have each other.

The Kapulli Tekpatl and Huehueyolotl (Bilingual Group) continue to meet for teachings, inipis/temazcales, vision quest and moon dances. The ceremonies are geared toward Indigenous-descended people especially, but not exclusively to those who identify themselves as Mexicans, Chicanxs, or Latinxs. For more information on the Kalpulli, please call:

Flint  Abuela Celia (Bilingual)  810-715-9009 o Gelbert  810-691-5596

Detroit   Sandra (Bilingual)   313-938-6323, Mayté 5867700603 (Bilingual) or eliza 3136295363, elizaqperez@gmail.com (Bilingual)

Lansing  Tonatzin (Bilingual)   517-775-1721 or Toby 517-646-5050.

We Are The Opportunity In Our Crises

by Tawana “Honeycomb” Petty

Crisis brings opportunity. Detroiters know this reality all too well. We have spent decades maneuvering between the two.

There was a time when the Black community was the safest community to visit or live in. No matter your race, you could reasonably expect to enter a Black community and leave with your life. At the same time, this was not the case in racist White communities where, in the words of Jimmy Boggs (Detroit-based 20th century revolutionary), “White folks were ladies and gentlemen by day and Ku Klux Klan by night.”

The vibrancy of urban Black neighborhoods is a reality that endures despite continued assaults:  Drug infiltration, followed by the war on drugs; mass incarceration, massive school closings, leveling of neighborhoods for freeways; race riots targeting Black people and businesses; predatory mortgage lending, disparaging propaganda, and the extraction of resources.  All these factors contributed to the dismantling the culture of resistance, pride and community that once characterized the Black community. This is not to say that this culture has been erased, as it does still exist in pockets.  However, this is an acknowledgement of the struggles and uphill battle we currently face.

At a time of hopelessness in Detroit, a time when many in the world were convinced that Detroit had nothing to offer but crime and drugs, a time when my childhood experiences would have me praying to grow up and get out of the city, Jimmy Boggs was projecting the sort of challenge and vision for Black Detroiters that some three decades later we are still struggling to attain.  On July 31, 1985, Jimmy said:

“African Americans cannot rise above the level of a special interest group as long as we are only struggling for a bigger piece of the American economic or political pie. It is because we have always raised the most fundamental questions of human dignity and social justice that we have spearheaded progressive struggles in the United States.”

When Jimmy gave this speech, I was just eight years old. I would turn nine one month later and my dad would die of AIDS shortly after that. I remember calling my Dad on the evening before his death to tell him I had a nightmare that he died. In his effort to protect me, he lied and told me that he was on the road to recovery and would see me soon. I woke the next morning to learn he had died in his sleep. I don’t know how my father contracted AIDS, but what I do know is that because of the lack of information around the disease, he died a lonely and isolated death. I wouldn’t be told the true cause of his death until many years later.

The 1980s was a scary time for me growing up in Detroit. Crack cocaine was at epidemic proportions and I can recall being taught to watch where I was walking in order to avoid stepping on drug needles when we left the house.  Our house was also shot up during a drug war between our neighbors. Luckily my mother ran into my bedroom in time and pushed my sister and me to the floor. I still have memories of the bullet entering my bedroom wall. This was a defining moment for my family. My mother, and later my sister, would go on to become police officers. I would become a poet and later a social justice organizer, each of us doing what we believed would make a difference for our city and the world, whether we agree on the methods or not.

When I was introduced to Jimmy’s speech some 20 years after it was given, I was profoundly struck by his words. They not only challenged the Black community to rise above a harsh reality still prevalent for many, but these words provided an assessment of a community that had not been living up to its fullest potential. Jimmy was challenging the Black community to find the opportunity within the many crises that we faced then and still face today.

On April 4, 2017, we celebrated the 50th Anniversary of Dr. King’s “A Time to Break Silence” speech in which he called on humanity to undergo a radical revolution of values. He also challenged us to move beyond simply responding to crises, into challenging the structures that create the crises to begin with.

True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

Jimmy’s speech pushed the Black community to go beyond even where Dr. King’s most profound vision had taken him. Unfortunately, Dr. King would be murdered just one year following his speech, so it is difficult to predict just how far his thinking would have evolved.

Dr. King had endured a lifetime of racism, but he had not lived to see the aftermath of the rebellions of the late 60s. He had not lived to see the massive Black fratricide in the 70s and 80s, the infiltration of crack and the AIDS epidemic in the Black communities in the 80s, or the impact of the fleeing of over nine million middle and upper class Blacks from the cities to the suburbs.  It has been argued that Black flight caused just as much harm — or even greater harm — to the Black community than White flight did.  Black Americans pursuit of the American Dream in the suburbs, despite America’s insistence that Black people not benefit from it, helped deal a deathblow to urban communities.

In 1985, Jimmy Boggs tasked Black Detroiters with an incredible opportunity to not only reimagine revolution, but to think beyond restructuring systems in pursuit of the American Dream, and to take responsibility for their own dignity and humanity.

“For the next stage of struggle we have to go far beyond where Martin and Malcolm brought us. The task is awesome, but it was also awesome when they began. In the course of the struggle, they came to the recognition that to get rid of racism, African Americans must make a revolution against the total dehumanization of the capitalist system.”

Though Dr. King had long called on Blacks and all of humanity to struggle against the “giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism,” masses of Detroiters were not yet ready to have discussions on alternatives around water, lighting and housing in 1985, or even as late as 2016. The argument,  “pay your bills,” and the culture of shaming and blaming has dominated much of the conversations around water shutoffs, utility shutoffs and tax foreclosures for many decades. The predominately Black women-led households of Detroit are still plagued with the “welfare queen” stigma of the 1970s.

In recent months Detroiters have experienced several crises. Detroiters are no longer able to look at Flint from a distance and think, this can’t happen to us. Detroiters are no longer able to dismiss the possibility of poisoned water infiltrating households and making their children and elders deathly ill. As boil water advisories swept across the city leaving residents frightened for nearly a week, discussions around innovative water strategies became commonplace.

Detroiters are no longer able to evade the much needed conversations around alternative energies as they recover from massive blackouts in the hundreds of thousands that left many struggling to survive for a week in households with zero degree temperatures.

Detroiters are no longer able to dismiss cooperative housing options as a viable possibility, as they struggle to keep residents in the tens of thousands in their homes. Many of these residents had stayed and fought for Detroit for many decades when investment in the city was at its lowest.  Many more Detroiters are ready now to have deeper conversations around grassroots solutions for their neighborhoods.

Though it may seem that we are rapidly moving backwards under the current Trump administration, we have also made tremendous strides towards more humane technologies since Jimmy’s speech in 1985.

During Detroit’s most recent blackout that left entire neighborhoods in total darkness, the Boggs Center, through the innovation of Ryter Cooperative Industries (www.ryterci.com), was able to maintain light on the exterior of the Center with solar technology. The lights glowing from the Center are part of larger efforts across the city to provide sustainable solar lighting.  Ryter Cooperative’s Alley Lighting Project has provided much needed light in alleyways all over the city of Detroit.  Neighborhood groups are organizing to set up solar lights in ways to generate electricity for their communities. Carlos Neilback of CANArts Handworks is constructing a windmill in Eastern Market to provide electricity and a unique public charging station.

Because of the innovation and forward thinking of We the People of Detroit (WTP www.wethepeopleofdetroit.com), an organization that has responded consistently to the water shutoff crisis in Detroit, many residents were able to access clean water during the boil water advisory that left most of Detroit without water. In 2014, during the height of the water crisis, WTP set up water stations and began door-to-door campaigns to assess the needs of Detroiters.  They also started an emergency phone line in order to provide rapid response support to disabled and elderly residents, advocated at City Council meetings and elsewhere for the Water Affordability Plan first proposed by the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization and the People’s Water Board Coalition many years ago.  We the People Research Collective has published Mapping the Water Crisis,  a book which documents the targeting of Black neighborhoods with the conflated assaults of water shut-offs and home foreclosures.  The book is a powerful asset in the struggle for water as a human right.

Many residents in Detroit have started housing cooperatives and shared rental agreements in order to care for one another during this period of heightened gentrification and wide-scale displacement. Neighbors like those on Manistique Street, with the support of Detroit Eviction Defense and the art and activism of Feedom Freedom Growers, stood together to resist evictions.  Other groups like Detroit People’s Platform have worked towards preventing foreclosures and securing community land-trusts in order to ensure retention of properties that have been rescued from foreclosure.

Detroiters are not responding to the massive school closures in Detroit with their hands tied behind their backs. They are educating children in recreation centers, in living rooms, in churches and museums. People are holding town hall meetings and public demonstrations to strategize how we can truly educate our children so that they can become thoughtful, creative people. The Detroit Independent Freedom Schools Movement has organized sites around the city where volunteer teachers gather with students to learn together.  One group meets on Saturdays at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History www.thewright.org.

The days of capitalistic individualism are coming to an end. Neighbors are beginning to turn to one another again, instead of turning away from one another.

Thirty-two years ago at the height of many crises, Jimmy Boggs espoused the notion that we “must project a vision grand enough to inspire the dispossessed and the disinherited of all ethnic groups to change our total society.”

I think that he would say we are finally on the right track.

Detroit’s 21st Century Gentry

By Frank Joyce

Homo Sapiens move around. That’s how the planet came to be populated beyond the African-Asian land mass.  

There is a pull- push dynamic in human migration. One factor is often simple curiosity about what’s over the horizon. So is the search for what constitutes wealth at any given point in evolutionary history. That’s the pull.  

Discontent is the push. Poverty, disease, oppression, climate change, war, family crises and natural disasters also propel the search for “greener pastures.”  

Most migrations involve some level of displacement. According to Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari, it took only two centuries after the arrival of humans in New Zealand about eight hundred years ago to cause the extinction of 60% of the native birds and all of the indigenous mega fauna.  

In the continent now known as America, white European migrants relentlessly displaced Indigenous people, animals and all kinds of natural resources. The same invasive species added further disruption by violently enslaving Africans and transporting them to the Northern and Southern hemisphere to build an economy based on racism and destruction.  

In doing so they constructed the idea of whiteness and the ideology of white superiority that dominates the minds of most people to this day.  

Which brings us to gentrification, just another word for seizing land, displacing people of color and establishing control through violence. Specifically, the word ‘gentrify’ derives from the notion of the landed gentry, a super-privileged subset of European whites who are even entitled to displace other Whites as they see fit.  

In Detroit displacement decisions, labeled with euphemisms such as urban renewal, impose devastating short term and long term effects. The destruction of Paradise Valley and Black Bottom are dramatic examples.  

Creating incentives for some people to leave an area, especially while denying those same opportunities to others, is another form of race-based displacement.  Throughout the US, including Detroit, this is how the suburbs were built in the first place. Infrastructure such as roads, water and sewer lines were paid for by all taxpayers. But then, as a matter of government policy, only whites were allowed to buy homes in those suburbs.

After the 1967 rebellion, corporate power moved the Detroit Lions and the Detroit Pistons out of the city to distant suburbs as part of its punishment/control retribution against Detroit. Disinvestment took place on a grand scale. More recently the White elite decided it was in their interest to bring the Lions and the Pistons back—massively subsidized, of course, by Detroit taxpayers.

Over the many years, students in the Detroit Public Schools have been repeatedly displaced by school closings orchestrated by state imposed emergency managers. This has disrupted the students, their parents and school personnel. It has destabilized neighborhoods and the Detroit tax base as well.

Does this mean that all investment is bad? Of course not. As this magazine documents, Detroiters are creatively and extensively investing in their own communities. Sometimes partnerships with profit, non-profit and government participants are a real asset in that process.

But healthy skepticism toward would be saviors is entirely justified. As Viet Thanh Nguyen puts it in his novel, The Sympathizer, it is best to be cautious when dealing with “representative specimens of the most dangerous creature in the history of the world, the white man in a suit.”  

Vaughn’s Bookstore: Axis of Black Consciousness

By Eric Thomas Campbell

During the height of the Black liberation movement in Detroit, neighborhoods on the northwest side, particularly between Dexter Avenue and 12th Street, provided several places where activists could unpack theory and put into practice programs for political empowerment. However, no single location was more vital to the emergence of Black consciousness politics in Detroit than Vaughn’s Bookstore. It provided both the venue in which to gather and the content to consume.

In early 1959, Ed Vaughn had returned to his Detroit post office job, just back from a two-year stint in the U.S. Army.  Vaughn’s co-workers were so impressed by the rare book titles in his possession, such as Alan Ginsburg’s 100 Years of Lynchings, that he responded by contacting the publisher and ordering copies to circulate.  He never imagined that his first book-selling venture, operated from the trunk of his car, would later evolve into a major focal point of Detroit’s revolutionary activity.

Ed Vaughn. Courtesy of Ed Vaughn.

In a recent phone interview from his birthplace and current home, Dothan, Alabama, Vaughn told Riverwise the enthusiastic reactions of his colleagues at the post office signified that folks had a longing for a history that had been hidden from them by a racist educational system. This realization led Vaughn to reflect on his years at the historic Fisk University, where he had majored in history and government as a source of intellectual inspiration.  

“I said, well, there’s a market for Black books. So I started rounding up whatever I could find, in no attempt to organize, but in an attempt to disseminate information about our history and our culture, because so much of it had been lost.”

At the end of 1959, Vaughn found an opportunity to purchase a building at 12123 Dexter, with the help of the building’s owner.  Having a space from which to work allowed Vaughn to make connections and create relationships with left wing publishers. Although the shelves began to fill up with titles found nowhere else in the city, the customer base remained small and dedicated during the first several years of operation.

“You’ve got to remember that this was before the explosion of new Black knowledge. We were just at the very prelude to all of this,” Vaughn told Riverwise.

Vaughn organized weekly meetings to discuss authors, books and Black History in general. They evolved into what the group called “forums” and grew in popularity throughout the early sixties. By 1964, the weekly forum had grown enough to consider organizing an event on a national scale, starting with Forum ’65.  Recently established Detroit publishers like Broadside Press became working partners.

“By the mid sixties the Black cultural revolution was on, and we were the centerpiece in Detroit—there was no other place to go,” Vaughn says. In addition to the patronage of residents and students from the neighborhood, scholars and educators began speaking and organizing at Vaughn’s Bookstore. Vaughn’s relationship with publishers kept the bookshelves filled with titles that were found nowhere else in the city.

Ed Vaughn. Courtesy of Ed Vaughn.

The exponential growth of the weekly forums culminated in the Forum ’66/Black Arts Convention of Unity, held at the Shrine of the Black Madonna. Forum ’66 was, among other things, an effort to include and pay homage to African American artists and their collective contribution to the Black liberation movement.

“There were a lot of artistic things happening—painters, poets—we were just beginning to get into the arts we had lost after the great Harlem Renaissance”, Vaughn says. “It’s often the artists that are creating new directions and uplifting the people, so the artist has always been there.”

The success of Forum ’66 brought together Black scholars, activists, and poets from all over the country, including Nikki Giovanni and Haki Madhubuti. The June 1966 issue of Negro Digest announced the Forum ’66/Black Arts Convention and its theme, “Toward a Greater Understanding of Our Heritage,” along with scheduled participants, John O. Killens, Ossie Davis, LeRoi Jones, Julian Bond, Max Roach, Charles P. Howard and “various African delegates to the United Nations.”

The attempt to organize a national Black conference, “something which had not been done since the days of Marcus Mosiah Garvey,” according to Vaughn, was largely successful.

Detroit native and longtime activist, Stuart House, lived on both Oakman Blvd. and Dexter Blvd. during his childhood. During the Civil Rights movement, House traveled South to work as a field secretary with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Greenwood, Mississippi and Selma, Alabama. He then returned to Detroit in 1967 to engage in a wide spectrum of Detroit politics for many years, from the Black Panther Party to Democratic electoral and legislative campaigns.

Speaking about Vaughn’s Bookstore from his current home in Orinda, California, House says that, “It was important, prominent, central and made an invaluable contribution to intellectual life and ideological development of all the people who were struggling for Black liberation, regardless of what their particular organization or movement was about. Vaughn’s bookstore was an important place to hone one’s Black intellectual skills.”

During the height of the Black Power movement, when trade agreements between the U.S. and the People’s Republic of China allowed books and other goods to be exchanged, Ed Vaughn sold Mao Tse-Tung’s Red Book, “by the droves.”  The store also stocked all three English translations of the Koran. Vaughn estimates that there was no other bookstore like his in the nation at that time, except Lewis H. Michaux’s  African Memorial Bookstore in New York, where Malcolm X spoke regularly.

“Vaughn’s was where everybody in Detroit congregated. We were the only game in town specializing in Black history,” Vaughn said.

As Vaughn’s Bookstore grew in popularity, so did the attention he received from law enforcement officials, including the FBI.  Vaughn remembers Detroit police officers coming in under the guise of shopping for books. They always left with the cheapest books, if anything.

Ed Vaughn. Courtesy of Ed Vaughn.

“I never saw a Black cop come in to buy a book because there were only two or three on the force,” says Vaughn. “It would always be a White cop who came in and they would buy the cheap paperbacks. And they would always buy the Red Book ‘cause the Red Book was real cheap. I guess they were developing a case on us.”

During the Black liberation movement of the 1960’s many activist communities were established as a by-product of housing discrimination, which left potential revolutionaries living in close proximity. To call this an advantage may be an overstatement. Nonetheless, close proximity meant efficient organizing. More than any other area in Detroit, the one surrounding Vaughn’s Bookstore developed into a concentration of revolutionary activity. In addition to Vaughn’s Bookstore, the Republic of New Afrika, and the group’s magazine, set up two doors down in a space owned by Vaughn. The Friends of SNCC office was located directly across the street.  Artist Glanton Dowdell, whose work included the Shrine of the Black Madonna mural, set up a studio and gallery on Dexter. The Nation of Islam Temple No. 1 and the Shrine of the Black Madonna Church were located nearby on Linwood.

“It was like the axis, a centerpoint.  There were a lot of other things going on, other kinds of centers, but Vaughn’s was a place within the movement for everyone,” Stuart House says. “It spanned a lot of the ideological divisions, and there were many — between Marxists and Nationalists, Christian Nationalists and all the various factions; but it was a place that all of these people from all of these varied belief systems could find a common ground, which made it kind of a unifying force.”

Vaughn’s Bookstore suffered in sales during the end of the 1970’s for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was a general transition amongst many Black activists to electoral politics. Vaughn himself successfully ran for Michigan State Representative in 1979. He later served as a teacher of Black History in the Detroit Public School system and as an executive assistant to Mayor Coleman A. Young. After moving several times, Vaughn’s Bookstore closed in 1985.

Throughout this year, as people reflect on the 1967 uprising, it is important to recall the broader development of Black Liberation politics that emerged during the 1960s and its impact on current liberation movements in Detroit. Vaughn’s Bookstore provided one environment in which this movement could develop intellectually and artistically. It became a local and national mecca for activists developing revolutionary theory and projecting new visions for the future.

Review of ‘A Fluid Frontier’

By Tom Stephens

In this beautifully illustrated, deeply researched book, we recognize parallels with Detroit’s contemporary movements for water rights, urban agriculture, eviction defense and freedom schools.  It’s stunning to discover that one common element in virtually every 19th century activist’s biographical sketch presented in this volume concerns either setting up independent schools for freedom-seekers, fighting to desegregate public schools, or both!     

Our activist roots here in this transnational border community go back to the unique and revered era of the abolitionists’ “underground railroad,” which the authors properly recognize as the most important social movement of the 19th century.  They point out that the prevalent “railroad” metaphor might actually obscure the extraordinary heroism of the invisible-in-broad-daylight, grassroots community abolitionist movement.    

Further, the writers provide substantive exploration of the ways in which this transnational borderland was shaped by major historic developments such as England’s ban against slavery in its colonies, including Canada; the Northwest Ordinance of 1787; the war of 1812; the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850; the 1833 Blackburn Riots in Detroit; the emergence of the free African settlements such as Amherstburg, Windsor and Sandwich on the Canadian side of the River, and the impact of John Brown’s leadership before and after his raid and execution at Harper’s Ferry.

Deep historic insights into the contemporary issues of immigration, “border security,” and the economic and political implications of water access may be derived from this volume’s tales of resistance to slavery and 19th century efforts of communities on both sides of the Detroit River to build essential social institutions and infrastructure.  Indeed, A Fluid Frontier reveals the founding elements of Detroit’s legacy as a city of freedom struggle and sanctuary that changed the world.  

If you google A Fluid Frontier, you will find a fascinating video of a panel discussion by the book’s co-editors and some of the contributors, held at University of Detroit Mercy in February 2016, accessible under the “multimedia” tab on the Wayne State University Publisher web site, or at: https://youtu.be/0SPB-vCAkPU.

Lost and Found On St. Aubin Street

by Yvette Venson

Editor’s Note

Yvette Venson describes feeling invisible during the years she was forced to deal with being homeless with three children. It was a cruel way to learn about the politics of poverty in America; but from those lessons, she has created ways to assist herself and other community members at her St. Aubin Square housing complex on the near East Side.

“Seasonal Sandboxes” is Venson’s first effort to respond to problems facing her community through her organization, Between the Lines, which addresses the specific needs of people who have been cut off from institutional assistance. Venson says that in 2006, state programs cancelled cash assistance that helped people obtain basic life essentials. Between the Lines raises funds to purchase necessities, or “Seasonal Sandboxes”, for program participants, while helping them create a yearlong schedule of personal goals. Venson points out that often people are just one step away from getting back on track financially and, most important, getting back in touch with their life goals.

“When I communicated with people,” Venson told Riverwise, “I realized that everyone had a talent. Everybody had some type of gift, but they just couldn’t get to it because they couldn’t get past their basic needs to really focus on anything else.”

Yvette Venson writes about her recent struggles and how she has emerged with a new vision for her community and herself  — the kind of human being she wants to become.  She is offering a new model for transmitting self-empowerment within her community.  Her article concludes with an excerpt from her poem, “Lost and Found,” from the collection, Chasing Butterflies in the Age of Social Media, published by TB Holmes in 2016.

                                                                                                                            —E.T.C.

I sat and reminisced on the young girl that longed to visit the rainforest, the girl that thought archaeologists were some of the most amazing people.  One day this young girl might become one, this girl who read Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I recall praying at that very moment to become as wise as Maya Angelou someday. Someday that little girl was going to shake Ms. Angelou’s hand and say “thank you.”

I sat at Belle Isle on a hot summer’s day watching my children play in the same sand that my sister and I used to make angels in. I observed their so-called adventure. For them, this was everything — to nap under the trees and go out to swim again. Yes, for them it was the best vacation ever:  One hotel after another, and all the microwave hamburgers and junk food that a bridge card could buy.

I myself was armed and dangerous. I was armed with regret, depression, hopelessness, anger and a pill or two in hopes of simply feeling nothing. I was homeless with three beautiful children that only I could see. To the world and those around us, we didn’t exist. I didn’t exist! I couldn’t even write, not that I felt my voice would be heard anyway. In those moments, it took everything out of me not to take my children for a very long swim. Who would even notice us?  Another statistic — which I was already. Yet my heart, with all its broken pieces, knew that if nothing else, my children deserved a chance at life. I owed them a chance at life.

Photo by Leah Duncan.

Therefore, for one complete year, my Aunt Sherrion Chambliss and her husband Joseph Chambliss (may he rest in peace) kept my children. They allowed me an opportunity to pick myself up off the ground and stand tall, as I once had. I recall my aunt telling me “Boo-bie (that’s my nick name), everybody has their turn, it’s just not yours yet.”  I recall my heart breaking, although I knew my children would be more than safe and taken care of. I felt empty leaving them. I wondered if my Mom had felt a similar pain when my grandmother took on caring for me. I recognized the cycle, and I refused to be a part of it.

A friend that I had known for a short while took me in. His only requirement was that I go back to school. He helped me kick my habit and enroll in Wayne County Community College. I can still recall waking up around three months into the year and suddenly being able to feel the sunlight on my skin. I recall going for a walk with him and it was as if I had been granted a new set of eyes, a new sense of smell. And although I was still ashamed of myself and some of my decisions, I began to realize that there must have been a reason. That reason was what I was searching for.

By the end of that year, I was placed in Section 8 housing, a low-income support program. I was given keys to a three-bedroom townhouse, fully equipped with all appliances. My uncle never got to see it. Before he passed, my aunt let him know that yes, I had a great home and the kids were very happy. Funny thing is, I stayed at my aunt’s for a month in complete disbelief that this home was really mine. After that month, my children and I packed our clothes, my cousin’s old bed and some lawn chairs. We were finally home!

Yvette Venson, seated, in black, surrounded by friends and family at St. Aubin Square. Photo by Leah Duncan.

Shortly after the move, my sister, Tracy Rex, connected me with a new organization called Humble Design. Treger Strasberg and her amazing staff furnished my entire home. I can still see the smile on my son’s face as he rolled around on what he called our comfy couch. I was elated, to say the least. Everything was coming together in such an amazing way. I was still in school and doing work study for income. I could almost taste life against my tongue again.

Yet with life comes the ups and the downs. I became too sick to complete school, which stopped all income (breast cancer scare). Next I dated a person who was completely and horrifically charming. It wasn’t long before the horrific became more prominent than his charm. Let’s put the icing on the cake: My car died on me as well. I found myself living off food stamps.  A beautiful home, but hardly any cleaning supplies. Consistently running out of hygiene items. Hair a mess, children growing out of clothes faster than I could blink. By this time, school was waiting around the corner (although at the time I had no idea that it literally was).

I was introduced to the James and Grace Lee Boggs School by a knock on my door and a small brochure. I read it later that night. The next morning, I researched Grace and Jimmy Boggs. I learned as much as I could about them and place-based education. Next was Open House. I walked up to this small, very plain- looking building. My children and I walked inside to smiling faces, murals on the walls, art hanging from the ceiling like clouds from the sky. I had been immersed in a place where genuinely caring individuals existed. I was meant to be there at that moment. At that moment, not only had my children found a school, I had discovered a second home.

Stephanie Chang asked me if I would like to help them with an initiative to build a relationship between the school and its surrounding neighborhood. This turned into my working hand-in-hand with Laura Depalma, an intern at the school. Laura and all the staff encouraged and guided me into community organizing. We held community meetings, in hopes of finding out the history of the area, along with what improvements residents felt were needed. We even planned and succeeded in turning the school into a hair salon, so kids in the area could get free hair-dos.

These moments were magical. I was given my miracle wrapped in the form of inspiration. I was writing again, while Between the Lines was slowly being built up from my soul, to my heart, and into my mind. I noticed that the struggle with homelessness had cut very deep and left an invisible scar. I was afraid that I might not be good enough to start and run my own program.

I looked back on a stone I got with a card from a friend when I had become unsure of my organizing skills. It stated, “If you don’t leap, you’ll never know how it is to fly.” And so I leaped! I’m promoting Between the Lines, creating business cards, and slowly building relationships with those who believe in building community. My dream and my heart’s desire is to look back years from now at some of the people in the program picking up their paycheck from Between the Lines. It’s been written that, “Some of the most astounding stories can only be read with your heart.”  Let us read with our hearts.

“I needed desperately to feel the grass beneath my feet. Needed to see the blades in their subtle shades of green emerging between the white and brown texture of my toes. The feeling of the earth beneath the grass was sure to ground me. Next I needed Van Gogh to take to the sky, and create for me my very own starry night. I needed a masterpiece wrapped inside a miracle, laid gently onto the scent of fresh raindrops; all of which I use to write to.”

Excerpt from “Lost and Found,” by Yvette Venson

 

Fighting Displacement and Cultural Erasure in Detroit’s Chinatown

by Peggy Gwi-Seok Hong, Shane Bernardo, and DAY Project Members

Last November, Detroit Asian Youth (DAY) Project, took down the Chinatown mural that had been on Peterboro Street in the Cass Corridor since 2003. We chose to take it down because the building on which it was installed had been sold and was slated to become a high-end restaurant. We were concerned that the mural might be damaged, particularly if developers were not informed or interested in the history of the mural and Chinatown.

What? Chinatown? Detroit has a Chinatown? Detroit Asian Youth Project? Are there Asians in Detroit? Although only two percent of the population of Detroit, Asians have a history here, beginning in the 1870s. They established the original Detroit Chinatown at 3rd and Bagley, where the MGM Casino stands now. They ran laundries and restaurants, and built families and churches. In the 1960s, after the neighborhood was demolished as part of a development project, the city of Detroit relocated Chinatown to a proposed “International Village” that never came to be, leaving thousands of Chinese empty-handed and nearly homeless.

DAY Project began on the 20th anniversary of the killing of Vincent Chin, a Chinese American, who was murdered in 1982 in a horrific racial hate crime, by angry autoworkers who blamed the Japanese for the decline of the US auto industry. The acquittal of the perpetrators ignited a protest movement locally and nationally, raising the country’s consciousness concerning the civil rights of Asian Americans.

The most visible Asian in Detroit has no doubt been Dr. Grace Lee Boggs, the Chinese American activist, philosopher, author, and visionary, who passed away in 2015 at age 100. For most her life, Grace worked as a community organizer and leader in Detroit’s African American community. Later she played a major historic role in inspiring radical consciousness among young Asian Americans. In fact, Grace helped initiate the formation of DAY Project.

Relations among Asians of different nationalities in Detroit have not always been smooth. Nor have Asians been accepted and embraced by the majority population, whether White or Black. Additionally, not all Asians identify with Black issues or choose to be in solidarity with other people of color.

The nature of White supremacy is to oppress through hierarchy, to pit one group against another in order to keep both from attaining power. Anti-Blackness among Asians is painfully real, and explains why Asian communities in greater Detroit tend to be concentrated in the suburbs these days. It’s an insidious form of internalized racism, in which people of color are taught to fear each other. As long as we see each other as enemies, we leave the system of White supremacy untouched, and may even see Whiteness as salvation.

Asia has long been seen as a place to plunder, and practically every Asian nation has been colonized by Europeans and/or US Americans. This results in a mentality among Asians of valuing ourselves, our histories, and our cultures based on our capital potential. We’ve been trained to put ourselves on the auction block of White culture, willing to sell ourselves to the highest bidder. Many Asian Americans have been brainwashed to embrace the sham of the American Dream, wanting to believe we really do have boots with straps whereby to pull ourselves up. Meanwhile, White capitalists are free to buy, take, or steal virtually anything from Asia.

Courtesy of Soh Suzuki

In Detroit, we have Asian fusion restaurants like The Peterboro, the “sushi bar” at Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, and the “Thai-inspired” Katoi ( recently damaged by arson). These are trendy Asian restaurants owned and run by Whites.

While we’ve reached enough racial consciousness in American society for White people to refrain from, say, opening an African restaurant in Detroit, Asian culture is not viewed the same way. Asians are the perpetual outsiders, always the Other, thus totally available for appropriation. In today’s current anti-immigrant climate, we will never be able to assimilate, and our physical traits will betray even multi-generation Asian Americans as “foreigners.” Upholding the racist myth of Asian Americans as the “model minority” creates a wedge between us and other people of color. This wedge is used to promote both anti-Blackness and anti-Asianness and pit racial groups against each other.

Because of this wedge and the absence of solidarity, some Asians in Detroit report feeling “othered” at the same rate by Blacks as Whites. When Blacks express anti-Asianness, it’s because they have been conditioned by White supremacy to do so. Asians are universally seen as fair game to dominate, harass, fetishize, sexualize, and exoticize. Being cat-called is not a compliment, but rather an act of aggression and violence, an act of dehumanization.

Similarly, when Whites open an Asian-themed restaurant, this is not flattery, but also an act of aggression, violence, and cultural and economic exploitation. In the case of Katoi restaurant, it’s doubly offensive that the owners made the name of their restaurant a transphobic Thai slang term, roughly translated as “ladyboy.” While katoi could be considered an insider term, like the use of the N-word within Black culture, when outsiders appropriate it for commercial use, this is deeply hurtful and offensive. The unfortunate fire on February 17 could be an opportunity for the restaurant owners to reinvent themselves and correct the offenses that have been pointed out to them by DAY Project and others, and to reopen with a new identity.

Courtesy of Soh Suzuki

The Peterboro restaurant, in the heart of the former Chinatown, saw fit to hire a hailed Chinese American chef, who, along with traditional dishes, throws in some creative fusion twists, prepared for a predominantly white clientele. However, like other businesses popping up in Detroit, The Peterboro could do more to be a useful and relevant presence in the neighborhood, engaging the immediate community that was left behind by urban renewal.

These are some of the questions we raise regarding the new and proposed developments on Peterboro Street:

– How do you practice respect for a culture and its rich and complex history, instead of appropriating it?

– How do you enter a neighborhood of color, especially one whose residents have been marginalized, and who are largely low-income, and instead of displacing, exploiting, and profiting, become a welcome and useful presence?

– When you build a business in a low-income neighborhood, what can you do to benefit the actual residents?

– What can you do as a local business to see that you are not displacing anyone, but rather supporting the residents and improving the neighborhood for everyone, not just the newcomers?

When DAY Project took down the Chinatown mural, we did it not as an act of capitulation, but as a statement of resistance. The event was held as a community speak-out about the development of Peterboro Street and the Cass Corridor, and was preceded by weeks of canvassing and conversations with residents, business owners, and members of the Association of Chinese Americans Community Center in Hannan House on Woodward Avenue. DAY Project also did a series of workshops on honoring the cultural histories of cities and demanding equitable urban development that does not displace, appropriate, or exploit. We continue seeking to amplify the voices of the residents of Peterboro Street and Cass Corridor.

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.”

Clements Street: Still Loving Where I Live

By Khary Frazier

I live in and own the home I was raised in as a child. My neighborhood doesn’t have a name. The nameless neighborhoods throughout Detroit are full of transient renters, abandoned, unkempt, dilapidated properties, and families experiencing poverty. This generalization is often expressed by people who live outside these neighborhoods. However, I apply my revisionist history when I observe the structures and environment of my neighborhood. It’s not just a space. It’s where people live/d. Inside these neighborhoods are people—people who start or carry on the legacies of their families. Across the street from my home is a home that has not been occupied in over a decade. The structure of the home remains intact, though exterior components have been stripped or weathered away. Guests to my home see the house, and often shake their heads in disgust, with comments like, ‘”This is what makes Detroit so sad!” or “The city is not developing these neighborhoods because Black people live here.” I look at the house every day when I collect my mail, and think, that’s Ms. Teresa’s house.

Across the street from my home is a home that has not been occupied in over a decade. The structure of the home remains intact, though exterior components have been stripped or weathered away. Guests to my home see the house, and often shake their heads in disgust, with comments like, ‘”This is what makes Detroit so sad!” or “The city is not developing these neighborhoods because Black people live here.” I look at the house every day when I collect my mail, and think, that’s Ms. Teresa’s house.

Ms. Teresa and my grandparents were like many of the first non-Jewish families to move into my neighborhood in the mid 1960s. Many more Black families moved into the neighborhood after the 1967 Rebellion (uprising or riot, if you prefer). My neighborhood was anchored by elders like Ms. Brown (my maternal grandmother, “Motherdear”), Ms. Deemer, Grandma Cook, Mr. Male, and Mrs. Craft. Ms. Deemer was a retired plant worker and numbers lady who provided loans to many of the families on my block. She lived to be well into her 100s. Williard Scott missed her dedication, but our block never did. At the height of community unrest in the early 90s, there was an increase in gang activity, drugs, drive-by shootings, and drug addiction. During this period, the elders in our neighborhood were unthreatened, protected, honored, and respected. Courtesy newspapers, lawn service, snow removal, and meals were shared from one family to another. Christmas gifts were often exchanged as well, especially among families with children.

I believe the value of Detroit is in its people. I grew up surrounded by families who came to Detroit seeking opportunity. Born in 1982, I had the privilege of living in a neighborhood full of elders who had recently retired from decades of service. In retirement, they welcomed the opportunity to appreciate the homes they had purchased in the 60s or 70s. They nurtured lawns full of seasonal flowers, gardens filled with foods (before urban gardening was a trend), and porches that created the sense of comfort that they remembered from their Southern homes.

As I child I was bored on visits South with my elders, but these trips were cherished and dear for them. I now realize this was because of their attachment to their childhood home/s. I understand that my home is in a neighborhood that was filled with strong Black matriarchs and patriarchs, people who proudly paid off mortgages while appreciating the value of their community. They modeled their homes after favorite features of their Southern roots: porch swings, rock gardens, birdhouses, and many other aspects of Southern culture.

My earliest memories of friendships, playing, and growing into my individuality begin on Clements. It was a very unique setting that influences much of my life today. From the mid 1980s through the early 1990s, when our family lived on Clements, there were 22 children in my age group. Beginning with my sister Dara, there were also Apryl, Don, Juan, Carlos, Kenita, Brian, Andre, Big Andre, Aaron, Kenny Boy, Paradise, Franzor, Raenita, Tashiana, Taquila, Shaniya, little Andre, Mike, Shawn, little James, and Teliya. In addition, many of our young cousins would often spend summer on our block. After school and in the summers, we played outside — football, pick ‘em up mess ‘em up, hide and go seek, tag, that’s my car — or we simply talked about each other!

I believe my open nature and personable attitude stem directly from the fact that from seven years old I interacted with so many different kinds of people. Our parents and grandparents all led different walks of life. Through my short visits and talks with drug dealers, factory workers, retirees, welfare moms, fast food workers, teachers, entrepreneurs, hustlers, mechanics, and lunch aides, I was supported in a loving cross section of society that viewed me as an extension of their family because of my friendship with their children.

Today my neighborhood looks, feels, and is different. I balance the reverence I have for what was with an understanding of what is. The following verses characterize what I feel today. They were written to the melody and rhythm of the song “Free,” featured on artist Carolyn Striho’s 2016 album release, Afterthought.

I
A landscape of broken homes and abandoned plots
Now streets like mine got abandoned blocks
Where I reminisce life I can stand and watch
The 80s and the 90s I’m here and now
As I cruise the Lodge exit to exit
I can tell you stories that you never were expecting
Detroit not much but the people are electric
Love it or hate it but you got a perspective
And we try to bottle it up
You know how Detroit is, can’t be followed by much
Depends where you stand; where you from
Place opportunity; birth daughters and sons
In a shadow of a world that doesn’t exist
Stabilized families and blue-collar shifts
Where we used to work lines now we walk ‘em to get
Unemployment, education, chance to live

II
Loving more where I live than the places that I visit
From my front porch I can hear it if I listen
Television sets, kids and car systems
Stories of love, life and Detroit Pistons
This is Abstract Art
Tyrie made it clear but it’s still your call
Judgment or interpretation
To interpret this then you have to take in
Skills and our talents everyone who matters
Life as our canvas colored to accent
Faith with family / death with sadness
Hurt with hunger / life with laughter
As we mix it up it’s caught to capture
Beauty of a heaven or a hell of disaster
Like flowerbeds filled with litter and trash
Tulips rise up from the dried out grass

III
Best friends are professionals who moved on
Come back and complain ‘bout what went wrong
And I tell ‘em that I love it, cause it’s so strong
Everyday filled with faith here it doesn’t take long
To find recovering addicts
Hands scaled up from the needles that crack ‘em
They support me tell me keep on rapping
Our connect they connect to my boy that’s trapping
My boy pitching boy but support me having
A chance to be real in this art I capture
My surroundings motivational
Life is my story so my song conversational