By Leslie Ellis
From the east side to the west side, from downtown to the north end, they came armed with paint brushes and shovels, creativity and love, ready to make a difference.
There were people from Detroit, volunteers from the suburbs, big corporations and small churches.
All together, they accounted for more than 250 community improvement projects in zip codes all over the city, making the 9th annual ARISE Detroit! Neighborhoods Day last month the biggest and most far-reaching in its history.
“Neighborhoods Day helps us to have pride in where we live,” said Edna Jackson of Detroit, who attended a UAW Jobs Fair in southwest Detroit. “We drive up and down the street and say, ‘When is somebody going to do something about that?’ That’s what you’re watching today. It encourages people to continue throughout the year. It gives you some idea of what you can do to make a difference in your community.”
Perhaps Detroit Circus performer Eric Scott Baker said it best when he spoke to the Neighborhoods Day crowd gathered around him at the Sidewalk Festival of Performing Arts in the Old Redford community in northwest Detroit.
“You are the manager of your reality and you can be anything you want.”
Here’s a snapshot of some of the Neighborhoods Day event.
RIDING IN THE D: East Side Bike Cruise
A diverse cavalcade of smiling bikers circled up at the potential site of an Olympic-level cycling track before heading out on the inaugural Neighborhoods Day bike rally.
The 25-mile “Riding in the D” bike ride started at The Gratiot Splash and visited several Neighborhoods Day events and was a nod to the popularity of cycling in the city.
“Pretty much any weekend, you’re going to have 200 to 300 bikers going through Detroit,” said Calvin T. Hughes, vice president of Touring for Wolverine Sports Club, citing the Slow Roll and Critical Mass bike rides.
“Riding in the D” organizer Yvonne Rucker, who’s also owner and executive director of BikeVON, said she hopes the ride will become an annual part of Neighborhoods Day.
BikeVON’s mission is to introduce kids of color in Detroit to the Olympic sport of track racing.
Rucker supports the Detroit Velo Project’s plan to build an indoor cycling track, also called a velodrome, in Detroit. The track would cost $3-5 million and still needs city approval. “Riding in the D” embarked from an empty lot near Gratiot Avenue and Vernor Highway that is one of the sites under consideration for the velodrome.
Rucker hopes to convince potential neighbors of the project’s value.
“We’d like the community to look at it in a positive way,” Rucker said. “We’re hoping for community support.”
FARMING IN THE CITY: Far West Side
Just past the placid river, where green-leaved branches dance in the breeze and insects sing a summer song, you’ll find D-Town Farm.
The seven-acre plot inside River Rouge Park on Detroit’s west side is a haven from the city’s crumbling concrete, pulsing highways and status quo. D-Town Farm grows fresh produce, as well as a vision for a different kind of future.
The farm is an outreach effort of The Detroit Black Community Food Security Network. The coalition employs urban agriculture, policy development and cooperative buying to give African-Americans a leading voice in the city’s food security movement.
“This (growing season) is my first time ever being on a farm, except being in my grandma’s garden. It’s really peaceful,” said volunteer Imani Smith of Detroit. “It’s a great place to connect. You get to meet people from all walks of life and you find out you have things in common.”
One of those people was the Rev. Gary Wright of Saints Peter and Paul Jesuit Church in Detroit. Wright brought several members of his church to D-Town Farm on Neighborhoods Day.
“We were looking for a place to do some service and this seemed like something really different,” he said. “It was great.” The church members toured D-Town’s hoop houses and garden beds. Then, they pulled weeds and cleaned a median between the farm and a tidy row of ranch homes across the street.
“What they’re doing is producing food that serves people in the community,” Wright said of D-Town Farm. “It changes the way we distribute food.”
UAW LOCAL 22 JOB FAIR: Southwest Detroit
Next August, you might find Percy Johnson relaxing on a fishing boat in Louisiana.
But there was no sign on Neighborhoods Day the community action program chairman for UAW Local 22 in Detroit plans to retire at the end of the year.
Instead, Johnson prepared job seekers during the union hall’s first Neighborhoods Day job fair with the intensity of a coach whose team is down at half time. Approximately 50 people turned out for the event and received information about job openings and training programs. Eighty additional participants received employment counseling over the phone, he said.
“The work is here, but the people don’t know where to go or what to do to get the work,” Johnson said. “We’re trying to bridge that gap.”
No high school diploma or GED? No driver’s license? Previously incarcerated? Representatives from Focus: HOPE, Southwest Solutions and Access for All were on hand to match job hunters with the right programs to overcome these hurdles.
“You can just see the change in people when they find they can get that kind of help,” said Edna Jackson, a social worker for Focus: HOPE. “When folks come in and are really down on their luck, we can help them.”
The only deal breaker of the day? No drugs.
“A poor person, all he’s got is to alter his mind. But once you give them employment, they change completely,” Johnson said. “The opportunity (to work) is here in Detroit like never before.”
Need help with your job search? Visit www.focushope.edu or call 313-494-4300 for more information about workforce development and education programs. Or, attend an upcoming meeting of the City of Detroit’s Skilled Trades Task Force. Meetings are held the last Tuesday of each month (except in August). The next meeting will be held Tuesday, Sept. 22. Call City Council President Brenda Jones’ office at (313) 224-1245 for more information.
Neighborhoods Day activities continued throughout August.
“It says a lot about the spirit of the people in our neighborhoods,” ARISE Detroit! Executive Director Luther Keith said. “The growth in registrations, as well as the strong sponsorship support from businesses, foundations and volunteers, is a clear sign that more people are recognizing that creating vibrant neighborhoods is essential for Detroit’s comeback.”
For the second year in a row, Detroit Future City was the title sponsor of Neighborhoods Day, joined by a record number of more than 30 major sponsors.
“Part of the DFC Implementation Office’s mission is to empower Detroiters to engage in the city’s transformation, and this event is another shining example of putting that sentiment into action,” said Dan Kinkead, interim Director of the DFC implementation office.
Elected officials also showed their support for Neighborhoods Day.
Wayne County Executive Warren Evans and his team adopted Bagley Elementary School and spent the day gardening, cleaning and painting to prepare the building for the school year. Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones, Councilmen Scott Benson and James Tate, and Department of Neighborhoods Director Charlie Beckham all attended events.
Corporate volunteers that adopted schools for projects for Neighborhoods Day included, Blue Cross Blue Shield, PNC Bank, Meijer, FCA Chrysler. Volunteers also come from Oakland University, Wisdom Lodge No. 57, and Oakland County Community College.
Leslie Ellis is a Detroit-area freelance writer
Over the next few days we will feature other stories about Neighborhoods Day.