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Global Detroit’s Banglatown effort aims to involve residents in community development efforts

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Md Abdul Muhit lives a long way from Bangladesh, but in Michigan he feels right at home.

A native of the Southeast Asian country of about 150 million people, he knows what it’s like to be part of a community. Through a Global Detroit initiative, he has a new role in building one.

The Global Detroit Banglatown Design Project targets a 5,000-resident area overlapping Hamtramck and Detroit on both sides of Conant Street between Carpenter and Davison. Using a $25,000 Kresge Innovative Projects: Detroit planning grant, the initiative aims to help bridge culture and language gaps in one of the most diverse areas of metro Detroit through landscape enhancement and business enrichment.

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Md Abdul Muhit, regularly meets with neighbors to uncover concerns and generate new ideas about community development efforts

Though he spent only six months in the area after leaving England to join his wife in Banglatown, Muhit is excited about his neighbors.

“The people here are really fine,” says Muhit, Global Detroit’s Banglatown community organizer. “There were a lot of Arab people where I used to live in London city. Here there are, like, four or five types of people in the community, Yemini, Polish, African American, and there are some Pakistanis.”

About 19 percent of Banglatown residents are Bengali, and the neighborhood has the distinction of being the only in America that prints voting ballots in the Bengali language. But the Global Detroit Banglatown Design Project is meant to include both new and long-time Hamtramck and Detroit citizens of all cultures, says Raquel Andersen, director of partnerships and community outreach.

“We are not just looking at the Bengali community, we are looking at the area as a whole,” she says. “The population is amorphous. It comes and it goes between these two cities.”

Enrichment and design aspects of the project include:

  • Collaboration between artists and technology specialists, who’ll consult with city planners to improve services to non-English-speaking neighbors
  • Façade makeovers to Banglatown shops
  • Classes for small business owners
  • Creation of a long-term, inclusive community plan

Grant funds also will be used to help fill gaps in maintenance where municipal workers and budgets might be limited, says Muhit.

“In community development there are a lot of things people actually want to happen,” he says. “The city does some of these things once a month, but it should be more frequent. These things are important for the well-being of the community.”

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Global Detroit’s efforts have led to partnerships with such organizations as the Bangladeshi American Public Affairs Committee. Support is critical in addressing challenges like the language barrier in a community where about 62 percent reportedly speak a language other than English at home and 40 percent struggle with English. Direct engagement, in order to determine the economic and cultural needs expressed by neighbors, is part of a six-month strategy just getting underway in Banglatown, Andersen says.

“We find that when we do engage, people just want to know what’s going on. They’re happy to share, and for the most part, they’re excited about the project,” she says. “We just want to make sure that it’s not prescriptive and that it comes from the residents. We don’t really know what we’re going to find and we’re happy about that approach.”

For his part, Muhit says he’ll work to help incorporate the best ideas and acknowledge the concerns generated by all his neighbors in Banglatown.

“I have an affection for the people of my community and it’s a very nice thing when we can bring others together to socialize and meet one another, and have the cultures get along very nicely,” adds Muhit. “My goal will be to keep the whole community together and keep it a very nice place to live.”

– Photos: Paul Engstrom

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