Posts by Author: Serena Maria Daniels

Flint’s Neighborhood-Led Approach to Reducing Crime

A July 2016 block party organized by the University Avenue Corridor Coaltion, in Flint. (Credit: University Avenue Corridor Coaltion)

The “broken windows” theory came into the urbanist lexicon when former NYC Police Commissioner Bill Bratton popularized the “enforcement first” policing approach to minor offenses like vandalism and turnstile skipping in the 1990s. The thinking was to address the smaller, “broken windows” low-level crimes right away, thus discouraging more serious offenses.

But that theory has come under criticism over the years, with detractors saying the approach only addresses part of a larger socio-economic condition that requires a more holistic approach to deal with inequities. And the evidence has been clear: people of color are disproportionately targeted by police under the approach.

Looking at high vacancy rates, violent crime and poverty in Flint, Mich., a group of residents, community workers, business owners and university officials came together to take a different tack. Instead of police patrolling around, ticketing folks for minor infractions, the group implemented what’s become known as the “busy streets” theory. It’s a theory reflective of work from researchers like Patrick Sharkey, who are only now shedding light on the role of community members in reducing crime through local initiative.

Following a three-day-long workshop in 2012, the University Avenue Corridor Coalition formed to to fix up a three mile section of University Avenue, a stretch that spans through the city’s Carriage Town and central neighborhoods. The mostly volunteer group rolled up their sleeves, starting small with neighborhood cleanup days, planting flowers, mowing lawns, repairing park benches.

The coalition now counts more than more than 80 individuals, block clubs, local businesses, local government departments and Kettering University. The “busy streets” has now been studied and proven to have a lasting impact on the community.

“When you take care of the little things, people notice,” says Dr. Robert McMahan, president of Kettering University. “And they see others taking pride in their place and that is contagious.”

The results have been clear: less crime and more business.

A five-year study, recently published by the coalition, shows that between 2012 and 2017, there was a 78 percent drop in blight; a 54 percent decrease in assaults; 83 percent fewer robberies; 76 percent decrease in burglary; and a 36 percent drop in vandalism. Funding for coalition efforts include $2 million in grants, coming mostly from the U.S. Department of Justice.

As for positive development, the corridor saw $50 million in investment over that same time frame, including the reopening of the neighborhood’s historic Atwood Stadium, an 11,000-seat venue that Kettering took ownership of in 2013 and revitalized; the closure of a party store once a hotspot for crime that was redeveloped as a sandwich shop; and across the street, an empty lot once a popular area for drinking in public is now University Square, a park space that hosts events, food truck rallies and family-friendly activities.

Researchers from the University of Michigan’s Prevention Research Center of Michigan and the Centers for Disease Control-funded Youth Violence Prevention Center compared neighborhoods experiencing similar issues and found that places where community members maintained empty lots had nearly 40 percent fewer assaults and violent crimes than untouched vacant lots.

In Flint, coalition members believe the success of the approach has as much to do with community members feeling a sense of ownership of improving the area as it does with the collaborative, somewhat informal nature of the coalition’s efforts. Dallas Gatlin, executive director of the Carriage Town Ministries, a founding member group of the coalition, says there are no bylaws, no officers or bureaucracy that might otherwise get in the way of progress.

“The joy of seeing things get done, that things are getting done, is the fuel behind the growth. It’s not being bogged down by administrative involvement,” Gatlin says.

Carriage Town Ministries, a 130-bed shelter for men, women and children, asks that the people it serves perform community service in the neighborhood. Each morning, five days a week, 15 people are assigned cleanup duties in the neighborhood. The nonprofit’s objective goes beyond beautifying the area, focusing also on helping the people involved develop skills that could be applicable in the workforce, Gatlin says.

On top of regular neighborhood cleanups, Carriage Town members have restored five abandoned houses, which are now part of the organization’s campus. There’s a garden where folks can learn the basics of planting and harvesting crops, as well as fostering healthy cooking and eating habits. University Square is maintained by Carriage Town Ministries residents.

Gatlin, who previously worked for 30 years for General Motors, says there was a time when Flint had the highest household income per capita in the country for people under age 35, thanks to plentiful jobs in manufacturing. But as is common in other Rust Belt cities like Detroit just 60 miles to the south, the reality today is vastly different. The median income today for Flint residents is less than $26,000, with more than half of its families with children living in poverty. The city lost more than a quarter of its population since 1990s, leaving behind empty houses (one in five homes are vacant). Flint has the second-highest homicide rate in cities with populations under 100,000, trailing another post-industrial Rust Belt city, Gary, Ind.

While Flint and other post-industrial towns may never go back to the way things were, Gatlin and others are hopeful that efforts like those led by the coalition will help redefine the city’s future.

“I will probably be long gone before Flint becomes the fully vibrant college town that it will become someday, but people have to lay the groundwork now,” Gatlin says.


How Detroiters Are Shaping a Post-Industrial Riverfront Park

A current rendering of the redesigned west riverfront in Detroit. (Credit: Michael Van Valkenburgh and Associates)

Sure, sometimes, the 22-acre space comes alive for the occasional outdoor concert, but for the most part, Detroit’s West Riverfront Park is pretty desolate compared to the city’s RiverWalk, just a few miles east and home to lush wetlands vegetation, family-friendly playgrounds and volleyball courts and spacious walkways that welcome three million visitors a year of all races and incomes.

To help re-envision West Riverfront Park, the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy sent a community advisory team made up of Detroit residents on a tour of other cities to see firsthand the sorts of amenities a world-class waterside park can offer.

The community advisory team visited cities like Chicago, New York and Philadelphia, where they had the opportunity to take notes on what works elsewhere and how that might apply for West Riverfront Park, the final stretch of the 5.5-mile Detroit riverside that the conservancy is looking to redesign.

“One of the coolest places we saw in Philadelphia was this park that had been built as an almost popup park,” says Khalil Ligon, one of the community advisory team members and also a planner who works for the Alliance for the Great Lakes. “There were lots of concessions and cool places to eat … We have the space for it, the entire riverfront is not developed so we have room to explore some of those things.”

Observations from the community advisory team informed an international design competition that asked firms to come up with plans to redesign West Riverfront Park, a project that is expected to cost $50 million, to be raised through donations.

A team led by Michael Van Valkenburgh and Associates beat out three other teams that had been selected as finalists in a months-long process.

Van Valkenburgh is considered one of the most significant landscape architects in the United States. He’s created designs for the Brooklyn Bridge Park, Maggie Daley Park in Chicago, a redesign of Pennsylvania Avenue near the White House and is working on the landscaping for the Barack Obama Presidential Center in Chicago. Working alongside his New York-based firm will be architect David Adjaye, the designer of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

Among the conceptual plans proposed by Van Valkenburgh’s team was the creation of a cove with a beach, where visitors can wade in the water (or ice skate during winter months), a whimsical playground featuring sculptures in the shapes of Michigan animals and plants, an area for outdoor concerts, a sport house and other pavilions.

Van Valkenburgh says that he would eventually like to see the creation of an indoor swimming pool, where children can learn to swim for free. “Then, West Riverfront Park becomes a place where you had a defining experience,” he says.

Van Valkenburgh and his team visited Detroit at least 10 times since the competition process began last year, checking out neighborhoods near and far from the park site. They also met with the community advisory team, from whom he learned how many of Detroit’s elder residents describe their love of Belle Isle, the island park situated on the Detroit River that had historically been considered the city’s jewel.

“We’ve got to think of ways that people just have to come here,” he says. “I know Belle Isle was that in Detroit, and to some extent, that still is.”

Whatever will take shape at West Riverfront Park is the culmination of work to reimagine the city’s riverfront that dates back to the early 2000s, when the conservancy was established.

The current riverfront development spans more than three miles, from around the Joe Louis Arena downtown to just east of the MacArthur Bridge, which connects mainland Detroit with Belle Isle. Once the West Riverfront section is complete it will be one of the longest redesigned riverfronts in the United States.

One theme that has existed since the first sections began to be transformed: how to make the riverfront a place where everyon is welcome. Prior to any revitalization, much of the Detroit riverside was considered a wasteland of abandoned warehouses and neglected roads. In the process of re-envisioning that space, the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy has taken steps to ensure resident involvement, such as creating the community advisory team for the West Riverfront Park redesign.

Residents like Ligon were nominated for spots on the team, and in her case she used her point of view as both an urban planner and a Detroiter to inform her input. She also hopes the revitalized park’s design implements details that pay homage to Southwest Detroit, where the park is located and where most of the city’s Latino population resides.

“This was definitely a much better experience in terms of really capturing the dynamic nuances that you’re hearing from the public,” says Ligon. “There’s often a lot of meetings for the public to give their feedback for redevelopment projects. Unfortunately it doesn’t necessarily translate into the buildout … Here, I have been able to see that input translate into the conceptual design.”

This article is part of The Power of Parks, a series exploring how parks and recreation facilities and services can help cities achieve their goals in wellness, conservation and social equity. The Power of Parks is supported by a grant from the National Recreation and Park Association.


L.A. Converting Public Spaces into Public Service Hubs

Olvera Street. (Photo by David Moore via Wikimedia Commons)

Part of El Pueblo de Los Angeles National Historical Monument, in downtown L.A., Olvera Street is a brick-paved corridor that was the birthplace of Los Angeles. Along Olvera, Chicano merchants still sell sarapes, lucha libre masks, Mexican candies and taquitos. A major tourist draw in downtown for nearly a century, the streets around El Pueblo are now home to some of the area’s largest homeless encampments.

Pressure is mounting for city leaders to take action on homelessness across L.A. County. The encampments that make up the famous Skid Row in downtown L.A. can now be seen across the city, at local parks, subway platforms and bus stops, parking lots and sidewalks, leaving organizers who work with the unhoused calling for immediate action from City Hall.

Some activists are resorting to extreme tactics. An Activist with Los Angeles Catholic Worker, which operates a free soup kitchen and hospitality house for the homeless, Kaleb Havens spent Ash Wednesday to Easter (the 40-day Catholic season known as Lent) chained to an iron fence, fasting in protest for most of that time, calling on leaders to not simply throw money at homelessness.

“[The solution is] not just creating these social services, but making them humane,” he told LA Taco, an independent news site that has been documenting the homelessness crisis over the past few months.

In what Council Member José Huizar calls a “triage-like” response, city council last month voted in favor of establishing a temporary shelter on a city-owned parking lot that sits at the southern edge of El Pueblo. The shelter would be made up of five trailers: three equipped for temporary housing, another one for restrooms, showers and laundry, and one for administrative work and case management.

The L.A. Homeless Services Authority would contract ongoing services to a non-profit service provider. Participants would work with case managers to find permanent housing. According to Huizar’s office, the first year costs for the shelter would be about $2.4 million for the design and installation of the trailers, as well as sewer and water costs. Yearly operations are estimated at $1.4 million. The site is expected to launch by summer 2018.

L.A. City Council also voted last month to initiate similar sites on other city-owned property in and around Skid Row, and have directed city staff to find potential funding sources and locations.

According to Huizar, the El Puebla parking lot is an excellent pilot ground because the area has the largest concentration of individuals experiencing homelessness in downtown L.A. outside of Skid Row.

In December, city council voted to turn over ownership of another city-owned property at 1320 Pleasant Avenue in the nearby Boyle Heights neighborhood to Jovenes Inc., which provides shelter, transitional housing, and permanent housing to homeless youth. According to Jovenes, youth homelessness has increased by over 64 percent in L.A.

Officials from the L.A. County Metropolitan Transportation Authority are grappling with a loss of ridership on buses and trains by passengers put off by the growing number of homeless people sleeping at subway platforms or riding the buses in place of sleeping on the street. The transit agency has begun to look for places where they can place supportive services for the homeless on agency-owned property, including allowing people living in their cars to park them in agency-owned parking lots, or installing showers and storage lockers that could be placed on vacant land the department owns around transit stations or bus storage yards. The agency created a $9 million loan program last year to encourage affordable housing near its stations.

Earlier this month, L.A. City Council also approved two new laws, one that would speed up the often lengthy process of implementing homeless housing projects and, another that would make it easier for motels to be converted into temporary housing.

Meanwhile, the Clean Streets Los Angeles program has fielded nearly 6,000 requests by residents asking for help to clean encampments throughout the city.

These are just a few short-term measures city leaders are taking to help stem the homelessness epidemic in Los Angeles County.

Rising rents, coupled with a shortage in affordable housing units throughout the region, has resulted in a homeless population that an L.A. Times editorial estimates at more than 57,000 in L.A. County. The situation has forced some to relocate to far-flung parts of the region, share living quarters with multiple families, and or resort to renting out box trucks or RVs.

In the long-term, Measure HHH, a ballot initiative that voters approved in late 2016, authorizes a $1.2 billion bond to help pay for 10,000 units of affordable housing over the next decade.

Tod Lipka, CEO of Step Up on Second, a social service organization that works with the chronically homeless experiencing mental health issues, applauds the city’s efforts to provide short-term gap services while waiting for longer term permanent housing solutions to come online.

“The city has done amazing things over the past couple of years to address this problem, that for many, many years have not been addressed,” Lipka says.

While all efforts should be place to address permanent housing solutions, the city’s use of sites like at El Pueblo will help to manage the problem in the immediate term, Lipka adds.

Huizar, whose district covers downtown, Boyle Heights, El Sereno and northeast Los Angeles, says in the meantime, his district needs temporary, emergency housing.

“This is the model I want to see used next to create a triage-like response in Skid Row,” he says of the parking lot shelter approach. “Unfortunately, as the single largest homeless encampment in the nation, Skid Row is ground zero of our homeless challenge and we must step up our efforts to address it.”


Growing and Selling an Equitable Local Economy in Detroit

Local produce at The Farmers Hand. (Photo by Serena Maria Daniels)

Despite all the hype over Detroit’s “come back,” “revitalization, “renaissance,” or whatever other superlatives that business reporters so often tout in development stories, the city’s dearth of healthy grocery options in many neighborhoods remains conspicuous to most who live there.

There are plenty of corner liquor stores (known colloquially in Michigan as party stores), selling all manner of unhealthy snacks and maybe a small selection of produce on the verge of spoiling at a high markup. But by and large residents to seek outside of the city limits for their grocery needs.

Each year, $178 million leaks out of the city and goes to suburban grocery chains, according to 2014 data from the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation.

That’s what The Farmer’s Hand sought to address when it opened its doors in 2016, in a gentrifying neighborhood with no shortage of craft breweries, pricey restaurants and micro-distilleries, but nevertheless lacking a proper grocery store.

Founders and co-owners Kiwi Louya and Rohani Foulkes believed in the idea of providing fresh produce, dairy, meats, and a curated selected of dry goods, as well as a small cafe featuring coffee and ready-made breakfast and lunch options — all in a compact corner store where folks can forgo the car and instead walk or cycle to pick up essentials.

The store represents local in every way it can, including the seasons. Everything from the fingerling potatoes, the charcuterie to the kombucha and bottles of artisan olive oil, all comes from Michigan sources and many of the products come from within Detroit city limits. During the colder winter months, root vegetables tend to be high in supply, while the fall months might feature Michigan’s famous apples. The 100-plus suppliers that work with the market are small-to-mid-sized vendors that adhere to humane food practices.

“When they run out, it’s nice, I get a text message, we can cut it and bring it right down the street,” says Greg Willerer, who, along with wife Olivia Hubert, own Brother Nature Produce, an urban farm just north of the market-cafe. “When you buy from Whole Foods, it’s already 10 days old … Here, it’s hours old.”

What customers don’t necessarily see is the impact the market has on its own suppliers and employees. The business model emphasizes sharing profits with the very producers who source the food, working with producers on a consignment basis. Vendors get back 70 cents of every dollar sold at The Farmer’s Hand, a stark contrast to the 17 cents for every dollar ratio at large scale supermarkets. What’s more, they set their own prices. Full-time employees are also paid a living wage and receive healthcare benefits.

“By working on consignment with farmers, we’re respecting the work that it takes to grow their products,” says Foulkes.

Foulkes says their model is about respecting the work of farmers.

“There can be a disconnect between what people think a product is worth and what they want to spend on meat and dairy. We’ve gotten used to that traditional way of purchasing,” Foulkes says. “So there’s a little bit of relearning on both sides learning what it takes on both.”

Louya, a native Detroiter who is African American, and Foulkes, originally from Australia, were inspired by similar models at the Argus Farm Stop in nearby Ann and Local Roots in Wooster, Ohio, both of which buy directly from the farms and producers they work with. Argus Farm Shop vendors receive 80 percent of the items and they set their own prices. Local Roots farmers see 75-82 percent of each dollar, and relies on volunteers and community support to keep costs low.

Outside The Farmer's Hand market and cafe. (Photo by Serena Maria Daniels)

In just over a year in business, it’s too soon to tell the long-term impact this model has on vendors, but Louya and Foulkes are already expanding. Within the same building, later this spring, Louya and Foulkes are opening Folk, a stand-alone, 24-seat restaurant that will expand upon the original space’s offerings of breakfast and lunch, coffee and espresso from Michigan coffee roaster Hyperion, and a counter featuring Michigan-based Reilly’s Craft Creamery ice cream. With the second brick and mortar space, Folk is also creating additional employment opportunities.

The question remains, can a business like this — with attention paid on locally-made products, an equitable pay model for vendors and living wages for employees — sustain itself in a city with a high poverty rate? Not far away, in the city’s Mexicantown neighborhood, Detroit Farm and Garden, an urban gardening supply store, recently announced that they would be shutting down operations after a six-year run.

Willerer and Hubert hope that customers will see the value that products like Brother Nature and others sold at The Farmer’s Hand bring to the table, not just in terms of flavor.

“My wife says this and sometimes it makes people cringe, but stuff that we grow, that they sell, isn’t grown by slaves,” he says. “If you look at the stuff at Meijer, maybe that 5-ounce bag of salad mix is $3. Ours is $5, and ours is only hours old. Our stuff has no lettuce, has its own flavor, it’s just a superior product, it’s only a little bit more expensive.”


Chattanooga Market Connects Innovation District to Low-Income Seniors

An aerial view of Chattanooga. (Credit: Casey Yoshida)

Like other post-industrial cities, Chattanooga was struggling to find its way after its manufacturing base picked up and relocated overseas, leaving behind them a crippled economy.

Hoping to reignite the local economy, in 2015, business, city and nonprofit leaders developed a 140-acre “innovation district” downtown, providing a space for tech startups, business accelerator programs and youth training programs. The center of this district was the former Tennessee Valley Authority building, which over the years had become underutilized as the utility downsized. Now repurposed as the Edney Building, it serves as the district’s anchor.

Across the street from Edney are the Patten Towers, a public housing development for low-income seniors. As the district became flooded with tech-savvy entrepreneurs, the question arose over how these residents of the towers would be included in this so-called revival.

Last fall, a group of nonprofits banded together to launch Bingo’s Market, a pilot grocery store on the ground-level of Patten Towers that not only provides the new influx of more affluent entrepreneurs with gourmet grab-and-go lunch options, but gives the residents with a healthy option for groceries much closer to home.

Behind the effort are Causeway (which describes itself as a nonprofit social innovation studio, by providing coaching, funding, and project management for early-stage social enterprises), The Enterprise Center (which manages the Innovation District), the YMCA of Metropolitan Chattanooga, and PK Management (which manages Patten Towers).

Causeway and startup accelerator The Company Lab received a grant from the Lyndhurst Foundation back in 2015 to begin working toward connecting the towers and the Innovation District. Along with The Enterprise Center, the organizations started facilitating focus groups with residents to better understand their needs, hosting a weekly business class and sponsoring a health fare. Among their findings, they learned that access to food was the biggest area of concern among for 51 percent of residents.

Patten Tower residents are at least 62 years old or have a physical or mental disability and earn below a certain income level to qualify for housing. The 2015 survey shows that many of the residents make less than $500 a month.

For the past several years, the YMCA of Metropolitan Chattanooga’s Mobile Market had made weekly stops at the towers a few hours at a time. The trouble with that model, says Chelsea Conrad, creative director with Causeway, is that it was never supposed to be a long-term solution to healthy food access but more of a temporary project to highlight the demand for fresh food. The truck has instead been in operation for seven years and is heavily subsidized.

“The whole point of Bingo’s was to strike a balance of affordability and financial sustainability that doesn’t rely on grant funding,” says Conrad in an email.

During the six month pilot period, PK Management allowed Bingo’s Market to use the space rent-free. Just two employees work limited hours to staff the market, but a growing sales volume and innovative pricing strategies are factors that organizers hope will give the market some staying power.

“There’s really nothing like this downtown,” says Tara Williams, who went from working on the mobile market for six years to managing Bingo’s. “There’s a Family Dollar, which [sells] overpriced, unhealthy crap, or a Publix across the river, but you have to take a bus to get there.”

What if that weekly truck stop could be a permanent fixture, organizers thought. The impact could even go beyond easier access to healthy food. Bingo’s is situated in a room that faces Georgia Avenue, which Williams says has been vacant for quite some time. She says Bingo’s serves as not just a convenience store, but a community hub.

“I feel like there’s such a dynamic group of people that come in there and are interested in the fact that there’s actually something here,” Williams says, adding that some residents turn to the store not just for food but for socializing as well.

In the first six months in operation, the challenge for Williams has been stocking the fresh produce grocery staples that residents need and keeping prices down, while appealing to the startup crowd who might be more interested in grab-and-go items for breakfast at dinner.

To encourage residents to frequent Bingo’s, folks with an EBT card get a 10 percent discount and the owner of the local Mad Priest Coffee Roasters provides cups of coffee for $1 (as opposed to $2 to $3.50 charged for a cup at the small batch roaster’s coffee shop).

What no one will find are unhealthy merchandise like cigarettes, booze or food or drinks that contain high fructose corn syrup. For sodas, folks have to walk around the corner to the nearest convenience store.

The six-month pilot period ended in March and Williams says she’s hopeful that PK Management will allow Bingo’s to remain, though she won’t there to see it through. The intention was for Williams, a Knoxville native, to take over as the owner after the trial period ended, but she says she had to resign so she can support her sick mother and go back to school.

While she doesn’t doubt that Bingo’s will one day realize profitability, she said it’s been a challenge to learn the ropes of running a business, while supporting herself on a limited income (she earned $10 an hour, the same she earned when she worked the mobile market).

Conrad says the organizations involved have recently agreed to continue supporting Bingo’s for another six month period and are looking for a replacement to take Williams’ post. If a replacement cannot be identified soon, an existing YMCA employee will fill in for the interim.

“We are at that six month mark and can all see that the store is fully capable of being sustainable one day, but it is not quite there,” says Conrad in an email.

For example, the market was operating in the black in January, but dipped back into the red in February, Conrad says. The holidays, winter weather, and a construction project across the street all were possible factors for the slowdown.

Even though she will not get to see if Bingo’s can sustain itself long term, Williams is certain it’s already had an impact on residents’ lives.

“It spawns conversation, it’s a place for them to get away and talk to somebody and do something different,” she says.


Provacateur Chef’s Latest Experiment Touches Nerves About Race

The standard box lunch order at "Saartj." (Credit: Serena Maria Daniels)

It starts with ordering a plate of Nigerian cuisine from a lunch counter. Chef Tunde Wey opens by explaining wealth disparity in the United States.

“Wealth is what you own, minus what you owe, that’s your wealth,” Wey says.

The wealth disparity is stark, he continues, spouting off some statistics: the median income for white households, for example, is about $64,000, while for black households it’s around $26,000. The national average wealth of white families is around $919,000, while for black households it’s about $140,000.

Then Wey goes in for the ask. He shows me a box of his Nigerian jollof rice with oven-roasted plantains, blackened cauliflower, golden beets and coconut sauce, pickled onions and toasted collard greens. “It’s $12 for a plate,” he says. “You can look at the menu, it’s been asterisked because we’re asking white folks to pay a suggested price of $30, which is two and a half times more.”

While only a month-long pop-up shop at New Orleans’ Roux Carré Food Accelerator, the concept captured a national response, with headlines ranging from praise to outrage. “One chef’s social experiment: Charge minorities $12, white people $30,” the Washington Post; “Could a Single Lunch Change Your Views on Race and Wealth?” asked U.S. News & World Report; “Racist Restaurant Charges Whites More For Same Meal Than Non-Whites” from The Hayride, a right-leaning website.

Wey explains that it’s up to guests whether they identify as white. It’s also up to the guest whether they want to pay the higher price.

One guest, for example, told the chef she identifies as a person of color (though she acknowledged she passed as white) because she is the daughter of Iranian immigrants and is of Muslim faith. On another occasion, after going over his presentation and explaining to a white customer that the $30 was only a suggested price not a requirement, the guest stormed off without purchasing anything.

It’s not the first time Wey has invited his guests to have some hard conversations over a meal. He made a name for himself with his “Blackness in America” dinners in 2016, which spanned from rural Appalachia to Los Angeles. One of Wey’s collaborators on that series was Caleb Zigas, executive director of La Cocina, a food business incubator focusing on women and immigrant entrepreneurs in San Francisco’s Mission District. Zigas says he’s heard criticism of Wey’s work in the past, that his meals aren’t exactly garnering answers to income or wealth inequality. In the space of an artist, that’s not really the point though, he says.

“I encourage [Tunde] to approach this work as less of a business venture and more as art,” says Zigas. “There’s not enough margin in a business for this type of work, but it’s possible in a less profit-sensitive format to have these important conversations.”

At Roux Carré, Wey wanted to take the conversations further, by asking guests not just to think about the many inequities that keep marginalized communities from building wealth, but also to give up something tangible. He dubbed the month-long pop-up “Saartj,” referring to Sara “Saartjie” Baartman, a 19th-century black South African woman who was taken from her home and paraded around Europe.

The experiment went beyond asking white guests to pay extra. Going over the same information about income and wealth disparities, he offered guests of color a cut of the extra profit gained from the white customers. The reaction to this offer was also mixed. When Wey asked a black guest, who visited with his white wife and biracial daughter, if he wanted money back, the guest kind of shrugged at first.

“Do you want cash back?” asked the chef.

“Um, sure?” the stunned guest replied.

“Why do you want cash back?” said Wey.

To which the guest replied, “I mean, who don’t want a little money thrown their way?”

Asked if his interest in getting money in return had anything to do with the fact that it would be coming from white customers as a form of wealth redistribution, the guest said no, not necessarily.

All guests were also asked a set of questions, put together with the help of a student from Tulane University, which sought to understand any advantages they’ve had growing up. Did your family pay for college? Did your folks buy you a new car? Are you better or worse off financially than your parents were at your age? How have these advantages helped you succeed in life?

Now that the pop-up has completed, the data was compiled and the findings were shared at a March 15 town hall meeting hosted by Propeller, a New Orleans nonprofit that helps entrepreneurs with projects that address social and environmental disparities.

Of the roughly 65 guests who dined at Saartj in February, about half were white. Of white guests, 78 percent chose to pay the $30 ticket. The rest identified as black (about 28), Hispanic (2-3) and other (one). About 19 percent of guests of color accepted money back.

White women were far more likely (91 percent) to pay the $30 than white men (55 percent). The findings also showed that age, employment status, annual household income or how individuals were doing compared to their parents correlated with whether a white guest decided to pay more or not.

“We’re often working very much with imbalanced opportunities,” says Hermione Malone, whose organization, Good Work Networks, owns and runs Roux Carré. “You can see how this sort of wealth imbalance shows itself in different ways…Most people when they’re starting a business will be get the help of friends and family because most banks right off the bat won’t even consider you.”


Beloved Los Angeles Arts Space Buys a Place of Its Own

SHG Board Members, staff, legacy artists, co-directors and City of LA Councilmember Huizar take a moment in front of artist Ofelia Esparza's Dia de los Muertos altar (built for the organization's DOD celebration and PST LA/LA exhibition), to celebrate the news that the organization is closer to having a permanent home in Boyle Heights. (Courtesy Self-Help Graphics)

When Franciscan nun Sister Karen Boccalero founded Self Help Graphics nearly half a century ago, her aim was to provide a space in Boyle Heights, then a mostly working-class Mexican-American neighborhood on the east side of Los Angeles, where artists could showcase their work and learn new skills.

First situated in a garage, the institution began by providing job training in silk screening, public education programming and a platform for some of the city’s most prominent Chicano artists.

In the decades since, the center has proven its staying power.

In the wake of Trump’s inauguration last winter, when millions of women across the country marched in protest, volunteers at the Boyle Heights space were on hand to print materials for the Los Angeles demonstrators.

It was the same scene after the Trump administration announced in September it would end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Self Help organizers set up a mini printing station in its parking lot, making posters in English and Spanish that provided tips on what to do if an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent stops someone. (Federal district court judges have since issued injunctions against ending the program.)

But as concerns over gentrification in the neighborhood continue to grow, Self Help has had to find a way to secure its future.

“We already have some pretty clear roots in this location,” says Betty Avila, co-director of Self Help Graphics. “Do we want to up and move the organization? What does that move mean for a community that’s had so many instances of displacement already?”

No, to stay within its mission of serving Boyle Heights, Self Help would need to remain where it was. But that would require help.

Help came late last year when both the Los Angeles City Council, led by Councilman José Huizar, and Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors (under Supervisor Hilda Solis) voted to approve a combined $1.28 million funding commitment to help Self Help buy its building.

“Self Help Graphics & Art is an arts organization that grew out of a real need in the 1970s to nurture Chicano expression in the arts at a time Chicano Art wasn’t recognized as legitimate,” Huizar said in a December statement. “Yet in spite of challenges, this organization has grown in capacity, influence and recognition, benefiting eastside artists and our youth with their programming and assistance. These funds will allow them to continue being the great community asset that they are and to remain in Boyle Heights — the neighborhood they were founded in — for years to come.”

The city appraised the state-owned property — formerly the Ocean Queen Seafood building — at $3.625 million. Self Help secured $2.8 million to invest in the purchase through a $2.05 million loan from the California Community Foundation and a $250,000 loan from the Weingart Foundation, as well as two $250,000 grants from the California Community Foundation and former board member Zac Guevarra.

The $825,000 from the city comes from excess bond proceeds and brings funds raised to the full appraisal price of $3.625 million. The county’s contribution will go toward renovating the building and buying new equipment.

“We felt it was an important win for the community,” says Avila of the city and county support.


Boccalero, along with printmakers Carlos Bueno, Antonio Ibañez, Frank Hernández and others founded what would eventually be known as Self Help Graphics in 1970 with a used printing press in a garage behind where the nuns lived in East Los Angeles.

The organization incorporated as a nonprofit in 1973 and relocated to Boyle Heights thanks to space gifted by the Order of Sisters of St. Francis, where the institution remained unfettered by Los Angeles real estate increases for decades.

A child pulls a screenprint at Self Help Graphics (Photo courtesy Self Help Graphics)

After the archdiocese-owned property was sold in 2011, Self Help Graphics relocated to the Ocean Queen building — this time as a renter.

It became clear that in order for Self Help to continue its work, the organization would need to get out of the business of being a tenant and either purchase the building or relocate yet again.

But with property values skyrocketing throughout Boyle Heights and increasing concerns over gentrification, purchasing the property on a nonprofit’s budget would not have been possible. So, Self Help turned to City Council and the Board of Supervisors in 2014 for financial support.

“We had conversations with [Huizar] about our shared vision for Boyle Heights, and about how … Self Help [would] amplify its impact, which would not possible unless we owned the property,” Avila says.

Ownership would allow Self Help to stay away from the pressures of rent increases or possible displacement and focus on providing the same type of programming in the community it’s served for nearly 50 years.

Creating impact

The impact Self Help has on the Boyle Heights community can be illustrated by the experiences of the thousands of youth who’ve entered its doors, such as Boyle Heights native Arleny Vargas.

The first in her family to attend college, Vargas is now a senior at Wellesley College. She first came across Self Help Graphics the summer before her junior year in college when she learned about a self-defense class offered there.

From there, she participated in the Soy Artista (Spanish for “I’m an Artist”) youth program, a five-week intensive workshop, where four days a week, participants learned about stencil art, photography and silkscreen printing. At the end of the program, participants showcased their work in an exhibition.

After the workshop, Self Help became kind of a second home for Vargas. She got to know the artists and youth and last spring was brought on as an intern in the communications department. She also helped organize around the “know your rights” efforts, including passing out posters to local businesses.

Up until that first program, Vargas was studying to be a translator, having grown up translating for her Spanish-speaking parents. The Spanish major and studio art major has since shifted her focus toward a career in photography.

While her formal studies have helped Vargas meet deadlines, it was her time at Self Help that helped her develop an authentic voice.

“Making my voice very apparent and very unapologetic is very important, especially during this political climate,” she says.


Detroit’s ‘Heidelberg Project’ Looks Toward Impactful Community Development

Tyree Guyton (right) and Jenenne Whitfield. (Courtesy Heidelberg Project)

When artist Tyree Guyton set out to reimagine what his derelict childhood neighborhood in Detroit would look like more than 30 years ago, he used what others would consider trash to transform blocks into an arts neighborhood.

Without a budget, foundation dollars or national media attention, Guyton picked up a paintbrush in 1986 and covered his grandfather’s house on Heidelberg Street with colorful polka dots.

Over the years, the outdoor community art project grew to cover two city blocks of abandoned houses. He took stuffed animals, old shoes, salvaged car parts and other discarded found objects and affixed them to the houses’ exteriors.

Neighbors would gawk, the city tried to shut them down several times, but Guyton persisted, and 30 years later, his Heidelberg Project has managed — despite threats of demolition and a series of arson fires a few years back — to attract some 275,000 visitors a year from around the globe.

And now that the Heidelberg Project has reached the three-decade milestone, the arts organization is looking to take its efforts to another level with its Heidelberg 3.0 campaign.

“Our vision has always had to do with bringing hope, new life to the neighborhood,” says the Heidelberg Project’s executive director and Guyton’s wife, Jenenne Whitfield.

What that vision looks like is creating an inclusive community, where the properties that became the project’s infamous installations can serve not just as pieces of reclaimed art, but as dwellings where artists can live and take part in neighborhood investment.

In the works is a pilot project that includes the major renovation of the project’s so-called Numbers House — an 1890s-era home whose exterior is covered with painted numbers that currently serves as Heidelberg’s gift shop — into a studio and gallery for emerging artists and, upstairs, living quarters for an artist-in-residence who would live there for three months to a year.

In return, the artist would agree to contribute his or her talents toward some aspect of the Heidelberg’s mission. That could include providing workshops to the community in his or her respective medium or holding public performances or exhibits.

So far, Whitfield says $110,000 has been raised through foundation dollars and an online fundraising drive. The Erb Family Foundation has agreed to match that initial round of donations.

Depending on the success of the Numbers House project, Whitfield says Heidelberg wants to rebuild several of the structures — like the House of Soul and the Party Animal House — that were destroyed by arson.

In keeping with the arts community’s whimsical theme, the exteriors of the homes would again sport funky art installations. The House of Soul, before it was burned to the ground in 2013, for example, had been adorned with old vinyl records. This time around, Whitfield says, the home could be occupied by a musician and could be used as a venue for live performances or educational workshops.

The Numbers House in 2012 (Photo: Nic Redhead/FlickrCC)

And redevelopment is not just confined to the Heidelberg’s two-block site.

Residents and business owners belonging to the McDougall-Hunt neighborhood — the area where the Heidelberg Project is located — meet regularly to discuss possibilities for their properties.

Donna Kassab, a second-generation McDougall-Hunt business owner, is considering how she might reimagine her family’s liquor store at Mt. Elliot and Mack, blocks from Heidelberg, into a healthy food market or café. She imagines residents and visitors alike buying nutritious food locals getting access to the type of jobs that are popping up just a few miles away from Heidelberg.

Kassab also runs the Power Entertainment event planning company and last year teamed up with the Heidelberg to host a block party celebrating the project’s 30th anniversary in the neighborhood. She says that she and Whitfield have been in ongoing conversations about what redevelopment of her family’s property might look like, keeping in mind both the needs of residents and visitors to the landmark public art space.

Currently, aside from the snacks and sodas sold in her store, the food at a nearby gas station and a Coney Island diner, there aren’t many food choices in the area. Meanwhile, about two miles west is the city’s only national supermarket chain, Whole Foods Market, which sits within walking distance to a growing number of trendy eateries.

“We’re on a very good corner, but everyone who I’ve talked to would love the idea of change,” says Kassab.

The Numbers House pilot project coincides with widespread redevelopment taking shape in the greater city core by the likes of real estate guru and Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert and the Ilitch organization, which constructed the tax-subsidized Little Caesars Arena.

One major concern among longtime Detroiters is that city neighborhoods are either neglected or gentrified by outsiders who do not have the community’s best interests at heart.

While city leaders have taken steps toward implementing more inclusive design practices, native Detroit nonprofits like Heidelberg have never waited for the city to step in on its behalf.

"Penny Car" (Photo: David Yarnall)

The public art project was borne out of Guyton’s desire to reimagine the McDougall-Hunt neighborhood, one of the oldest African-American communities in the city, where he grew up.

But the Heidelberg has also had its share of detractors, including neighbors who’ve called the site an eyesore and City Hall, which also considered the arts community a nuisance and in the 90s demolished several other decorated houses that were part of Heidelberg.

In 2013, the site became a major target of arson when vandals burned several of the site’s structures to the ground. Around this time, the city had also threatened to seize several properties for unpaid taxes.

Today, poverty remains high in the neighborhood, with about 40 percent of the population below the poverty line, which is $12,140 for an individual. About one in five housing units are vacant within McDougall-Hunt’s zip code of 48207.

Whitfield hopes to change that. To her, it begins with changing people’s minds about what the community can look like.

“Our vision has always had to do with bringing in hope and new life,” Whitfield says.


Neighborhood Networks Can Point the Way to More Equitable Development

Kamal Ahmed owns a dry cleaner in Banglatown. (Credit: NEIdeas)

When Tunar Rahman emigrated from Bangladesh to Michigan in 1966, he landed in a working-class, mostly Polish-American neighborhood in Detroit that bordered the city of Hamtramck.

The area was known for its compact bungalows, Gothic cathedrals and parochial schools, a thriving main street punctuated with Euro-centric bakeries, shops, and bars, and the iconic neon sign that flashed at the Kowalski kielbasa factory.

Rahman was among the first Bangladeshis to settle in the neighborhood, drawn to the Motor City to work for Chrysler. Over the next few decades, more families from the Indian subcontinent would follow suit, often by way of the New York borough of Queens.

“When he came here, he started housing other immigrants in his house,” says Rahman’s nephew, Tahmeed Khan. “My parents stayed there … my uncle helped a lot of these guys get on their feet.”

Along the way, Khan says, Rahman started referring to the neighborhood as Banglatown.

As many Detroit residents moved to the suburbs, spurring an increase in blight, Rahman found opportunities for growth. He turned an old bar into a mosque, opened a grocery store and, according to family lore, was among the first to introduce Detroiters to jalebi — one of the most recognized sweets in South Asia.

Rahman died in 2007, but his imprint remains. Today, some 6,000 Bangladeshi immigrants and their descendants call Wayne County (which includes Detroit and Hamtramck) home. The diverse community, made up of South Asian immigrants, African-Americans, many white artists and Yemeni immigrants, has helped to keep Banglatown — centered mostly around Conant Street (unofficially known to some as Bangladesh Avenue) between the Hamtramck border and the Davison Highway — one of the most populated neighborhoods in Detroit.

City leaders are targeting revitalization efforts in the area, with an eye toward repurposing vacant lots, getting rid of blighted structures and strengthening commercial corridors. While such investment can be positive, longtime residents — who say community strength and a thriving informal economy that’s been around for years has kept Banglatown viable — are concerned about coming changes, and how much they will have a say in and have a chance to economically benefit from development.

A $6.4 million project to transform the vacant Transfiguration Catholic school — empty since 2005 — into a 23-unit affordable apartment building is underway in Banglatown. Ethos Development Partners and Building Blocks Nonprofit Housing Corporation are expected to acquire the property from the Archdiocese of Detroit late this year. The project also calls for the demolition of 18 vacant homes near the school.

During a September announcement of the plans, Mayor Mike Duggan touted the significance of the development. “Banglatown is a vibrant, growing community and I am so excited that we are starting to build and increase density in this area with a partner that has made a strong commitment to the entire neighborhood,” Mayor Mike Duggan said in a statement.

Affordable housing is a key concern for residents.

“We were here before it was called Banglatown. It happened organically,” says Shaffwan Ahmed, who grew up in the area and is a revitalization fellow with Global Detroit, a nonprofit immigrant advocacy group. “One thing [the city] did with this branding of the community is say, hey, this is a promising, up-and-coming ethnic community. But what does that do with the housing stock? Will people be pushed out?”

Ideally, city-driven development will also acknowledge Banglatown’s strong informal economy. On top of the long-existing network of immigrant men who help each other get situated with jobs in manufacturing, as was the case with Khan’s uncle, there’s a network of backyard gardens harvested by a handful of mostly Bengali women. They’re known as the Bandhu (Bangla for friendship) Gardens, and have served as a source of modest earnings through produce and popup dinner sales at some of the city’s trendy eateries.

Ahmed is hopeful about development bringing positive changes, but he wonders how low-income people will be impacted. His father, Kamal Ahmed, owns a dry cleaner on Conant. When he was growing up, Ahmed says, his dad helped to make sure halal meat was available in local schools, to accommodate the growing number of Bangladeshi and Yemeni children in the area.

Prior to his work at Global Detroit, Ahmed saw firsthand what happens when the needs of Bangladeshi are overlooked. A few years ago when his mother tried to apply for healthcare through the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, he saw her and his sister’s frustration over the lack of information available in Bangla. Earlier this year, he helped to collect testimonials of others with similar experiences, an effort that resulted in a town hall meeting with DHS leaders, who he says, vowed to introduce sensitivity training.

More recently, he and others with the nonprofit have canvassed the area to inform residents who are in danger of tax foreclosure about their options to stay in their homes.

On top of concerns that city redevelopment efforts will force people out is what some city-dwelling Bengali-Americans perceive as a long-standing tension between suburban Bengali-Americans and them. Among the community partners with the city is the Bangladeshi American Public Affairs Committee, whose headquarters is in Hamtramck.

Last month, the group prepared to unveil a welcome sign in Banglatown with an image of a rickshaw. City residents there saw it as a dig at the area’s working-class roots. Hours before the unveiling, the sign was vandalized. Organizers retooled the imagery.

Detroit Housing Director Arthur Jemison, who previously worked as deputy undersecretary and deputy director of the Department of Housing and Community Development for Massachusetts, likens the tension to that of previous waves of urban flight of African-Americans to more affluent suburbs.

“The relationship between the city and suburban communities is not unique to the Bangladeshi community,” he says.

Part of his job, Jemison says, is balancing the concerns of all parties. “It’s not just about the business leaders, but also the residents, and also the residents who might not have spoken previously but who are now doing so,” he says.

There’s cooperation too, signs that Banglatown residents could unite around causes like making sure the community is heard as the neighborhood changes amid city-driven investment. A group called OneHamtramck is in the planning stages of creating the nation’s first Bangla-American mural on the wall of a school. Khan and Ahmed are both on the planning committee. Members hold regular meetings so residents have a chance to weigh in on every step of the process.

Nushrat Rahman, a senior at Wayne State University, is on the committee. Community development, in her eyes, starts as simply as listening to people in the neighborhood. “The idea is we’re not going to create this public work of art, without the people’s consent,” she says.


Detroit Searches for Equity in Rising Restaurant Scene

Discuss Detroit’s so-called comeback in the wake of its historic bankruptcy, and someone’s bound to mention the city’s emerging dining scene.

Over the past few years, just about every major publication — including The New York Times, The Washington Post and National Geographic — has lauded the underdog’s ascension as an up-and-coming destination for discerning foodies.

But walk into any number of the region’s newer fine dining establishments, and it’s apparent who is benefiting most from the seemingly sudden rise of the new food movement: white residents and business owners.

In a recent essay for CityLab titled “The Whitewashing of Detroit’s Culinary Scene,” chef Tunde Wey wrote, “With a few important and notable exceptions, Downtown Detroit’s contemporary culinary scene, as celebrated by popular media coverage, investment capital, and growing industry recognition, is almost exclusively white-faced in a breathtakingly black city … . This inequality is the final destination for most urban revival schemes, a sad union of capitalism and structural racism that’s hard to untangle.”

A growing number of advocacy organizations in Detroit have been working for some time to create a more equitable food system, however. Labor and industry groups alike are starting to look at how to change one discrepancy that runs rampant throughout the restaurant world: segregated hiring practices.

As Oscar Perry Abello recently reported for Next City, the problematic system is usually reinforced through hiring by personal referrals. A mostly white, front of house staff recommends other whites when new positions open up. Lower-paying jobs like dishwashers, line cooks and bussers — overwhelmingly held by people of color — are filled similarly.

“We want to see all entities profit, but don’t want that profit to be on the backs of the vulnerable,” says Alicia Farris, state director of Restaurant Opportunities Center of Michigan, the local chapter of the progressive ROC United, which advocates for fair wages for restaurant workers. “We’re really seeking to see a win-win between employer and employee.”

ROC United published a study in 2014 showing that while nearly half of the industry’s workforce is made up of people of color, according to U.S. Census figures, they are concentrated in lower-wage jobs. The study, “The Great Service Divide,” focused on three major U.S. cities, including Metro Detroit, and across the board found that front-of-house workers — servers, bartenders, managers — were more than six times as likely to earn a living wage and twice as likely to be white.

To address this discrepancy, ROC United has taken several measures in cities across the country, including in Detroit.

Last month, ROC United co-published “Adding Racial Equity to the Menu: An Equity Toolkit for Restaurant Owners,” described as a “roadmap for employers to confront biases that may inform their hiring and promotions decisions, and other workplace practices.” (The toolkit focused on the Bay Area, but restaurant owners anywhere interested in making a concerted effort to be more inclusive in their hiring practices can download the report.)

In September, actresses Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin joined ROC United co-founder Saru Jayaraman at a stop in Michigan as part of the One Fair Wage campaign pressing to raise the wage for tipped workers in the state. During their visit, the duo also shot a video inside Detroit’s Colors eatery that took aim at sexual harassment in the workplace. The establishment is part of a growing number of ROC United-run restaurants that double as a training program.

Colors is implementing a returning citizens program to prepare residents who’ve recently been incarcerated for jobs in restaurants.

Last year, the city of Detroit launched a pilot project using a $4.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor to train inmates in transition in a number of in-demand fields, including the culinary arts. To help with the curriculum, the city’s workforce development department tapped one of those newer upscale eateries for feedback.

Meanwhile, though restaurant owners and management are, at times, at odds with the interests of labor, the newly relaunched Detroit Restaurant Association recognizes the benefit of strengthening the local workforce.

The industry group, a local chapter of the Michigan Restaurant Association (which lobbies for some 4,500 Michigan food service establishments), is developing a two-year apprenticeship program that walks young adults ages 18 to 24 through all aspects of restaurant operations, says Herasanna Richards, director of the Detroit Restaurant Association.

The apprenticeship program, set to launch in 2018, is part of a multicity effort by the National Restaurant Association’s Educational Foundation and the American Hotel & Lodging Association, with a $1.8 million contract from the U.S. Department of Labor.

Restaurants opt into the program and must commit to hiring an apprentice for the duration of their education. In addition to on-the-job training, a nonprofit social services agency is assigned to assist participants with barriers to employment such as lack of reliable transportation. In Detroit, challenges with such access impact about a quarter of residents.

After a 50-year hiatus, the relaunched Detroit Restaurant Association already has about 150 members, says Richards. “It’s a testament that the city is doing well,” she says. “It’s also a realization that restaurants need to do more to be engaged in the community.”


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