Posts by Author: Serena Maria Daniels

Passing the Planning Mic to the Next Generation, Today

In this 2010 file photo, Ashley Rodgers, Tiffini Baldwin, Bryanna Douglas, and Adrinne Minter look over a greenhouse in the backyard of the Catherine Ferguson Academy in Detroit. The Detroit school, which serves pregnant and parenting teens, includes gardening and farming in its science curriculum. The teens learn the fundamentals of gardening and farming through hands-on training. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Anyone who’s sat in on a so-called community engagement meeting can describe the fatigue that sets in.

While city leaders and developers use these meetings as a tool for informing development, residents and activists who attend these sessions often complain that they’re merely a meeting for the sake of having a meeting. In other words, what’s the point?

In Detroit, a city whose neighborhoods and residents have suffered decades of disinvestment, officials are taking a different approach in the Warrendale-Cody Rouge area, home to the largest concentration of children in the city, for guidance on how to lead redevelopment for the next generation. They won’t be holding boring meetings that lead to nowhere. This time, they’re turning to those children for guidance.

The city has hired Hector, a New Jersey-based urban design, planning and civic arts studio led by Damon Rich and Jae Shin — an Enterprise Rose Architectural Fellow at the New York City Housing Authority. The firm will develop the framework needed so that youth can guide how they interact with their environment — from infancy to adolescence.

“We’re getting the voice of youth and using that voice to shape the neighborhood,” says Dave Walker, design director for the city’s west region and manager of the Warrendale-Cody Rouge planning effort

What that means so far is the Hector group has plans to have kids draw maps of the city and play games to reveal how they get to local parks and where their parents go for groceries nearby. The participating children will be grouped by age, from infant to high school.

Hector and others have been taking and learning from this approach in other cities across the country.

In diverse immigrant neighborhoods of South Philly, for example, Hector’s Rich — who last year received a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” — led a group of teens in a federally-funded summer employment program to research the future of the century-plus-old Mifflin Square Park.

The area surrounding the park is home to a myriad of immigrants and people of color, including Cambodians, Bhutanese, Latinx and African American. Neither residents or city leaders could come to a consensus on what exactly to do with the park. The result of that youth-led investigation was the creation of the Park Powers exhibition, which featured large-scale drawings in which the youths were tasked with illustrating what the park looks like now and what they envision it could be.

The Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Associations Coalition was one of the partners that brought Rich to work in Philadelphia, and, with a grant from the William Penn Foundation, the organization is now leading a group of organizations on a community plan for the park.

Meanwhile, in Brooklyn, N.Y., the teen-led Red Hook Initiative was able to secure funding for a skate park by gathering signatures of support and surveying the area before deciding on the Harold Ickes Playground as its future home.

Detroit has already been expanding on community-leadership within parts of its planning ecosystem. Since 2016, the city has been developing its Strategic Neighborhood Fund, a partnership with J.P. Morgan Chase and foundations aimed at reinvigorating development in neighborhoods outside of the core downtown and Midtown areas, which have experienced tremendous redevelopment in recent years. So far, the fund has focused its efforts in Southwest Detroit, the Villages on the east side, Livernois-Six Mile and the Fitzgerald neighborhood, to name a few.

Elsewhere in Detroit, efforts such as the West Riverfront Park initiative included sending residents to visit riverfront parks across the country so they could get a glimpse at what other waterfront parks look like and use that information to inform the future of the currently under-utilized waterfront property.

For Warrendale-Cody Rouge, child-centered design is intentionally going beyond the obvious when it comes to youth — reforming the beleaguered local public education system. The Detroit Public Schools Community District is the worst-performing district in the nation and recently had shut off its drinking water because it has tested positive for high levels of lead and copper.

Rather, the goal for Warrendale-Cody Rouge is to look at the neighborhood’s built environment, be it parks, sidewalks, housing, streetlights or mobility — in particular, looking at the built environment surrounding Cody High School. Does an expectant mother have easy access to prenatal care? Are the sidewalks properly paved or are they pockmarked by cracks? What kind of food can kids access in the area? Researchers are now looking more deeply into whether built environment factors like these can affect student performance.

“It would be great to see an 8 or 9-year-old to say ‘hey, wouldn’t be more fun to have this in the park and and then to be able to come back years later and see it become a reality,” Walker says.


This Food Truck Owner Wants to Decolonize Your Diet

A customer awaits their order at Rocky's Road Brew Food Truck in Detroit's Mexicantown. (Photo by Serena Maria Daniels)

Southwest Detroit’s main thoroughfare, Vernor Highway, looks like many blue-collar post-industrial Rust Belt cities, with dive bars and ‘party stores’ — the local colloquial for liquor stores — tucked into many of its street corners, dating back to the days when factory workers could walk from their manufacturing jobs to the corner bar, spend their earnings and stumble home. The factory jobs may have gone long ago, but somehow the after-work tradition persists. It may have something to do with the higher rate of alcohol-related deaths in Michigan than the national average.

The area, also known as Mexicantown, also a reputation as a dining destination for its many immigrant and Chicanx-owned food businesses where residents stock up on fresh produce and specialty ingredients traditional to Mexico, Central and South America, and the Caribbean. Here there is no shortage of taquerias, Mexican bakeries, mofongo spots and mangonada stands.

Understanding and untangling all those mixed histories and cultures may offer more than a fascinating cultural study of such places, it may also help divine a solution to ill health and alcohol-related deaths in Mexicantown and maybe even other predominantly Latinx or other communities of color in cities across the country. The solution is known as the“decolonized” menu or diet, and Southwest Detroit food truck owner Rocky Coronado is one of its evangelists.

Southwest Detroit, like many of the city’s neighborhoods, is also home to a growing number of community and backyard urban gardens, and urban farms, run by immigrants and families of color. A number of business incubators designed to support the work of food businesses within marginalized communities are also concentrated in the area. Perhaps that’s why Mexicantown felt a little bit like home for Coronado, who moved here from East Austin in early 2017.

One thing that was missing, Coronado says, was a place to get a good fresh-fruit smoothie. So Coronado, owner of Rocky’s Road Brew — originally a cold brew coffee truck in Austin — decided to shift their business and start making and selling brightly-hued avocado smoothies, vegan tacos al pastor (with soy protein), herbal teas and other plant-based food and drinks.

Looking around Clark Park, the neighborhood’s iconic central park, Coronado has begun to see a shift in what residents are putting into their bodies. They can’t help but wonder if their food truck had a little something to do with that shift.

“Since I been out here I see so many more people walking around … with smoothies, and everybody wants one, even if they don’t want the vegan tacos, they’re just all about the smoothies, or the herbal tea. Even with the mangonadas (place down the street), you got the fruit cups,” Coronado says. “People want it, it’s just not fucking available.”

Business has been so good, Coronado recently acquired a building that housed a former dive bar just a few blocks from where they usually post their truck and now plans to open Damelo Cafe. The reimagined space would build on the food truck’s current menu, while also expanding on the concept of the decolonized diet.

The UC Berkeley Food Institute describes the decolonized diet as being liberated “from the colonial relationships of food production and consumption.” Decolonized diets rely on ingredients and food preparation techniques that date back to before colonization in Chicanx, Mexican, Native American and other indigenous groups around the globe. The concept is growing in appeal for its principles of using food ancestral to indigenous people to heal and nourish those communities and their descendants.

Proponents see decolonized diets as more than a means of preserving culture; they believe forgoing corporate, homogenized food structures has the potential to act as a form of resistance against modern-day oppression, in particular with regard to preventing and treating physical as well as mental illness. Prominent supporters include Luz Calvo and her life partner Catriona Rueda Esquibel, authors of one of the most prominent recent published works on the subject, the “Decolonize Your Diet” cookbook.

Luz, a professor of ethnic studies at Cal-State East Bay, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006. That diagnosis forced the couple to radically change their diets and look for recipes featuring healthy, vegetarian, Mexican foods. The book, published in 2015, promotes a diet rich in plants native to the Americas such as corn, beans, squash, greens, herbs, and seeds.

The statistics are clear — Latinxs in the United States, like African Americans and other marginalized groups, are far more likely to experience health complications brought on by eating habits, resulting in higher rates of diabetes, heart disease, and other illnesses. Processed junk foods commonly found in convenience stores, bodegas or in Detroit’s party stores in underserved communities is tied to these rates.

Moving away from those harmful foods toward more of a plant-based diet that sustained indigenous communities for centuries before being colonized is a means of combating all that, supporters say. Some go so far as to include alcohol abuse as part of the “colonized diet.” In the United States, Hispanics who drink are more likely to drink at higher levels than whites, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. And of those who drink, 33 percent of Hispanics who become alcohol dependent have recurrent problems, compared to about 23 percent of whites.

Coronado says when they first moved to Detroit at the start of 2017, they had the opportunity to open a bar with some friends.

“Seeing what liquor does to people, I was like I don’t wanna fucking do that,” Coronado says.

Coronado, like other existing business owners in the neighborhood, sees both danger and opportunity ahead. The soon-to-be chef of Damelo Café has seen it before. Like the east side of Austin, where Coronado spent much of their youth and where housing prices continue to skyrocket, residents of Southwest Detroit are increasingly concerned over the threat of gentrification.

Housing prices in Southwest Detroit have shot up in recent years and a number of new food and drink places owned by outsiders are starting to show up near the more established eateries, to the angst of longtime residents.

Most dramatic is the recent announcement that Ford Motor Company would develop the long-abandoned Michigan Central Train Station in Mexicantown into a new technology and mobility hub. The move will bring 2,500 Ford jobs to the area. (The train station is commonly referred to as being located in the adjacent Corktown neighborhood, though that’s often disputed by residents of Mexicantown.)

The changes make for a unique opportunity for food businesses like Coronado’s — Latinx-owned and aimed to nourish the existing Latinx community.

Facing a liquor store across the street, Coronado’s truck is regularly visited by residents who drop off produce or joke with them while waiting for the bus or passing by on a bicycle. To Coronado, it’s this connection to the existing community that tells them Damelo will be well-received once it’s up and running, probably sometime next year.


What This Food Critic Meant to Those Who Make Cities

Writer Jonathan Gold seen at the Los Angeles Times Food Bowl launch party on Thursday, April 27, 2017, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Dan Steinberg/Invision for Los Angeles Times Food Bowl/AP Images)

In the weeks that followed the L.A. riots of 1992, the national media was on the scene, helicopters circling South Central L.A., local anchors cutting into regular programming to give the most updated count of the buildings burned from arson and the growing number of lives taken.

Meanwhile, Jonathan Gold, then a restaurant critic at LA Weekly, was penning his own account, using the food establishments around his apartment, not far from the epicenter of the uprising, as the backdrop of the chaos, in an area he simply called a neighborhood just west of downtown:

“This is some of what is burned and gone, just within walking distance of my apartment: the Halal Pakistani restaurant Bundoo Khan; the Bangkok-style buffet restaurant Renoo’s Kitchen (noted, ironically, for its incendiary Thai curries); the Filipino fish joint Bahay Bangusan; the Third Street branch of the excellent Salvadoran place Atlacatl, which was home to some of my favorite pupusas; a brand-new country Korean restaurant that was around too briefly for me to remember its name; and the Latin nightclub Mexican Village, whose groovy, Mayan-style gargoyles loom grinning over smoldering heaps of ash. In one mall, newscasters have been lining up for standups against scenes of picturesque devastation the way that 747s sometimes circle over O’Hare.”

His account of that moment in L.A. history, which threatened to unravel the fabric of a misunderstood city, mirrored how real Angelenos experienced it, according to his wife, Laurie Ochoa, during a scene from the 2015 documentary City of Gold.

Gold, who died Saturday from pancreatic cancer, had a way of making sense of Los Angeles’ overwhelming megalopolis through food.

Los Angeles is defined by its many enclaves with diasporas that span the globe: Ethiopia, El Salvador, Armenia, Vietnam, Thailand, all over Mexico, China, India, Iraq and beyond. But the way Angelenos understand those enclaves, unlike cities such as NYC or Chicago, whose borders are bluntly defined by street grids and boroughs, is through food. The cuisine made from the thousands of immigrant-owned restaurants Gold reviewed in his 40-plus year in journalism served as the connective thread to tell the story of Los Angeles.

In the San Gabriel Valley, Gold famously told the story of the Chinese diaspora migration from near the city center to the 626, as it’s commonly called, referring to the suburb’s area code. By dining its many strip mall eateries, he became not only one of the very few journalists to write about these places, he shed light on a thriving economy driven by immigrant ingenuity.

When he reviewed Guelaguetza in the mid-1990s, he named it the best Oaxacan restaurant in the country. His words had an immediate impact, with diners of all nationalities and races flocking to the Koreatown eatery to get a taste of the family-owned establishment’s famous mole negro, chapulines (fried grasshoppers) and a vast variety of mezcal.

Bricia Lopez-Maytorena, whose parents Fernando and Maria Lopez opened Guelaguetza in 1994, likens Gold to a tío, an uncle, someone who’s encouraged her family since she was a child doing her homework in the corner of the restaurant, located in an area of the city where Oaxacans have moved to in large numbers since the 1990s. She says his praises of Guelaguetza helped not only the bottom line for the family business, but it introduced Angelenos to a cuisine and culture not yet widely understood at the time.

Back then, “Mexican food, in general, was still very broad, there was nothing really distinct about it, some people didn’t even know Mexico had different states… so him highlighting a restaurant that was Southern Mexican, in particular, a Oaxacan restaurant… he was really at the forefront of the food landscape,” says Lopez-Maytorena, who along with her brother and sister have since taken over the business.

When I learned that Gold died Saturday, I was hunched over my laptop working on a story about Mexican food traditions. In between coming up short on ways to describe the picoso sensation that comes from a guajillo chili, I glanced over at my Facebook feed to see news of his death coming in at full stream from my journalism comrades back home in Los Angeles.

The pit in my stomach was palpable.

I had only met Gold in real life once, 10 years ago, during a writing workshop he gave at a summit for journalists in Orange County. Into a classroom filled to capacity, he entered carrying a crate full of strawberries. He asked us to come up with a better description of the berries than the color red. I was a community reporter living in Garden Grove, Calif., at the time. The thought of food writing hadn’t yet crossed my mind; after all, what I wanted to write about was social justice movements, about immigrants’ rights and to review rock en Español concerts.

It was Gold who planted the seed that I could accomplish all of that through food writing. We maintained touch via social media ever since. He reveled in his earlier days as a music writer, covering West Coast rappers and the 1990s ska and punk scene in Orange County. I sometimes asked him for recommendations for eating in downtown Los Angeles, which in 2008, had yet to catch on in my eyes as the hip place to be.

In 2015, I landed a gig as a restaurant critic and food blogger at an alt-weekly in Detroit, where I now live. When asked who informed my food writing, it was Gold whose name stuck out the most, pointing to his ability to use food as a lens for diving into all those other issues that I had always loved reporting on but that were often crossed off the news budget by editors who felt these sorts of stories were “too fringe.” I’ve since also founded Tostada Magazine, an independent media outlet premised on the notion that food has the power to bridge cultures.

As the Trump Administration continues touting anti-immigrant tropes to justify its actions like immigration bans or family separation, it’s stories about the many contributions made by immigrant communities — stories Gold wrote that are too often overlooked by most mainstream media outlets — that help to counter the harmful narrative playing out across the country today.

Gold, a white man, understood his place of privilege to be able to report on immigrant communities for a mainstream audience. To Lopez-Maytorena, that he dove right into the many cultures that make up the city made him feel like he was a part of the multi-ethnic community, even though he didn’t look like the people he wrote about.

“He was one of the first people that really saw how important the immigrant community is in the city,” she says. “He understood that we’re a majority in the city, he understood that immigrant stories are what make our city what it is.”


New Food Hall for Immigrant Women Will Build on the Tenderloin’s History

Plans are in motion to build a food hall featuring immigrant women entrepreneurs and chefs. (Photo by Serena Maria Daniels)

Reem Assil is a Syrian and Palestinian chef and owner of Reem’s California Arabic bakery, in Oakland. Starting out as a farmers market stand, the bakery has since gone on to be named a 2018 restaurant of the year by Food & Wine. Assil also recently opened a new eatery, Dyafa. Earlier this year the James Beard Foundation (considered the Oscars of the food world) named her a semifinalist for best chef in the west.

Assil is one of nearly 30 restaurant owners (97 percent of them women) who, starting out each with less than $5,000 in capital, have gone from a kitchen incubator in San Francisco’s Mission District to their own brick and mortar locations across the Bay Area. And now, plans are in motion for that kitchen incubator, La Cocina, to build a shared brick-and-mortar food hall for businesses currently under its incubation, in an area of San Francisco that is home to a particularly high-need population.

At the former site of a long-abandoned post office once noted in the San Francisco Chronicle as the “No. 1 blight in the Tenderloin,” the future La Cocina Municipal Market is envisioned as a 7,000-square-foot food hall featuring new and established entrepreneurs providing healthy, affordable meals to area workers and residents — a majority of whom live in single-room occupancy housing unequipped with kitchens.

In many respects, expanding into the Tenderloin makes sense as a logical next step for La Cocina, founded in 2005 out of the desire to encourage informal food businesses operated mostly by Latina immigrant women to take the leap from working out of their home kitchens into formalized enterprises. While women of color start businesses of all industries at a far higher rate than other demographics, they are also disproportionately more likely to fail because of lack of access to capital or other resources crucial for a start-up’s success.

The Tenderloin District has a long history as a starting off point for newcomers to San Francisco, dating back to the miners of the California Gold Rush in need of short-term housing in its many hotels. Those accommodations eventually became converted into low-cost single-room occupancy units, which became an affordable refuge for some of the city’s most vulnerable, also attracting programs and organizations that serve vulnerable populations — helping to feed a perception of the area as seedy and crime-ridden, despite its proximity to downtown. The neighborhood remains a resilient hub for the city’s immigrant communities.

“I think the Tenderloin is the densest neighborhood, there are more children than anywhere else in the city, it has a 97 employment rate, mostly in the food industry,” says Caleb Zigas, founder and executive director of La Cocina. “There are more immigrants and refugees, who are vibrant and hardworking and (the area) is largely ignored.”

It took two years of negotiating to finally sign a lease with the city of San Francisco to occupy space on the abandoned post office property, which the city plans to have redeveloped with affordable housing on the floors above the new food hall.

As the city raises money to develop affordable housing on the site within the next decade, La Cocina has agreed to build kitchen and dining space to incubate seven low-income women entrepreneurs at a time, potentially employing more than 30 area residents at a time.

In the two years since negotiations with the city began, construction costs have skyrocketed and the price tag to build the food hall has ballooned to $4.2 million. With contributions including from the city, the Shorenstein family (who sold the property to the city) and $1 million of La Cocina’s own cash reserves, the nonprofit still needs to fill a $1.5 million gap in funding to get work started on the build-out.

La Cocina’s intent is to launch debt-free to keep down costs and keep prices affordable for entrepreneurs and their potential customers in the area.

“This is not just for people who are willing to pay a higher price point, but for all in the Tenderloin, for low income, immigrants, refugees and also those who work there,” says Zigas.


Pop-Up Kitchen Counters Mainstream Narratives About Food in Detroit

(Photo by Valaurian Waller)

Over the past few years, Detroit community organizer Ora Wise has seen national media outlets hash and re-hash a certain narrative about the city’s developing restaurant scene, highlighting white chefs who grew up outside the city or elsewhere, who were drawn to Motown because of its reputation as a so-called blank canvas.

“It’s such a settler, colonist story, you know,” says Wise, sitting at Detroit’s Trinosophes café, not long before it closed for a remodel this summer. “It’s like, ‘look, we just have this empty land, with no people that we can then build our settlement on.’ ”

What those narratives often miss is the legacy of self-reliance around food within Detroit’s black and brown communities — which make up more than 80 percent of the city’s population.

That legacy was on full display at the 20th annual Allied Media Conference, which took place earlier this year. Wise was one of the lead organizers behind the Dream Café, a three-day whirlwind experiment involving 14 chefs, six from Detroit and eight visiting for the conference, who all took on the challenge of feeding conference attendees in a pop-up setting using ingredients sourced almost entirely from Detroit’s network of urban farms.

“The urban farming movement here in Detroit is predicated upon solidarity movements here in the city, which it has been for a long time standing,” says Shane Bernardo, a Detroit-based community organizer who served as the conference’s local food systems coordinator.

One by one, a chef would enter the kitchen at Cass Café, which hosted the pop-up experiment, prepping and dishing out hot plates by the dozen and then simultaneously helping the next round set up as they left. It was like opening and closing 14 new restaurants in the span of three days. Chefs worked alongside local urban farmers, harvesting crops of greens, root veggies and berries daily and developing menus on the fly depending on what they were able to pick.

It got so hectic one day that one of the servers from Cass Café’s regular crew walked off the job during lunch. Ederique Goudia, program associate for the business incubator FoodLab Detroit, says she went without sleep for days to make sure things ran smoothly.

D-town Farms, a 7-acre urban farm in Detroit. (Photo by Valaurian Waller)

Allied Media Conference organizers liken the annual convening to an ecosystem where media-makers and youth gather around the power of storytelling, strategizing and mobilizing for a more just and resilient world. Wise, who’s been involved with Allied Media Conference for several years, had previously focused on educating youth to develop multimedia for social movement building. More recently, she and others have been looking at how to incorporate food programming into the mix, the thought being that in order to combat the effects of inequality among marginalized groups, one needs to be nourished properly as well.

The Dream Café evolved out of a series of community dinners over the past few years with conference participants, which aimed to foster a re-imagining of the food system with communities of color at the center, instead of at the margins.

Bernardo highlights the city’s long history of solidarity movements among people color, dating back to the days of the Underground Railroad — Detroit was one of its final stops before African Americans made their way to freedom in Canada — to the Great Migration when poor blacks fled the Jim Crow South.

Malik Yakini, founder of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, which runs the 7-acre D-Town Farms in Detroit’s Rouge Park neighborhood, was among the urban farmers with Bernardo recruited to source ingredients for the pop-up. Yakini says that the event helped to connect the dots between some local chefs and the farm and it did create an economic boost. “This is another step in the direction of building relationships with people who share a similar vision for society,” says Yakini.

(Photo by Valaurian Waller)

“A lot of the chefs involved were discovering connections between their ingredients or some of their dishes that were a huge part of their cuisine,” Wise adds.

Over the next few months, Wise says, she’s working with conference organizers to figure out how to build on this year’s experience for next year’s conference.

Meanwhile, at a post-Dream Cafe debriefing, FoodLab Detroit and chefs compared notes on how they each fared. In all, the nonprofit’s members brought in about $9,000 during breakfast and lunch service. In addition, ticketed dinners hosted by visiting chefs at eateries across southeast Michigan brought in even more.

Discussions have already started about the possibility of further use of Cass Cafe as a popup dining venue, bringing in more revenue to both chefs and the restaurant. Goudia, who along with business partner Dameon Gabriel is also planning to open a Cajun-inspired eatery, music and cultural space in the Detroit’s West Village neighborhood later this year, said that Dream Cafe inspired her to be more intentional about creating popup events centered around people of color and using local food sources.

Meanwhile, some of the participating local chefs are looking to start using local produce from the urban farmers they met in the process. Wise says that conversations are being had between some of the Detroit chefs and NYC cooks about collaborating in some fashion.

“Whenever colonized or marginalized people discover connections between each other’s histories and stories and struggles, they become stronger, we become stronger,” says Wise.


Atlanta Park Redesign Makes a Big Statement About Equity and Inclusion

Sara J. González Memorial Park in Atlanta is currently under renovations to achieve full compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. (Credit: Friends of Sara J. González Memorial Park)

It started out of a desire to honor her mother. For Isabel González Whitaker, 46, a symbolic gesture would evolve into a vehicle for organizing the Latinx and other marginalized communities in the neighborhood where she grew up.

Formerly Coronet Way Park, a modest playground area in a predominantly Latinx section of Atlanta’s Westside, the 1.5-acre patch of land was renamed in 2009 in honor of González Whitaker’s late mother, Sara J. González, a Cuban immigrant whose imprint in Georgia’s Hispanic community spanned decades and crossed the intersections of business, philanthropy and human rights advocacy. It was reportedly the first park named for a Latinx immigrant in the state of Georgia.

A busy magazine journalist based in NYC at the time, González Whitaker thought that getting the park renamed in her mother’s name meant her job at the park was done. Little did she know it was only just the beginning. After years of annual clean ups and community organizing to redesign the park, the park will re-open this summer after construction to complete the redesign — which includes making the park fully compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

“I’ve always had a fist in the air, for the Hispanic community … and this is really about inclusion of all communities,” González Whitaker says.

González Whitaker, who now splits her time between Memphis and Atlanta, began by gathering support to clean up the park. She organized family and neighbors in annual cleanups and eventually landed corporate and philanthropic donors to assist in revamping the park.

In 2014, the efforts intensified after a local developer made a sizable contribution to the park. With unexpected donation money in hand, she was now in a position to take her passion project to another level. She established a steering committee of neighbors and community leaders, which crafted a set of inclusionary tenets that would inform the development of a new playground, soccer field and legacy plaza.

So far, González Whitaker has raised $200,000 from corporate sponsors and individual donors, and a $100,000 grant from Park Pride Atlanta, an Atlanta-based nonprofit that supports community efforts around green space betterment. Friends of Sara J. González Park was also established through Park Pride. The Robert W. Woodruff Foundation provides funding for Park Pride Atlanta’s grant program.

At the center of the renovation, full compliance with the ADA means improvements like “Zero G” swings, equipped with a high back, wide base, and molded adjustable harnesses to stabilize children with special needs; specialized rope climbing structures; and wheelchair access throughout for kids and adults alike. It also means taking into account visitors with intellectual disabilities like autism, who may have difficulty with socialization, communication or play settings.

These types of playgrounds compliant with the ADA are cropping up across the country, as cities and towns make upgrades to aging playground equipment. Harper’s Playground in Arbor Lodge Park in Portland, Ore., was completed in 2012, becoming that city’s first all-abilities inclusive playground. A nonprofit named Harper’s Playground was also created in support of building inclusive playgrounds all over Portland.

For González Whitaker, having an accessibility component made the project all the more impactful, she says, mentioning a family member with special needs.

“All-abilities was definitely something on my brain because this playground was not [that],” she says. “I wanted for [her family member] to have a place to play and she couldn’t do that.”

González Whitaker hopes the redesigned park will help maintain the neighborhood — once a more industrial area and still home to a longtime Latinx community — for at least another generation of her family.

Sara González arrived in Atlanta in 1975 and settled on the city’s westside, in a section where the Hispanic population was made up of mostly Cubans and Puerto Ricans. Like the thousands of other refugees who fled Cuba at the start of the island country’s communist regime, she fled her hometown of Havana in 1960, first settling in New York City, then Chapel Hill, N.C., and eventually Atlanta.

The González family opened a small restaurant on the city’s northwest side in 1978, which remained open for eight years. The restaurant’s failure, González Whitaker says, would drive her mother to help other immigrants overcome similar obstacles, she wrote in an essay for the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

Sara González would go on to spend the next 30 years working in support of the area’s growing Latino community, including as founder of the Hispanic American Center for Economic Development, later as president and CEO of the Georgia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and others.

Gilda Pedraza, executive director of the Latino Community Fund Georgia, notes that Georgia now has the 10th highest Hispanic population in the country. It was the work of individuals like Sara González, whom Pedraza met through the Georgia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, who helped unite the community.

“She saw the writing on the wall that we would be critical to the growth of the state,” says Pedraza, herself an immigrant from Peru. “She was a visionary.”

González Whitaker notes the park’s rededication is especially timely, given the current anti-immigrant and Latino sentiment building across the country, and as the neighborhood experiences the signs of redevelopment and possible gentrification — an issue taking shape in Latino neighborhoods in cities like Detroit, Chicago and parts of Los Angeles.

Having community buy-in, González Whitaker says, will be crucial to the park’s success.

“I’m hoping to both preserve and give (the park) a platform to elevate the community,” she says.

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.


Cooking Up Opportunity for Salt Lake City’s Refugee Population

The Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Douglas C. Pizac, File)

Emma More and her family moved from Venezuela to Salt Lake City in the early 2000s, in part, to help her daughter continue her education. They were also drawn to the close-knit network established by the Church of Jesus Christ of Ladder Day Saints, to which they belonged.

The plan was, More’s daughter would attend community college, they would spend a few years in the United States helping her get established and then possibly return home. But by 2014, while they were still living in Salt Lake City, Venezuela fell into political and economic crisis. It became clear, More says, that their plans to relocate back to their village in the tiny state of Táchira would not be likely for the foreseeable future.

It was soon after that More began to consider her employment options, and it didn’t take long before the idea of a food business came to mind. Back in her home country, informal eateries flourished inside people’s homes. There were no signs out front marking them, she says, it was more a matter of stopping by a neighbor’s house to enjoy a traditional dish.

One day, More came across a cluster of tables outside a church, set up by various social service organizations. One was from SPICE Kitchen, then a relatively new food business incubator. An organizer caught her attention — she spoke Spanish, and that made the difference between passing by the information table and sticking around to hear more.

“I worked at a school in Venezuela but always made homemade meals,” More says through a Spanish-language interpreter. “I explained that my food isn’t gourmet but it’s the food of my village, from my country, so that is something that I could do.”

At the time, there wasn’t much in the way of traditional Venezuelan cuisine in the Salt Lake City area, so it seemed that starting something would fill a niche. Within a matter of months, More was enrolled in SPICE Kitchen’s programming and launched La Pizca Andina, a catering business that specializes in traditional Venezuelan dishes like arepas, buñuelos and pizca andina — an egg soup made in More’s hometown.

Now six years in operation, SPICE Kitchen, in partnership with Salt Lake County, currently supports the work of 24 food businesses, mostly catering companies or food trucks, helping refugees and immigrants through every step, from early ideation to potentially brick and mortar locations.

Applicants go through a month-long application and enrollment process, followed by a four to six month pre-incubation period to establish a business plan that covers product development, marketing, and finances. After that, participants have up to four years to bring their businesses to scale, including access to the organization’s commercial kitchen and opportunities for accessing capital. Once an entrepreneur graduates, they can continue using SPICE Kitchen resources such as discounted kitchen rental.

The beginnings of SPICE Kitchen came in 2012 out of demand from its client base, mostly immigrants and refugees from war-torn countries. It’s a project of the local office of the International Rescue Committee, a resettlement agency whose services include immediate needs for new arrivals like rides from the airport, temporary housing and job placement.

Resettlement agencies in many other states offer six months of assistance to newly-arrived refugees. In Utah, through providers such as the International Rescue Committee, the state’s refugee services agency supports up to 24 months of assistance to refugees. That means once immediate needs are met, more long-term avenues for economic opportunity become possible, according to Kate Idzorek, the SPICE Kitchen program manager. Over the years, she says, clients consistently brought up developing their informal food businesses from occasional hobbies to formalized enterprises.

“The ultimate goal is either income patching, or becoming a sustainable source of income … In an area they have talent in,” Idzorek says.

Idzorek’s office consulted with La Cocina, a kitchen incubator based in San Francisco’s historically Latino Mission District that focuses on helping Latinx-owned businesses grow. One aspect that drew SPICE Kitchen to the Bay Area’s work was in its success in addressing language barriers. Caleb Zigas of La Cocina says that organizations looking to emulate the Bay Area’s model reach out to them regularly for consulting. As a nonprofit itself, Zigas says collaborating with other groups is somewhat limited. In the case of SPICE Kitchen, organizers flew La Cocina staff to Salt Lake City and paid a $2,500 consulting fee.

One common issue facing groups like SPICE Kitchen or La Cocina: until they get involved, food handler certification, state and county licensing and other logistical issues are all communicated exclusively in English. Idzorek says most of the local IRC’s office clients speak Arabic or Spanish, but programming is also available in Tamil, Ukrainian and a few other languages.

The International Rescue Committee has since helped similar initiatives in other cities to support refugees and immigrants get a foothold in the food industry. The resettlement agency even created its own federally-certified community development financial institution to provide small business loans and other credit to its clients across the country

Meanwhile, More has since gotten her business an established client base, including the University of Utah, and she hopes to someday open a small restaurant or perhaps first a food truck that is representative of the town she lived in in Venezuela. She says demand for her traditional dishes continues to grow as more Venezuelans seek asylum in the United States, and in particular those who flee to Salt Lake City to, like her, find the support of the Church of Jesus Christ of Ladder Day Saints.

“With more arriving, it’s more common to see empanadas to buy or tres leche cake, it’s becoming more common,” More says. “Many are wanting to open their own food businesses to continue providing traditional, local food.”


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.”


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