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Excerpt: Focusing on neighborhoods beyond the city’s core became an imperative

Centennial, Detroit

Tony Proscio

Tony Proscio

Myron Farber

Myron Farber

John Gallagher

John Gallagher

Excerpt from newly published book about Kresge and Detroit charts creation of Kresge Innovative Projects: Detroit and other neighborhood efforts

Each Monday through April and into May, Kresge will feature excerpts from Embracing a City: The Kresge Foundation in Detroit 1993-2023 (Momentum Books). This behind-the-scenes look into 30 years of the unlikely partnerships, unique collaborations, varied financial tools and bold bets of The Kresge Foundation — originally the work of veteran journalists Tony Proscio and Myron Farber — was first released in 2018, covering 1993 to 2017. An updated edition includes a new chapter from Proscio plus revisions and additions throughout by longtime Detroit-based journalist John Gallagher to bring the narrative up to date.

Last week’s installment detailed the creation of the Detroit RiverWalk downtown. Chapter 3, Neighborhoods: Beyond the Core, opens with Kresge President Rip Rapson’s observations that the balance between Detroit’s neighborhoods and downtown was deeply askew. Rapson argued that “drawing a bright-line distinction between downtown and neighborhoods … is simply unacceptable – morally, economically politically.”

This excerpt picks up the narrative after the creation of the Detroit Future City (DFC) Strategic Framework and the foundation’s announced commitment to align investments with the framework.

[It] is a mistake to draw bright-line distinctions between downtown and neighborhoods. But that is exactly what has emerged over the last six years in Detroit, as downtown began its transformation while neighborhoods slipped into even deeper decline. We found ourselves too frequently trapped in a polarizing narrative—the corrosive poverty, disinvestment, and blight of the neighborhoods landscape measured against the substantial real estate, commercial, transit, and recreational investment in the central business district and the Woodward Corridor. That divide is simple unacceptable—morally, economically, politically.

—Rip Rapson, June 25, 2015

With release of the DFC plan in 2013, and owing to it, Kresge greatly ramped up its attention to neighborhoods, declaring that the Foundation “must now become more intentional about transforming neighborhoods outside the city core.” Among its first moves, in 2014, was a $5 million, three-year pilot program to fund “ground-up” neighborhood projects devised by nonprofits and residents across the city. The program, called KIP:D (for Kresge Innovative Projects: Detroit), was meant to build confidence and “organizational muscle” in areas “where little concentrated investment has taken place of late.”

In the program’s first three rounds, Kresge approved fifty-six projects. They ranged widely, from education to infrastructure to the arts: reworked curriculum at a high school; flower farming on vacant lots; renovation of a fourteen-thousand-square-foot commercial building; rehabilitation of athletic fields and outdoor fitness equipment; a youth boxing program; transformation of shipping containers into retail space for entrepreneurs; and job training for “at risk” youth. The projects generally adhered to the DFC plan, and included rehabilitating a two-family apartment building into the city’s first LEED Platinum home, redesigning a derelict home into a passive solar subterranean greenhouse, and converting a building into a free medical clinic and community food hub. In the diverse northeast Banglatown neighborhood, Kresge aided Power House Productions, which integrates artists’ projects and live-work spaces, and Global Detroit, which seeks to strengthen the local economy and attract job opportunities.

Encouraged by the results of the pilot program, Kresge continued KIP:D and brought in Michigan Community Resources as a collaborator to shape the grant program and work directly with applicants and grantees, providing technical assistance, convening cohorts, and creating space for grantees to share lessons, attend workshops, and engage in conversation. In 2021, KIP:D became KIP:D+ and expanded its geographic reach to Highland Park and Hamtramck, and Co.act Detroit became the administrator of the grant program. As of July 2023, the initiative had made 184 grants totaling $13.7 million to advance resident priorities through transformative projects that build on the assets and distinctive attributes of neighborhoods.

Among the KIP:D and KIP:D+ awardees: In the 2020 round, Kresge gave $150,000 to the nonprofit Bridging Communities to plan and build a connection between two public green spaces, to be called the Braden Street Greenway, in the Chadsey Condon neighborhood on Detroit’s west side to act as a vibrant and inclusive gathering space. Also in 2020, the Mt. Olivet Neighborhood Watch received $22,000 to support the expansion and development of a hoop greenhouse as well as a rainwater garden in Fletcher Field within the East Van Dyke neighborhood. And in 2022, a $35,000 grant went to Friends of Rouge Park to fund twenty-four months of intentional and collaborative park programming in the central core area of Rouge Park on the far west side of the city. As of 2023, the KIP:D+ program continues, with Co.act Detroit managing a sophisticated evaluation process to narrow each year’s dozens of applicants to the final list of awardees, taking into account the strength of each applicant’s proposal, the applicant’s past record of community service, the demographics of the areas to be served, the applicant’s ability to handle a significant grant, and other criteria. Significantly, Co.act utilizes selection committees that include residents, artists, and nonprofit and community partners.

Mt. Olivet Neighborhood Watch was awarded a 2020 grant through Kresge Innovative Projects: Detroit. The grant supported renovation of the neighborhood’s community garden greenhouse. (Photo by Lon Horwedel)

So successful has the program become that in 2019, the initiative’s principles were adapted by Kresge’s American Cities Program to create Kresge Innovative Projects: Memphis and Kresge Community Support: Fresno in those cities.

The awards can prove life-changing down to the individual Detroiter level. Among the earlier KIP:D grantees in southwest Detroit was Young Nation, whose history with Kresge is illustrative of the Foundation’s aspirations. Founded in 2008, Young Nation is a nonprofit, grassroots organization educating and mentoring youth through arts projects. Its best-known effort is the Alley Project, in which participants have created vivid, inspired murals on garages along an underutilized alleyway, as well as spaces for residents of all ages to gather and engage in mutual community activity, often for the first time—“a sort of block club on steroids,” said Erik Howard, Young Nation’s executive director and cofounder.

In 2012, when one of its members’ works was chosen for exhibition at the Venice Biennale, Howard wanted to take the artist, Freddy Diaz, then nineteen, to the exhibition and to four other cities where he could display his talents. Young Nation needed $7,500, in a hurry. Several foundations turned down their request, until someone—“Probably to get me off their back,” Howard said—suggested a call to George Jacobsen at Kresge.

The Alley Project in southwest Detroit is a grantee of Kresge Innovative Projects: Detroit. This effort has supported the creation of vivid murals and other public-space projects, and engages community members of all ages. (Photo by Erik Howard)

Jacobsen, then the senior program officer who led the Foundation’s Detroit arts portfolio, took the call from this thirty-four-year-old stranger and decided to put up the money for the trip, though the Foundation didn’t ordinarily support travel. Jacobsen “saw us for what we are,” Howard said, and when the pair returned from Europe, Jacobsen asked about their vision for the future, which included an all-weather performance studio. Kresge contributed another $40,000, matched by the New York–based Surdna Foundation. The organization was on its way to significant funding.

Kresge’s encompassing neighborhood strategy, consistent with its position even before it adopted the Re-imagining Detroit program in 2009, was to invest primarily in what Wendy Lewis Jackson called “middle-market neighborhoods that have traditionally competed exceptionally well to hold and attract population, but whose future was threatened by the economic damage of the 2000s.” By the end of 2015, Kresge had committed new or expanded support to five “catalytic investment districts,” including the North End, southwest Detroit, the East Jefferson corridor due east of downtown, and the Eastern Market district a mile or so north of that corridor.142 A special focus was put on the Livernois-McNichols neighborhood and commercial corridor on the city’s northwest side.

This second area of “eds and meds” (urban planning shorthand for universities and health institutions) was where Kresge and partners hoped to replicate the accomplishments clustering around the eds-and-meds anchors of Midtown, albeit with local input and character. The area was home to the University of Detroit Mercy, Marygrove College, and DMC Sinai-Grace Hospital and to a rich cultural history, handsome brick houses on tree-lined streets, and a once-thriving commercial zone—the “Avenue of Fashion” along Livernois Avenue. But it had deteriorated markedly, with a rash of boarded-up buildings and perhaps three-fourths of the stores along McNichols Road (Six Mile Road) vacant.

Trying to turn this around, in concert with the Duggan administration, Kresge contributed $200,000 in 2014 to beautification of the Livernois Avenue median and committed $400,000 to the creation of the Live6 Alliance, a community development corporation to coordinate revitalization strategies in the surrounding area.143 Lauren Hood, the former codirector of the alliance, saw it as essential to enlist neighborhood involvement in development plans and was adamant about protecting residents from being priced out of the neighborhood. To reinforce that involvement, a new “Neighborhood HomeBase” facility, supported by Kresge, opened in 2019 on West McNichols Road (Six Mile Road) near Livernois Avenue to give Live6 and urban planners from the University of Detroit Mercy a welcoming space for working directly with residents.

Looking ahead, Hood said in a 2016 interview, “I see people on the street. I see green alleys. I see people riding bikes. I hear music. I smell different kinds of food. It’s just a culturally rich and vibrant place.”144 Indeed, as of early 2023 the Livernois area between McNichols and Seven Mile Roads and beyond is home to some of the city’s most popular eateries, including Kuzzo’s Chicken & Waffles and Good Cakes and Bakes bakery.

Hood knows the area well, having grown up in its Bagley section at a time when, she recalled, she could ride her bike until dark, without her parents worrying. As times worsened, Hood saw many of her friends’ families depart for the suburbs. Her own parents, who had bought their comfortable home in 1969, wanted to stay and did so until 2013. That’s when they were held up at gunpoint in their dining room.

In December 2015, Kresge’s Detroit team observed that, while Detroit was recovering from its bankruptcy, “the impact is just beginning to be felt in the city’s neighborhoods.”

To read more, visit Embracing a City’s website and order the book.