Building an institution out of an old house on Ferry Park
By Phreddy Wischusen
The Michigan Citizen
Passing cars on slow down to wave at Yusef Shakur who is sitting on the steps of 2431 Ferry Park eating his lunch. A young man passes. He, too, connects with Shakur. “I ain’t too good,” the young man says.
“Come back and talk to me,” Shakur responds. The young man nods.
The west side neighborhood where Shakur lives and grew up in is known to many as Zone 8. The area struggles with the structural poverty and associated ills familiar to inner cities across the globe.
Many are familiar with Shakur’s story: A Zone 8 kid imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit, who met his estranged father in jail, and transformed from a teen gangbanger into the community leader he has become. Shakur is now the author of two books, and has initiated several community development programs and businesses.
The building, a two-story early 20th frame house on Ferry Park, is the next part of Shakur’s efforts to enhance quality of life for all his neighbors. He hopes to turn the house into The Restore the Neighbor Back to the Hood Training Center with the help of a small scale real estate development firm, Practice Space.
“The house will be a multi-purpose space that will be rooted in servicing people in our community by financing (the) change we want to see,” Shakur says. Walking through the house Shakur points out areas for a café (with a full-service kitchen) that will also function as a bookstore and conference area, the second floor strategy room/office space, the attic loft that will be available for rent to out-of-towners working on projects in the city, and the outdoor stage for community/political discussions and concerts.
Shakur wants to develop the project in a way that will extract the most value for the neighbors by blending a non-profit with a revenue-generating business model, in order to create a financially sustainable plan.
“He doesn’t see a long-term model in constantly having to ask for money,” says Justin Mast of Practice Space.
Practice Space is, among other things, a consulting group that connects place-based businesses with skilled designers, architects and young creatives. Over a four-month period, the project leaders (in this case Shakur) and the residents, the designers and creatives, produce an in-depth plan for the continued development of the project, from the architecture and design elements to the financial projections of costs and potential revenue.
“You can’t just look at one side of these projects,” Mast says. “It’s the space, the architectural approach, it’s the neighborhood and the community and the business model… Those things are always compromising with each other. You can’t just dream up the coolest space possible, because that might not be financially viable. You can’t just focus on the business model because then you forget about the community.”
The challenge of finding those complex solutions, Mast says, is the point of Practice Space. “This is kind of an off the grid project. It’s forcing us to run some of the things we normally run through a different filter to make sense for his project.”
Shakur says their differences in perspective benefit all parties involved. “
(Practice Space) offered services I need: infastructure design — help (to) flesh out my vision,” Shakur says. “I also took it on for the challenge. Let’s be honest and real … the folks who are running Practice Space are white… (but) every white person who is coming to Detroit is not a gentrifier…” Shakur saw an opportunity to build a relationship with the Practice Space team and connect them to a “real project — a ground-zero eye of what work needs to be done in Detroit.
“As a native Detroiter, as one who cares about (the city), I feel that that’s part of my obligation to be able to safeguard my city, my neighborhood. (I) have an opportunity to see who’s coming in, to be able to impact them, to make sure that they do the work that’s necessary to have the impact that we want to have.”
Cam Watson, a recent college graduate (philosophy and urban planning), is one of the residents working on the Training Center project.
He believes Practice Space is the only way he would be able to work on the kind of project he believes in. “There’s something real about it,” Watson says. “It might be a footnote in urban planning strategies textbook, ‘engage with local businesses’, but to actually make it happen is totally different.”
Shakur sees the Training Center not simply as a functional community space, but as the development of a neighborhood institution. “An idea becomes an institution when it is rooted in sound practical theories that relate to the conditions of the community and the people…” he says. “Institutions are like anchors… Without institutions the community falls.”
Watson sees the project the same way. Having a representative voice — as Shakur, who is truly a product of and producer in his neighborhood does — in the development of a city is “a foundational principle of democracy.”
“What makes this project so significant is that we’re not sitting on a large lump sum of money,” Shakur says. “The change that we want to see has to be supported and nurtured and cultivated by people… That’s what the Restoring the Neighbor to the Hood Training Center is about. I may be the motor that pushing it, but it’s not about me. It’s about people.”