By Laura Herberg | WDET
A construction crew in Highland Park is busy at work, transforming what was once a two-family flat into a community resource.
“They’re removing existing walls and installing the proper supports to open up the floor plan,” says Project Engineer Gerrajh Surles. Not long ago this house was on its way to the demolition list, says Surles. But now it’s being given a new life for kids in the neighborhood. “We’re turning it into a community resource center, mainly for the youth.”
At the renovated house, kids will have a quiet spot to work on homework. But they’ll also be able to produce rap music, learn to sew or garden. The house will use solar panels and geothermal technologies as its primary utilities. Outside there will be basketball and tennis courts.
A Watched Block
The project is the brainchild of Shamayim Harris, better known as “Mama Shu.” You can see the construction of the Homework House from her porch on Avalon Street. It is just the beginning of her plan to transform the entire block into a 21st century sustainable eco-village.
“There’s a lot of places in Highland Park, different pockets of historical homes that are very very beautiful, with very nice houses,” says Mama Shu. “Some blocks aren’t vacant or blighted. This particular part that we’re on is terribly blighted.”
Mama Shu says she had her eye on this block for awhile. Even when she lived down the street, she would watch this block – with its tall grass, abandoned houses, and lack of street lights – and envision how to improve it.
“I did that for about three, close to four years. And it looked the same. It looked the same all that time while I was looking at it,” says Mama Shu.
While working as an administrator in local schools, Mama Shu saw that sometimes basic needs weren’t being met for students at school or home. She thought these kids could benefit from having a comfortable place to get their homework done, be served a full dinner and have their clothes washed.
The idea for the Homework House was born, but she needed somewhere to make it a reality. So Mama Shu chose this block of Avalon Street.
“It was clear space for me, fertile ground actually,” says Mama Shu. “When I looked at it I saw beauty, I saw the Homework House, I saw just all the stuff, putting it back on this block and utilizing all the blank space to put back some of the things that we need and we want and we deserve.”
“Nothing to do”
Plumber Christopher Martin lives in the neighborhood not far from where the Homework House is being built. When his five daughters are with him, the younger ones sometimes play with friends down the street, but most of the time they just stay at home.
“I don’t really like them to be out too much. There’s not a lot of activities for the kids to do in the neighborhood,” he says.
His 15-year-old daughter, Samyia, says she rarely goes outside. “Because there’s nothing to do.”
Mama Shu’s hope is that attitude will change when the Homework House is up and running.
Helping Highland Parkers Help Themselves
There is more on the agenda for Avalon Village. The ambitious project aims to include a cafe, a greenhouse, a meditation garden, a healing house and shipping container storefronts. Mama Shu says the goal of the so-called village is simple.
“Basically to show people how to be more self sufficient… how to take care of themselves,” she says.
Close to $250,000 in donations came in for the project on the crowdfunding site, Kickstarter. Mama Shu says that shows people want to help a community that’s helping itself.
“We’re ignored neighborhoods, and it’s plenty of them. Not just over here, there’s other blocks, there’s other neighborhoods all over Detroit that don’t have the attention and don’t have love and don’t have anybody caring for them,” says Mama Shu.
She says the people in these places are waiting on somebody to come and come fix something.
“And I’m not waiting on nobody to come remove a mattress, remove a toilet, and I’m just sitting here on the porch looking like, ‘Okay when are they gonna come get that?’ That ain’t me.” A ribbon cutting for the Homework House is scheduled for Sept. 23. The next phase of the village will begin in the spring. Mama Shu says she will continue to work to provide services to the people of Highland Park that the city fails to offer. Because, she says, at some point, residents really need to take care of things themselves.