By its very nature, a historic district is a separate enclave from the areas that surround it. However, to survive, it cannot be separate from the surrounding community. In the case of Detroit’s Historic Indian Village, this is particularly true. Within the last two decades the city population has decreased from over a million to hover around 900,000. High unemployment, city government corruption and crime encircle this neighborhood of 356 homes. Yet despite what might appear to be overwhelming odds against it, this historic district thrives.
In 2005, resident Steve Wasko, gathered a small group of like-minded individuals to explore the possibilities of filling surrounding vacant homes with new residents, beautiful but empty main street buildings with new businesses and much more. He believed that by creating a new Indian Village-area Economic Development Task Force these goals could be better realized. The result became the Villages Community Development Corporation, VCDC, a collection of neighborhoods on Detroit’s near eastside that includes Historic Indian Village.
Since its inception, VCDC has been an active force. Current VCDC President, Kim Clayson, speaks passionately of the all-encompassing, ongoing vision to bring a grass roots approach to replacing the empty space and vacant buildings into an authentic urban village. Although now viewed as a liability, Clayson contends that these conditions should be seen as an asset.
VCDC has had a strong start due to their commitment and the strong central core of Historic Indian Village and neighboring historic West Village. Current affordability has been attracting outsiders and makes the case to businesses considering locating in this community. In fact, Clayson points out, some of these goals were already beginning to be met before the current housing crisis.
During its first year, VCDC created and launched “Living in the V ! Real Estate Open House”. This annual event is an opportunity to introduce newcomers to this welcoming collection of neighborhoods. For one day, realtors hold Open Houses in their current available homes. Throughout the day, attendees view a PowerPoint presentation about the six Villages neighborhoods, have their questions answered one-on-one, meet current Village residents, purchase refreshments, visit shops within Indian Village, listen to live jazz and visit restored homes in the historic districts and surrounding neighborhoods. Clayson proudly notes that the success of this event has exhausted housing inventory and plans are being developed to turn this into more of an annual community event. This coalesces nicely with planned future entertainment events for the area.
For the last two years of Living in the V!, VCDC added the “Lonely Homes” Tour, a realtor-guided bus tour, to this great event. Scheduled shuttles, accompanied by realtors and restoration experts, visited available vacant homes that had unfortunately resulted from a bout of foreclosures. Despite current statistics in other areas and as a result of this and other intensive efforts, most of these homes and others have now been sold.
Clayson and many of the Historic Indian Village residents believe that it is a responsibility and capability that when everyone’s quality of life improves all benefit, not just the historic district. The end result would include a safe and stable historic neighborhood. Toward that effort, VCDC has created liaisons with surrounding neighborhood associations and obtained several grants in its short existence. In 2009, one, through the Detroit Vacant Property Campaign, resulted in a $9,000 grant for use in the historic district.
In 2008, VCDC obtained a grant from the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan to create the “Villages Charrette, Connecting our Eastside Neighborhoods with a Collaborative Visions for the Future.” Students and faculty from Lawrence Technological University’s School of Architecture and the University of Michigan Taubman School of Architecture and Planning collaborated in the Charrette, joined by other local professionals. This group of creative visionaries descended on the Villages of Detroit for a three-day charrette session to brainstorm ideas and concepts. The students, with faculty and professionals, then divided into teams to design concepts for future community planning by VCDC. This concluded with a final, well-received public presentation held at Gleaners Community Food Bank
Kim Clayson is a long-time resident of the Detroit area. Her parents and grandparents were Detroit residents. After twelve years spent in Illinois, her family returned to the area when she began high school. Kim then attended Michigan State followed by law school. Clayson says that she had wanted to reside in this area long before her eventual move to the historic district. She has had a life-long desire to live in a city neighborhood with diverse housing and people. Since her move, she has broadened that dream by becoming a vital part of “expanding our footprints of vitality” in the Villages. It’s Kim and all the other dedicated volunteers and neighbors who will assure this particular historic district never becomes an “island” within its own community.
Villages Community Development Corporation, http://thevillagesofdetroit.com/
Gleaners Community Food Bank, http://www.gcfb.org/site/PageServer
Lawrence Technological University’s School of Architecture, http://www.ltu.edu/architecture_and_design/index.asp
Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, http://www.cfsem.org/
University of Michigan Taubman School of Architecture and Planning, http://www.tcaup.umich.edu/