A voice for city change battles stubborn apathy

Mike Wimberley, executive director of Friends of Detroit

Mike Wimberley, executive director of Friends of Detroit, has tried to change life for those near the corner of Forest and Van Dyke on Detroit’s east side.

His neighborhood is violent and poor. Half the houses are gone. Gunfire and drugs are common.

And Mike Wimberley thought one good way to address these issues was to put on a play in the middle of a field.

It was a Mike thing to do. Over the past 14 years, he has done things like designating an empty field the Peace Zone for Life as a place for neighbors to cordially work out their conflicts. He started calling the crumbling blocks around him the Hope District, which consists of several vacant fields dotted by colorful murals urging peace and love, a headquarters and a number of yet-unrealized ideals.

And he has relentlessly tried to convince them that together, with some hard work and self-improvement, they can lift the neighborhood out of its collapse.

On rough streets all over the city, there’s often one person who has had enough and says let’s try something different, no matter how silly it seems, because anything is better than how things are. At the corner of Forest and Van Dyke on Detroit’s east side, it’s Mike.

So far, many of his neighbors have reacted with a yawn.

They’ve told him they support him, and a few have helped out now and then. But for this to work, everyone needs to pitch in. Not many have. It leaves him scratching his head.

Peace Zone

Along East Forest in Detroit, an empty field has been designated as the Peace Zone for Life — a place for neighbors to cordially work out their conflicts. So far, many of the neighbors have reacted with a yawn.

“It’s tough,” he said. “It can be discouraging and frustrating, because it’s not taking off quick. I don’t know if it’s people’s disappointment or frustration or angst or what. But do you really think something’s going to happen here in the next 20, 30, 40 years unless we figure out how to do it on our own? No.”

Taking after Mom

His 84-year-old mom, Lillie, started these efforts 20 years ago, when she was a housewife who raised six kids in an east-side neighborhood that was quickly falling apart.

“The families was breaking up, the children wasn’t in school like they should be, and they wasn’t repairing the houses,” she said. “The houses was falling down.”

She became an activist, held fund-raisers and founded a small group she called Friends of Detroit, with the overwhelming goal of providing adequate housing and jobs for everyone in the area. Few had either.

But big goals need big money from big donors. The money never came.

“I started off with a lot of hope,” Lillie said, “and the more effort I put into this, I started to feel like in the community, without any money, you can’t make any changes.”

They got a lot from the little they had, though. They bought a former meat-packing plant and opened a headquarters they named Club Technology that offers arts and crafts classes, job training, public computers, meeting rooms, even a doctor who holds regular office hours there to see patients too poor to go elsewhere. They’ve cleaned up vacant lots and filled them with community murals. They’ve put years of their time into the project.

Now, Lillie’s retired. Her son carries it on. And both wonder why the community hasn’t shown more enthusiasm about improving the place where they live.

“I think it’s because people who took a look at it knew it was going to take lots of work and lots of money, so they didn’t commit themselves,” she said. “I was forced to accept the fact their hope for changes was at a minimum, and because they did not hope for visible changes, they didn’t put their efforts in place.”

An uphill battle

A car rolled by on rims that looked to cost more than the car itself. A thumping bass pulsed through the windows.

It pulled up to the liquor store lot and looped around to squeeze into one of the few open parking spaces. A crowd stood inside and a crowd stood outside. It wasn’t even noon yet.

Mike stood on the sidewalk by the store and explained why. “Well, it’s kind of like a quasi-Starbucks or something,” he said. “People go up there and they meet up and talk and relate to one another.”

In other words, it’s the only place to gather in the area anymore. And the people lining up to drink before lunch were among the people he’s struggled to reach.

He’s tried edgier ideas to galvanize them. A mural on the side of his headquarters features youthful figures marching with banners, one reading “New Ideas Only,” while another declares “Hip Hop Forever,” a stab at rallying the young people of the neighborhood by linking their favorite music to broader social goals. It hasn’t gotten them any more involved than the adults have been.

Mike Wimberley Friends of Detroit

Mike Wimberley, executive director of Friends of Detroit, said: ‘My consolation is I did the best I could with what I had right now. … I didn’t wait for June and then only work when the sky was sunny, I didn’t wait for bankruptcy to end.’

“It’s an uphill battle, and I don’t know if it’s because I’m 51 and I don’t relate to them,” he admitted. “I feel like I’m twenty something, but I’m 51.”

He also put up colorful signs characterizing the 1967 riot as a rebellion that emancipated the city’s residents from oppressive control of the white power structure, trying to tap into that long-ago rebellious energy. Anything to shake the deep-rooted apathy out here.

“I don’t know if it’s — what do they call it? Nihilism,” Mike said. “Nobody believes in anything.”

He resorted to simple gestures meant to show that his group was doing tangible things. He created parks out of vacant lots. He built a wood bench for a bus stop. He made plywood stages where residents could sing or read poetry or do anything creative. He was earnestly trying to offer someplace where the residents could gather other than a liquor store.

His open-air market, though, was the real focus and the symbol of his efforts. With no businesses left in the area and none likely coming soon, Mike figured the neighbors should make or bake their own products to sell, to bring an infusion of cash to the area. He cleared a corner lot and made a fire pit, a table, another stage. All it needed was people to find a single talent they had and try to make money from it.

The market was held a few times and drew a few people selling their creations, like purses and jewelry, to a few customers. But without a whole lot more people participating, there would be no significant influx of money. Without money, nothing would really change.

“There’s essentially universal unemployment here,” he said of the area. “So we’re trying to create a situation where people create work in our neighborhood. That’s the big thing. We can protest about civil rights, talk about this, that and the other, but the big thing is about economics. And without us facing that, we’re not being realistic.”

If only people believed

A couple summers ago, on the day of the play, a handful of theater students gathered on stage in the Peace Zone for Life. Flyers were distributed weeks before to announce the performance, whose theme was finding ways to solve arguments without pulling out guns. Mike called it “As Detroit Turns.”

As it began, a few dozen residents wandered over, not so much eager for a message but because they’d simply never seen anything like this in their neighborhood.

“People in the grass-roots community, they don’t get a lot of cultural events in their community, and they don’t go to a lot of them because they’re expensive and they’re either downtown or New Center or Midtown,” Mike said. “So when you get an opportunity to witness or participate in a cultural event, it sparks a lot of interest.” He hoped to ride that curiosity into a small life lesson.

As the show ended and the audience began to scatter back home, there was a commotion at the liquor store. Someone rode a bike there and left it outside as he went in. Someone else wanted it, so he just grabbed it and hopped on. The bike’s owner came out of the store and confronted the bike’s would-be new owner.

The organizers of the event walked over as the argument escalated. Mike and the others started talking to the two men. Here was a chance to bring the methods of the play to a real-life crisis that looked like it was headed toward violence.

After some time, whether out of a new found belief in the Hope District’s approach to conflict or out of sheer fatigue at being morally pestered, the thief handed the bike back over.

It was a minor event, a mere thumbnail sketch of what Mike envisions happening here. But it was tangible, live proof that his ideas can work. If only people believed.

“This is tough, very tough,” Mike said, standing on the ice-covered street. “I don’t know how this is going to play out, and I don’t know how successful it will be. My consolation is I did the best I could with what I had right now. I didn’t wait for the cavalry, I didn’t wait for June and then only work when the sky was sunny, I didn’t wait for bankruptcy to end. I did the best I could with what I had.”

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