Hope District: True community development spreads one block at a time

By Eric T. Campbell
The Michigan Citizen

DETROIT — The philosophy driving development of the Hope District comes from a teaching that Mike Wimberly took to heart during a lecture on urban redevelopment —start on one corner, or one block, and don’t move until you’ve touched everything.

A chain of revitalized property on East Forest going east of Van Dyke has benefited from Wimberly’s adherence to this credo. He and the community around him have taken a grassroots initiative and created a point of reference for the area.

Centered in a building dubbed the Club Technology resource center, the Hope District spread as a way to make the community self-reliant and stem the tide of economic depression.

Projects devoted to food security, collective entrepreneurship, and spiritual healing are in various states of development along a corridor marked with colorful murals and maturing fruit trees.

“Our whole job is to create a place where people can become who they are in the community,” Wimberly told the Michigan Citizen during a recent tour.

Areas like the Little Egypt open-air market give residents an opportunity to buy and sell locally made products. An adjacent bus stop acts as a resource center and a point of sale for neighborhood merchants who offer homemade jewelry, purses or food items.

Kitty corner to the market is the Butterfly Dream Garden. Surrounding a corner lot are billboards decorated with painted honeycombs.

Residents are encouraged to share, in writing, their thoughts, hopes and concerns. On one, a neighborhood mother wrote a poem dedicated to her son, Lorenzo King, who was killed in March of 2007. In the middle of the circle sits a fire pit under construction—another location designed for locals to share stories and experiences.

According to Mike’s mother and co-collaborator, Lily Wimberly, these platforms are offered to encourage the facilitating of good memories—a first step in rediscovering the hope that has been lost in many urban cities.

“We want to bring back some happy, stable memories that people can pivot from,” Wimberly says. “It has to do with memories of your grandparent’s garden and the pot on the stove, which came right from the garden.”

Lily Wimberly founded the non-profit Friends of Detroit and Tri-County organization in 1994 as a way to rehabilitate local housing and commercial properties. Her efforts led to the forming of Club Technology, now a resource and meeting center for residents who wish to learn a new skill or become involved with neighborhood initiatives.

Lily says that the Hope District originated out of meetings held at Club Technology and trying to figure out what community needs were not being met and why.

The Hope District is designed to visually inspire those who choose to get involved. A stunning Egyptian-influenced mural by air-brush artist, Brian Gavin, decorates the side of a soon-to-be-opened storefront. A painting on a small billboard called “Miracle Park” can be seen form the road in addition to small paintings and artwork which mark all the garden plots.

But the prominent feature of the District is the abundance of resources devoted to fresh food and green space.

The “Peace Zone for Life” is a wooded sanctuary designed partly by activist Ron Scott for reflection and, eventually, live entertainment. The “Cultivating Coping” area has been planted with Box Elder, Hedge Maple, Bir Oak and Eastern Red Bud trees. It serves as place to settle disputes. Behind a row of trees, across an alley, sits a small field on the corner of Maxwell and Willard dotted with raised vegetable beds overflowing with cabbage, kale, tomatoes, and onions.

Master gardeners who volunteer as part of the gardening extension program at Michigan State University frequently tend the sculpted lots. Early in 2006, they put together a garden, which incorporates plants that were described in a journal by French explorer Antoine Cadillac in the early 1700’s. An artist’s depiction of Cadillac oversees a 30-foot herb wheel at the entrance of the garden, which will support medicinal varieties such as lemon balm, lavender and strewing herb.

Lily Wimberly estimates that 60-70% of the neighbors within range of the Hope District have at one time, actively involved themselves in a project or a meeting. She’s now starting to hear the stories from residents that the Hope District was meant to inspire—stories that start and end in the community.

“It’s an enthusiasm that you can feel and you can hear,” says Lily, “through stories about their gardens.”

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