This is the first in an ongoing series to introduce Planet Detroit readers to residents who bring beauty and community to the vacant lots in their neighborhoods. We begin our series recounting the story of Mama Shu and Avalon Village in Highland Park – perhaps one of the most ambitious and iconic examples of vacant lot activation in the city. Do you have a story we should cover for this series? Please reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I grew up in Detroit in the 80s and 90s, and all I ever heard about Highland Park were negative stories. It was certainly not a place you aspired to move to.
So imagine my hesitation when I learned my soon-to-be husband purchased our first home in… Highland Park. We ended up not just moving here but staying – going on 22 years now.
One of the first people I met when I moved to Highland Park in 2000 was Shamayim “Shu” Harris. She lived on our street and welcomed us to the city. We became fast friends from that point on.
There are very few people that I have personally known with the strength my friend Shu exhibits.
In 2007, her two-year-old son, her youngest, was tragically killed on our street in a hit-and-run. Soon after, Shu had the vision to build a village on one of the worst blocks in Highland Park: Avalon Street, between Woodward and Second. This block was littered with vacant lots and structures in the aftermath of decades of drugs, prostitution, murders and fires.
But where others saw tremendous blight, Mama Shu, as she is known, saw a place where she could “build a village in her community and most importantly for the children,” in her words.
Mama Shu doesn’t have the credentials of a community developer or architect, but that didn’t stop her. Before there were donors, cameras, awards and recognition from countless organizations, Mama Shu moved into a home on Avalon Street with no running water, electricity or heat. Little by little, she started to fix the house and ran her ministry out of it.
Then, with the help of a handful of volunteers, the block started to get cleaned up. The grass and trash on lots she did not own were being taken care of because of her. Like many others in Highland Park and Detroit, she took “ownership” of vacant lots she didn’t own because she did not want to live next to the trash.
Shu didn’t want to have to move out to the suburbs to live in a well-cared-for community that is clean and beautiful and has nice shops, cafes, a library, a safe space for kids, a place to have events, play sports and enjoy a concert.
“I shouldn’t have to move to have beautiful things around me,” she said.
So she decided that she would build all of that in Avalon Village.
One of the first projects in Avalon Village was a park dedicated to her two-year-old son, Jakobi RA. These were previously vacant lots with dumping and years of neglect. As a matter of fact, after the city had its lights repossessed due to its inability to pay its debt to DTE, Avalon Village installed the first residential solar light in Highland Park.
The whole city was in the dark and Mama Shu did something to light up her block. The only problem was that she did not own the vacant lot the solar light was installed so she was ticketed. It’s a problem many local “lot activators” face – by doing good on land they don’t own, land that is a blight and danger to the community, they risk investing time and resources and even fines.
Shu owns that lot and many more now – approximately 40 parcels both vacant and with structures. She has plans for all of them. Last year, five more solar lights with WIFI were installed in Avalon Village in partnership with the nonprofit energy advocacy group Soulardarity – this time on lots that she already owns. When the power goes out – as it often does – that block has lights. Highland Park offers a model for city-wide community solar.
For the past decade, Jakobi RA Park has been a place for the community to enjoy – from birthday celebrations, weddings, concerts, movie nights, music camp, festivals, marketplace, community meetings, and community service initiatives. It now features a fire pit with seating to enjoy during these upcoming chilly fall days and nights.
Adjacent to this park space is a home that was once on the demolition list. You wouldn’t believe that if you saw it today. After five years of transformation, The Homework House will officially open on Sept. 24.
This celebration is bittersweet because there is one person who was instrumental in the village who is now an ancestor: Mama Shu’s 23-year-old son, Chinyelu, who was tragically killed in January of 2021 in Avalon Village – a collective loss to our community. A memorial garden in his name on one of the vacant lots in the village commemorates him.
This Saturday at 3 p.m. Avalon Village will host a community open house in honor of the grand opening of The Homework House. It will also be a time to acknowledge all that Chinyelu did to contribute to the building of Avalon Village.
The Homework House is a safe haven for children in the heart of Avalon Village. It took five years to complete this project that will be a place for the children of the community to gather after school to have a warm meal, get help with their homework, learn life skills and more.
The Homework House has all of the amenities of a home plus a library and music studio. There are several showers and children can also wash & dry their clothes if they are unable to do so at home. Every community needs a place like this. Remember, this house was supposed to be demolished and will now be a safe place for everyone to enjoy.
On the other side of the Homework House is a recently installed basketball court with images of Mama Shu’s three sons that are all ancestors (one by marriage). Another vacant lot now houses a repurposed shipping container that will be an off-the-grid STEM lab once the funds for the inside equipment and furniture are raised.
There is already a shipping container on another previously vacant lot that has been turned into a shop called the Goddess Marketplace, selling unique items and allowing women an opportunity to launch their business ideas. Both shipping containers have beautiful murals done by local artists and are powered by solar panels.
There is an annual weekend camp on several vacant lots so that children who wouldn’t normally get this experience can experience camping outside. It’s called Hood Camp: Urban Survival for Today’s Youth. The children who come learn about a range of topics and also do a community service activity. There are also several community garden spaces. On the remaining vacant lots, there will be a tennis court, playground, greenhouse, cafe, and more.
One thing that Mama Shu always does is thank everyone who had a hand in helping bring her vision to reality. This is not a one-person show. There have been countless people who have donated their time, money, and resources over the years.
The majority of vacant lots in Detroit and Highland Park have areas for dumping, trash, and overgrown grass. These severely neglected neighborhood eyesores need visionary residents like Shu who are willing to do the unthinkable and invest their time and assets, often risking losing that investment or being fined, to see past their blight and envision something better, something different, something beautiful.
This is one example of many that I will share in the coming weeks and months of how vacant lots are being repurposed into useful community gathering spaces and more. They are not just for community gardens. Let your imagination soar.