By Keith A. Owens, Senior Editor
If you live anywhere near the Durfee Elementary School building and Central High School on the city’s west side, then you already see it happening. Because you really can’t miss it. It’s kinda big.
Beginning on July 31, 12,000 volunteers descended upon Durfee and the surrounding neighborhood for a six-day whirlwind transformation/overhaul/cleanup designed to remove blight on 300 city blocks, board up 300 vacant houses, and perform essential home repairs for 50 homeowners in the area.
“We invite students from school, we invite community residents, churches, mosques, synagogues, businesses, people from every walk of life that you can imagine,” said Chris Lambert, CEO of Life Remodeled which is spearheading the project.
Lambert said he and his team typically spend at least a year working with the community figuring out what the community wants. Then they work together with that community to plan the blight removal project.
And that’s just for starters.
The initial whirlwind is really the kickoff of what will be at least a two-year effort spearheaded by Life Remodeled to transform the Durfee building into what will be known as a Community Innovation Center, and thereby transform an entire neighborhood in the process. And in case you’re wondering, this isn’t the first time Lambert has managed to pull this off. Life Remodeled, founded in 2011, is already developing a respectable track record of transforming neighborhood schools in troubled areas as a means of upgrading the entire neighborhood.
The organization’s first school-based project, costing roughly $5.5 million, was in 2014 at Cody High School. In 2015, Life Remodeled stepped it up a bit and took on Osborne High School. That project cost approximately $5.7 million. Both of these projects were a long way from the initial project in 2011, which involved pulling together 500 volunteers to build a home for a single mother and her four children in Westland. In six days.
“The process evolved from a vision that was big at the time but miniscule compared to what we’re doing right now. …It’s evolved from focusing on building a house that benefited one family at a time, to now benefiting a community asset that benefits the entire community,” said Lambert.
“This one is very different from what we’ve done in the past. In the past we’ve worked in existing schools that are still operating today. …This one’s very different because we’re working in a vacant school now. The former Durfee Elementary Middle School.”
In addition to other benefits, Lambert said that there has been a noticeable positive impact on crime in the neighborhoods surrounding their earlier school-based projects.
According to Lambert, the Detroit Police Department measured crime stats on the blocks where they worked, both before and after the project, “And it actually dropped in 10 out of 11 categories, “including 47 percent reduction in homicides.”
From the website:
“The Community Innovation Center will operate in collaboration with Central High School and the Detroit Public Schools Community District to provide hands-on education to students. Entrepreneurs will guest lecture in classrooms and students will have the opportunity to learn subjects, like math and finance, with real examples from case studies of business ventures taking place within the center. Community members of all ages will have access to resources and space in order to learn about entrepreneurship and how to start or grow their own businesses. The center will also serve as valuable community and recreational space for families and their kids.”
“As 2017 marks the 50th year anniversary of the 1967 Detroit uprising, Life Remodeled and our partners will invest in the neighborhood surrounding Central High School, the city’s first public high school, in the community where Detroit’s civil unrest began. This year’s project will serve not only as a powerful commemoration of the progress that has been made, but also the progress we continue to strive toward.
We are proud to announce Life Remodeled’s first two-year commitment to Central High School and the surrounding neighborhood as we take on our largest project to date.”
So why did Lambert and crew decide on Durfee for this year’s project?
“We really chose Durfee the same way we chose every other neighborhood. There’s really two things that we look for; significant need, and radical hope. And when we say ‘significant need, what we’re looking for is neighborhoods that have high levels of crime and high levels of blight. And we’re looking for schools that have academic challenges that can be addressed with a construction/renovation project. When it comes to radical hope, we’re looking for a neighborhood that already has a foundation of sustainability in place or in process,” said Lambert.
What the community surrounding Central High does have “is a very rich history of resilience. And it is geographically located in close proximity to downtown and Midtown. And a tremendous amount of development is coming this way. And so what we want to do is help create more equity and inclusivity in the community so the community will have more power to shape the development that’s coming.”
Hopefully, if all goes according to plan, this is the kind of impact that will result in all future developments as well. Using schools as anchors to rescue communities.
“We haven’t decided what neighborhood we’re going to next, but what we’d like to do is to prove that this model of repurposing vacant schools can be of great benefit to the city and continue to do it in other Detroit neighborhoods.”
It’s an idea that definitely beats shutting them all down.