How the Live6 Alliance is refreshing Northwest Detroit

ost longtime Detroiters remember a much different northwest Detroit. Driving down McNichols or Livernois, there are mostly vacant storefronts standing where bustling shops and families used to call home. The stores that have stood their ground in the neighborhood are few and far between. It’s fair to say that the neighborhood has been ignored, in terms of development, for quite some time.

But there have been some major improvements to the roads off Livernois and the John C Lodge freeway entrance. New and improved streetlights now line the avenue, allowing businesses to feel safer and stay open later. In April, the City of Detroit temporarily installed bike lanes on Livernois as part of a pilot study conducted to determine their feasibility in the area. These changes were largely possible because of collaborations between neighborhood movers and shakers like University of Detroit Mercy president Dr. Antoine Garibaldi, Detroit public services and funding organizations.

They’re part of the beginning stages of bigger plan for the area called the Live6 Alliance-an organization years in the making.

A vision

Named for the intersection of Livernois and Six Mile, a common moniker for McNichols, the alliance is a planning and development organization for the surrounding neighborhoods. At the helm is director Lauren Hood, liaison between the power players backing the alliance-Garibaldi and The Kresge Foundation president Rip Rapson among them-and its residents.

Growing up in the Bagley neighborhood and pursuing undergraduate and graduate education at UDM, Hood is a product of the area, which makes her job a little bit easier. She says it gives her an “in” with longtime community members.

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“It was important to know who the players are in the neighborhood. It’s not like Midtown, where you can kind of do whatever you want in terms of development because people are kind of transient. Whoever has money can do whatever they want,” Hood says. “But in this neighborhood, people have been here about 20, 30, 40 years, so they must be consulted. There’s no getting around it.”

One of the first and main focuses for the organizations is to develop the commercial real estate in the area and attract new businesses. On McNichols between Wyoming and Livernois, Hood estimates about 75 percent of the commercial storefronts have been vacant for a long time-many of which have been broken into and stripped, leaving the spaces without proper wiring, plumbing or heating and cooling. A lot of these properties were purchased at a discount at auction without knowledge of their conditions.

Crucial link

Hood’s role is to connect these property owners to local resources to develop their spaces. She latches small business owners in the community to organizations that help them grow to a point where they’re able to operate a storefront. Then the connection is made between the businesses and the appropriate commercial properties.

Hood’s capacity to link people is key to the area’s success.

“I have no allegiance to any one group,” she says. “I really just want to see the neighborhood get better. Because I have no secret ulterior motives, I can call people together and be like, ‘Look, we have to work together to make this happen the right way.’”

Hood has connected a group of people to serve as Live6’s community advisory committee. The group is made up of about 15 leaders from existing community organizations and property and business owners. It meets monthly to discuss topics like the types of businesses they’d like to see in their neighborhood.

“Instead of us as an organization being like, ‘This is the kind of business we’d like to see here,’ we’re going to put residents in the room with the property owners, with people that want to open businesses and with people from the funding community and developers.”

All fenced in

University of Detroit erected a fence around its campus perimeter in the mid ‘80s, when the surrounding neighborhood was on the decline. It was never really well received from the university’s neighbors.

“The community thinks the fence makes the neighborhood seem like it’s a scary place,” Hood says. “If you walk into a school that has a metal detector, It’s not like, ‘Oh, I feel safer because this device is here to protect me.’ No, you’re like, ‘Oh, shit, something bad happens here.’”

Though the fence may not look welcoming, UDM has always ensured the campus is open to those in the area, as many use the school’s library and athletic track as a resource. The university also welcomes community group meetings on its campus.

But now that the area is trying to rebuild, people are making a stronger case that it’s time to take down the imposing gate. However, if the university were to do so, some feel it could make the school less attractive and impact student enrollment.

“I have a plan to convene a group of students and a group of parents of suburban students, and just ask them ‘Are you really afraid? Does the fence really signal to you that inside the fence is safe and outside is not? Or is there something else going on?’” Hood says. “We want to kind of test these theories about what we think people think.”

Fence or no fence, Hood says the neighborhood arguably wouldn’t be receiving the attention it is today without the university. “It’s a trusted entity. I think people that invest in the development of neighborhoods find institutions to be trusted entities to invest in.”

Why now?

The area has seen economic hardships for decades, and just in the past few years has it grabbed the attention of funders and developers. “I think that the development community and funders need an impetus. They need someone to take that first step. I feel like a lot of this work started around the Detroit Future City framework,” Hood says. “After that came out, I think that’s when the conversation started and people were like, ‘Hmm, maybe we should take a look at this.’ I feel like people just need somebody to anoint a place, and then everybody else follows suit.”

And a first-step investment from a big name like The Kresge Foundation piqued the interest of other investors, like the Knight Foundation, to put things into action.

Just announced last year, Live6 is only in the start, but the organization’s goals are big-and already taking shape. “I want to see people walking on the street, I want to hear music, I want to smell different kinds of food,” Hood says. “It’s just the larger narrative in downtown, Midtown and the neighborhoods. People assume the neighborhoods are this wild Wild West. I think if we get people to just spend time here, they’ll see that it’s not such a scary place.”

ALANA WALKER IS ASSOCIATE EDITOR OF BLAC DETROIT.

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