Youth-led work revives Detroit’s Denby neighborhood

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Hakeem Weatherspoon, a graduate of Denby High School and Michigan State University, at the Skinner Park basketball courts. Weatherspoon helped develop the plan to revamp the park and provide play space for neighborhood youth. (BridgeDetroit photo by Valaurian Waller)

Detroit’s Denby neighborhood, on the city’s east side, is known mostly for its high school and a strong sense of community. Another feature is its park space and blocks of single-family brick bungalows and colonials. But back in 2013, like many of the city’s neighborhoods devastated by disinvestment and tax foreclosure, Denby was plagued with blight and vacancy.

Denby Neighborhood Alliance organizer Sandra Turner-Handy said many kids didn’t feel safe walking to and from school. 

Denby is on Detroit’s east side and is in City Council District 4. (City of Detroit map)

“The high school girls worried about being dragged into vacant houses on their way home,” said Turner-Handy, who said the community didn’t believe their voices mattered to anyone. 

Turner-Handy and her students decided to change that.

“I wanted to be able to teach the residents in this area that have gone through depopulation and disinvestment that they have the power to re-create and redevelop their community into a clean, safe and healthy community,” she said. 

Turner-Handy, who has lived in the neighborhood for more than 20 years, began working with Denby High School seniors from the class of 2014 to form the Denby Neighborhood Alliance. 

Denby Neighborhood Alliance’s Sandra Turner-Handy at a ceremony celebrating the redesigned Skinner Park in 2016. Turner-Handy was instrumental in getting the Denby Neighborhood Alliance started in 2013. (Photo courtesy of Beau Brockett)

Students worked on a senior thesis with Detroit Future City, a city-focused, nonprofit think tank, to develop solutions for their neighborhood. The Denby Neighborhood Alliance set out to re-imagine their neighborhood and become a “hub for community activism and reform,” according to a 2013 statement. The students included neighborhood residents and school officials in their development effort.

Joseph Middlebrooks, a former Denby student who worked on the project, chose to focus on blight. 

“I wanted to talk to people about blight, the history of blight in the city of Detroit, problems that it can cause, potential solutions, and (understanding) what other things could initially improve situations for people in Detroit,” Middlebrooks said. 

Despite the fact that the city has been working to revitalize several neighborhoods through the Strategic Neighborhood Fund, Denby is not among those areas. Middlebrooks says he’s proud to have worked on fixing up his neighborhood “before it became cool.”

“A lot of the work we’ve done is stuff we knew we couldn’t wait on. We didn’t want to wait for the mayor or someone else to change our neighborhood because we knew that would mean gentrification. We did it ourselves, for us,” he said. 

Turner-Handy says it was important for young people to see and be a part of the changes. 

“Young people of Detroit, you have the power to change your city,” she said.

First, the Denby Alliance focused on improving the neighborhood’s parks by enhancing greenways and play areas. The group took on the revitalization of Skinner Park, right across the street from the high school. Turner-Handy said, until then, she took her family to a different park in another neighborhood. 

“We didn’t have safe or clean parks with any amenities for people in the community,” she said. 

Skinner Park’s basketball courts are a destination for neighborhood residents. (BridgeDetroit photo by Valaurian Waller)

But the students worked up a $1.4 million redesign of the park, and now it includes two basketball courts, a volleyball court, a performance pavilion, community art installations and an urban garden. The park was completed in 2016. 

That year, the group also helped organize thousands of volunteers to board up vacant houses. 

Michelle Jackson is a District 4 resident who volunteered with Denby Neighborhood Alliance on the improvement of Skinner Park. 

“(It is) so awesome what they’re doing,” said Jackson whose nephew attended Denby High School. “We wrap our arms around the schools that are in the community, we help wherever we can.”

The Denby Neighborhood Alliance also built Commemorative Park in 2017, which is for families with small children. Turner-Handy says getting young people involved in the Denby projects is vital to sustaining the community for years to come. 

Hakeem Weatherspoon, left, and Joseph Middlebrooks graduated from Denby High School in 2014. For the last eight years, they’ve stayed with Denby Neighborhood Alliance to help revitalize their community. (BridgeDetroit photo by Valaurian Waller)

“We don’t need to create a city that meets my needs, I’m older. We need those young people at the table talking about a city that they want to live in, and that’s the city and those are the plans and designs and ideas that need to be captured as we invest in our communities,” she said. 

Through the years, the Denby Neighborhood Alliance has continued to plant trees, organize trash pick-ups and promote environmental sustainability in the community. Today, five Denby students from the class of 2014 are still with the Alliance and live nearby. 

Turner-Handy expects more to rejoin the cohort after college. 

Hakeem Weatherspoon is one of the former Denby students who is still involved with the Alliance. He said he is grateful for his high school project. 

“I think there’s a lot of young people in Detroit who simply don’t know that their ideas are valuable. They don’t know that their effort and their thoughts can really change things for people just like them,” he said. 

Turner-Handy says the Denby neighborhood looks different today, and is more walkable and vibrant.

“I see a community that offers enough amenities, not so (many) that we’re locked into our communities, but we know they’re there,” she said.  “We can support our community and our businesses.” 

Now the Denby Neighborhood Alliance is using about $250,000 in grants from the Detroit Residents First Fund to develop the Whittier business corridor. The enhancement project is a mile-and-a-half long revitalization plan that will add plants, flowers, new sidewalks and community art along Whittier.

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