Ghana ThinkTank and the Oakland Ave Land Trust

Detroit faces the same dilemma as many cities across America: How can neighborhoods revitalize without displacing the people who live there?  How can communities remain cohesive when migration and mobility are such fundamental American values – and often an economic requirement?  Outsiders are both a threat and a necessity.  Artists are often used as the first wave of gentrification. 

Our public art project uses a development project as its medium to unravel the various dynamics in play when outsiders participate in the “re-vitalization” of Detroit.  The Ghana ThinkTank has teamed up with Detroit neighborhood organizations to form a land trust and pursue a model of development that seeks to prioritize retention of neighborhood residences and businesses in the midst of a gentrifying neighborhood. The deed will restrict speculation and create affordable housing. To do this we will be capitalizing on resources often looked upon as threats - Islamic culture, Immigrants and well-connected White New York Developers.

Our Detroit partners are responsible for renovating the commercial and residential structures, while Ghana ThinkTank is focusing on using the now empty space between those structures as a site for community organizing through architectural intervention, working together to create an affordable, sustainable, Detroit-owned urban land trust. 

To that end, we are working towards sustainability in three ways:
-Cultural Sustainability - maintaining the importance of the neighborhood's rich cultural history and demographics
-Financial Sustainability - developing a framework that ensures local ownership and affordability
-Environmental Sustainability - rebuilding the structures such that residents can live as self-sustainably as possible, by creating systems that allow the building itself to provide food, energy and water for its residents, to minimize their reliance on external companies and financial systems

The focus of the project is an Islamic Riad: communal housing around a central courtyard.  A set of abandoned buildings and a vacant lot in the North End neighborhood will be transformed into a small cluster of homes and businesses around a central courtyard with a shared entrance. 

The idea comes from a think tank in Morocco, who responded to the US problem of social isolation and segregated communities by pointing at our architecture.  They observed that the American dream of the single-family home meant that neighbors were separated from each other. Even in cities, we managed to create isolation by giving everyone their own entrance. Because of this, neighbors living next door often don’t know each other. 

In contrast, they said, Moroccan architecture created community. Urban or rural, the riad (shared courtyard) gave people shared entrances to their homes. “You need to make your architecture more like ours.”  So working with the neighborhood organizations NEWCO and the Oakland Avenue Artists Coalition, we will be implementing this Moroccan solution. We are envisioning a beautiful and unique building that reflects the process — Islamic arches and arabesques intertwined with and imposed on Detroit brick.  

We have several guiding principles and goals for the project:

  • As outsiders, Ghana ThinkTank has no ownership or financial stake in the real estate development aspects of the project.
  • Housing will be priced affordably for local residents, with a clause limiting the price at which any unit can be rented or sold, so as to combat speculation.
  • The solution from the Moroccan ThinkTank will be enacted so as to encourage a tighter sense of community, using communal entrances and shared spaces to help turn this complex into a social/commercial entity.
  • Residents and businesses will be selected for this project based on their ability to create a self-sustaining hub, which can serve as a spark to help radiate further population in the immediate area. Currently, there is only one inhabited house on the same block as this structure, and only one on the block adjacent. By selecting businesses that serve the needs of locals, and residents interested in preserving the history of the neighborhood, we hope that this structure can become a center for a growing neighborhood. 

At this stage, Ghana ThinkTank has given a no-interest loan to our partners so that they could purchase the property required for this project. They already have a list of tenants interested in renting the property once renovated. After working together to finalize architectural plans, we built a prototype Umbrella Vault in the summer of 2016, and began to rehab one of the homes.

This Ghana ThinkTank project is in collaboration with the Oakland Avenue Artist Coalition and NEWCO (NorthEnd Woodward Central Organization), with support from Creative Capital, SUNY Purchase College, SUNY Buffalo, SUNY New Paltz, the SUNY Arts and Humanities Network of Excellence, and Eugene and Emily Grant. Thanks to Raphael Zollinger for all his time and talent in the digital fabrication of the project, and Rachel Owens and Reg Flowers for integrating Theater of the Oppressed techniques into community planning parts of the project, and Eric Wildrick for support in fabrication tests. And, of course, Ulysses Newkirk of OAAC and Roger Robinson of NEWCO, whose work and vision in the North End of Detroit founded the principles and energy for this land trust project.