The American Riad


Affordable housing in the North End

Oakland Avenue has a rich history in Black Arts and Culture, and we are working with North End residents to help re-establish that tradition.

The North End Woodward Community Organization (NEWCO), Oakland Avenue Artist Coalition (OAAC), & Ghana ThinkTank (GTT) have formed a partnership to create affordable housing and a fair development model based on arts and culture.

This art and architecture collaboration will transform abandoned buildings and empty lots into an Islamic Riad, creating communal housing surrounding a beautifully designed courtyard.  

Site for the Oakland Avenue Land Trust - the vacant lot will become a courtyard linking homes and businesses

Site for the Oakland Avenue Land Trust - the vacant lot will become a courtyard linking homes and businesses

Drawing of the Islamic Riad, a shared courtyard that will join repaired homes & businesses

Drawing of the Islamic Riad, a shared courtyard that will join repaired homes & businesses

Detroit and Morocco – Arts and Culture

Rather than demonizing Islam and Muslim immigrants as a threat to American culture and safety, this project works with a group of artisans in Morocco to adapt elements of Islamic and African Culture to solve American problems.

Small scale manufacturing techniques to rejuvenate housing in the North End

Small scale manufacturing techniques to rejuvenate housing in the North End

Founded in 2006, Ghana ThinkTank is a worldwide network of think tanks in the “developing world” creating strategies to solve problems in the so-called“first” world.

Our partners in Morocco felt that many US problems stem from an architecture that creates social isolation. They observed that the American dream of the single-family home meant that neighbors are separated from each other. In contrast, they said, Moroccan architecture creates community. “You need to make your architecture more like ours – a riad.”  

By selecting businesses that serve the needs of the North End, and residents interested in preserving the North End’s history as a Black creative district, we hope this can be a center for a growing neighborhood - of homegrown Detroiters.

Neighbors participating in design and construction

Neighbors participating in design and construction

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

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.