In Detroit, AmeriCorps VISTA Members Work With City Staff, Local Volunteers to Breathe New Life Into a Community

July 27, 2016


ast week, I travelled to Detroit, MI for the Cities of Service 2016 AmeriCorps VISTA Convening. The three day meeting brought together 33 other Cities of Service AmeriCorps VISTAs from across the country, all of whom are working on either neighborhood revitalization efforts through Love Your Blockor on resiliency planning through Resilience AmeriCorps. This convening was not only an opportunity to reconnect with the other VISTAs that we met at the beginning of our service year, but it also helped us to better understand and develop our roles in our cities. We met with city staff from Detroit and Lansing, attended trainings, and participated in a major neighborhood revitalization project at the Herman Kiefer Hospital complex.  

As our bus turned onto Taylor Street heading towards Hazelwood, Victoria Kovari—the chief service officer for the City of Detroit—asked us what we knew about the Herman Kiefer Hospital complex. Although some had read a story on the complex and its future redevelopment before arriving in Detroit, Vicky (as she told us to call her) provided a personal view on its importance to the surrounding community. She described how the hospital was originally opened in 1911 as a public health hospital, and that her mom had even been treated there once. But in 2013, when the City of Detroit was filing for bankruptcy, then-Mayor Dave Bing decided to close the hospital and reallocate its funding.

The hospital complex is huge and includes three former schools, which have now closed and are abandoned, as well as a large playing field, tennis courts, a basketball court, and a playground—all in need of repair. While driving in, I noticed that many of the surrounding houses and buildings were blighted. Vicky mentioned that despite appearances, there was still a passionate group of residents in the area; people who wanted their kids to grow up on the same streets they remembered so fondly from their own childhoods.

Vicky explained how the city had held a call for bids from developers in hopes that the right person would show an interest in the area. In spring of 2014, a New York-based developer and architect named Ron Castellano answered the call with a proposal focused on neighborhood revitalization. As the agreement has progressed, he has partnered with the city to rehabilitate and reuse not just the buildings on the complex, but an additional ~100 vacant homes in the surrounding Virginia Park neighborhood. The site has been approved for mixed-use development, meaning that the complex will likely include housing, retail, and office space in the future—creating new jobs for the community and taking neighborhood-specific wants and needs into account.

The bus parked and we started filing out onto the sidewalk. Looking out over the complex, I was first struck by the size of the old hospital building and the schools that used to be filled with students. These buildings that had once been bustling with activity were now stripped of their windows and doors. The playground was in disrepair and the basketball court was cracked and faded, the cracks filled with grass and tall weeds. Paint was peeling from the basketball hoops and fence. Across the blacktop, volunteers were already gathered in a circle. Some of the Cities of Service staff had arrived early to prepare for the day, along with employee volunteers from the Good Works program at JPMorgan Chase, a big supporter of citizen engagement efforts in Detroit and across the country. The staff would later tell us that, when they had arrived to set up, a group of young boys and girls came running up asking if they could get involved. They didn’t want to know who we were or really why we were there—they just pulled on gloves and waited for instructions, excited to improve the playground and basketball court where they spent so much of their summer.

After we received an orientation from  Vince Keenan, the neighborhood manager for Detroit’s District 5, volunteers were split up into groups to work on a variety of projects. Those with drilling and carpentry experience repaired the bleachers on the basketball court. Those with painting experience repainted the geo dome and the basketball hoops and posts. Others cleaned out the sandbox and replaced it with new sand, removed graffiti from the playset, and hacked away the weeds and vines that were taking over much of the property. We worked side by side with the volunteers from the community, Vince and Vicky from the City of Detroit, and Andi Crawford—the neighborhood resource coordinator from the City of Lansing. Even Ron Castellano himself joined us, spending the whole afternoon working hard and making sure we were efficient. As we progressed, more and more members of the community came around to learn about what was happening and to get involved as volunteers. Ron knew many of them already; he would be joining the community soon as a resident, having bought a house that he plans to move into in the fall.

The difference from when we arrived to when we left was incredible. The 47,000+ square foot site had undergone an impressive transformation thanks to our combined efforts. In total, we collected nearly 3,700 gallons of debris and brush from across the complex, as well as 39 tires and 35 garbage bags of litter. We painted eight basketball posts and installed eight new planks on the bleachers. We painted the 248 square foot geo dome and the swing set. And we dug up weeds and old sand from the sandbox, shoveling in 7,500 pounds of clean sand. Check out some of the before and after pictures here.

More important than the physical changes to the playground was the connections that our one day of volunteering helped make between the community and the city. I spoke to one man who had been the coach of the middle school basketball team that used to play on the court. Recently, he had posted a photo online of the court asking his friends to help clean it up. The photo got around 250 likes, but no one came. He was happy to see us there, and hoped that his neighbors and friends would come out and finish what we had started.

Later in the afternoon, the parents of the kids who had been volunteering with us started to come by to check on them. They were amazed at what had been accomplished in just one day. They were curious about Ron and the plans for the new development, and they wanted to get involved. All in all, it was a very special experience. The changes that the neighborhood is experiencing are exciting and the community seemed hopeful about the development. The mindful approach that Ron and the city are taking to revitalize and rebuild the whole community is so important—focusing not just on the hospital complex but on the surrounding homes and schools as well.

All of us, including the volunteers from the neighborhood, felt that this could be a catalyst for the area—helping to bring more neighbors out to get involved. It’s critical that everyone participate in the recent growth and redevelopment happening in the city. Projects such as this can truly do a service to communities experiencing blight. They encourage the potential and resilience of the people who live there and they demonstrate the positive impact that locals can have on their own neighborhood and on each other.

As for the Cities of Service AmeriCorps VISTAs, the feelings we shared of hope, empowerment, and accomplishment were tangible. The conversations we had with the community members, and the experience we shared with them, was inspiring and motivating. I am hopeful that the people who know their neighborhood, who have dreams for what it can once again become, who came out to help and to lead—that they will share this feeling of empowerment and service with others. The experience also strengthened my resolve to work even closer with the people of Pittsburgh to develop programs and projects that empower citizens to improve their neighborhoods.

I am confident that the impact we made last week will extend far beyond the playground and the blacktop—and I look forward to what the city and the citizens of the neighborhood will accomplish in the future.

Alexander Cupo is a Cities of Service Resilience AmeriCorps VISTA who is completing his service year in Pittsburgh, PA. Working from within city hall in Pittsburgh, he focuses on developing volunteering initiatives that engage community residents to improve resilience in low-income neighborhoods.