Building Community in the Motor City

By Bronlynn Thurman


“What we build says a lot about who we are.” This statement by Eric Klinenberg, author of “Palaces for the People,” rang true during a morning session of the third Civic Commons Studio in Detroit, Michigan.  When we think about resilient neighborhoods, we most often think about those that have strong social infrastructure. What do we mean by social infrastructure? It is the assets that provide access to resources and foster community within a neighborhood. Those are the parks, libraries, and public spaces where those accidental encounters happen.

But what does investing in social infrastructure (or Civic Commons) look like for Detroit? Well, through the Strategic Neighborhood Fund, Detroit’s public and private partners are clustering their investments and working to revitalize neighborhoods furthest from the downtown. In a city with 200 neighborhoods, Civic Commons partners are aware that they can’t reach every neighborhood, but hope to touch more than 60 over the next five years.

The area that was highlighted and studio participants spent quite a bit of time in was the Livernois-McNichols area, starting with the Fitz Forward project in the Fitzgerald neighborhood. Flanked by two major institutions, this cluster of neighborhoods (Green Acres, Bagley, University District, Sherwood Forest) is some of the first in this 2.0 version of this work.


We got a chance to see first hand the work that was being done in the neighborhood. We walked a portion of it, exploring the business district and speaking with Live6 Detroit, a community development organization. We also met with Michael Dones, who runs the MoFlo community garden, and watched a mural being completed in a green space along a busy road. But the highlight was the park. From an obstacle course playground and collaborative mural to a traffic-calming song pattern and colorful basketball court, the Ella Fitzgerald Park is a space to congregate, unwind, and explore.

Ending the evening at a community party in the park, studio participants mingled with area residents and city officials over a shared meal featuring some of the best food from local, small businesses. We hula hooped and danced the night away, a perfect representation of what a civic commons can be. It was a night to remember.  

 In Akron, we often say that we can learn a lot from our friends to the Northwest of us and this Civic Commons Studio was no different. From being taken on Insider Tours of neighborhoods and celebrating the new Ella Fitzgerald Park with residents, to listening to our fellow cities’ challenges and successes, Detroit has given us a lot to chew on.