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In Memory of Late Son, Mom’s Creating Eco-Village in Barren Detroit Neighborhood

June 21, 2016Posted by Wendy Joan Biddlecombe

Highland Park, a city of nearly 12,000 in the Detroit Metro area, was once known for it’s abundance of trees.

These days, however, Avalon Street in Highland Park is more barren than lush, with vacant lots and condemned buildings outnumbering the number of residents and homes. In 2011, the city was unable to pay their electric bills and turned off or entirely removed many of the street lights. The city had a 23 percent unemployment rate in 2014, and about $30 million in outstanding sewer debt.

But amidst this instability, an eco-village is rising.

Shamayim “Shu” Harris, a community activist, former school administrator and current chaplain and officer with the Highland Park Police Department, is raising a quarter of a million dollars to make “Avalon Village” a reality.

Once complete, the eco-village on Avalon Street will include a Homework House that offers tutoring and mentoring for children, powered by geothermal heating. The Goddess Marketplace, housed in two shipping containers, will allow local vendors to sell their goods without having to pay high rent.

Green infrastructure will support solar powered street lights (the first was already installed in August 2014), and water collected in rain barrels will be used to cultivate plants in the greenhouse. A community garden and cafe will bring fresh food to a neighborhood that lacks access to fresh fruits and vegetables.

Shu + build team close up

“We’re basically trying to show people that they can live more self-sufficiently and bring the cost down on a lot of things,” Harris said. “Our community can live cleaner and  better.”

Harris was born in Highland Park, and after living many years in Detroit, returned to her hometown about 15 years ago. Harris remembers walking on Avalon Street and seeing it’s potential, even though it was blighted.

She bought her first property there  in 2008, six months after her 2-year-old son, Jakobi Ra, was killed in a hit-and-run crash on the street where they were living at the time. Harris said she her son’s death is the driving force behind the massive community project.

hood camp 2015

“It wasn’t until after he died that all this Avalon Village really became,” Harris said. “So basically, to me, he is living, he is here, and the spirit of him is living through the work. What I decided to do was utilize the energy that I had with the grief and just go to work and create joy.”

The first project on Avalon Street was a park in memory of her son. And since then, she hasn’t stopped working to make it better.

“Nobody else took initiative to say ‘hey, let’s build some houses,’ so basically I’m like we’re going to do it. We have the power to make our conditions better. We’re just underserved, school-wise, and as it relates to a good thing to eat, all of those things we’re actually placing in the village now,” said Harris, who now owns 10 properties on the street.

Harris purchased the abandoned or foreclosed on homes using grassroots funding.

shu charlie leduff photo

Harris said the eco-village is a neighborhood effort. The project managers and contractors are from Highland Park, and the eco-village is creating jobs for young people and those previously incarcerated who might be passed up for employment elsewhere.

Avalon Village is hoping to raise $241,900 by June 23 on Kickstarter. After that, the first phase of the project, which includes renovation of the brick Homework House, landscaping for all of the lots on the block and cleanup and preparation for the Blue Moon Cafe, is expected to be completed by September.

“Avalon Village creates jobs, Avalon Village creates better eating habits, Avalon Village creates urban scholars–these are the types of things that we are going to create in a nice, peaceful and comfortable way,” Harris said.

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