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A woman is turning her blighted Highland Park neighborhood into a sustainable eco-village

Aug 10, 2016

Highland Park, Michigan was the birthplace of the automotive moving assembly line. The Highland Park Ford Plant produced the Model T, the world's first affordable car.

But the small town embedded within Detroit has since fallen on hard times.

Schools and the library have closed. Streetlights were removed to save money. And over the past decade, the population has decreased by almost 50%.

Shamayim "Shu" Harris lives in a red brick house on the corner of Avalon street and Woodward in Highland Park. When you walk down her street, you see abandoned houses and vacant lots of knee-high brush. And when Harris looks at her surroundings, she has a plan for it all: A block of self-sustaining, eco-friendly structures known as the Avalon Village.

"We've decided to clean up the blight; we've decided to build a lot of things our city doesn't have anymore," Harris said. "We've decided just to put the power back into the people.”

The Homework House
Credit Paulette Parker / Michigan Radio

Harris moved onto Avalon Street from nearby Rhode Island Street nine years ago. She says she passed this block for years on her way to and from work, imagining what she could do with the abandoned houses and empty lots.

Then, in September 2007, her 2-year-old son was struck and killed by a car as he was preparing to cross the street with his older brother.

"And he died up under a streetlight. The streetlight over on Rhode Island that we don't have anymore," Harris said.

Six months later, she bought a house at the end of Avalon Street and started her nonprofit organization, The Moon Ministry. She also bought the lot next door, which she cleaned up and turned into the Jakobi Ra park, in her son's name.

With money from donors including the Big Sun Foundation and a 30-day Kickstarter campaign that raised almost $250,000, Harris' organization was able to buy another property on the street. Then another. And another. She owns 11 properties so far.

It's actually helped me live through something that I probably thought that I couldn't live through. And that's where I think that I'm really invincible.

That includes the house next to Jakobi Ra park. It was set to be demolished by the city, but now it's being restored and turned into the Homework House. There, kids will be able to eat and study. It'll have basketball, volleyball, and tennis courts.

Harris also has plans for the other houses and lots. There will be a "wellness house," and a "goddess marketplace" for female entrepreneurs to sell their wares. And she's turning a derelict gas station at the end of the block into the Blue Moon Cafe.

The Village will have greenhouses, solar panels, and gardens to feed the neighborhood.

Most of the work in the Village is done by volunteers. Some are neighbors. Many are youth. And some come from outside the city. Harris' son Chinyelu Humphrey helps around the Village doing things like landscaping and carpentry. Humphrey was holding his little brother's hand when he was killed. He was only 10 years old at the time.

The Moon Ministry
Credit Paulette Parker / Michigan Radio

He says he loves helping his mom's vision come to life, and knowing he's helping build something that will help the community.

"A lot of kids around here really don't have much to do after they get out of school. I'll just go walk around and see them just not doing nothing. Like oh, 3 o'clock you get out, you can come over here, do some homework, play basketball," Humphrey said.

Harris says keeping busy with the Avalon Village has helped her deal with the loss of her son.

"You know how sometimes grief you can go either way? So this is the good part of grief that you actually see. This is pain, but you don't see it as pain," Harris says. "It's something beautiful instead. It's actually helped me live through something that I probably thought that I couldn't live through. And that's where I think that I'm really invincible."

The Homework House will have its grand opening on September 23, to celebrate Jakobi's life on what will be the ninth anniversary of his death.