It’s been decades since Mr. Rogers invited us to be his neighbor.
All were welcomed – rich, poor, black, white, immigrant. But today the reality is neighborhoods are much more segregated and homogenous. There are, of course, exceptions. As part of our year-long look at neighborhoods and their impacts, we'll be spending time in a diverse neighborhood on the border of Hamtramck and Detroit that's actively working to integrate.
That diversity was on display at the neighborhood's first-ever Kids' Movie Night last week. Eva Cope, age six, is the brainchild behind the event. She chose Song of the Sea for the inaugural screening, and even made pink and yellow flyers. Hers were in English. A mom down the block translated the flyers into Bengali to reach the large contingent of Bangladeshi families in the neighborhood. There are so many Bengalis in the area that many people call this part of Detroit BanglaTown.
Before the movie starts, Eva and her friends make a beeline for the snack table. They have lots of options to choose from – chocolate and strawberry milk boxes, lemonade and apple juice boxes, hummus, carrots, tortilla chips, strawberries, bananas, chocolate squares, Twizzlers, and microwave popcorn.
There are chairs set up for the parents, and four giant mattresses on the floor for the kids.
As you probably guessed by now, this isn’t your typical movie theater. We’re also not in someone’s basement or family room. We’re in a place called Play House.
Six-year old Otto Brumit lives around the corner from Play House, which he describes as "a little bit small, but it's big enough for an elephant!" Make that "three elephants," he says.
By the time the movie starts, 17 kids are sprawled out on the mattresses, eyes fixed on the big screen. There are black kids, white kids, Bengali kids, Christian and Muslim kids – a microcosm of the neighborhood itself.
It’s hard to believe this scene would’ve even been possible just a few years ago.
Play House used to be a two-story house on a corner lot where drugs were sold, and before it was a drug house it had sketchy tenants who pretty much let the place go to pot. The place was dangerous and a major eyesore.
Otto lived around the corner from the drug house, and his friend Eva and her parents lived across the street from it. When the house went up for auction a few years ago, Eva’s parents, Mitch Cope and Gina Reichert, bought it for $7,000. They knocked out the second floor, installed radiant heating, and rehabbed the whole place.
Most of the year Play House is home to an experimental theater group called The Hinterlands, and there are Bangla music and language classes on the weekend.
Mahfuza Ali, a 21-year old Bengali Muslim, thinks using the space to host a kids' movie night is a great idea, and she brought her little sister Khadija to see it. "The Bengali community ... they don't really get to do this," says Ali. "They're mostly part of the whole Muslim community, and in Islam you don't get to go to the theaters, so this is really nice for them."
Another neighbor, Renee Carroll, who’s African-American, loves that she can take her grandkids somewhere close by that’s fun and safe. And she’s determined to do her part to keep the Play House safe. She has the cameras on her home "facing it to watch, make sure nobody breaks into it."
For her part, Eva's mom and Play House owner Gina Reichert says she's very open to using the space for more neighborhood activities. She points to a house down the street and says the grandmother there "does Hawaiian ... hula dancing and is really interested in sharing Hawaiian culture, and the mom, she's Puerto Rican and knows salsa dancing and was talking about food..." Her voice trails off as she imagines all the possibilities. She sees Play House as the perfect venue to share that knowledge; a way to pull people’s interests and talents out of their homes and into the neighborhood.
Mr. Rogers would be proud.