Jefferson-Chalmers Block Build: Preservation Education as Community Building

By Special Contributor posted 01-24-2017 10:28


By Jennifer Reinhardt

Our mission at the Michigan Historic Preservation Network (MHPN) is to advocate for Michigan’s historic places, supporting their contributions to our economic vitality, sense of place, and connection to the past. Education is a core component of that mission. From hosting seminars about fundraising tools that protect cultural resources to hands-on workshops that train homeowners in historic plaster repair techniques and best practices, we strive to address topics that are relevant and beneficial for our members and the Michigan preservation community at large.

Our Detroit Preservation Demonstration Project, which began in 2013 with generous support from the 1772 Foundation, positions community engagement as central to our goal of showcasing preservation as a catalyst for revitalization in “tipping-point” neighborhoods. Our focus in these neighborhoods, which are characterized by stable populations and limited poverty but higher vacancy and foreclosure rates, is on stabilizing blocks through successful rehabilitation projects. This has meant adjusting our education model somewhat to get participants out of the classroom and into the streets, working alongside Detroit homeowners during events like the Jefferson-Chalmers Block Build on June 25, 2016.

Jefferson-Chalmers Block Build | Credit: Amanda Davis

The Block Build

Under the new partnership model between MHPN and individual homeowners, Block Build participants learned different exterior home repair techniques, all following the Secretary of the Interior’s best practices, from professional craftspeople and then performed actual, needed repairs on five buildings located on a single block. The Block Build engaged almost 100 people. Over the course of one day, “build teams” completed window repair, painting, stucco repair, repointing, and landscaping improvements on the five historic homes. While at its core a preservation trades education workshop, the process and format of the event expanded to include robust community engagement and collaboration as well as direct brick-and-mortar improvement and blight remediation.

Held on the block that houses MHPN’s first single-family home rehab—the first project of our new preservation revolving fund, launched in partnership with the Detroit Land Bank Authority—the Block Build was also an opportunity to meet our neighbors, introduce the revolving fund project, and share home rehab resources with the community. For three months leading up to the event, we engaged with stakeholders—including block clubs, the police and other city departments, and community partners—to plan its logistics.

Our success hinged on viewing the Block Build as an opportunity to actively work alongside community partners in the branding, content, timing, and promotion both before and after the event. Our effective public relations campaign focused on engaging local and community partners, as well as the preservation community, through traditional and social media. As a result of that engagement, we expanded our original scope to include alley clean-up and vacant building board-up activities in alignment with the neighborhood’s ongoing urban safety initiative.

Jefferson-Chalmers Block Build | Credit: Amanda Davis

Lasting Connections

Connections formed and strengthened through the Block Build and the planning process that preceded it have already proven to have lasting effects. Residents on the block organized a new Lakewood Block Club that held its inaugural meeting on the day of the build. They have since joined the larger neighborhood association and are in the midst of applying for grants to expand alley cleanup, install speed bumps, and fund additional landscaping improvements. And the alley cleanup that took place during the Block Build went on to become the first phase of a project by the Jefferson-Chalmers Youth Connection. The local youth leadership group plans to use the site for its upcoming art mural and green alley installation.

Our partnership with the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s HOPE Crew, which provided project management help, technical assistance, and public relations promotions, also gave residents a chance to learn more about Trust programs that can benefit their neighborhood. And the Block Build ultimately provided a great introduction to the announcement of Jefferson-Chalmers as a National Treasure a few months later.

The overwhelming consensus among participating homeowners was that, beyond being a home improvement event, the Block Build created an opportunity for neighborhood beautification and offered both residents and volunteers the chance to learn new skills that they could then take back and share with their own communities. MHPN staff and members are now regarded not only as “historic preservationists” but also as “neighbors” working alongside community members to achieve our mission of advocating for Michigan’s historic places. Other block clubs in Detroit are interested in hosting a similar events, and we’ve also been approached by other cities to learn more about the event model.

Jennifer Reinhardt is the Detroit preservation specialist for the Michigan Historic Preservation Network and National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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