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E-M:/ Building Grassroots Community in Detroit--- The Echo Online



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 <A HREF="http://www.easternecho.com/news/20020724/20020724_simmons.html";>
Click here: The Echo Online</A>
EMU Echo NEWS for Wednesday, July 24, 2002
 
Activist professor works to revitalize Detroit neighborhood, build coalitions 
Charles Simmons uses journalism, law and service to teach students and help 
local community

By Aileo Weinmann / News Editor


Charles Simmons may be a teacher and a scholar, but he isn’t afraid to get 
his hands dirty. A professor of law and journalism at Eastern Michigan 
University, Simmons also champions grassroots activism aimed at urban renewal 
in Detroit’s Northwest Goldberg neighborhood.

Located on Detroit’s west side, Northwest Goldberg is faced with many 
problems endemic to struggling urban centers. Detroit’s particular dependence 
on the auto industry has been especially hard on the local economy. As 
automakers move manufacturing across the border to tap cheap labor and looser 
environmental standards, many factory jobs have vanished. Vacant buildings 
and factories attract illegal dumping. A declining tax base straps city 
government with meager budgets to provide public services. 

Faced with few opportunities close to home, residents that find prospects 
elsewhere usually take them. The exodus of young families leaves once 
thriving neighborhoods to grandparents and grandchildren, further 
complicating the energy and organization required for bottom up community 
renewal.

Simmons knows this scenario only too well. The neighborhood he grew up in 
that used to be flush with young, blue-collar families and public resources 
is now struggling to regain its feet. But rather than just look to the 
government and others for help, Simmons has been working for the past four 
years to organize local residents to tackle the myriad problems head-on.

“We must realize that a city’s problems are not just for the Mayor or the 
Council,” Simmons said. “We all must take responsibility, from the Coleman 
Young Center to the elementary schools, churches and campuses, factories and 
law offices. We need to rethink what it means to develop communities.”

Service-learning, a pedagogy that combines community service and education, 
is one way Simmons is rethinking development. By asking his journalism 
students to write about the problems and renewal efforts in Northwest 
Goldberg and Detroit, Simmons provides students with real-world experience, 
and community residents a space to share success stories. Student articles 
from a recent course are being compiled into the inaugural edition of Hush 
Your Mouth, a community newspaper that will highlight victories on the path 
to recovery.

July 6 marked one such victory. Volunteers from numerous area 
organizations--including the United Auto Workers, the 4-H Club, Friends of 
the Divie B. Duffield Branch Library, schools, churches and 
businesses--joined together to finish cleaning up an industrial site on 
Wabash and Marquette in Northwest Goldberg. 

“The site has a long history of illegal dumping and has been an attractive 
but dangerous nuisance to children who play there,” Simmons explained. For 
over two months, volunteers gathered on Saturday mornings to pitch in, 
repairing and beautifying the location. Besides making the location safer, 
restoration was meant to give prospective illegal dumpers notice to keep out.

“Across the street on the vacant lots,” Simmons added, “we are preparing to 
establish a community garden where the children and seniors can plant 
vegetables or flowers while we talk together about future plans for economic 
development and affordable housing.”

Community gardening, Simmons believes, should be a central focus for 
restoring vacant residential land, and a step toward the larger goals of 
community development, decreasing crime and “respiriting many of the blighted 
neighborhoods.”

“Today there is a growing national movement to rebuild urban communities, and 
community gardening is at the center,” Simmons said. “Detroiters need to 
join this movement, to return to the idea that there is a link between the 
earth and the people and all living things.”

Besides helping to feed the homeless and giving people in need a way to 
contribute to their own livelihood, Simmons views community gardening as a 
way for elders to pass on values to future generations. “Gardening gives the 
community an opportunity for elders and youth to come together and exchange 
ideas and energy,” Simmons said.

The struggle to rebuild Northwest Goldberg is far from complete. But future 
growth—whether it takes place in a garden or an urban neighborhood--has to 
start somewhere. With the right combination of hard work and care, Charles 
Simmons is inspiring others to help him nurture the seeds of change
 
 


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