Vantage Points: Caitlin Murphy

Photo Credit: Nick Hagen

Caitlin Murphy is the Strategy and Operations Manager for Live6Alliance.

Tell me about your current organization, and your role in it.

Live6 Alliance is a community development nonprofit in northwest Detroit.   Our mission is to enhance quality of life and economic opportunity for people in and around the McNichols and Livernois corridors.  This includes the neighborhoods of Fitzgerald, Bagley, Martin Park, and the University District.

Live6 began in 2015, out of a partnership of community, philanthropic and city stakeholders, initially led by the University of Detroit Mercy.

Neighborhood revitalization efforts gained steam when Detroit was selected as one of five cities to participate in a new national initiative, “Reimagining the Civic Commons”.   Four major foundations joined together to invest over $40 million in renewed public spaces and neighborhood civic assets.   

The Civic Commons project revitalizes and connects public spaces such as parks, complete streets, trails and community centers. By doing so, the initiative seeks to create experiences and spaces where people of all backgrounds can exchange ideas and address common problems, while making cities more environmentally sustainable in the process.

I joined Live6 as coordinator for the initiative’s work here in Detroit.

Our work has received a lot of attention.  In 2017, Mayor Duggan chose one of our neighborhoods as a focal point for massive re-development.  The Fitzgerald Revitalization Project aimed to renovate 115 homes, clear 200 vacant lots, and construct a park and greenway.  The housing work has been slower than anticipated, but the challenges were vast here. Our city itself is vast – 139 square miles.  The city still has tens of thousands vacant homes and about double that number of vacant lots.

What are some of your primary activities or programs?

Photo Credit: Bree Gant

My focus began with the civic commons project but our work is all interconnected and focused around the Livernois and McNichols (6 Mile) commercial corridors. Our activity areas include:

  • Commercial corridor development
  • Business attraction & retention
  • Placemaking
  • Residential stabilization and community capacity building 
  • Safety and Security 
  • Engagement

We work very closely with residents in all of this work, including supporting resident-led programming and activities, such as Block Club groups, events and programs to “activate the park”, and activities for youth and children and their families.  

Why is this work important?  Any signs of success/impact you would like to share?

The Livernois and McNichols (6 Mile) commercial corridors have long served as a vital backbone for the City, hosting a mix of shopping, employers, housing, and commerce activities, while connecting people and neighborhoods.

Two higher education institutions, University of Detroit Mercy and Marygrove College, are located here and the area includes some of the greatest assets — such as Palmer Park and the historic Avenue of Fashion.

But over the last couple of decades, the Fitzgerald neighborhood had only about a 30% occupancy in commercial businesses that were shuttered and empty for years and about 50% residential vacancy with a number of lots vacant and overgrown.  Some people wanted to tear down older structures, but there is a history and a culture here that we wanted to preserve and enhance.

Interest and investment from outside, like the Mayor’s Strategic Neighborhood Fund initiative and the Reimagining the Civic Commons project, has sparked residents and others to buy homes, fix up properties, and start businesses in the area.   And the investors are not just outsiders, but also people who are native to the area are purchasing properties, starting businesses and greatly contributing to the changes and neighborhood revitalization.  

We have seen people who live here pool their money to buy homes and storefronts to renovate and improve them.  Businesses and developers are hiring more people from the neighborhood to work on projects, and sometimes those include workers who have barriers to employment including criminal records and limited workforce readiness.   

There used to be 200-300 unoccupied and vacant homes within a square mile and now you cannot acquire those, because almost all have been purchased.   People here now see and contribute to a sense of economic recovery which is coming to the area.  Though, we are cautious in terms of how the covid-19 economic fallout may affect us here in the coming months and years. 

What about your organization/work might others be surprised to learn about?

Photo Credit: Bree Gant

In many ways, our organization’s headquarters, Neighborhood HomeBase, and other Fitzgerald development’s including Ella Fitzgerald Park are ground zero for development and a test case for the revitalization of economically challenged urban neighborhoods.  We have a physical presence in the neighborhood and operate a community storefront.   The persistent structural challenges here are significant.  The average annual household income for a family of four here is about $20,000 annually.  Because of this, we place a huge focus on equity and wealth building in our work, along with an anti-gentrification and anti-displacement tactics aimed to keep people in their homes and present in the city’s revival.

The movement for racial and economic justice has impacted us here and is complicated by crime and punishment.  On the 4th of July, there were a couple of murders at the corner, just a few buildings down from where our storefront center is located.  A couple of days later, police were investigating a suspected gang member who then shot at an officer and was subsequently killed.   Black Lives Matter protests moved from Downtown Detroit into our neighborhood demanding justice and answers for Hakim Littleton, the 19-year-old who was shot dead in front of his own home.  This served as troubling reminder that we have a long way to go, and that the fight for equity and racial justice doesn’t come with easier answers and solutions.   

As a collaborative of organizations, we aim to contribute by connecting residents and youth who are dealing with trauma to skill-building and workforce development opportunities as a way to deter crime.  One of our partners, the Greening of Detroit, works directly with youth to provide opportunities and help them move away from a more negative track and towards “positivity and prosperity” for not only themselves but their neighborhood.  

We want people who live here to be able to stay, to take pride in their neighborhood, and to find jobs within the city so that they can thrive and fulfill their utmost potential in life.  This will require stable employment opportunities, being able to purchase homes, and start businesses, and participate in the process of their neighborhood’s revitalization.   

Always in this work, there is a question of how to build trust, and we always say that this work moves “at the speed of trust” which often causes plans and timelines to fall behind schedule.  By and large the residents who we work with see Live6 Alliance as a co-collaborator in the transformation of their neighborhood, advocating on behalf of the neighborhood’s best interest.  There will always be mixed feelings about the new development, not only due to long history of the City’s financial struggles but also because of the even longer process of rebuilding the City’s infrastructure.   The process is taking longer than many people expected which has fueled candid and necessary dialogue about development timelines and expectations. 

For us, trust-building hugely important.  That is why we spend so much time working with block club groups and local community organizations in co-creating a future vision for the neighborhood together.  We try to refrain from over-inserting our perspectives, preferring when we can to lifting up and supporting local ideologies and cultural norms.

Over the course of the last three years, we have encouraged dialogue through engagement, hosting a number of community panels with residents encouraging issue-based and solution-focused conversations.  We always emphasize local voice and knowledge and now many of our stakeholders see how we are guided by community values which are a core part of our culture.  

What do you most enjoy about this work?   How did you get to where you are now?

I love the people.  One of Detroit’s greatest assets is the people, the people who have lived here for years and held the city together despite challenges.  My work is a continued investment in relationships I have built over time and I am dedicated to working towards a shared vision of prosperity.  I have a background in Community Development and although the field is ever changing I am passionate about the City of Detroit and creating opportunities for residents and small business owners ultimately fostering a more resilient future. 

What are some of the leadership/organizational challenges you face right now? 

Our work is never easy.  Moreover, there are always a new set of challenges or road blocks to overcome.   I began this work as a project coordinator.  I have had to learn quickly how to work and convene across sectors, departments, and siloes.  It can be difficult to collaborate with different stakeholders who have multiple perspectives, but we always work towards a shared vision. As time goes on, here in the neighborhoods we serve, there are more and more entities engaged and who want to be a part of this work.  We are adding capacity.  But it can also be challenging to work with so many different partners, with different internal processes, end goals, and interests.  Live6 is the primary convener in the area so our task is to figure out how best to work with new and existing partners, maintain existing relationships, and navigate new projects.

I mentioned as well, the work here has taken longer than many people thought.   But that is partly because of the scale of the challenges.  As one example, Detroit is only six years removed from municipal bankruptcy and trying to restore basic city services to many residents.  Regular trash pick-up here has been an issue and dumping remains a chronic problem plaguing the vitality of our corridors. We are working with the city to build systems and operations from the ground up.   Lighting, for instance, in alleys and certain streets is poor and we have been providing improvement funds to work on that.  So much infrastructure here was hollowed out due to decades of disinvestment.  We are trying to do what we can, and to get in where we fit in.   

Can you share an interesting example of your work? Perhaps a recent project, or initiative, you find particularly meaningful or noteworthy?

Photo Credit: Bree Gant

This summer, since the pandemic, we’ve mostly focused on COVID relief for residents and business owners. We distribute mini-grants to for neighborhood activities.  Our small business improvement and outdoor accommodations project, called Livernois Outdoors, for example, helped 7-8 small businesses with outdoor improvements and patio furniture to enable outdoor dining on the newly completed Livernois Streetscape. We wanted to give people the opportunity to enjoy the new 16-foot wide sidewalks and provide a little bit of assistance to the business owners who were negatively impacted by the pandemic. In May, we began a Giving Tuesday series.  Each Tuesday we supported local businesses and civic groups in different ways, such as a “feeding the frontline” event at the fire station and distributing small business care packages consisting of essential PPE and gallons of sanitizer.  

What are you excited about? Where are you finding hope?

Detroit has a bad reputation nationally but there is so much richness here, in terms of culture and history and people. The people we work with are very resilient.  The city’s motto is Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus, which reads, “We hope for better things; it shall arise from the ashes.”  We are constantly rebuilding here, responding to and addressing challenges on the ground but we really are one of the world’s most vibrant cities. 

The project here in Fitzgerald is a global model for neighborhood scale redevelopment.  The challenges we are working to address here are not unique to Detroit alone, but we may be a bit further along than other American cities in our decline and our response rising from it.  So there are huge lessons here that we are always looking to share with our planning and development colleagues nationally, and even globally. 

What lesson or advice from your work and experiences might others find helpful?

Photo Credit: Bree Gant

Co-creation with residents and business owners is essential.  There is no one size fits all for urban redevelopment – it will look very different from city to city and neighborhood to neighborhood, and we are deploying unique tactical strategies and working with residents and local groups to ensure a culturally rich and diverse environment.  

For instance, we are working on a strategy now to activate vacant lots through restored wildflower meadows that incorporate nature and beauty back into the urban landscape but also serve as passive green storm water infrastructure (GSI).

Placemaking is also a big part of what we do, except we like to refer to it as “placekeeping”.  Livernois was known historically as the Avenue of Fashion.  There is still a creative presence there and lots of artists and creatives who have galleries and studios which have anchored the commercial strip for decades. We have worked with them to do pop up events and tours, including parties with art and music.  We also do larger events like festivals, such as Light Up Livernois which takes place at night with illuminated fashion runways and displays.

When we built Ella Fitzgerald Park, repurposing 26 vacant lots in the heart of the neighborhood, we built a 100+ foot retaining wall about three feet high.   We engaged a local artist named Hubert Massey, and worked with neighbors and youth to install a mosaic.  Kids helped install tiles mosaic using a paint by numbers method.   It is important that people feel and know that they are a part of the process. 

Live6’s Detroit Neighborhood Arts Project (DNA) , led by Ajara Alghali,  has installed about 11 murals along the commercial corridors.  She also curates  Market on the Avenue, a biweekly summer festival featuring dance troupes, local musicians, small scale artisans and local food vendors. We hire local caterers for all of our events and utilize neighborhood-based small businesses when we can.  We do our best to showcase or uplift local talent.  

It really is about the people and not only creating a self-sustaining neighborhood but making sure that everyone here can participate in that vibrancy.