There are approximately 300,000 parcels of land in Detroit, and 670,000 residents with ideas to improve their city. That’s a lot of room to dream.
So we asked three Detroit Innovation Fellows to share their dream spaces—and how they are making them come true.
On October 4, against the backdrop of a frought national discourse on how we value women’s voices and experiences, three visionary Detroit women—Mama Shu Harris of The Avalon Village, Samoy Smith of Creating Space Detroit, and Bucky Willis of Bleeding Heart Design—presented their neighborhood placemaking projects to a full room of city lovers & dreamers.
The energy was powerful.
“This is the dream space,” said Consulate host Orlando Bailey.
“That was food, medicine, love, and all the good things,” said Bucky.
“That was the coolest!” said Mama Shu.
Why was the evening so magical?
For starters, the creative community projects they shared were all Black women-led, rooted in their own neighborhoods, designed for and with the communities they serve.
Houses for learning, parks for playing & gathering—all small-scale projects to create more beautiful & healing places for neighbors to come together. Sanctuaries in the city.
"We want to make sure that people who are using the space are really part of the process,” said Bucky, an architectural designer who works with Detroit Collaborative Design Center and also started her own organization to promote altruism through design.
For her new project, the Unlearning House, Bucky envisions a space for people of color, especially Black, to come together to unlearn the stereotypes, myths and negative things people are told about themselves. She wants a place to be yourself and know your true value, she said. “How can we celebrate African-American culture instead of squashing it?”
Mama Shu, who started The Avalon Village with one lot in Highland Park and now owns 35, said she finally calls herself a land developer. She’s also a teacher: “We take kids around the block. We look at blight, we talk about things we can do. I show the children that they can make their space beautiful, too.”
With all three women at different stages in their journeys—from concept to construction to expansion—they shared moving exchanges about the power of sisterhood, motherhood & neighborhood to bring these ideas to life.
“There is a reason people call Mama Shu ‘Mama,’” said Bucky. “That’s a term of endearment.”
“You need a support system,” added Samoy, herself a young mother, also home-schooling her children. She teamed with fellow volunteers Joe Marra & Victoria Sahami to transform a vacant lot into a pocket park and community house in their Bagley neighborhood—not without moments of doubt.
“Having ride-or-die ‘aunties’ in the neighborhood is really important,” said Samoy. “Find those people who can say, ‘You're doing good work, keep doing it.’”
With nine years of experience and a builder’s license now under her belt, Mama Shu offered great practical advice on the nuts & bolts of placemaking, from property acquisition to media to fundraising.
Through an ambitious Kickstarter campaign, she raised over $240,000—and shared the nail-biting story of last-minute help from a high-profile angel to meet their goal.
Support for her work has come from all over the world, thanks to friends, fans and national media love, including a memorable appearance on the Ellen Degeneres Show.
But Shu didn’t start there—she began with what she had, buying a lot for $300 here, and another for $3,000 there, assembling the land and acquiring construction management skills over time.
“I don’t concentrate on the money,” said Shu. “You just concentrate on the thing—the thing you want to bring about. The rest will come, if it is supposed to be.”
As Shu, Samoy & Bucky shared their work, it did not go unnoticed that multiple generations were present in the room—not always the case for urban forums.
With Samoy’s children playing at her feet, and Marsha Music sharing city history while little ones wiggled on her lap, guests underscored that this placemaking and city-building work must be cross-generational and communal.
“I love moms who are unapologetic about bringing kids into spaces,” said Bucky. “I commend you for that. My mom took us everywhere, too.”
Perhaps the best moment of the evening was when Orlando asked for a show of hands: “Who has their own dream space for the city? Would anyone like to share?”
A few guests volunteered and were invited up to the front.
One guest raised her hand reluctantly. “I’ve been pregnant with an idea for years. What is the first step to give it birth?” Bucky asked whether she would be willing to share the concept out loud.
At first, she demurred—“Maybe I can tell you privately?” But with some gentle coaxing, she accepted and Orlando passed her the mic.
The room responded with applause.
“See,” said Bucky, “you just took the first step!”
“This is the village. This is the dream. To have spaces to be real, to share resources and time and love. This space now, this is it.”
To watch the video, click here.
To view the presenters’ slides, click below: