An “American Riad” in Detroit

A “riad” is a traditional Moroccan style of housing featuring either a house with an interior garden or town houses built around a central courtyard. The latter promotes a community of neighbors regularly engaging and interacting with each other in pleasant, shared public spaces – a style that isn’t exactly popular in America, with its more private and insular style of housing.

The folks behind American Riad want to change that. As a collaboration between the international collective Ghana ThinkTank, the Central Detroit Christian Community Development Corporation, the NorthEnd Woodward Central Organization, the Oakland Avenue Artist Coalition, and Affirming Love Ministries Church, American Riad is a multi-year project rebuilding the corner of Oakland Ave. and E. Euclid in Detroit’s North End through housing development, skill-sharing, and public art.

In partnership with Ghana collective think tanks in Morocco and Indonesia, two Muslim-majority countries, they are creating a full riad, complete with affordable housing and a central courtyard filled with art, gardens, and public space for gatherings, performances, and workshops.

A rendering of the completed American Riad.

The project is already well underway, and was also recently awarded a 2017 Knight Arts Challenge Detroit grant.

For Ghana ThinkTank members Christopher Robbins, John Ewing, and Maria del Carmen Montoya, their interest in Detroit started a few years ago on a project that didn’t end up working out. Through it they became familiar with Detroit’s North End and saw the vibrant creative community already hard at work in the area, and wanted to contribute.

As each of them have spent significant amounts of their lives living in different countries and among different cultures, experiencing first-hand how a western outsider’s well-intended “help” imposed on a culture can often do more harm than good – what Robbins refers to as “American hubris” – they didn’t want to similarly replicate paternalistic (even offensive) “good will” solutions on this city where a recently-hatched narrative of “rebirth” belies an ever-widening chasm of economic disparity.

Ulysses Newkirk working with some visiting students on the assembly of part of the American
Riad prototype.

Meeting Ulysses Newkirk, a North End business owner and active member of the Oakland Avenue Artist Coalition, created an entry point for the Ghana ThinkTank to get involved on the ground with community development work that was already happening in the neighborhood. Combining forces, resources, skills, and connections enabled them to collectively imagine and implement a plan for American Riad.

The Oakland Avenue Artist Coalition had already been working towards creating a sustainable arts economy and redeveloping Oakland Avenue through public art projects and events.

“In using art to address some conditions and issues that couldn’t be handled through the regular/regulatory political system and then having all them [from Ghana ThinkTank] come in with something already ready to go and just needing a place for it was really exciting,” Newkirk says. “[Their idea] addressed the local expression from a global perspective. Instead of calling out to the conditions [of the North End] the Riad addresses them and says, ‘Let’s come up with a solution,’ and that was the exciting part.”

The Oakland Avenue Artist Coalition and the Detroit Poetry Society Poetry celebrate pizza night at the American Riad. The canopy installed is a small section/prototype of part of the American Riad. The pizza was made in the outdoor wood-fired oven built at the site.

“Detroit is this place where new models are being created – like with the urban farming movement – and there is all this rethinking about how U.S. capitalism has to work,” says Robbins. “There’s so much of that going on here. We haven’t been anywhere else with that kind of energy.”

He acknowledges the social isolation and segregation in “new” Detroit, where the vast majority of funds are being poured into a few square miles of Downtown and Midtown – exemplified by “Quickenstan” and Dan Gilbert’s private police force.

“If you look at the blocks being resilient on their own, it’s block associations with a small core of neighbors working together,” says Robbins. The concept of a riad-style development in America that Ghana ThinkTank’s partner think tank in Morocco proposed dovetailed nicely with what the North End and Oakland Avenue community organizations were already doing.

Moroccan and Indonesian ThinkTank members working on art for the gable of one of the houses as part of a wood-working workshop at American Riad. It says “Iqrah” in Arabic, which means “learn, read” or “proclaim” and is the first word of Allah.

“Almost instantly the moment I heard about [the Riad] and we started talking about what [the Oakland Avenue Artist Coalition] was doing, we wanted to be a part of it and were really excited about it,” says Newkirk.

Construction of the Riad has started with the first steel structure, a portion of the canopy that is the centerpiece of the courtyard. The structure has been in use since last summer, with community and art events activating the space and getting neighbors involved.

Dave Bogan of Red Jazz Shoe Shine, still in business in The Row at the corner of E. Euclid and Oakland Ave. If you visit the American Riad, help support the only functioning business still in The Row by bringing some shoes to be shined. His business is a part of the American Riad / Equity Co-op / Community Land Trust plan.

“Phase one is bringing in the arts first,” Robbins says. “Then comes the rehabbing and financial protections on the residential side, ensuring everything is affordable in perpetuity – people can’t flip it or make money speculating on it. We’re working on legal protections so the town homes can’t be gentrified and people priced out. The bigger picture is creating a land trust and the Equity Co-op.”

The residential component will start with the renovation of an existing 12-unit building and the addition of two single-family homes. The existing building – known as “the Row” – will have retail space on the ground floor, where the Red Jazz Shoe Shine Parlor is currently located, with 6 residential units on top. The courtyard will also have an edible garden and they hope to eventually have a micro-orchard in the vacant lot across the street.

Indonesian ThinkTank members demonstrating some DIY water filters.

Ewing says, “This idea of developing the courtyard and communal area first, then going to individual residential units after is really important to us. We’ve been working two years getting people involved doing the art and communal participatory part first.”

He says that they are currently working on getting the funding to be able to hire Syrian architect Marwal al-Sabouni to design the full riad complex. Her recent memoir, The Battle for Home, outlines her ideas on how architecture and design mirror community identity and cultural philosophy. Colonial Western design is about segregation and separation, preventing neighbors from interacting daily while creating and reinforcing the concepts of “otherness” and, thus, outsiders and enemies, whereas traditional Islamic architecture – mosques, riads – are about unity and promote togetherness. She makes the argument that Syria’s segregated built environment helped contribute to the tensions that led to the ongoing civil war. The team behind American Riad want to take her theories on built environments and apply them to Detroit.

“Her theories crystalize what makes a neighborhood,” says Carmen Montoya. “There is already beautiful architecture here, even the structures that are abandoned. But a riad is not just about a beautiful structure, but all of the cultural programming and outreach to make this work together is going to give people a place to stay and dwell. It’s hard to have community if you don’t have neighbors.”

A piece of art made by Moroccan and Indonesian ThinkTank members installed in the gable of the house at the American Riad.

With such a large population of Arab Americans and Muslim Americans in greater metro Detroit – the largest Arab community in North America – it would be easy to assume that was the reason the think tank wanted to construct a Moroccan-style riad in the city. But actually, that had nothing to do with it.

“People have asked, ‘Why not put this in an Islamic neighborhood?’ but that’s not the point. The point was to put it somewhere people of different backgrounds, cultures, religions mix to create an interchange,” Ewing explains.

Carmen Montoya further clarifies, “As you start investigating these self/other dichotomies they start to break down in regards to the Muslim immigrant self/other in Detroit. There is a rich history of Black American Muslims who worked and built the United States. There is the stereotype of Muslim immigrants from other countries but there is a long history of Black American Muslims already here. We’re not bringing Islam to this avenue; it was already here.”

Dancing at the American Riad at night.

The canopy has already become a hub of events and activity, including educational workshops teaching valuable skills. Teams from partner think tanks in Indonesia and Morocco have led workshops on DIY water filtration and woodworking, and the Riad has become a place where local area students come to learn hands-on, with skills-based workforce development training being a major focus.

“It’s important to us that it starts with this thing that’s for everyone first,” says Robbins. “It’s one thing to air drop into a place and create this thing; it’s another to teach people how to do the things we’re doing, [such as building stairs or fabricating the metal for the canopy].”

Ewing adds, “Our hope is that as it gets built up, local people will be able to participate and learn these skills.”

Oakland Avenue Artist Coalition OAAC youth member Mosaiah learning to split wood and fire up the pizza oven to make pizza.

“One of my favorite things about this project is the relationships being built with the students and how they’ve interacted with the people in neighborhood,” says Newkirk. “They have helped create community in ways that politics and other efforts have not worked. We’ve been drawing people from all over the city to actually participate in events. For some reason the students create some kind of magic.”

“There is a focus on youth in the Ghana ThinkTanks,” Carmen Montoya explains. “That’s a group that’s vulnerable in Detroit. Part of it is lack of resources but it’s also how the city is evolving. We want to make the space is accommodating to the needs of families with children in addition to everyone else. We’re really interested in this concept of hybridity; we want the elements of the Riad to intermingle in a way that plugs into the existing energy and make a space that’s useful to foster what’s already blooming.”