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Lola Charles in front of her house on Hayden Street. Photo: Nick Hagen
Lola Charles in front of her house on Heyden Street. Photo: Nick Hagen

On the Northwest side of Detroit, just east of Brightmoor, is Heyden Street. A tidy, fresh looking blue house on the street looks out of place in the mostly blighted neighborhood.

It belongs to Lola Charles, who would probably tell you that her house looks the way it ought to. Charles runs a block club, called Hope on Heyden, and it is a great example of the essential and heroic efforts being made to stabilize neighborhoods by Detroit’s residents.

I sat down with Lola and her daughter Savannah, and they told the story of how the neighborhood has slowly spiraled downward over the last 25 years. It was once a thriving neighborhood where black and white families lived together, where kids played outside together, neighbors knew eachother, and where people cared about eachother. It was a community.

Though with the egress of jobs from the city, residents of the neighborhood began to look elsewhere for work and began to trickle out of the neighborhood. By the early 2000s, many of the new homeowners were landlords who lived in far-flung suburbs, and younger, rowdier tenants began moving into the area.

A boarded-up house with a wreath. Photo: Nick Hagen
A boarded-up house with a wreath. Photo: Nick Hagen

Charles sensed an erosion of values that were once strong in the neighborhood. “It’s a harsh reality to not know your neighbor, let alone the people next door. But also, the people who live even up at 8 mile are your neighbors. It’s a community.”

Then, about six years ago, there was a murder at the house across the street. A young man who went by the name of “Jigga” that dealt drugs for a higher-ranking pusher was gunned down in a deal gone bad. The crime sent shockwaves through the community, and for many families it was a final straw which caused them to pack up and move to the suburbs. For as long as Charles could remember, a crime of that magnitude had never happened on Heyden Street. A little while after the incident the house was lit on fire, ostensibly to cover up the crime scene.

Listen to the audio below to hear Ms. Charles explain more about why block clubs are important.

The charred remains directly across the street from the Charles’ household became a serious eyesore, which began to further decay and attract loiterers.

“Every day I would wake up and look out the window,” said Lola. “Something told me … if you don’t do anything about that house, it won’t get done… I knew that I had to devote myself and my personality into seeing it through.”

So, she acted on the calling with an upfront sense of urgency. The first order of business was to win over the people who were now hanging out on the block.

“I would go to the young men on the corner and tell them they needed to be discreet. I told them they had to throw their bottles into the trashbag that I provided, and I said, ‘I know you’re going to need some more beer money, so I’m going to pay you to sweep.'”

This is a practical approach which she still uses today. It, as she says, “encourages [the young men] to be present and to be known for helping out. If they are going to be here, they can’t be frightening people and making them think that they are here for some unnecessary evil.”

To tackle the problem of the blighted property itself, she met with the mayor to explain the situation, did research, made phone calls, and wrote letters. The owner of the house had the unsafe structure demolished, but the pile of rubble remained and needed to be cleaned up.

After months, the diligence paid off and she got in touch with a volunteer group called Synergy who got to work removing the debris. It took a total of two months for the volunteer group of students from Southwest Detroit to get the lot to be leveled flat.

The cleared lot across the street on Heyden Street. Photo: Nick Hagen
The cleared lot across the road on Heyden Street. Photo: Nick Hagen

Charles herself is a volunteer who has helped out in various projects all over the city, and she greatly appreciated the work that the students were doing. Charles believes that volunteer work is at the core of restoring Detroit’s neighborhoods.

“Volunteers are more than humanitarians, they are somewhere between humans and angels,” said Charles.

It was the volunteer director of the students who looked at Ms. Charles during the cleanup and said, “You are the hope on Heyden,” and advised her to start a block club to bring back the sense of community that had gone missing.

Charles said she had (and still does have) trouble wrapping her head around the idea of the fact that she was “the hope,” but knew that this would be name of the organization. She formed a block club named “Hope on Heyden.”

Children Play On Heyden Street. Photo: Nick Hagen
Children Play On Heyden Street. Photo: Nick Hagen

The purpose of the block club is to stabilize the community, foster communication between people, connect people to outside resources, and to make the neighborhood safer by being proactive. The block club helps restore the neighborly values, which are important anywhere, but critical to helping Detroit’s neighborhoods stay alive and turn back around.

Hope on Heyden officially started in 2012, and will be busy into the future.

“The neighborhood has come a long way,” said Charles. “Can you hear how quiet it is?”