Can This Muslim Community Create a Model for Rebuilding Detroit?

Can This Muslim Community Create a Model for Rebuilding Detroit?

Can This Muslim Community Create a Model for Rebuilding Detroit?

Dream of Detroit is uniting Muslims across race and background to rebuild one of the city’s long-neglected neighborhoods.


In May 2016, when Mark Crain and Hazel Gómez moved with their two young sons to a house on Waverly Street in Detroit, more than a few people wondered how long they would last there. The street was ugly and desolate, not a place where people like Crain and Gómez—young, college-educated, new parents—typically moved. No one really moved there. It was the sort of street held up to illustrate Detroit’s decline, and its emptiness was both a sign of citywide failure and, potentially, of individual success. If you had the means to do so, you left the neighborhood.

The roofs on some of Waverly Street’s houses had collapsed, allowing the Michigan winter to pulverize their insides. Others had been torched by arsonists or demolished by the city, their plots overgrown with weeds. At the end of the block, on Rosa Parks Boulevard, Longfellow Middle School had sat empty since 2008, its graffitied walls concealing the shadowy dealings of squatters. Two houses on the street, people said, were being used as drug dens.

For at least a decade, Detroit has been the site of massive new investment—an attempt to revive the storied American city from the twin assaults of the 2008 financial crash and the 2013 municipal bankruptcy. But its rebirth has been lopsided, with dozens of neighborhoods sacrificed like jetsam, or simply forgotten, in the scramble to resuscitate more-profitable areas. Young newcomers have usually been lured downtown, where ambitious developers transformed the riverside buildings into condos and a small monorail, called a “people mover,” carries the residents in circles around the same few blocks. Or they have gone to midtown, in the shadow of the Detroit Institute of Arts and the city’s first Whole Foods.

In some respects, there’s little new in this dynamic. Even during the city’s prime, developers and lawmakers prioritized certain neighborhoods over others, and the lines were clearly drawn according to race. Since the early 20th century, when southern African Americans were drawn north by the promise of jobs and tolerance, black neighborhoods consistently suffered in comparison with white ones. A new highway sliced through Black Bottom and Paradise Valley; the suburbs excluded black Detroiters; and racist housing laws entrenched the city’s segregation, helping to spark the riots that broke out 50 years ago this July. By 2010, decades after its white population had abandoned the city (followed, eventually, by members of the black middle class), Detroit was 83 percent black, while the suburbs were overwhelmingly white. Movement to the gentrified downtown area, meanwhile, has been noticeably white as well.

Crain and Gómez’s house on Waverly was six and a half miles north of downtown—a haul in city terms—but they had good reasons for the move. Crain grew up in Detroit in the 1990s; his father owned a locksmith shop near the neighborhood, and though he admired the herculean efforts of downtown developers, he worried that they were sucking the life out of the dozens of neighborhoods—each one distinct, and each one cherished—that make up his city. Gómez had never lived in Detroit, but she’d met Crain working for the Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN) in Chicago, and she could see that Detroit needed help. Plus, before they were married, Crain told Gómez in no uncertain terms that he intended to move back. “We didn’t have a prenup,” Crain said, “but if there was one, that would be the one thing.”

Waverly Street, for all its blight, had one singular draw for a young, activist-minded Muslim couple: A few lots east of their new house was the Muslim Center, a mosque that had long served Detroit’s black Muslim community. By the time Crain and Gómez got there, it was the tenacious, healthy heart of a dying neighborhood. What had started in 1985 as a prayer room in an old bank building was by then an expanse of offices and classrooms surrounding a cavernous gym used for craft fairs and as a soup kitchen. The HUDA Free Clinic had moved across the street after outgrowing its first office, and clinic employees had planted rows of vegetables, fruits, and herbs—the HUDA Urban Garden—in an empty lot, providing clients with homeopathic remedies or, more often, free groceries. A new prayer room accommodated hundreds of worshippers, while the original masjid had become the Halal Jazz Cafe, the brainchild of Imam Abdullah El-Amin, a beloved leader at the center and one of its founders.

But while the Muslim Center had grown, the neighborhood around it deteriorated, and few of the people who prayed there lived nearby. They watched from a distance as downtown came back to life, and they fretted over the city’s plans for the neighborhood. Even worse than the possibility of its being razed for green space was the non-plan, in which it would be left to wither. It was hard not to see Detroit’s renaissance as the rebirth of white Detroit, and the death of the Muslim Center neighborhood as the banishing of its black congregants.

To some people, though, this neglect offered an opportunity. Perhaps Waverly Street wasn’t blighted, but simply unimagined: a blank slate for an ideal neighborhood, one filled with Muslim families and Muslim-friendly businesses—albeit open to anyone—and with the Muslim Center as its spiritual and social core. The liquor stores and drug houses—two curses, they thought, of a struggling Detroit—would be absent, and the community so close-knit that crime would naturally fade away. The principles of Islamic finance, which bans usury and encourages charity, would guide home purchases and new businesses. And for the first time, people who prayed at the Muslim Center would be able to walk there.

To mold this vision into reality, two groups—the Detroit-based Neighborly Needs and the suburban Indus Community Action Network, or iCAN—formed a nonprofit in 2012 called Dream of Detroit (tagline: “A Detroit Revival Engaging American Muslims”). They set their sights on 20 lots and started collecting donations, recruiting volunteers, and organizing fund-raisers within the metro area’s Muslim community. Crain took on a voluntary role as project manager (his day job is with, and Dream is why he and Gómez settled their young family here. It is also why even the people who wondered how long they’d be able to hack it have begun thinking about moving there themselves.

On a cool spring day in 2016, a group of volunteers—mostly Muslims from the city and suburbs—had gathered on Waverly Street to clear the area of debris. A gaggle of teenagers from Dearborn nailed a particleboard sign over a broken window, declaring the house protected by Dream of Detroit. Others were busy hauling off pieces of abandoned furniture.

It was a convivial afternoon. Donald Trump had not yet been elected president, and the worst years of post-9/11 surveillance seemed to be over. So when Farooq Azizudin, a member of the housing committee and a former Black Panther, joked about letting a photographer take his picture because “I’m not wanted by the FBI anymore,” the group of volunteers was relaxed enough to giggle. “That’s gonna be the last FBI joke this morning,” Crain said. More laughter.

Nearby, Thaddeus and Baheejah Shakoor, the husband-and-wife team behind Neighborly Needs, gazed at the dust billowing off the rubble of what was once the Longfellow Middle School. The city had demolished it earlier that year. At first, Baheejah’s heart was broken—she had dreamed of transforming the complex into a community center—but soon she saw it as a good thing, a fresh start. A couple of investors from New York City—a doctor of Palestinian descent and a lawyer from Jordan—wanted to buy the lot and build her vision from scratch. “She thought that school was our destiny,” Thaddeus said. “Just shows you how God plans things.”

Dream of Detroit had finished its first house three years earlier, a two-story home half a block from the Muslim Center. When the group bought it, the porch was sagging and the windows were smashed. Dream hired local laborers—city-based, not suburban—to replace the boiler and pipes, renovated the kitchen and bathroom, and hung a plaque beside the door proclaiming it a Dream house. Then the group tried to find someone willing to move in. The house was nice; the neighborhood, not so much. Eventually, Nadirah Abdullah, a middle-aged mother from Detroit’s West Side with a tough, itinerant history and not many other options, moved in with her 12-year-old son. “I’ll be honest,” she writes in a Dream pamphlet. “After having jumped around from family to family member and even sometimes living in shelters, just being around Muslims keeps me in a better state of mind.”

In 2015, the group added three more homes and set its sights on eight more from the Detroit Land Bank Authority, a quasi-governmental agency that has auctioned thousands of city properties since 2008. Dream received three sizable donations, but most of the money came from hundreds of small donors, which was fine because the organization’s goals—at least the tangible ones—were modest: 20 homes in the first phase, most of which would cost under $10,000, with rehab fees hovering around $30,000. No one wanted to do anything fancy.

The Shakoors bought a house on Waverly and transformed the upstairs into a Dream office, holding an online fund-raiser for items like a color printer and office chairs. Soon Muslim Center members were buying in on their own. Aminah Abdullah, a mother of three from Atlanta, was attracted by the idea of a neighborhood being built around a mosque. As a teenager, she’d spent time studying the Quran in Senegal, where, she said, “I learned to become a true African American.” It was also where she saw Islam in public—people praying outside, mosques within blocks of their homes. “It was the first time in my life I was able to fully immerse myself and be comfortable being a Muslim,” she said. Her house, which she bought with relatives, is on Tyler Street, a block south of Waverly.

Muslim developers joined in. Karriem Van Leesten, enticed by Dream of Detroit’s vision of a community created around a mosque (something too expensive in his native Boston), chose six lots. He didn’t expect to make money, at least at first, but he wanted to draw Muslims out of the suburbs: “The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, was a city guy. He lived in Mecca and Medina, and they were thriving. So who could feel good about being in Dearborn and having everything you want? It’s a great place, but why not go to Detroit and check it out?”

In his office at the Muslim Center, now shared with his successor, Imam Momodou Ceesay, Imam El-Amin keeps a “Whites Only” placard as a reminder of his childhood in the Jim Crow South, which was also his path to Islam. When he says that he wants Dream of Detroit to “impart Islamic values,” he speaks from that specific American history, and he speaks for many at the Muslim Center.

Baheejah Shakoor grew up in Detroit in the 1950s, when neighborhoods like this one were full of black families, many of whom had fled the South but found little relief from racism in Detroit. Baheejah converted to Islam in her mid-teens along with many family members who were drawn to the Nation of Islam, then led by Elijah Muhammad, and its message of empowerment. A few years later, Thaddeus, then living in New Haven, Connecticut, was dumbstruck upon seeing Malcolm X speak at Yale University. “It was just mind-boggling,” he recalled, “so I knew that, eventually, I was going to be a Muslim.” He converted in New York City in his early 20s; soon after, he and Baheejah,who was then studying nursing, started dating.

In New York, their faith connected them to home. The Nation of Islam had been born in Detroit, and Malcolm X, after converting in prison, was a minister at Temple No. 1, now called Masjid Wali Muhammad. The Muslim Center, a short drive from Wali Muhammad, was founded years later by followers of Warith Deen Muhammad, Elijah Muhammad’s son, who is credited with reforming the more challenging theology of the Nation—most notably, downplaying the godlike figures of its leaders and softening its black nationalism—while preserving its focus on civil rights through Islam.

The Shakoors stayed with the Nation through their courtship, Thaddeus’s stint in prison as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, and their marriage and subsequent move back to Detroit. Gradually, like most of their peers at the Muslim Center, they transitioned to traditional Sunnism. But also like most of their peers, they hold tightly to the lessons of Malcolm X and the Nation. “That history is ingrained in all Muslims,” Thaddeus said.

When the black middle class left for the suburbs and lower-income families were scattered throughout the city, people still drove long distances on Fridays to pray at the Muslim Center. There were few places like it anywhere else, a religious space in which the complicated intersection of the black American and Muslim American experiences could be shared among worshippers. They worried that Detroit’s catastrophe would overshadow the revolution—connecting racial equality to Islam—that began at Wali Muhammad and lived on at the Muslim Center. So they kept making the trip, Friday after Friday, parking in a fenced-in lot, praying, and then driving home.

Sixty years after the Shakoors converted, that same revolution drew Mark Crain to Islam. In college at Northwestern, where he double-majored in black studies and political science, he would keep one of his closest friends, a Muslim fraternity brother, up all night, wondering if, as Malcolm X had urged, Islam was the way to fight economic and racial inequality. “Our conversations were often as political as they were theological,” Crain remembered. “Number one, the clear anti-racist disposition of the Quran and the sunna definitely appealed to me. But we were also talking about the ban on ribah—usury—and what that means for our global capitalist system.”

In college, it didn’t occur to Crain that because his fraternity brother was Pakistani and not African-American, they were participating in a kind of pan-Muslim bonding that’s becoming central to Muslim activism today. American Muslims are divided—between city and suburbs, sects and practices, rich and poor, new immigrants and the native-born—and in Detroit, those divisions have often resulted in the isolation of black Muslims. The Shakoors knew this when they converted half a century ago, and Crain would soon find it out for himself.

The first big wave of Muslim immigrants came to Detroit in the 1960s. At first, African-American Muslims—engaged in what historian Sherman Jackson calls the “vigilant, holy protest of Black Religion”—felt a kinship with the immigrants, recognizing a parallel between the black American experience and Muslims living under colonialism in the Middle East. Immigrant Muslims, though, brought with them a rigid definition of who a Muslim is and what that Muslim looks like. It was a huge disappointment. “If Palestine and Kashmir were bona fide Islamic concerns,” Jackson writes in Islam and the Blackamerican: Looking Toward the Third Resurrection, “why not police misconduct or Affirmative Action?”

For many of the Muslim immigrants, “economic success was complete with the attainment of whiteness,” Khaled Beydoun, a lawyer and activist, told me. Beydoun grew up very aware of the racism among Arab Muslims. His Egyptian mother had a darker complexion, and some mocked her by calling her abed, Arabic for “slave,” a slur so common that, in 2014, Detroit’s black Muslim community launched a Twitter campaign against it. Beydoun remembers hearing warnings against visiting black mosques in Detroit as a child: “These are dangerous communities, you know; these are places where you are not wanted.”

But Islam prohibits racism. “An Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab, nor a non-Arab any superiority over an Arab; also, a white has no superiority over a black, nor a black any superiority over a white—except by piety,” the Prophet Muhammad said in his last sermon. Dawud Walid, the head of the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ Michigan chapter and himself a black convert, captures the point with a folksy analogy: “To Allah, racism is just as haram as eating a ham sandwich.”

The anti-Muslim backlash that followed 9/11 shook up the old divisions. Years of surveillance and rising Islamophobia united the Detroit-area communities in a shared anxiety about their future in America, and some immigrant Muslims began to look to the black experience for guidance. Zarinah El-Amin Naeem, Imam El-Amin’s daughter, told me that after 9/11, other Muslims asked her, “‘How do you deal with all this hatred?’ Suddenly, they could learn from us.”

Another turning point came in 2009, when Luqman Ameen Abdullah, the imam of a small mosque in one of Detroit’s most neglected neighborhoods, was shot and killed by the FBI during a sting. His death, and the meager media attention it received, united Detroit’s Muslims against surveillance and the use of informants in mosques. But they still had a long way to go.

Enter Waseem Ullah and iCAN. Ullah, a middle-aged man who always sounds on the brink of laughter, grew up in a small town in Pakistan and came to the United States to be a doctor. He identified with black Muslims; as a South Asian visiting Mecca, he had felt looked down upon himself. “It’s like you’re not a first-class citizen or something,” he said. “You’re coming from Pakistan; you are on a lower level.” A family tragedy would spark Ullah’s awakening; afterward, he felt empty in his upper-middle-class life. He went to an IMAN conference on low-income housing in Chicago and thought about Detroit. “I wanted something in honor of my family,” he said. Now Waverly means more to him than his home in Ann Arbor. “That’s just a house,” he said. “This I will identify with more.”

Ullah was among the many Muslims in greater Detroit who fretted over what Islamophobia meant for them, their children, their grandparents. Dream of Detroit became proof of what the Muslim community really stood for. “We have been maligned and beaten up everywhere, but let them say whatever they’re saying, we are not that kind of…” Ullah’s voice trailed off. “We help others,” he continued. “We do good, we love our suburb, and we are investing here. This is home.”

Still, because the group is mostly Muslim and works out of a mosque, it has had to contend with questions ranging from the tiresome to the insulting. When someone wrote the first substantial article about Dream in 2015, one line made them hang their heads: “Pakistani immigrant Waseem Ullah loves America, abhors ISIS.” It was a tiny part of an otherwise good article. Still, it stung. “The apologetics,” Crain told me. “That’s never been a part of our story.”

In 2016, after winning some local recognition, the Dream of Detroit team was invited to meet with Mayor Mike Duggan. The meeting was a success, if only because the mayor didn’t tell them to stop. In fact, he heartily praised the project and highlighted the role of Muslims in the stability and future of Detroit. But the city’s support was necessarily halfhearted—it was still under emergency management—and so Dream was left to thrive or fail on its own.

It kept going, slowly. The Muslim Center began offering classes on entrepreneurship, encouraging mosque-goers to consider alternatives to jobs that had disappeared. Detroit was in a DIY moment, with urban farms replacing weeds and slabs of paint from old graffiti transformed into jewelry, so no idea was too small or outlandish.

Meanwhile, Kemo Barrow, a financial planner originally from Gambia, started teaching a class on Islamic finance, reminding students that a good Muslim opts for equitable profit-sharing, not interest. Farooq Azizudin, from the housing committee, began to lobby for a co-op system, which would bring the community closer and defang the monster of foreclosure. They began connecting with grassroots groups throughout the city. Dream, and all it stood for, was being welcomed into the new Detroit—not the Detroit of the fancy downtown area, but the one being rebuilt by scores of organizations, each determined to stand up to the riptides of both economic decline and gentrification.

Then Donald Trump was elected president, and the city’s Muslim leaders convened to discuss how to deal with the election. Classes on Islamophobia that had been held at the Muslim Center for years took on a renewed urgency, focusing on “reporting crimes, [having] someone escort women to the cars in the parking lot, being hypervigilant,” one organizer told me. People worried that, even if Trump’s presidency united Detroit’s Muslims against hate, it would still have a 9/11-like chilling effect

I went back to the neighborhood in late April 2017. It was tidy and inviting on Waverly and the surrounding streets, although the Muslim Center was still the area’s life support. The aura of vigilance was strong, but people’s feelings about the new political reality were expressed in sometimes surprising ways. “I’m glad Trump is president,” said Babar Qadri, a London-born physician’s assistant who heads the HUDA garden. “He is shaking us by our souls, waking us up and making us realize what is wrong.” Like a good doctor, Qadri knows that before you can treat a disease, you first have to diagnose it. “See, this isn’t a conspiracy,” he told me. “This is real, and it’s strengthening us.”

Mark Crain’s response was more circumspect. He had outlined his thoughts on then-candidate Trump in an e-mail sent the year before: “There’s a general level of concern that’s normalized for Black people in this country that makes it hard for me to be empathetic with someone being hysterical about the possibility of a President Trump.” By mid-2017, Crain’s opinion on that matter hadn’t changed, and neither had the day-to-day work of Dream. Still, he was uneasy: “One thing that’s fair to say is that we all expect to be under more scrutiny as a 501(c)(3) [nonprofit organization] with the word ‘Muslim’ in it,” he told me.

Crain and Gómez’s house was now a home, full of books and toys. It still needed work—“We took it down to the studs,” Crain said—but they felt they’d made the right decision. They liked that their kids would grow up seeing Islam in action, building communities and helping anyone who showed up at the Muslim Center—returning citizens, addicts, the homeless. The neighborhood wasn’t perfect, but it was improving. Imam Ceesay had pledged to move there one day (Imam El-Amin, dealing with health issues, participates any way he can), and Crain thought their model could be used to bring people of all economic, racial, and religious backgrounds to other parts of Detroit.

But that was a different dream.

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