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Islandview: New development, fears of displacement

Sandra Williams isn’t even going to lie. She wants money to buy some breakfast.

So she walks Mount Elliott several times a day, looking for change, but also engaging in non-stop banter and gossip with police and store owners. That’s given her a unique perspective on big changes underway in the Islandview neighborhood on Detroit’s east side.

A “Caucasian couple” is building a house on a vacant lot, she says. The city plans new park spaces. A woman was shot and killed last week. As Williams lists the changes, resting on a walker, two youngsters pedal down Mack Avenue on striking red bicycles from Mogo, the city’s new bike-sharing program.

“It’s so good to see more people in the neighborhood. They go by and I say, ‘Hey bikers!’” says Williams, 51, who describes herself as a disabled former addict. “I think there’s change coming, and it’s going to be good. We could use some positive change around here.”

Just north of Belle Isle, alongside the wealthy Indian Village and trendy West Village, Islandview may be on the verge of radical transformation. Lofts along Jefferson Avenue list for $255,000; the city’s only Big Boy restaurant closed on Easter and will be razed for a new development; and rising rents were a top complaint during an August community meeting with city officials.

For now, though, parts of Islandview are as desolate as the most abandoned pockets of this vast city. Jeff Grant, for instance, has zero neighbors on his block of Concord. Surrounded by vacant fields, his duplex is one of two buildings on the block. The other one is vacant, Grant said.

“I like it,” he said. “It’s peaceful.”

It may not be for long, said Barry Randolph, pastor of the Church of the Messiah, which is nearby on Lafayette and East Grand. A minister who encourages entrepreneurship and self-reliance, Randolph buys and rehabs living spaces for the needy.

He can feel the tensions of the neighborhood. Parts of it are improving. Others aren’t. It’s a “two-edged sword,” Randolph said.

“We are torn between welcoming wealth, and a fear of displacement for longtime residents,” he said. “We’re in a state of metamorphosis.”

Much of the redevelopment is closer to Jefferson and the Detroit River. Up a few blocks, near Kercheval, is different story in the compact neighborhood of about 3 square miles and 6,500 residents.

In one four-block stretch, 215 parcels are vacant, including 91 structures, according to the city. Detroit planning officials view that as an opportunity and envision converting those fallow fields into green spaces, some of which could form a path to the Detroit River.

City planners are working with neighbors in Islandview, Indian Village and the West Village to make streets more walkable and add more retail and park options.

To Randolph, new investment means new energy for the Church of the Messiah’s multiple efforts to restore the city and neighborhood. He points to a wall hanging in the foyer of the church, a verse from the Old Testament book of Isaiah:

“You will be known as the people who rebuilt the walls, who restored the ruined houses.”

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