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Roaming Table

Changing Gears Reporter Kate Davidson debunked the conventional wisdom that Detroit has 40 square miles of vacant land. In her report she found that in all likelihood the number is probably closer to half that:

DAVIDSON: That includes empty land - 19 square miles – and land with empty houses. No parks.

Whatever the number it’s still a fair amount of vacant land. Which is where the “Detroit Works” project comes into play. It’s the city’s plan to figure out what to DO with all that space. And they’re turning to Detroiters to help them figure it out. Michigan Radio’s Jennifer Guerra reports:

GUERRA:Johnny Espino is not an urban planner…

AMB: Smoke! Smoke, what up man? You not my homey no more?

He says he barely finished high school before he had a run-in with the police:

JOHNNY ESPINO: My house was fire-bombed and I went and retaliated and went to prison

GUERRA:  Now he’s a maintenance guy at McDonald’s with nine felonies on his record. Like I said: he’s not an urban planner. But he’s got something urban planners in Detroit want: knowledge. He knows his neighborhood in southwest Detroit better than they ever will.

AMB: roaming table amb

Which is how Espino found himself talking to two urban planners outside a coffee shop near his house….standing next to a peculiar looking table.

SKORA: The purpose of the table is to disrupt people’s everyday lives

GUERRA: That’s Theresa Skora, one of the designers of the so-called ROAMING TABLE:

SKORA: It’s meant to fold up and be put into a car and be taken around…people have been asking why aren’t there wheels on it, well, we sort of didn’t get to that.

GUERRA: Believe it or not this table – with its nifty green logo and stacks of glossy pamphlets – is KEY to Detroit’s revitalization plan – what Mayor Bing calls “Detroit Works.”

Detroit Works has two parts – a short term plan and a long term plan. The Mayor’s office deals with the short term plan: the vacant houses, unlit sidewalks, flooded streets.

A separate committee outside the Mayor’s office is in charge of the Detroit Works Long Term plan.

That’s where independent urban planners like Charles Cross try to figure out what happens after the abandoned houses have been dealt with and the streetlights are turned back on.

Cross wants to know: What do residents like Johnny Espino want their neighborhood to look like?

CROSS: Find out what does your neighborhood need, what is the quality of life in your neighborhood and what’s missing?

GUERRA: And since it’s impossible to sit down with all 700-thousand Detroit residents at their kitchen tables … Cross and companydid the next best thing. They BUILT a kitchen table that travels.

The ROAMING TABLE has been spotted outside banks and churches and community centers around Detroit.

About 5-thousand people have stopped by over the past few months. Some fill out surveys about their neighborhoods. Others take home one of the glossy pamphlets about Detroit Works. And there’s Johnny Espino – who should consider giving up his day job to become a reporter:

AMB: Do you guys think you’re going to be effective or what? What’s your honest opinion of everything?

The Detroit Works team insists their plan is different than any plan that’s come before.

They say it’s not just urban planners and designers who will decide what Johnny Espino’s southwest Detroit neighborhood looks like in 10 years. They promise Johnny Espino and his neighbors will also have a say.

Diana Lind with Next American City, a nonprofit focused on urban planning issues. She says civic engagement is an important part of urban planning….but

LIND: These sorts of processes can make people feel like they were given a chance to say what they want to say and their comments weren’t taken into account and that can be dispiriting, so I think managing peoples’ expectations is important.

AMB: You can sign up to become an ambassador of the project…if you want to give us your email address…yeah, I’ll give you my number…fill out one of these…

GUERRA: Back at the ROAMING TABLE…Johnny Espino promises to go home and brainstorm ideas for his future neighborhood should look like.

Once the roaming table folds up for good, he can share his ideas at a community meeting later this summer.

The folks at Detroit Works promise to listen and incorporate his ideas into a master plan for the neighborhood.

Support for arts and cultural reporting on Michigan Radio comes in part from a grant from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Jennifer is a reporter for Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity project, which looks at kids from low-income families and what it takes to get them ahead. She previously covered arts and culture for the station, and was one of the lead reporters on the award-winning education series Rebuilding Detroit Schools. Prior to working at Michigan Radio, Jennifer lived in New York where she was a producer at WFUV, an NPR station in the Bronx.